Saving Taiwan's Marine Corps
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer RC/DH

Saving Taiwan's Marine Corps

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While other Asia/Pacific nations are building amphibious capabilities, Taiwan (the Republic of China) is going the other way – at its great peril. Taiwan’s slow self-destruction of its Marine Corps creates a dangerous gap in its defense, and undermines both deterrence and the confidence of its friends.

Rather than continue to eviscerate this strategically vital force, with vision and relatively modest investment Taiwan’s leaders must re-forge it to make it a decisive national asset for its “asymmetric defense” plans.

How Taiwan’s Marines Got to This Point

The Ma Administration shrank the Taiwan Marine Corps (TMC) from 16,000 to 9,000 troops in recent years, and even considered disbanding it – at a time when its militarily powerful, increasingly aggressive adversary across the Taiwan Strait is openly advertising its ability to take Taiwan by force.

These decisions were nominally linked to an overall decline in defense spending. More accurately, however, they reflect a glaring failure by Taiwan’s defense establishment to recognize the TMC’s essential role in national defense, and the vital role it can play in making Taiwan “too tough a nut to crack.”

The Taiwan Marine Corps was established on Mainland China as an amphibious assault force. When the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan following the Communist victory in the civil war, the TMC’s main mission shifted over time from amphibious assault to retake the mainland to a more static defense of Taiwan and its few outlying islands.

Tough and disciplined, the Taiwan Marines mastered that particular role, particularly the difficult maneuvers designed to disrupt PRC amphibious assaults. But the TMC suffered increasingly serious deficiencies.

Much like species on the Galapagos Island cut off from outside contact and influence, the TMC has been cut off from most interaction with foreign militaries. As a result, it resembles a 1979 version of the U.S. Marine Corps. Although TMC’s ethos and professionalism are superb – indeed, the best in the Taiwan Armed Forces – the Taiwan Marines “froze” in time where the U.S. Marines were 35 years ago: relatively heavy, mechanized, and not particularly mobile.

Eventually its skillsets did not seem to match Taiwan’s defense requirements, as the PRC’s strengthened military and offensive capabilities altered the regional security environment. Consequently, the TMC has fared badly in bureaucratic resource battles.

Redefine the TMC

The TMC’s current need to redefine itself resembles the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the immediate post-Vietnam War era, the USMC had to reshape itself into a lighter (though still hard-hitting) expeditionary force making use of a “new” old concept: “maneuver warfare.” The USMC knew they had to offer distinctive war-fighting capability – that they could not simply try to be a better version of the U.S. Army that was also familiar with the ocean and ships.

Similarly, the Taiwan Marine Corps’ organization and purpose needs to be radically transformed. To this end, the TMC should become Taiwan’s essential “Rapid Deployment Counterattack Force” – a hybrid of the USMC and the British Royal Marines. It must be become light, mobile, operationally flexible in its thinking, and able to operate as a lethal fire-brigade from one end of Formosa to the other.

Mobility requires an “air wing” for transportation and fire support. This aviation element can be established within the TMC itself in a manner akin to USMC aviation, or with helicopters and crews from the Taiwan Navy or Taiwan Army, permanently attached and integrated into the TMC.

With an embedded aviation element, TMC could then adopt the combat-proven “MAGTF” (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) structure and a doctrine akin to the USMC. The MAGTF combines ground, aviation, and logistics elements into a single coherent and mobile force. The TMC is well-suited for this sort of organization, which offers flexibility, self-sustainment, and “scalability” – i.e. it can be as big or as small as commanders need it to be, it, depending on the mission.

Taiwan Marine Corps’ Amphibious Role – Keep It

Keep the TMC’s amphibious capability and mission. For Taiwan, amphibious assault is still feasible in most scenarios, except for an assault against a well-defended coastline or in an extremely high-threat environment far from Taiwan. There are a number of ways to employ a properly sized and equipped amphibious force in a counter-attack role in the context of a strategic defense of Taiwan.

An amphibious capability is also indispensable in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) operations. Although war in East Asia is not unthinkable, particularly in light of the PRC’s increasing bellicosity and acquisitive actions in the region, Taiwan has not had to fight pitched battles for decades. However, natural disasters frequently occur in Taiwan and the region, and HA/DR alone warrants an amphibious capability. The TMC, operating with Taiwan Navy (TN) amphibious ships, is the ideal force to spearhead HA/DR efforts as it combines sea/ground/air capabilities and is able to move rapidly with substantial supplies, equipment, and personnel to affected locations – both domestically and regionally.

The TMC has already proved its usefulness in domestic HA/DR on a number of occasions, to include the 2009 flooding when TMC amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) were the only vehicles capable of accessing certain afflicted areas. The TMC’s AAVs are old, but they still have life in them. When newer versions of amphibious vehicles are developed overseas, the Taiwan Marines should acquire them.

Engage in Regional HA/DR Support

Looking beyond Taiwan, one notes that the majority of regional natural disasters require an amphibious response. Following the TMC’s transformation into MAGTFs, it must learn to work with the Taiwan Navy to build a truly amphibious force along the lines of the U.S. “Marine Expeditionary Unit” (MEU). A MEU is a combination of amphibious ships with Marines and their logistics and organic aviation assets aboard, trained, equipped, and ready to join fully in regional HA/DR missions and training exercises.

Taiwan’s involvement in regional disaster response operations to date has been limited. Generally speaking, the Taiwan Air Force flies in relief supplies and goes home – leaving a handful of Taiwanese civilians behind to handle relief operations. This concept is outdated, and serves only to keep Taiwan isolated and marginalized in the international arena. When physically and politically possible, Taiwan Armed Forces (Marines and Navy taking the lead) should get directly involved on the ground.

Beyond obvious foreign policy benefits, this approach has practical operational benefits. For example, the Taiwan military (with its organization, manpower, and equipment) gets practical experience assisting the overall relief effort and ensures that supplies and aid are used properly. As importantly, Taiwan gets greater visibility (and, hence credit) for humanitarian activities with the attendant political benefits. This political angle to HA/DR also applies domestically as well, since failure to effectively respond to local disasters discredits both the Ministry of National Defense and whatever administration is in power.

One anticipates criticism from certain quarters of Taiwan Armed Forces’ more active role in regional humanitarian activities. However, those who’ve been involved in disaster relief understand that the victims don’t care where help comes from.

Strengthen Specialized Roles for TMC

Besides reorganizing and improving mobility and maintaining an amphibious capability, the Taiwan Marine Corps can also strengthen Taiwan’s overall defense by improving or taking on the following specialized roles. These roles will directly support Taiwan Ministry of National Defense plans for an “asymmetric” defense of Taiwan.

Become the MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) specialists. Taiwan’s terrain is either vertical or it is urbanized, particularly in central and northern parts of the island. A MOUT capability is essential to defending Taiwan, and is a specialized skill that requires focused, complex training. The Taiwan Marines have already developed considerable expertise in MOUT and should enhance and expand these capabilities.

Transition to light artillery and ASCM (anti-ship cruise missiles) missions. Replace the TMC’s heavy, self-propelled artillery with light, mobile artillery, and take advantage of advances in precision-guided munitions. Taiwan Marines might also adopt the ASCM and establish anti-ship cruise missile units. Land based, mobile, and easily concealed, ASCMs are almost impossible to destroy from the air while giving an attacking naval force migraines. ASCMs are a perfect weapon for the TMC, with its littoral warfare expertise. Sea-going by nature, Taiwan Marines might potentially operate ASCMs aboard Taiwan Navy ships.

Expand ANGLICO (Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) capabilities. Taiwan Marines are already proficient in coordinating combined arms – air, artillery, naval surface, and ground fires. The TMC can expand this capability – and improve overall lethality – by deploying ANGLICO teams throughout the entire Taiwan Armed Forces

Develop an armored capability based on the USMC’s Light Armored Vehicle (LAV). The wheeled LAV-25 (and its variants) would give the Taiwan Marines an added dimension of agility, high maneuverability and firepower – all of which are necessary attributes for a newly designed TMC. The LAV’s core mission sets are Security Missions, which provide the commander with early warning, allowing him to concentrate combat power at the right place and time. Such economy of force missions are, again, perfectly suited for the TMC and defense of Taiwan.

Improve TMC’s Air Defense role. TMC has played a role in air defense for years, but in a static way. Instead, the Taiwan Marines deploying shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and other mobile SAM systems can provide a highly mobile air defense capability, thereby complicating PRC targeting of Taiwan’s AAA capabilities by PLA missiles, aircraft, and Special Operations teams and sleeper agent cells.

Take on Mine Warfare specialty. Sea mine technology has improved markedly in recent times, to include “smart” mines. Properly employed, these cheap, highly effective weapons are particularly valuable in defending Taiwan, and are a role TMC might take on given their expertise in littoral operations and boat operations.

Maintain and upgrade TMC Amphibious Reconnaissance Group (ARG). The Amphibious Reconnaissance Group (ARG) Marines are tough customers able to do the “sexy stuff” – parachuting, ocean swimming, SCUBA, etc. – along with their main mission of serving as “eyes and ears” in the ocean, on the beach, and on land and direct action missions. Special Forces such as the ARG are potentially an asymmetric force multiplier, but they need appropriate doctrine and to be properly trained and employed. Like much of the Taiwan Armed Forces, the ARG suffer from professional isolation – lack of exposure to other militaries. In addition to developing opportunities to interact with other foreign special operations units, the Amphibious Reconnaissance Group could use a thorough outside review of its doctrine, missions, and employment concepts.

The Taiwan Marines’ Road Ahead: The Path to Asymmetric Warfare Success

First, end the Taiwan Marine Corps’ isolation. Decades of near-isolation and lack of interaction with other militaries have resulted in a less-capable Taiwan Marines Corps – and the Taiwan Military writ large. The United States can, and should, take the lead in this regard – and has at least nominally stated its intention to do so. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act 2016 (NDAA 2016) states that “military forces of Taiwan should be permitted to participate in bilateral training activities hosted by the United States that increase credible deterrent capabilities of Taiwan.”

Moreover, NDAA 2016 also notes that “the United States should continue to support the efforts of Taiwan to integrate innovative and asymmetric measures to balance the growing military capabilities of the People’s Republic of China….” A re-shaped and re-purposed Taiwan Marine Corps certainly qualifies as an asymmetric and innovative measure.

The U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy in particular should be allowed to bring the TMC (and Taiwan Navy) back into the fold – particularly for HA/DR operations. As a first step, the U.S. Marine Corps should send one or two Mandarin-speaking officers as Liaison Officers to the Taiwan Marine Corps, as it has done in sending LNOs to the Japan Ground Self Defense Force and other regional militaries.

Second, do not cut the TMC any further, and instead consider enlarging it. At least maintain the current size of the TMC and, if necessary, expand the Corps by a few thousand Marines or however many are necessary, depending on a proper assessment of what’s needed for the TMC’s new role as described in this article. The Taiwan Marines have lost a number of superb, creative, and well-disciplined officers and troops from downsizing in recent years. Consider enticing some of them to return.

Third, strengthen the specialized roles outlined in this article, to fill vital niches in Taiwan’s asymmetric defense capabilities and geometrically increase the costs to an aggressor.

Fourth, increase defense spending. The shift to an all-volunteer force has proven difficult for Taiwan’s armed forces – especially for the TMC – owing to low pay and perceived harsh training and living conditions. A bigger defense budget is needed, and if spent right, would allow the necessary improvements. Taiwan’s decreasing defense spending over recent years is perplexing given that Taiwan is a wealthy country. For a country facing such a daunting military threat, Taiwan simply cannot provide an adequate defense without investing money.

Conclusion

Eliminating a large, vital component of Taiwan’s best ground troops – and the ones best able to operate in the littorals where land and sea come together – was ill-advised. This move undermined both Taiwan’s security and many knowledgeable Americans’ perception of Taiwan’s commitment to its own security.

Taiwan’s government must recognize that a reorganized and re-purposed Taiwan Marine Corps will substantially improve Taiwan’s overall defense capabilities. Moreover, it must recognize that Taiwan making a more serious effort to defend itself – and spending the money to do so – has a deterrent effect on adversaries while also making Taiwan’s friends more willing to assist in the event of trouble.

The Taiwan Marine Corps is a key element of Taiwan’s fragile defense capability, and it needs to be understood and recognized as such. Otherwise, it will be whittled away into irrelevance, leaving a void in Taiwan’s defense framework that its well-armed, well-trained, increasingly assertive chief adversary will deeply appreciate.

Grant Newsham is senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, and a retired U.S. Marine Colonel. He served as the first U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense Force and was instrumental in the development of the Japan Self Defense Force’s nascent amphibious capability. He remains active in amphibious development in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Kerry Gershaneck is a Senior Associate with Pacific Forum CSIS, and a professor at a major Asian military academy. Through his Marine Corps and civil service career, he helped develop ROC/Taiwan military capabilities at the tactical through strategic levels. 

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