Taiwan Defense: How prepared is the ROC army and its counterparts?

Han Kuang Exercises
November 10, 2021  
Categories: Learnin'

With 170,000 active personnel, the Republic of China Armed Forces (in total, not just the ROC army) ranks  30th in the world in terms of size. It is significantly smaller than the 2.8 million personnel who serve in the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – currently the largest military force in the world. Even counting its 1.65 million reserve, the ROC is dwarfed by its mainland rival. This is obviously problematic for a successful Taiwan defense, though there are balancing factors. 

That has become notable as tensions between Beijing and Taipei are currently at a 40-year high, while PRC President Xi Jinping has vowed to unify Taiwan with the mainland, and by force if necessary. The PLA have certainly been rattling sabers, as the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has conducted numerous sorties near Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), while PLA Navy (PLAN) warships have sailed increasingly close to the Taiwanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Despite those incursions, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said earlier this month that the island nation will not start a war with China but will defend itself “full-on,” should the PLA mount an invasion.

History of Taiwan and Its Military

Officially known as the Republic of China Armed Forces, it was actually founded in June 1924. That is especially notable because at the time, the island — also historically known as Formosa — was under Japanese rule. It had been ceded to Japan after the Qing Dynasty was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, and was only returned to mainland Chinese control at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Thus Taiwan was only briefly unified with the mainland from 1945 to 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese under control of the Kuomintang was defeated in the Chinese Civil War. The government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taipei. Some two million people, mainly comprised of soldiers, members of the ruling Kuomintang, and intellectual and business elites, were evacuated from the mainland to Taiwan, which was already home to some six million.

Kuomintang Army

The National Chinese Army of the Kuomintang during the Second Sino-Japanese War – which overlapped with the Second World War (Public Domain)

In addition to the people, the ROC government took many national treasures, as well as China’s gold reserves and foreign currency reserves.

The result was “two Chinas,” as the Kuomintang contained to claim sovereignty over all of China, while the victorious Communists proclaimed the PRC to be the sole legitimate government of China. Throughout much of the early Cold War, the United States and the United Nations actually recognized the ROC, not the PRC, to be the sole Chinese government. By the 1970s, following the Sino-Soviet split, the United States and with it, the UN, recognized the PRC with Beijing as its capital.

Today the United States and Taiwan enjoy a robust but “unofficial” relationship, and while the United States does not support official Taiwanese independence, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides a legal basis for the unofficial relationship between Washington and Taipei.


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Taiwan Defense

State of the Taiwanese Military

The primary focus of the Republic of China Army (ROCA) is the defense and counterattack against an amphibious assault. An estimated 80 percent of the ROCA is located on Taiwan proper, while the rest of the force is spread across the Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, Dongsha, and Taiping Islands. Since 1984, it has regularly conducted its Han Kuang Exercise, which ensures readiness in the event of an attack from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 37th edition of the annual five-day event was most recently held this past September. It was originally scheduled for July, but was delayed due to Covid-19. However, it still included live-fire drills and was focused on the maintenance of combat capabilities in the event of a full-scale Chinese invasion.

Han Kuang Exercises

The ROC army and other Republic of China Armed Forces responsible for Taiwan defense efforts regularly conducts its Han Kuang Exercise, which ensures readiness in the event of an attack from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China.

The ROCA currently consists of 130,000 soldiers, but how reliable its military would be in a fight with the PLA isn’t entirely clear.

 “We are facing a gigantic military threat,” former Taiwanese Defense Minister Michael Tsai, who turned his back on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said in a 2019 interview. “Taiwan should strengthen its self-defense capabilities.”

At issue is the fact that even as one of the most prosperous democracies in the Far East, Taiwan’s military budget is like its army, dwarfed by that of the mainland. Currently, Beijing’s official military budget is 16 times that of Taiwan. Yet, many of Taiwan’s citizens don a uniform at some point in their lives. In terms of overall size, Taiwan has some 170,000 military personnel — which puts the island nation on par with that of Germany, which boasts three and half times as many citizens. Some officials think Taiwan should take the lead of Israel, where most citizens serve at some point in their adult lives.

“Our national security needs every young man to go to the armed forces, this is a national obligation,” said Tsai, who told the German news outlet DW that he did his own 18-month stint of military service six decades ago.

 Antiquated Equipment

One major concern is that since the 1990s the size of the ROCA has actually been scaled back, and while there are now efforts to enlarge the military, the other concern is that much of its equipment dates back to the Cold War. While there have been programs to replace some of the outdated hardware, the ROCA still operates older tanks such as the M60A3 Patton Tank.

Yet, it operates large numbers of those tanks – and has some 480 M60A3s as well as upwards of 450 CM11s, a modified, domestically built tank that features M48 turrets mated to the M60 chassis. Known as the “Brave Tiger,” the CM11 was first introduced in 1990, and in recent years have been upgraded with reactive armor around the hull and turret. While it has some advanced features of the American M1 Abrams, including a ballistic calculator, the CM11 is noted for its outdated armor design, armor and main 105mm gun and how it could stand up against PLA Type 96 and Type 99 tanks.

CM11 taiwanese military

Known as the “Brave Tiger,” the CM11 main battle tank (MBT) was first introduced in 1990. How well it will do against more modern PLA tanks has been questioned by military analysts.

In recent years, the government in Taipei has also expressed interest in acquiring the U.S.-built M1 Abrams tank, and last year a deal was signed by the Trump administration. Even that deal has been questioned – and a primary concern is that the Abrams may be too large and heavy for some of the island’s roads and bridges. Yet, the M1 Abrams could do well at stopping an initial invasion, and even as the PLA has conducted recent exercises to determine whether car and passenger ferries could aid in the deployment of armor to the island, it would seem the defenders would have an advantage.

M1A1 tank in South Korea

M1 Abrams tanks have been deployed by the U.S. military to South Korea to confront North Korea, but soon Taiwan could be employing the American-made main battle tank. (DoD image)

Taiwan’s Navy — Similar Story

Any tank battle in the mountains of Taiwan or in its urbanized centers including Taipei might be a moot point, however, as the ROC government has sought to increase its naval defense spending. The ROC Navy would be the shield and first line of defense against an invasion, and its primary mission is to defend the sea lanes and Taiwan against a blockade, attack, or possible invasion.

The PLAN currently possesses two operational aircraft carriers — but one is an old Soviet-era warship that was reconstructed by the Chinese while the second is a domestically-built carrier based on the former. Still, the carriers give the PLAN the ability to mount airstrikes against the ROC’s military.

Taipei has seen the writing on the wall and has responded accordingly. While it lacks the capital as well as the infrastructure to build a sizeable fleet, it has worked to modernize its navy and this month began the construction of a second Tuo Chiang-class corvette. The small ship, which has a top speed of 40 knots and a maximum cruising range of 2,000 nautical miles, is armed with eight subsonic Hsiung Feng II and eight supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles.

taiwanese military Chiang-class corvette

With a dozen planned and two in service, the Taiwanese-designed Tuo Chiang-class corvette could play a key role in stopping an invasion. The stealthy multi-mission warships can utilize hit-and-run tactics, taking on vastly larger warships such as a Chinese aircraft carrier. Each is equipped with eight subsonic Hsiung Feng II and eight supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles.

Additionally, the ROC Navy is looking to upgrade its four antiquated submarines — two of which date back to the Second World War and were transferred to the island in the 1970s. Taiwan is currently constructing its first indigenous submarine, which is set to be launched in September 2023. Along with more advanced American-built torpedoes, the new boats could help deter — and potentially stop – and amphibious invasion.

Just this month, the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) also awarded Boeing a $220 million contract to configure Taiwan’s Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems (HCDS). The system reportedly includes Harpoon Block II Update Grade B Canister Launch All Up Round Missiles, the HCDS launch system, and Harpoon weapon station test and production equipment. Work on the HCDS will be carried out within and outside the U.S. and is expected to be complete by July 2023.

Taiwanese military Harpoon Block II

Under the Trump administration, Taiwan was provided with upwards of 400 Harpoon Block II over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile manufactured by Boeing Defence, Space & Security. The Harpoon Block II is considered the world’s superior anti-ship missile capable of performing land-strike and anti-ship missions.

The Trump administration had also approved a $2.4 billion sale of 100 HCDS to Taipei. That included 400 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II Surface Launched Missiles with a maximum range of 75 miles (125 kilometers), four RTM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II Exercise Missiles, 411 containers, 25 radar trucks, spare parts, and support and test equipment. According to the U.S. Navy, the Harpoon’s “active radar guidance, low-level, sea-skimming cruise trajectory, terminal mode sea-skim or pop-up maneuvers and warhead design, assure high survivability and effectiveness.”

The Republic of China Marine Corps also maintains its own Special Forces, known as the Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Unit (ARP). Its personnel serve as “frogmen” and have a similar mission set of that as the United States Navy SEALs. The entire ROC Marine Corps — like the United States Marine Corps — is considered an elite force, and the ARP is simply the most elite unit. It trains to conduct reconnaissance as well as underwater demolition missions. In 2019, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense invested $134.25 million New Taiwan dollars ($4.8 million U.S.) for a new special operations training base.

taiwanese military ROC Marine Corps impress

The ROC Marine Corps impress people with their combat skills during the ROC 2016 National Day celebration.

Flying High – The ROCAF

With only around 300 front-line combat aircraft, the current Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) is also significantly smaller than that of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which possesses around 2,000 combat worthy aircraft.

A bigger threat is that the ROCAF doesn’t just face an attack from PLAAF aircraft. A likely first strike from China would include ballistic and cruise missiles, which could destroy airfields and aircraft on the ground. However, Taiwan has also hardened its primary Air Force facilities and built redundancies into critical infrastructure so as to absorb and survive such an attack.

U.S. Support

Perhaps the most notable component of Taiwan’s military could be the training it has been receiving from the United States. While not entirely a secret, it was reported this month that the U.S. has maintained a small contingent of military trainers for at least a year.

It is comprised of about two dozen U.S. Special Forces soldiers as well as an unspecified number of United States Marines. The trainers had been sent by the Trump administration and the presence hasn’t been acknowledged until recently. The news of the trainers came as President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday that Taiwan ready to defend its democracy.

“Taiwan does not seek military confrontation,” she told attendees at security forum in Taipei. “It hopes for a peaceful, stable, predictable and mutually beneficial coexistence with its neighbors. But Taiwan will also do whatever it takes to defend its freedom and democratic way of life.”

Even as the United States military has never officially trained in Taiwan, there have been reports that special operators from the Taiwan military have received training from U.S. units such as the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. Among the best known of Taiwanese military Special Forces is the Airborne Special Service Company, also known as the Liang Shan Special Operations Company, which is reportedly based in Pingtung County. It is comprised of approximately 150 personnel and is believed to have been founded in the early 1980s. It is tasked with carrying out commando operations, including decapitation strikes against an invader.

taiwanese military Airborne Special Service Company

Taiwanese Airborne Special Service Company [ROC (Taiwan) special forces] conducting a personnel training operation. The unit is reportedly based it techniques and operations on the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. (Public Domain)

While not an actual part of the actual military, the Thunder Squad serves as the special services unit of the National Police Agency (NPA). It was established in 1985 to conduct high-risk arrests, but since 2020 the NPA’s 200 personnel Thunder Squad has also participated in the annual Han Kuang Exercise alongside Taiwanese Army Special Forces.

What the ROC may lack in overall numbers and strength it may make up for in tenacity, but also partners. In a fight, it is almost certain that the United States would come to the island’s defense, as would Japan and possibly other regional powers. China may want to consider whether unification is worth fighting World War III.


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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

About the Author

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, The Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many (many) others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.


  1. Core

    It would not work out well for PRC to try to invade Taiwan. Taiwans Navy and Air Force and unilateral support from US and Allies would make their amphibious landing impossible. It would result in MAD worst case scenario or massive PRC losses in the Strait. Seen the simulations it wouldn’t be good for China.

  2. The Usual Suspect

    Taiwan knows the odds and probably purchased tactical nuclear weapons
    a long time ago.
    Like Israel, in time of war Taiwan has no friends least of all the fickle USA.

  3. Richard Steven Hack

    “it is almost certain that the United States would come to the island’s defense, as would Japan and possibly other regional powers. China may want to consider whether unification is worth fighting World War III”

    First, Taiwan has zero chance of repelling a Chinese invasion. Pentagon war games show that if the US attempts to defend Taiwan, the US will lose. How, then, can Taiwan defeat an invasion if the US can’t?

    Second, the conflict between China and Taiwan is an internal Chinese matter. The US has no stake in that whatsoever.

    Third, if you think Chinese unification is no justification for WWIII, do you think the US should risk the nuclear annihilation of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle – and possibly much more – for an island thousands of miles away from the US? Because when the US loses to China in the Taiwan Straits, the decision will have to be made to accept tens of thousands of US losses versus going nuclear. The wrong decision means tens of millions of US loses. For Taiwan? Seriously?


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