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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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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