As China builds up military forces across the Taiwan strait and vows to take back the island through “any means” necessary, the United States and others hope for a Taiwan that can stand on its own feet against Chinese aggression. But in reality, not only is the Taiwanese military facing a serious shortage of soldiers and an entirely dysfunctional reserve system, as my previous reporting for Foreign Policy revealed, half of its tanks may not be able to run—and even fewer have functional weapons. These failures are costing lives even before China fires a single shot. As Taiwanese politicians showcase flashy U.S. weapons bought with taxpayers’ money, the logistics inside the military remain so abysmal that a young army officer killed himself after being pressured to buy repair parts out of his own pocket.
Huang Zhi-jie was a 30-year-old lieutenant in the Taiwanese army. Initially serving in the airborne troops as an enlisted soldier, Huang was so committed that he requested officer training—normally considered more work for little reward—and was later commissioned as a lieutenant in charge of a maintenance depot of the 269th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. Huang was supposed to be the model soldier of which Taiwan desperately wanted more: a young, college-educated volunteer who chose to serve the country out of his own volition, at a time when the military was still facing difficult transition from conscription to an all-volunteer military.
But on the night of April 16, Huang hung himself on a dark staircase by his base’s mess hall. Initially his death was not even reported in the Taiwanese media, until Huang’s mother took to Facebook in a long open letter appealing to President Tsai Ing-wen for an investigation.
In an emotional press conference, Huang’s mother alleged that her son was subjected to hazing by his superior officers, and that he was pressured to procure tools and spare repair parts out of his own pocket. Screenshots of private messages, receipts, and photos of items purchased by Huang were shown to the public as proof. For some time before Huang’s death, the novice lieutenant was desperately trying to make up for the shortages in his depot by buying a variety of items like repair hammers and fire buckets from the civilian market. Huang’s brother even used a U.S. website in Arizona to purchase a pair of spark plug gap gauges for him that used imperial measurements instead of metric ones.
“It is against the rules of the army to buy parts with soldiers’ own money,” said Taiwan’s defense minister, Yen Teh-fa, when questioned by Taiwanese legislators. “If something is broken or missing, a soldier can request a replacement part by filling the necessary paper works.”
But to serving officers and soldiers, that response was a grim joke. In fact, during the same parliament hearing the inspector general of the military directly contradicted Yen and admitted that “there were indeed occurrences” of soldiers being pressured to purchase parts. Army inspectors also found at least 31 items still missing from Huang’s depot after his death.
Even worse, the 269th Mechanized Infantry Brigade isn’t some rear-echelon unit but a major combat formation strategically stationed around the outskirt of Taoyuan City, northern Taiwan. It is expected to bear the brunt of ground fighting to stop any invading Chinese troops from reaching the basin of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. If the 269th is in such bad material shape, how about the rest of the Taiwanese military?
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) does not officially disclose how many “major combat platforms” are in a mission-capable state. During computer-simulated exercises such as the annual Han Kuang war game, however, the military simply assumed its units would have 90 percent fighting strength in terms of personnel and at least 85 percent equipment as mission-capable.
“Those numbers are worthless. They have no basis in reality,” James Huang, a retired army lieutenant colonel who has become a prolific military writer and a vocal critic of Taiwan’s defense ministry, told Foreign Policy. “The army likely has no clue how many tanks or guns are actually mission-capable even if they wanted to tell the truth. Because it is common for soldiers even from the lowest ranks to make up numbers so officers can present a rosy picture to please the top brass and politicians.”
Yu Pei-chen, a retired major general who was a commander of the 542th Armor Brigade, speculates that Huang may have been caught in a Catch-22 situation in which he could not request replacements “by the book” because too many things in his depot were already broken or missing when he was assigned there. If he gave a truthful report, the system might demand that he replace the parts personally at inflated “army prices” which can reach astronomical sums. The process for getting the items replaced without paying himself, according to Yu, would be absurdly bureaucratic, require begging forgiveness from superiors, and would probably be unknown to an inexperienced officer. His superior officers in the brigade might also frown on him for triggering an investigation from the top. Instead of faking paperwork to cover up the shortfalls, as the officers before him may have done, he probably tried to cover the missing items himself, Yu explained.
On Taiwan’s internet forums, there is no shortage of netizens claiming to be veterans, who complain about the misfortune of having served in logistics and armory jobs. They write horror stories detailing not just buying parts with own money, but also how they were forced to engage in practices like writing fake paperwork and maintenance logs, hiding “surplus” parts from inspectors, conducting hasty and substandard repair tasks, even stealing parts from other units in preparation for equipment inspection or exercise.
A Taiwanese army master sergeant, who remains in active service and has long experience in logistics units, confirmed many of these accounts.
“It all depends on how you define mission capable,” said Master Sergeant Chen, who asked to be referred to only by last name because he is still in active service. “Our wheeled vehicles like the Humvees and Clouded Leopards (Taiwan’s indigenous-produced infantry fighting vehicles) have decent working numbers, maybe 90 percent or so. But poorly maintained parts like the axle shaft on the Humvees means they tend to break down after running for as little as 50 kilometers on paved roads.
“Tracked vehicles are the real nightmares. About 50 percent of the tanks and self-propelled artillery guns I’ve seen are in running conditions. But a tank that has engine and tracks running is no guarantee that it also has a functional gun.”
Chen added: “If we are talking about something that resembles U.S. standards, I would say 30 percent of the tanks are in running conditions and have functional weapons.”
The problem doesn’t stop there, the master sergeant explained, because ammunition, fuel, and field repair resources are also almost always in chronic shortage unless a unit is about to participate in some major exercise.
“What if China attacks now?” Chen asked. “In that case, we better hope they give us a few more days or weeks to at least get some of our tanks running and loaded with live rounds.”
The dilapidated state of the military has many roots, but veteran staff officers have proposed one likely theory to explain it.
Chang Han-ching, a retired navy captain and a researcher for the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies, believes it was the Taiwanese military’s hasty yet critically flawed downsizing that hollowed out its logistics. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Taiwan committed itself to cutting the force size from half a million strong to fewer than 200,000. Much of the changes were planned by the Office of the General Staff for Operations and Planning of Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, where Chang was a staffer.
“Politicians wanted to shrink the size of the military to shorten and eventually get rid of conscription, the top generals obliged. Given rising threats from China, cutting combat units is out of the question. Guess where they cut instead? Yes, logistics, of all things. As if leaving combat units unsupported will do any good.”
The drastically trimmed down logistics units, which have undergone round after round of cuts, soon became overwhelmed with major repair tasks. Meanwhile, rank-and-file officers and soldiers in the field troops were delegated to undertake complex maintenance tasks and management of repair parts inventory that they had little idea how to do properly. This led to a vicious cycle of more poorly maintained equipment, more failures and breakdowns, more misallocation of repair parts and resources. The addition of more newly procured U.S. weapons, such as the recently ordered M1A2 Abram tanks, may further overwhelm the existing system, as they are almost always bigger, heavier, and more complex to maintain.
“Can you imagine a tank driver, a private with a few weeks’ worth of driver’s training in the armor school, being tasked to conduct a 200-items maintenance routine around an entire M60 tank?” Yu said. “He would have no idea what to do except to write up fake paperwork.”
One possible solution is to use civilian help to substitute for logistical forces, as much of the equipment like trucks and Humvees could be cheaper and more effectively maintained with civilian mechanics. The U.S. military, for example, has 760,000 civilians and 560,000 contractors to support its mighty 2.2 million active duty and reserve personnel. In contrast, Taiwan’s military has 153,000 soldiers and only 8,000 civilian employees.
Unlike the U.S. military, whose civilian employees and contractors are competitively selected from across a wide range of specialized fields, civilians in Taiwan’s military mostly hold trivial clerical positions, according to Huang. There is “no science whatsoever” to the military’s designing of force structure to begin with, let along the army’s process of selecting civilian employees or contractors, Huang said.
The root cause of problems, therefore, appears to go far deeper than just broken tanks and not enough mechanics. Interviewees suggested the answer must lies somewhere between the military’s dysfunctional organizational culture, lack of civilian audit and oversight, and an ineffectual leadership (both military and political) that seems to give little thought to preparing troops for actual war.
After many requests for comment, including an extensive preview of the findings of this article, the MND spokesperson’s office replied with a one paragraph statement reading: “Our ministry cannot reply to independent inquiries, as our ministry only communicate with media that are familiar to us.”
Active and retired officers interviewed by this report, including Lt. Col. Huang, Maj. Gen. Yu, and navy Capt. Chang were also unanimous in pointing to Defense Minister Yen as a prime example of the type of failed leadership that plagued Taiwan’s military for years. They described Yen as a habitual yes-man who prioritizes pomp-and-show and photo-ops, while at the same time stymieing any call for reform or even minor fixes that could remedy at least part of the military’s dire lack of combat readiness.
Historically, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), now the ruling party under Tsai, was known for being more critical of the military’s leadership and for a time proposed overarching reform to improve its management and effectiveness. In recent years, this has severely waned as Tsai’s administration has grown closer to the generals running the defense ministry. A clear example is Yen, who was himself a senior general before being promoted by Tsai to head the ministry.
“You want to fix Taiwan’s military? Find a defense minister that actually cares about our soldiers and how they might fare on the battlefield, instead of a guy whose apparent priority is feeding the president and politicians some feel-good publicity stuff to make them look tough on Facebook,” said Yu, who since his retirement from the army a few years ago has taken up a position leading a veteran affairs association affiliated with the opposition Kuomintang party.
Chang said that despite the Tsai administration’s vocal public rhetoric about defending Taiwan and resisting Beijing’s advances, he sees the administration as taking a defeatist attitude that treats the China-Taiwan stand-off as ultimately a political, rather than a military, question.
“Their underlying thinking, based on my observation of the policies, is that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown to be too strong for us to fight militarily anyway. They think Taiwan should just focus on putting up a good show of being tough, buy enough U.S. weapons for display, and pray that Americans come to our rescue when the Chinese call our bluff, which hopefully wouldn’t happen,” Chang said.
But as long as Chinese intelligence services can read from newspapers that Taiwanese soldiers are busy shopping for Humvee parts from Amazon, Beijing can draw accurate conclusions about the state of the Taiwanese military. But they could also come to mistaken conclusions about the resolve of the Taiwanese soldiers in defending their own country.
“Speaking strictly from my heart as a retired officer I would never doubt—not even for one second, that the mass majority of our soldiers and officer corps are dedicated to defending the country, and Taiwan can expect every one of them to do their duty on the battlefield—however much equipment is working,” Yu said.