Taiwan’s DARPA: Technology Disrupter or Pork Barrel?

Taiwan’s DARPA: Technology Disrupter or Pork Barrel?

Taiwan’s DARPA: Technology Disrupter or Pork Barrel?

On October 11, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced plans to establish a Taiwanese version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The first step in this plan is to increase staff for the existing Technology Planning Division, under the MND’s Department of Resources (資源司科技企劃處), starting in January 2017. This would eventually be upgraded to an independent Defense Technology Development Office (DTDO, 國防科技發展室), reporting directly to the Defense Minister.   

The DTDO will reportedly be headed by a civilian director (with a doctorate degree), and a one-star general officer billet deputy director. The office will be staffed by 23 program managers, recruited from outside of the military establishment, beginning in October 2017, and compensation will be competitive with the commercial sector. These expert project managers will have three-year contracts, presumably so as to help mimic the culture of urgency DARPA fosters, in order to achieve results in the relatively short (three-five year) stints given to program leaders.

The MND envisions an annual budget for the DTDO of NT$3 billion (US $100 million), corresponding to roughly 1 percent of Taiwan’s current yearly defense spending. By comparison, DARPA’s budget (US $2.87 billion) accounts for only about 0.5 percent of US defense spending in FY2016.

The Mission

The stated mission of the DTDO, as announced by the MND, is to:

  • Direct the management of defense technology
  • Review and oversee NCSIST (National Chung Shan Institute of Science & Technology,  國家中山科學研究院) research and development (R&D) projects
  • Bring together scientific research capabilities from the civilian sector
  • Establish a (presumably centralized) platform for information dissemination and exchange
  • Implement collaborative efforts with industry and academia
  • Develop dual-use technologies
  • Oversee special projects and R&D challenges
  • Review defense-related R&D budgets through cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA):
    • Upgrade autonomous defense industry R&D capabilities
    • Industrialize mature defense technologies

The Taiwanese DARPA will feature a “top-down, requirements-driven, objective-oriented” approach to defense research and development (R&D). To highlight the importance of asymmetrical capabilities, DTDO would direct at least 40 percent of its R&D resources toward so-called “disruptive innovations.” Policy guidance for defense technology and industry will be coordinated by a “Defense Technology Industry Development Promotion Committee,” (國防科技產業發展推行委員會), to be jointly chaired by the Ministers of National Defense, Economic Affairs, and Technology.

On October 23rd, the director of the MND’s Resources Department offered some additional justifications for the DTDO by asserting that:

  • Innovation does not require substantial funding or organizations
  • Outsourcing of R&D (to the civilian sector) would not require investment in laboratory facilities, but could encourage innovation
  • Technological competition could harness technology from the civilian sector
  • Better synchronization of industrialization with R&D projects could produce improved returns on R&D investments
  • Transparent, open competition would foster technological innovation

In a report to the Legislative Yuan (LY)—Taiwan’s parliament—the MND stated that the plan is to have the DTDO up and operational by January 2018, if the trial period proves successful. Although the MND did not specify an official trial period, from Minister Feng’s verbal response to lawmakers, it may be inferred that the year 2017 would effectively serve as a trial period for the proposed DTDO roadmap.

Issues and Questions

The DTDO concept appears well-intentioned and is clearly in line with the Tsai Administration’s agenda of harnessing the enormous resources Taiwan invests in its defense industry to serve as a pillar of economic revitalization. Indeed, the DPP government has begun developing a comprehensive defense industry policy, having created a defense industry development working group in June of this year (2016), and could announce related strategy, priorities and guidelines by sometime next year.

Taiwan’s defense industry could also benefit from an R&D tsar, empowered to harness the island’s enormous scientific, technological, and industrial capacities.

During a DPP-sponsored defense industry forum in Washington, DC, in October 2015, experts advocated for a more centralized, efficient, and impartial organization with intra-agency purview to build a viable, sustainable, indigenous defense-industrial base. The DTDO appears to be the Tsai Administration’s solution to this suggestion.

The DTDO’s parallels with DARPA, however, may be a bit hazier. Created in the midst of the Cold War to ensure US technological leadership in the defense sector, DARPA’s key mission is not driven by immediate operational requirements. Transformational advances, rather than incremental improvements, are the goal for an agency like DARPA. In Taiwan’s case, the military often has difficulty acquiring the equipment and capabilities needed to meet requirements posed by present or near-term threats. It is, therefore, questionable whether the creation of an agency with a truly DARPA-like mandate can address the challenges at hand for Taiwan.

Nor is it a core function of DARPA to coordinate resources with private sector industry, since many of the research projects DARPA sponsors are never directly productionized. Yet, from the description provided by MND officials to date, the authoritative allocation of resources to private industry may well prove an unavoidable component of the DTDO’s eventual portfolio.

In fact, the model that the Tsai Administration wishes to pursue may be more akin to South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) than DARPA. The Korean agency oversees all defense acquisition planning (including all R&D policy and system development), defense industry promotion (both domestic and international), testing & evaluation, and project management, serving much the same role with which Taiwan’s Armament Bureau (AB, 國防部軍備局) is, in principle, already tasked.

As such, it is not surprising that the DTDO proposal immediately attracted suspicion from both sides of the political aisle. At issue is whether the DTDO would become a mechanism for centrally controlling (and allocating) the resources for domestic defense-industrial projects. There has also been criticism of possible redundant, overlapping responsibilities with other, existing organizations, such as the Armament Bureau, NCSIST, and MoEA.A number of Taiwan lawmakers and not a few media have also questioned whether the proposed Taiwanese DARPA could actually be a veiled attempt to resurrect the Taiwan Goal (鐽震) armaments company that the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) Administration tried unsuccessfully to implement in 2008. Critics also cautioned against the new agency becoming a vehicle for channeling spoils and pork. The MND has emphatically denied such allegations, citing significant differences in the nature of the mission between the DTDO and Taiwan Goal.

The extent, composition, and effectiveness of legislative and other oversights for the DTDO, and for its involvement with private industry will, therefore, play a large part in its success.

The main point: MND’s new defense technology agency offers promise, although legislative and other oversight mechanism would be necessary to ensure its success.