Taiwan’s long-awaited “fourth service,” which will operate in the cyber domain, may be launched as early as in three months. According to local media reports, the widely-touted “cyber army” (通資電軍) , which will make its debut in the computer-simulation phase of the military’s 33rd annual Han Kuang Exercise (漢光演習), could be operationalized as soon as in July or at least in the latter half of this year.
While in opposition, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) issued a series of defense papers that proposed to “combine cyber and electronic warfare capabilities present within the civilian sector with existing military capabilities” to make up a “fourth service” on par with the nation’s army, navy and air force. For a political party whose constituency represents more of the “liberal” wing of Taiwanese politics, the defense papers were seen as a demonstration of a future DPP administration’s commitment to defense issues.
Yet, despite the DPP government’s high-level campaign promises to establish a cyber army, there have been few indicators of the program’s existence since President Tsai Ing-wen came into office. Furthermore, the absence of any mention of a cyber army in the administration’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review has raised some local lawmakers’ concerns about the administration’s commitment to this key element of Taiwan’s defense strategy.
The inclusion of the cyber army in this year’s exercises, however, underscores the important role that it appears to play in current defense thinking and planning. According to a Taiwan defense analyst, Fu S. Mei, the exercise is “intended to reassure Taiwanese people of their democratic but diplomatically isolated island’s defense capability” and “an important venue for understanding Taiwan’s defense capabilities and shifts in strategic thinking thereof.” The Han Kuang exercise, which began in 1984, consists of live-fire trainings conducted by all three armed services. This year’s exercise will be held in the first week of May.
While this is not the first time that cyberattacks were featured as an element in the exercises, the reported feature of the “cyber army” and the apparent centrality of its function in this year’s exercises suggest an elevated operational significance. Over a decade ago, in July 2006, the Ministry of Defense included its “first ever anti-hacker drill” in its Han Kuang-22 exercise, but mainly as “a way of raising awareness of the dangers of careless leaks ‟of classified information via the Internet.”
Another component of the Han Kuang Exercise is as a signal for international cooperation. On a yearly basis, international participants from allied and non-allied countries’ militaries are invited to observe the exercises. While not a diplomatic ally, the United States remains Taiwan’s most critical security partner under the Taiwan Relations Act, under which the United States is obligated to provide defense articles and services to help Taiwan defend itself.
As Taiwan’s primary security partner, the United States has sent observers to the Han Kuang exercises, but they are almost always led by a retired military officer. These delegations are often headed by former senior defense officials, such as former Commander of the Pacific Forces Admiral Dennis Blair. Admiral Blair, who has more recently served as President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, led the delegation in 2006.
Senior officers from the U.S. Pacific Command also reportedly observed the annual Han Kuang exercises in 2005. While there has been media speculation that the US may send an active-duty military officer to lead this year’s exercises, local media confirmed that this year’s delegation will be headed by retired General Edward Rice, Jr. General Rice is the current Commander of the Air Education and Training Command, whose primary mission is to recruit, train and educate Airmen to deliver airpower for America. General Rice more recently served as commander of US Forces Japan, and as Vice Commander of Pacific Air Forces.
A recent report by the Center for New American Security, Phishing in Troubled Waters: Confronting Cyber Espionage Across the Pacific and the Strait of Taiwan, pointed out that “evidence is mounting that Taiwan has long been an important testing ground for Chinese cyber capabilities, with new hacks honed and rehearsed against the island democracy before eventually being turned on the United States.” The report interestingly observed that Chinese cyber operations are beginning to “blur the line between political cyber-espionage, the subversion of digital communications, and commercial cyber-theft.” The report continues, “Chinese cyberwarfare doctrine seems to be further diverging from traditionally Clausewitzian conceptions of clashing capabilities towards hybrid conflicts more commonly associated with recent Russian adventurism in its near abroad.”
Mitigating the challenges posed by Chinese cyber operations and countering a coordinated cyber reconnaissance campaign require reducing the value of information through thoughtful deception, enhanced counterintelligence, and greater cooperation between the United States and Taiwan. The establishment of Taiwan’s “fourth service” could create a good counterpart for such coordination.
The main point: Greater cooperation between the United States and Taiwan can help both to mitigate the challenges posed by Chinese cyber espionage and to counter a coordinated cyber reconnaissance campaign, which require reducing the value of information through thoughtful deception and enhanced counterintelligence. The establishment of Taiwan’s “fourth service” represents a step forward in that direction.