Taiwan Disaster Relief: Important Military Mission

Taiwan Disaster Relief: Important Military Mission

Taiwan Disaster Relief: Important Military Mission

Taiwan suffers from frequent earthquakes and typhoons resulting in landslides and flooding. A World Bank report identified Taiwan as one of the most exposed countries to multiple hazards. The military, especially the Army, national and local government agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) are called upon to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations. Disaster relief became an important military mission under the administration of former President Ma Ying-jeou, after criticism of the government slow response and initial rejection of international aid after Typhoon Morakot inflicted catastrophic damage in August 2009. Indicating the importance of the mission and frequency of disasters, from 2016 through December 2017, the military engaged in 13 major emergency relief operations.

Former-President Ma considered disaster relief to be more important for the military than combat preparation, stating that, “there is little chance of war breaking out, but natural disasters happen almost every year.” During President Ma’s terms, he announced that the military should purchase “weapons systems” that could be employed during wartime and peacetime to enhance disaster relief. The Taiwan Army, in particular, spends training time each year conducting disaster relief exercises with civil authorities to prepare to respond to frequent natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes. Additionally, the military has forces and equipment earmarked for emergency response contingencies. Of the 60 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters purchased for the Army, President Ma diverted 15 of them to the National Airborne Service Corps (NASC) to boost the organization’s disaster relief capabilities. His administration received criticism over the move since the Blackhawks were originally purchased to replace aging UH-1 Iroquois helicopters that reached the end of their service life.

The 2017 National Defense Report and Quadrennial Defense Review identify disaster prevention and relief as a national defense mission and central task of all three military services. Disaster relief is also a training objective for reservists during their 5-7 days call-up, every two years. The report describes complex disasters as representing one of the biggest non-conventional security threats to Taiwan. Taiwan seeks to expand disaster relief security cooperation with other countries based on its experience in emergency response. Funding for the military’s disaster relief operations comes from the armed forces’ Operation and Maintenance budget, which also funds training, exercises, and maintenance of weapons and equipment.

Hualien Earthquake Response, February 2018

A recent example of the military emergency response capabilities is the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that struck Hualien County on Taiwan’s east coast on February 6, 2018, just before midnight, followed by aftershocks. Army engineering units, including the 53rd Engineer Group based in Taoyuan under the 3rd Theater of Operations (TO) in northwestern Taiwan, rapidly responded to the disaster with excavation and lifesaving equipment to assist in rescue efforts. The morning after the earthquake, the Ministry of Defense (MND) Emergency Operations Center began to implement search and rescue efforts with the initial deployment of 595 personnel from various units. The Air Force supported relief operations with the deployment of S-70C search and rescue helicopters and RF-5 reconnaissance aircraft to conduct aerial photography of the affected area. Air Force C-130 transport aircraft also transported fire and rescue personnel from Taichung to support relief efforts. Military medical teams with 15 ambulances also arrived to support recovery efforts. On February 7th President Tsai Ing-wen visited the Emergency Operations Center established by the 2nd Theater of Operations, responsible for the Hualien region, for briefings on the situation.

Emergency Response Command and Control

Taiwan has a civilian and military emergency operation organization. The military has an Armed Forces Emergency Operations Center (災害應變中心) which commands the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in each theater. The theater centers dispatch forces and equipment primarily from the Army, but in coordination with the Air Force and Navy. The government has a Central Emergency Operations Center that issues instructions to the Armed Forces EOC for support. The Central EOC also issues instructions and exercises control over city and county EOCs. These city and county organizations dispatch fire, health, and environmental protection assets, and can request support from the theater EOCs.

Military Disaster Preparedness

Since former President Ma’s emphasis on disaster relief after Morakot, the military has held annual HA/DR training to prepare for emergency response. The Min’an (民安) public safety exercise is held with local governments, with observers from international disaster relief organizations and NGOs from the Asia-Pacific region. The military exchanges knowledge based on their relief operations and training with experts from other countries. The military also participates in international courses and programs, as well as observing disaster relief drills in other countries. The Air Force and Navy are also prepared to provide transport capabilities to promptly respond to overseas emergencies with rescue personnel and supplies. These efforts enhance Taiwan’s visibility in the international community and establish a mechanism for cooperation in international humanitarian assistance. Disaster relief missions also promote military-civilian interaction, as well as improving the image of the Armed Forces.

The military monitors warnings of possible disasters. They will then deploy forces and equipment to areas in risk of mudslides or flooding 24-hours prior to a typhoon set to strike  Taiwan. Approximately 2,300 personnel are deployed to designated locations: 23 in northern Taiwan, 23 in central Taiwan, 45 in southern Taiwan, and 30 in eastern Taiwan. An additional 33,000 troops are prepared to respond in each theater of operations, representing a substantial portion of the total armed forces. The military has 1,700 pieces of relief equipment, including 2,000 wheeled vehicles, 240 armored vehicles, 30 aircraft, 80 inflatable boats, light and heavy construction equipment, search and rescue equipment, as well as multi-function combat engineer equipment ready for emergencies. Each theater has shelters to house 35,000 people in 80 locations when requested by the city or county government. Military hospitals and the medical corps can organize up to 154 medical teams with a total of 512 personnel and supplies for immediate response to disasters. The military also has 214 mental health centers that can coordinate with local mental health counselors to respond to major disasters. Most of the designated and prepositioned personnel and equipment are in the four theaters located in Taiwan, with only medical personnel located on the outer islands of Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu.

Officers, noncommissioned officers (NCO) and enlisted personnel with disaster relief experience are selected for the Armed Forces Instructor Comprehensive Training Course for Large-Scale Disasters at the National Fire Agency Training Center in Zhushan, Nantou County. From 2010 to 2017 about 1,688 personnel completed the course. In 2016 and 2017, 22 city and county governments held disaster relief exercises in conjunction with the military in order to improve preparedness and coordination. Military participation included 4,000 personnel, 10 helicopters, and over 1,600 vehicles. The MND also supported two nuclear safety drills organized by the Atomic Energy Council of the Executive Yuan.

2018 Disaster Relief Training

In February 2018,  the 586th Armor Brigade located in the central 5th TO carried out driver training of armored personnel carriers in the snow at the Wuling cold weather training base. The objective was to train bringing supplies to residents in mountainous regions.

The Min’an 4 exercise occurred throughout Taiwan during March with numerous military units involved. In early March, the Min’an 4 exercise began in Nantou County to support military and civilian coordination, mobilization of personnel and equipment responding to multiple disasters, and providing post-disaster recovery. County and city disaster relief organizations, NGOs, and military units participated. Medical units from the Army 5th Regional Support Command trained at receiving casualties. The 52nd Engineer Group from the 5th Theater of Operations erected an armored vehicle-launched bridge to replace a notionally damaged bridge. The Army communications vehicles operated a mobile command post. And the 36th Chemical Defense Group, Nantou County Reserve Command, Military Police, the Army Taichung General Hospital, and a Ministry of the Interior NASC helicopter provided support.

In mid-March the Min’an 4 exercise moved to Yulin County involving Army units and civilian organizations. The exercise simulated disaster rescue and evacuation, as well as a nuclear disaster response component. The Yulin County Reserve Command, military police, the 53rd Engineer Group from the 3rd TO, the 36th Chemical Defense Group, the 5th Regional Support Command, and other elements participated in the exercise.

Also in mid-March, the Min’an 4 exercise began in northwestern Taiwan in the 3rd TO. The 66th Marine Brigade, elements of the 53rd Engineer Group, a NASC helicopter, and medical teams responded to a simulated flood event with rescue efforts. An Army command vehicle provided coordination with civilian government organizations. The engineers employed bridging equipment to support crossing the Keelung River.

Later in March the Min’an 4 exercise was conducted in Kinmen with coordination between military and civilian organizations during a simulated typhoon. The Kinmen Defense Command, military police, Army Aviation and Special Forces Command supported the training. Evacuation, rescue, infrastructure repair, and emergency medical response including infectious disease contro, were exercised.

At the end of March the Min’an 4 exercise was conducted in Hsinchu County and Taipei City in the 3rd TO. In the Hsinchu area, the 33rd Chemical Defense Group conducted decontamination during a simulated earthquake. The 542nd Armor Brigade, military police, and medical teams conducted rescue training in coordination with civilian organizations. A NASC helicopter delivered supplies. Training in the Taipei City area included an Air Force search and rescue helicopter, elements of the 53rd Engineer Group, the 33rd Chemical Defense Group, the 202nd Military Police Command, the 66th Marine Brigade, the 601st Army Aviation Brigade, Taipei City Reserve Command, and the3rd Support Department.

The main point: Emergency response is an important military mission in the typhoon and earthquake prone Taiwan. Since 2009 the military has gained great experience and conducts extensive training in coordination with the civil government and NGOs to respond to emergencies throughout Taiwan and its outer islands. The Army’s rapid response to the Hualien earthquake demonstrates the military’s proficiency in rapid emergency response. However, HA/DR does divert valuable training time, equipment, and resources from military’s preparedness to respond to military contingencies, and it lowers operational readiness against the threat from China.

[1] Military News Agency, “Hsinchu “Disaster Prevention and Relief No. 2 Exercise,” April 18, 2016.