Written by J. Michael Cole.
The optics could hardly have been worse: Lt. Col. Lao Nai-cheng, a pilot manning the Taiwanese Army’s AH-64E “Guardian” helicopter—one of the most advanced helicopters of its kind in the world—is caught after surreptitiously taking a group of civilians, including a few foreign nationals, on a tour of the base, during which an entertainer had her photo taken while sitting in the cockpit.
As the details of the March 29 visit to the Army base in Longtan, Taoyuan, became public, it was soon evident that the Taiwanese military had yet another controversy on its hands. Besides failing to register the visit with security officials at the base, it emerged that Lao, a pilot with Army’s 601st Aviation Brigade, had also taken the Apache helmet—a controlled item—off base for a Halloween costume party at his home in 2014.
ThenJanet Lee, a former MTV anchor and middling TV personality who had her picture taken in front of and on board one of the Apache helicopters, contemptuously dismissed the incident, sparking widespread public anger and undoubtedly exacerbating the crisis.
In addition to Lee, several wealthy “socialite” friends of Lao were present. This was the second such breach of security by Lao. He reportedly brought ten of his friends on a visit of the Apache hangar on February 22. According to sources in the military, the pilot, who married into a rich family and often entertained senior military staff at his home, often got away with misdemeanor, including long leaves of absence. There has been speculation that Lao avoided reprimand from his superiors because of the influence of his father, a retired Army Major General who now has business operations in China.
Following an investigation, the embattled Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced that Lao had received two major demerits, which means that he will be forced into early retirement. Maj. Gen. Chien Tsung-yuan, head of the 601st Aviation Brigade, has also been removed from his post following revelations that he brought four friends and relatives to the hangar on February 20, also without securing approval.
Besides bringing people who had no business being close to the advanced assault helicopters on the base, Lao allowed pictures to be taken of the interior of the cockpit and its instrumentation, which were then posted on Facebook. The security violations and the lax enforcement of regulations that made this possible will hardly help resolve Taiwan’s image with skeptics in the U.S. who are already convinced that the island-nation cannot be trusted with sensitive military technology and that it has been “completely penetrated” by the Chinese intelligence apparatus. It is important to point out that Taiwan was the very first international client for the Apache Guardian.
As a journalist, I was able to get relatively close to the AH-64E during a media event in December 2013 to mark the commissioning of the first batch of helicopters. However, as per protocol, members of the press had to register for the visit several days in advance to allow for background checks, and we were ordered to keep a certain distance from the helicopters. Furthermore, we were prevented from taking pictures of the interior of the chopper.
The Taiwanese military therefore has an image problem, which threatens to undermine morale in the ranks and public support for the men and women who every day put their lives on the line to defend the nation from aggression. As Taiwan struggles to meet its recruitment goals to implement an all-volunteer military, such incidents are doubly damaging—especially when we contrast the behavior of the wealthy socialites with the fate of Army corporal Hung Chung-chiu, who died on July 4, 2013, after being mistreated by Army officers for allegedly bringing a smartphone inside the base (there is speculation that Hung intended to expose corruption at the base).
Serious though such incidents may be, the public response should remain proportional to the nature of the lapse. Unfortunately, hyperbole is usually the reaction in Taiwanese media and among opposition lawmakers, who seem to take immense pleasure in skewering the military in the court of public opinion. Given the immense challenges that the nation faces, Taiwan cannot afford to exacerbate its image problem by portraying the armed forces as corrupt, useless, and incapable, which is exactly what Taiwan’s sensationalistic media often do. Just like any other government agency—including the very opposition party that revels in accusing MND of incompetence—the military has its share of rotten apples and bench warmers. But it also has many dedicated men and women who need our support and gratitude for the sacrifices that they make in what remains a high-risk, low-pay career choice. Breaking their backs through assassination and ridicule on TV talk shows hardly serves the nation. Some perspective, and the knowledge that similar problems plague military establishments the world over—even the redoubtable Israeli Defense Force—would also contribute to more constructive debate on the subject. This does not mean that we should downplay the seriousness of the matter, but simply to ensure that the criticism doesn’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy by doing the work of China’s political warfare officers for them.
Consequently, rather than portray the entire military establishment as a failure, legislators and commentators would be encouraged to focus their criticism on the specific cases and to give all-out support to the senior military staff who must address the problems in the system. Moreover, as the 2016 presidential elections approach, the candidates should make it clear that if elected, they would strive to give the armed forces a renewed sense of mission, to rebuild pride in the ranks, and vow to keep legislators in line lest their self-serving outbursts on the legislative floor further contribute to loss of support for the military. One does not cultivate pride in the armed forces by constantly bashing them.
Lastly, future leaders should also seek to rectify the course set by President Ma Ying-jeou since 2008, which has emphasized historical elements of the armed forces that have likely contributed to the military’s poor image with the public. Emphasizing and celebrating the role of the military in World War II in the Chinese theatre of operations—often contest of egos with the People’s Liberation Army—cannot but resuscitate among many Taiwanese memories of the military’s role in the 228 Massacre and the subsequent period of White Terror, during which time Garrison Command was the principal tool of repression against the Taiwanese. For all its faults, the Chen Shui-bian administration deserves credit for turning the military into an instrument that serves the nation rather than a specific political party that in the minds of some of its senior members remains emotionally attached to a bygone era. As a result of his own ideological inclinations, President Ma has undone his predecessor’s achievement and may have hurt the military’s image in the process, at the cost of recruitment. It’s not too late to turn this around and to rebuild pride in the institution that stands as the final line of defense against Chinese aggression.
J. Michael Cole is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He is also an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and Editor in Chief of http://www.thinking-taiwan.com. He tweets @JMichaelCole1.