Recent official confirmation of U.S. troops training with Republic of China (R.O.C.) forces in Taiwan is hardly shocking news. The U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Group even posted a video of joint training to Facebook more than a year ago.
Recently, U.S. foreign policy has placed increased attention on the decades-long Nationalist-Communist Chinese conflict. To the wider world, it may look like an international conflict between two sovereign nations. Yet, in reality, the civil war between Nationalist and Communist forces was only ever put on pause in 1949. To this day, both Taipei and Beijing maintain conflicting claims of legitimacy.
The Taiwanese government has stated that it could not last more than a month against a Communist assault. This forecast emphasizes the importance of international assistance in the event the mainland government makes a move.
Additionally, the R.O.C. armed forces which were once composed mainly of conscripts, are now moving towards an all-volunteer force. Some training remains obligatory in Taiwan, but with a military budget almost one-tenth of the mainland’s, the island is in a precarious position.
The Nationalist Party in Taiwan, descendants of the Kuomintang that led the fight against Japan in WWII, are realists. The Taiwanese government hasn’t seriously considered invading the mainland since the 1970s. Today, the emphasis is on deterring and surviving a potential invasion by the Communists.
But who are the R.O.C. forces who would stand in defense of the virtual fortress country of Taiwan? Who are the special operation counterparts that U.S. Special Forces have been training with, and what are they capable of?
Taiwanese Special Forces of all Shapes and Sizes
For a westerner to understand the R.O.C. Special Forces, first there has to be some understanding of the R.O.C. military.
One significant difference is the R.O.C. Military Police branch. That’s right, I said branch. Like the U.S. and most other countries, Taiwan has an army, air force, and navy.
Yet, the country also has a separate branch for military police, and that branch has its own special forces operators. In fact, even the R.O.C. Coast Guard has special operators.
In total, the island nation has at least five known special operations forces, each with its own unique backstory, history, and mission.
And that doesn’t even count the local police forces with their own SWAT-like units patterned after the National Police Agency’s (NPA) special forces.
Additionally, any defense of Taiwan would involve a “total war” footing. If the Communists were to invade, everyone from local police to construction workers would be pressed into service for defense.
Earliest Taiwan Special Forces
The 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion is the oldest of the R.O.C. Special Forces units. Stood up in 1949 after the Nationalists retreated from mainland China, the 101st was founded with U.S. assistance. They are also the R.O.C. unit shown in the Facebook video posted by the U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Group.
While they belong to the R.O.C. Army, the 101st is operationally similar to the U.S. Navy SEALS. In a callback to the WWII predecessors of the SEALS, they are also known as “Sea Dragon Frogmen.” Their original role was amphibious reconnaissance and stealth missions on the mainland coast, though now they focus on a defensive role.
The members of the 101st qualify through the 15-week “iron-man road” training course. This has an 80 percent failure rate. Training covers such areas as scuba, underwater explosives, survival in the wild, and hand-to-hand combat. The R.O.C. frogmen also specialize in mountain, airborne and amphibious operations.
Prior to entering the longer course, candidates also have to complete a five-day qualification course that tests their physical endurance.
The Taiwanese government recently invested approximately $13 million on equipment and facility upgrades for the frogmen. New forward operating bases on Penghu and Kinmen islands are meant to bolster rapid response capabilities in the Taiwanese Strait.
Response to Terrorism From Taiwan Special Forces
Founded around 1980, the R.O.C. Army has another special forces unit tasked primarily with counterterrorism. The Airborne Special Service Company (ASSC) has a comparable mission to Delta Force.
While little is publicly disclosed about the ASSC, they were recently the alleged target of Communist espionage. Prosecutors in the case alleged that the ASSC is trained both for counterterrorism and defensive counterstrikes against Communist military leaders.
The unit is also known as the Liang Shan Special Operations Company. It is allegedly based out of Pingtung County.
A 2017 report from the R.O.C. Ministry of National Defense discusses ongoing training for defensive operations involving the ASSC. Along with other special forces units, they are part of the Joint Airborne Task Force. The task force is tasked with both homeland defense and airborne infiltration.
Both the ASSC and the 101st were put under the R.O.C. Army’s Aviation and Special Forces Command (ASFC) around 2007. As of 2010, the total troop strength of the ASFC was 9,500, including 300 women. The ASFC also includes the 601st and 602nd Aviation Brigades, the 603rd Aviation Training Command, and the Air Transport Battalion. The elite ASSC is reported to have approximately 150 personnel.
The ROC Marine Corps’ Role in Taiwan Special Forces
The R.O.C. Army has the first amphibious special forces set up by the Nationalist Chinese. Yet, they aren’t the only amphibious Taiwan special forces unit. Founded in 1950, the R.O.C. Marine Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Unit (ARP) is almost as old.
The ARP’s 10-week course has a reported attrition rate of about 77 percent. Dubbed “Paradise Road,” the final test has the R.O.C. Marines crawl 50 meters over rock and coral. It’s so rough that, in 2014, the National Legislature felt the need to clarify that it is “necessary training.” Previously, critics had sought to have the final test labeled among “abusive acts.”
With the transition to the ROC Marine Corps from conscription to volunteer, critics alleged that harsh treatment could discourage recruitment. However, the counterargument stands that the kind of recruits the ARP wants would not be discouraged by a nosebleed.
According to the official ARP Facebook page, the brigade falls under the Special Operations Command of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
In recent years, the R.O.C. Ministry of National Defense has also invested in new training facilities for special operations. Approximately $36 million was earmarked in 2018 for the new training facilities, with the majority going to naval installations. A portion will also go toward a joint training facility for use with the R.O.C. Military Police’s special operators — but more on this unit later.
The new training facilities are expected to be operational in 2022, providing both live-fire and computer-simulated training scenarios. They will focus on amphibious and conventional operations, as well as individual combat skills. Training will include airborne and amphibious insertion, as well as hostage-rescue drills covering air, land, and sea scenarios.
The joint training base will have urban environments, with plans for both R.O.C. Military Police and regular police to train in them.
‘Night Hawks’ in the Taiwan Special Forces
As mentioned above, the R.O.C. Military Police (ROCMP) are their own branch. The military police traces its history to the elite imperial guards of the Chou dynasty. The current branch was founded in 1914 by Sun Yat-sen.
Rather than guarding the emperor, Sun Yat-sen’s military police were tasked with maintaining military discipline. In 1925, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek increased their numbers and used them in purging Communists from the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang is the Nationalist Party of China that originated with Sun Yat-sen and still dominates politics in Taiwan.
During WWII, the military police even served in conventional combat against the Japanese. With the 1946 outbreak of civil war, the military police served a primarily defensive role, guarding government facilities and officials.
In the 1970s, the Nationalists formed a special operations unit within the R.O.C. Military Police in response to global terrorism. The R.O.C. Military Police Special Services Company, also known as the Night Hawks, were established in 1978.
Their mission is primarily counterterrorism and “anti-atrocity,” though they engage in other traditional special operations missions as well. They also train special-service teams for the nation’s police departments.
During times of civil unrest, the Night Hawks have also performed operations related to maintaining public order, according to the ROCMP website. They continue to operate as a protective force for government officials and conduct counter-smuggling operations related to arms and drugs.
The Night Hawks have been deployed for various civil incidents, including a 1987 prison riot.
The Night Hawks have teams that specialize in attack, sniper operations, and explosives. ROCMP members who wish to join the Night Hawks must complete a nine-month training course.
In 2020, the Ministry of National Defense confirmed that the Night Hawks regularly train with Green Berets on U.S. soil. Additionally, the unit has been tasked with training the special forces of other countries.
Taiwan Special Forces of all Stripes
The special operators of the R.O.C. Army, Marines, and Military Police branches are the most readily recognized and discussed. Yet, they are not the only special operators in the country. Both the ROC Coast Guard Administration and the National Police Agency of Taiwan have their own special forces units.
The R.O.C. Coast Guard Administration’s (CGA) Special Task Unit (STU) is the youngest of the nation’s special forces. The unit marked its 10th anniversary in 2010, and at the time had 52 members. While they are stationed at airports around Taiwan, their training includes scuba and underwater skills.
Like the nation’s other special operators, members of the STU train in multiple martial arts. Their initial training includes a three-month course with the ARP and a two-month course with the Night Hawks.
While efforts to form the unit began in 2000, the CGA website states the STU was fully formed in July 2005. The official mission of the STU is counterterrorism in maritime zones.
However, the STU has also participated in drills with other special forces units to counter attacks on the presidential office. The joint training also covered incursions in coastal zones and waterways. One of the primary defensive concerns for Taiwan is a “decapitation” strike by Communist forces. Such a strike would seek to disable the country by taking out senior leaders ahead of an invasion. This has led to increased emphasis on joint operations and training.
SWAT With Benefits
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the R.O.C.’s National Police Agency Special Operations Group (NPASOG), commonly referred to as the Thunder Squad. The unit participates in training with other Taiwan special operations units; this includes anti-decapitation joint training.
Such joint training exercises include both live-fire and simulated exercises intended to secure the nation against a Communist invasion.
The NPA’s special forces are also known as the Wei’an, or Special Security Service Forces. Their missions include counterterrorism, as well as protecting senior leaders and critical infrastructure. That includes protecting nuclear power facilities and border control.
Yet, the Thunder Squad also takes on a role similar to SWAT teams and riot police. Local police units fulfilling that role are also referred to by the Thunder Squad name. The NPASOG supports local police departments in anti-terrorism operations.
The NPASOG is also deployed to areas facing high crime rates in order to help restore order.