A Facebook photo shakes up Taiwan’s military establishment

The photo of television personality Janet Lee sitting in an Apache helicopter cockpit posted on her Facebook page unleashed a scandal that has reverberated to the very top of Taiwan’s military hierarchy. At the heart of the incident was the unauthorised visit of 26 civilians to a restricted military base at Longtan in northern Taiwan.

DN Taiwan Apache

The Facebook photo that started it all! Janet Lee posted this picture of herself in an Apache cockpit. (Photo: Facebook)

Lt Col Lao Nai-cheng, deputy squadron leader of the 601st Aviation Brigade, brought the group onto the base on 29 March. The tour included a Japanese national and five Southeast Asian domestic helpers. It emerged that Lao, a qualified Apache pilot, also wore a helmet-mounted display, a controlled item, to a private Halloween party last October.

Lao, who is also Longtan base’s head information security officer, was given two major demerits and will be forced to retire within a year. Civilian prosecutors will press charges against him for violating the Classified National Security Information Protection Act and the Criminal Code of the Armed Forces.

The 601st Aviation Brigade is part of the elite Aviation and Special Forces Command (ASFC) of the Republic of China Army. The ASFC operates all army aviation assets, including the fleets of Boeing AH-64E Apache and Bell AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters.

On 7 April 2015, Defence Minister Kao Kuan-chi apologised for this security breach that tarnished the army’s reputation. He ordered an island-wide review of military discipline to avoid similar future occurrences. Kao tendered his resignation but President Ma Ying-jeou requested he stay on to maintain discipline in the armed forces.

Photographs of Apache cockpits are not particularly sensitive, as the US Army allows them, but what is embarrassing is the apparent lax discipline. It is particularly untimely because Taiwan is seeking to axe conscription and boost recruitment for an all-volunteer force by 1 January 2017. The military’s professionalism had been lauded as a drawcard, and Ma was ‘highly concerned’ about this ‘serious blow to the military’s image’.

The commander of the 601st Aviation Brigade, Maj Gen Chien Tsung-yuan, was also removed from his post after it was discovered he conducted a similar tour earlier this year. The ASFC commander, Lt Gen Chen Chien-tsai, was also removed from his post. Chief of General Staff Yen Teh-fa and Army Commander Gen Chiu Kuo-cheng were also given demerits because their ‘lack of supervision’ contributed to a compromise in military security. In all, at least 20 officers are being punished.

National security is a sensitive topic for Taiwan, with several recent high-profile cases of espionage on behalf of China. For example, in January this year, four officers implicated in a Chinese spy ring were indicted for attempting to gather data on Taiwan’s early-warning radar.

The USA is cautious about sharing some of its most sensitive technologies with Taiwan over fears that some of it may end up in Chinese hands. However, Mark Zimmer, spokesman for the American Institute in Taiwan (the USA’s de facto embassy in Taiwan), said, ‘We’re watching the investigation,’ before adding there is no significant change in relations between Taiwan and the USA.

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