By Stanley Mitchell
As tension builds over Taiwan, discussions have turned to Taiwan’s defense strategy, while several articles have resurrected the concept of stay behind (SB) forces based on the Cold War doctrine employed in various forms in Western Europe, Iran, and to some degree in the recent Ukraine conflict. However, in this article, we outline the fundamental incompatibility between the Gladio-style SB strategies and the current situation facing Taiwan.
Primarily, Taiwan’s island geography is the root cause of this incompatibility. All historical SB scenarios were based around land wars—whether on the North German plain, across the broad sweep of the Iranian plateau, or the marshes and grassland of Eastern Ukraine.
NATO designed the strategy of SB around the NATO Northern Army Groups (NORTHAG) plans for the North German Plain. Based on the assumed overwhelming force that the Warsaw Pact would deploy in this region, an initial overrun was considered inevitable. The objective, then, of SB forces was to delay the westward progress of Warsaw Pact troops while reinforcements were organized.
In line with their early buildout of special forces, the UK and the United States led the development of the SB concept and supported allies in Western Europe in establishing their own military and paramilitary counterparts. Military SB units had a variety of tasks, from long-range reconnaissance and demolitions to deep infiltration and intelligence gathering. Paramilitary/unconventional SB forces were expected to remain in situ as Warsaw Pact forces advanced past them and form the basis of a resistance network—conducting sabotage and kinetic activities but primarily generating value by performing intelligence-gathering work to direct fire and inform the deployment of NATO forces.
Critically, this strategy relied on a large, contiguous region behind the enemy lines where SB forces could operate. In the case of Taiwan, the analogous backline behind the immediate deployment of Chinese forces is 80 miles of ocean. Without this backline region, asymmetrical resistance activities will occur extremely close to the main concentration of Chinese forces. This proximity neutralizes the ability of SB forces in Taiwan to disrupt supply chains and provide advanced intelligence on force deployment and locations.
The importance of contiguous areas of operation for SB strategies is hard to overstate. Even ignoring the planned extension of SB operations deep into the opposing forces, the cases of NORTHAG (West Germany alone 248,717 km2), the support of the Qashqai in Iran (Fars and Isfahan provinces—229,600 km2), and recent resistance in Ukraine (Eastern Ukraine—242,000 km2), the area in consideration is large, all exceeding 200 sq km, compared to Taiwan with an area of just 36,000 km2. This difference in land area, of almost an order of magnitude, significantly alters the possibilities for any SB force.
In a scenario where Taiwan fails to blunt an attempted Chinese landing and formal Taiwanese military resistance is neutralized, any SB force will be operating in the immediate proximity of Chinese military and police forces. SB forces would be geographically concentrated and without the option of moving into areas of operation before withdrawing into a hinterland or a neighboring country. This concentration places any such operatives at far higher risk of detection and increases the tension between any local paramilitary force and elements of the local population. Fundamentally, Taiwan has very little geographic and strategic depth to buy time in the case of a Chinese invasion.
The final question is what groups within Taiwanese society would form the basis of a Taiwanese Gladio organization. In the European theatre, this was achieved (not without controversy) through the engagement of various far-right and extreme anti-communist elements across Western Europe. Many of these groups were continuations of fascist movements, with an existing motivation to engage in violent resistance. These groups were well placed to benefit from paramilitary training and the supply of arms but were self-motivated to commit to fierce resistance and already, due to their often-criminal nature, operating as clandestine organizations.
In Taiwan, it is hard to identify comparable groups that might be willing to join an SB resistance program. There are groups of ultranationalists involved in criminal and violent activities, which would be ideal candidates were they not generally supporters of the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. The independence movement in Taiwan, in its current form, is a liberal democratic project with diverse beliefs and many who are highly pragmatic in their support for this goal. It is unclear what groups could be prepared for organized violent resistance to a Chinese occupation in advance of a Chinese invasion.
Additionally, the necessary pre-training of civilians to use explosives and weapons is challenging in the Taiwanese context. Although Taiwan is reintroducing mandatory military service of one year from January 2024 and nominally has a reserve force of more than 2 million, experts generally consider the current level of training to be poor. Similarly, in a small but densely populated island, the effective (and safe) pre-emptive caching of weapons and equipment is more challenging than in historical SB scenarios, especially given that gun ownership is highly regulated.
Strategists and analysts should reconsider the value and purpose of SB operations in the context of Taiwan. Historical SB operations were intended to support and amplify the activity of a relatively closely located friendly force and facilitate the flow of operatives. All of this is made exponentially more difficult in an island like Taiwan, where any U.S. lead support or relief force would necessarily have to be transported across large distances by sea or air, and any U.S. conflict with Chinese forces would likely occur at some distance from Taiwan itself.
None of this is to say that aspects of Cold War-style stay-behind strategies could not be utilized effectively as a part of Taiwan’s broader defense strategy, particularly as they apply to military units. But expectations of a Gladio-style operation (even in the most favorable interpretation of that initiative) are a distraction from clear-sighted assessment and planning for the realities of Taiwan’s geographical, strategic, and political situation.
Stanley Mitchell graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master’s degree in Biochemistry, focused on biological computation and systems logic. He has worked across defense and the wider technology space, and has a particular interest in the use of quantitative and qualitative modeling to explore strategic questions.