As the young soldiers lined up along the coast at the crack of dawn, moments before rocket systems, main battle tanks and combat aircraft pulverized imaginary targets out at sea as part of the annual Han Kuang military exercises, it was impossible not to wonder how Taiwan’s military would fare in the advent of a real invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Would they offer stiff resistance, fight bravely and efficiently, or would they surrender in the face of a much more powerful and zealous adversary?
According to the Taiwanese government, force modernization — a leaner, smaller, more professional and tech-savvy military — is the answer to the country’s future defense needs. The main pillar of this transformation is Taipei’s multi-year program to drop mandatory military service and shift to an all-volunteer force (AVF). Under current plans, by early 2015 the armed forces should be composed of 176,000 volunteers, from the 235,000 volunteers and conscripts at present, for a total active duty force of 215,000 (from 270,000).
The challenges Taiwan faces in making a successful transition – and in building a leaner and meaner military that can pose a credible deterrent to China – are many. They range from the nature of the threat, an aging society, social perceptions, budgetary constraints and a resistance to change within the ranks. The government’s ability to square the circle on these issues will not only be crucial to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, but will also affect how its principal security partner, the U.S., regards its small ally. Occurring at a time when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has perhaps irreversibly shifted in Beijing’s favor, any mishandling of the quantitative and qualitative move toward an AVF system could be catastrophic to Taiwan’s military, and must therefore be handled with the utmost care and foresight.
It should be stated from the outset that, as it is understood in the U.S. or the U.K, Taiwan’s envisioned AVF system is a misnomer and will remain so as long as the constitution hasn’t been amended. That is because while the policy focus is on recruitment of volunteers, young males of service age will continue to complete a mandatory four months of basic training, which has gone down from 12 months at present and 24 months at its height. According to critics, those four months are insufficient to provide those who undergo training with the necessary skills to be able to take up arms in the defense of their country. They are the result of a series of “reduction of service term” decisions, initially taken when a downsizing military was no longer capable of assimilating the large numbers of conscripts, brought to an extreme and making little sense in an era of low birth rates and ageing population. The numbers speak for themselves: while the 18-year old male population for the 2000 class conscription, or those born in 1982, was 209,457; it will be 129,537 in 2020 and just 87,213 in 2028.
With boot camp failing to ensure combat readiness, success in attracting professional soldiers who are better educated and dedicated to serving their country becomes essential. And that is where Taiwan has run into difficulties.
One main issue is the low wage offered entry-level volunteers, which stands at 29,625 New Taiwan dollars ($1,000) per month, plus extras for combat arms. Such salaries, even with a recent increase, cannot compete with those offered for comparable levels in the private sector, and this does not even take into account the numerous discomforts associated with the life of a soldier, including the personal safety risks, constant transfers and distance from families.