Features | Security | East Asia

Taiwan’s “All-Volunteer” Military: Vision or Nightmare?

Taiwan is trying to shift to an all-volunteer force. Problems lie ahead.

J. Michael Cole

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.

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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.

Aside from having to compete with the private sector, the profession of arms is hardly a glamorous one within Taiwanese society, which means that one’s choice of a military life is often looked down upon. Combined with the relatively low nationalistic sentiment in Taiwan (at least when contrasted with China), the lack of attractiveness means that the individuals the armed forces are likely to attract will not be the highly skilled, educated and motivated soldiers that would ideally join an AVF, but rather those less skilled who are unable to find employment in other sectors. Therefore, only a small percentage will join out of conviction, patriotism and duty to country. This isn’t to say that Taiwanese would not rally around the flag if their country were attacked — they probably would, and there is every indication that general awareness of the Chinese military threat is increasing — but such mobilization would be reactive and would not benefit from the better preparedness that is expected to obtain from a professional military (hence the shortcomings of the four-month basic training).

Another factor that militates against recruitment is the perception held by many that the PLA has become so powerful that resistance would be futile, or that relations between two sides have improved to such an extent that armed conflict has become impossible. While the validity of such beliefs is questionable, this widespread perception inevitably has a negative impact on the image of the military and its desirability as a career choice. Beyond the slick computer-animated ads and cartoon-like figures seen on posters and at recruitment centers, the Taiwanese military will have to do much better at explaining its doctrines to the general population and in rebuilding confidence in its ability to defend the nation. Politically, the government will also have to present a realistic view of the continued threat from China, improved ties notwithstanding. So far, none of this has occurred.

Consequently, Taiwan has failed to meet its recruitment goals. It attracted only 11,000 volunteers from a hoped-for 15,000 in 2012, and half of the 4,000 expected in 2011. There is no indication that the trends are reversing.

The Ministry of National Defense’s Department of Integrated Assessment, which consulted with the U.S. on the matter, has fixed Taiwan’s active force size at 215,000, optimally with a 1:2:2 officer/NCO/soldier ratio. However, referring to what he called a “fluctuated prescribed number of personnel,” Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu has since said that numbers are for reference only, and that the size of the forces will be contingent on the results of recruitment efforts. In other words, no actual benchmark has been set for the actual size of active forces.

York Chen, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council who now teaches at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, told The Diplomat that the only way ahead if a fully AVF system is to be implemented will be “an unstoppable, drastic reduction of force size” — unless Taiwan manages to achieve recruitment rates that are much higher than elsewhere (about 0.9% of the total population of 23 million, versus 0.87% in the U.S. and 0.19% in Japan).

Such numbers, moreover, assume a four-year service term, 50% retention ratio, and a 30% component of female soldiers.

The AVF program also suffers from, and simultaneously exacerbates, the problems caused by the current administration’s inability or unwillingness to increase the defense budget, which now stands at about 2.2% of GDP (312.7 billion NTD, or $10.5 billion). The high costs associated with the program, added to Taiwan’s accrued $18 billion in arms released by the U.S. since 2008, signify that two other important items in the defense budget — operations/maintenance and acquisitions — will suffer. Absent a drastic increase in annual defense spending or the passing of special budgets by the legislature, budgetary tradeoffs will be inevitable.

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But as fixed annual payments for arms acquisitions make it difficult to cut budgets for military procurements, it is likely that the budget for operations and maintenance, which are both crucial for military readiness, will be targeted for cuts, Chen said. Already, between 2009 and 2013, the share of the defense budget for personnel has gone from 40% to a projected 50.1%, while operations has dropped from 30.1% to a projected 22.5%, and investments from 28.4% to a projected 25.9%. Maintenance is of special importance given the advanced service age of a large component of Taiwan’s military equipment. (The author has heard first-hand accounts of units posting guards to prevent other units from cannibalizing spare parts for their equipment.)

As the Ma Ying-jeou administration has no visible exit strategy and remains committed to fulfilling the AVF program in its present form, the issue has become politicized and risks creating rigidities that are not conducive to creative thinking on how to resolve the challenges as they emerge. The ministry has already denied it has retained the option of withdrawing the program and to resume conscription if it fails to attract the necessary number of recruits, although Kao told the legislature last year that amendments to the Act of Military Service contained provisions for reinstating obligatory service when the nation is “under threat.”

Given Taiwan’s circumstances, the best — and perhaps only — option will involve the implementation of a dual-system, with enough flexibility to allow for a viable ratio of conscripts to volunteers. It will also require that a proper length of service (more than four months) for basic training be fixed, with substantial improvements in the quality of training.

Beyond all the issues above, any reduction of the size of Taiwan’s armed forces will have to be accompanied by a shift in its defense strategies to prevent the smaller number of soldiers exacerbating current doctrinal deficiencies. Chief among those requirements is the need to revise doctrines that are still rooted in Cold War ways of waging war — mechanized, army-centric and direct-assault along coastal areas. Resistance to foreign input, especially from U.S. defense officials with substantial combat experience, will also have to cease. Based on discussions with individuals who have spent time in the military, far too often recommendations made by U.S. observers are ignored and go unmentioned in official documents, ostensibly as they would be interpreted as direct criticism of a general’s performance. In many instances, only the most superficial recommendations, those that have no influence on actual combat effectiveness, are ever implemented.

Another problem that will have to be addressed as Taiwan’s military becomes slimmer is the lack of trust between officers, NCOs and soldiers, which tends to paralyze the system and precludes initiative and creativity in emergency situations. This situation is partly the result of Taiwan’s lack of actual combat experience. One small consolation is that the PLA, Taiwan’s principal adversary, is similarly plagued by a lack of combat experience and a heavily top-down approach to conducting operations.

Taiwan needs a slimmer, more modern military to meet the challenges to its security in the 21st century, and efforts in that direction should be welcomed. But the shift must be calibrated to reflect realities on the ground, and must be properly financed and implemented. Anything short of that risks breaking the back of Taiwan’s armed forces.