Features | Security | East Asia

Is Taiwan’s Military Becoming Too Small to Fight?

With conscription ending and budgets limited, Taiwan may have to make do with a smaller defense force.

J. Michael Cole
Is Taiwan’s Military Becoming Too Small to Fight?
Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

As the gap in military capabilities between Taiwan and China continues to widen, talk of a substantial active forces reduction by Taipei is once again fueling speculation that the island may have given up on defense, perhaps after concluding that resistance is futile and unification inevitable. Is such a decision, occurring while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to enjoy double-digit budget growth, confirmation that Taipei is ready to capitulate, or is it part of a plan to maximize the return on stagnant defense expenditures and ensure excellence among volunteer soldiers?

It all starts with the “Jingtsui Program,” an effort initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou soon after his election in 2008 to phase out conscription and create an all-volunteer military. Under initial plans, conscription, which accounted for approximately one-third of the total active force, was to cease by 2014. However, because of an inability to meet recruitment goals (total recruitment for 2013 was less than one-third of its target of 28,000, with only 8,600 people signing up in the first 11 months), implementation of the program has been delayed twice, and a complete phasing out of the conscription system is now set for 2017.

Along with ending conscription, a policy that had the support of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, the total force was to be streamlined to reflect changing demographics, financial pressures, and an evolving threat environment. According to the National Defense Report 2013, the initial program foresaw a reduction in personnel for the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces from 275,000 to 215,000 by the end of 2014, a ratio of 0.9 percent of Taiwan’s population of approximately 23 million.

Then, as efforts to end conscription encountered headwinds, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced in early 2014 that its new goal was to further reduce total forces from 215,000 to between 170,000 and 190,000, or 0.8 percent of the population, from 2015 through 2019, with personnel cuts affecting all services of the military. “The planned manpower adjustment will be carried out in stages,” Minister of National Yen Ming said at the time, adding that it would be “contingent upon the government’s budgets, that the acquisition of new weapons, and demographic changes.” Yen confirmed the goal during a scheduled report to the Legislative Yuan on March 6. (Meeting former U.S. Pacific Command commander Robert Willard on February 13, Ma said that a ratio of 0.6 to 0.7 percent of the population, or 143,000 and 167,000 forces, would be sufficient to ensure national defense, but subsequent reports indicate that the president got his numbers wrong, with MND confirming that it was still seeking a ratio of 0.8 percent.)

Despite reports by some international media outlets that the additional cutbacks were “the latest sign of warming ties with former rival China,” the new goal has little to do with cross-strait politics — which remain extremely contentious, with unification an unappealing outcome — and is rather the result of budgetary constraints and continued difficulties in attracting recruits.

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Relatively low pay and a scandal in July 2013 over the death of an Army conscript, along with poor public perceptions of the armed forces as a respectable career choice and the view, shared by some, that China will eventually take over Taiwan through economic means alone, have undermined the MND’s efforts to attract recruits under the program.

To address the matter, the Executive Yuan in late 2013 announced an increase in wages and benefits for volunteer soldiers. Consequently, from January 1, 2014, the monthly pay for noncommissioned officers (NCO) and enlisted soldiers went up by as much as NT$4,000 (US$133). As such, basic non-combat duty has risen from NT$29,625 to NT$33,625. (By comparison, the starting salary for a Taiwanese with a postgraduate degree in 2013 was a little over NT$31,000 per month.) With additional adjustments in monthly bonuses for service on outlying islands and combat duty, the pay increase can be a rather generous one. For example, a volunteer private serving in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands in the South China Sea will receive an additional NT$20,000 in pay, for a total salary of NT$53,625, or US$1,784, per month. Taiwan hopes those incentives will encourage more men — and women, who currently account for just about 10 percent of military personnel — to enlist.

Efforts to boost enlistment levels occur at a time when Taiwan’s military must pay for as much as US$16 billion in arms acquisitions released from the U.S. since 2008, and as the defense budget remains set at approximately 2.2 percent of GDP (about US$10 billion), short of the goal of 3 percent promised by Ma back in 2008. Stagnant economic growth during the same period has also undermined investment in the military, as state funds are instead directed towards projects aimed at reviving the economy.

The increased wages and benefits offered starting in 2014, along with the substantial costs associated with ending conscription, are further straining the military budget. Consequently, barring a substantial — and at this point unlikely — increase in annual defense spending, the bean counters at MND may have concluded that they must cut somewhere. Besides a necessary refocus on domestic arms production and a lack of enthusiasm for expensive foreign defense procurements, another way to save money is to reduce the size of the active force, a decision that probably wasn’t too difficult to arrive at, given the high likelihood that the military won’t meet its recruitment quotas by 2017 anyway.

A decision to downsize Taiwan’s forces may also be related to shifting perceptions in how to best counter the PLA, with which the island cannot afford to engage in an arms race. Beijing’s declared military budget for 2014 has been set at 808.23 billion yuan, or $131.57 billion, which, though accounting for less than 1.5 percent of China’s GDP, is at least 13 times that of Taiwan and possibly more, given the undeclared components of China’s total expenditure.

Having abandoned hopes for a symmetrical arms race with Beijing, in recent years Taiwan’s military instead took its first tentative steps toward creating a leaner but stronger deterrent through force modernization and the introduction of innovative and asymmetrical capabilities. If done properly, ongoing force restructuring efforts could accommodate both a reduction in the number of active forces and the ability to counter an attack from China. (Optimistic estimates based on Taiwanese computer wargames set the island’s ability to do so at between 21 and 30 days)

In other words, size isn’t all, and a force reduction shouldn’t necessarily be construed by the U.S., Taiwan’s main security guarantor, as a sign that it has given up on defending itself against external aggression. In fact, longstanding problems with combat preparedness and perennial resistance to change in the Taiwanese military suggest that smaller might be better. Accounts by Taiwanese who have recently undergone training have raised serious questions about soldiers’ ability to perform under fire, while problems with the state of readiness and serviceability of various military platforms have been identified. In theory, a streamlining of forces, accompanied by equipment modernization, could therefore help remedy some of those problems, resulting in a smaller but more combat capable military.

According to Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, the manpower issue is not the most crucial facing Taiwan.

“While the cuts in manpower don’t help, I’m not sure I’d see them as the heart of the issue,” O’Hanlon, author of The Science of War: Defense Budgeting, Military Technology, Logistics, and Combat Outcomes, told The Diplomat. “Being able to survive Chinese attacks on command and control and being able to reinforce during a crisis/conflict are probably higher priorities.”

Taiwan’s ability to do so is contingent on a number of variables, O’Hanlon said, including a properly trained reserve force.

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“If reservists had adquate readiness, that could also compensate [for the force reductions], since a well-prepared reserve force is naturally already positioned around the island and that could help fend off an assault as well.”

Taiwan’s force adjustment program calls for “streamlin[ing] the regular force and extensively build the reserve force,” with the latter serving to “defend the homeland” during holstilities. Under reform efforts, since 2013 young men who were born after 1994 must still undergo four months — down from 12 months in recent years — of military training as their regular service. After completing their basic training, the servicemen are added to the reserve mobilization system, which according to The Military Balance 2013 counts approximately 1.6 million reservists. In addition to their basic training, reservists are mustered every two years for military drills to maintain their basic combat skills. Unless dramatic changes are implemented in the basic training system, however, the four months and occasional exercises will be largely insufficient to meet the standards presumably expected by O’Hanlon. Getting the reserve right will therefore be crucial to the success of military reorganization. So far, there is little indication that that appropriate changes have been implemented, and young men who recently completed their four months are rather unenthusiastic about their ability to perform in a combat environment.

Besides reservists, survivable airfields and “adequate stocks of antiship missiles that can be fired from different platforms including helicopters and small patrol boats and coastal batteries would help too,” O’Hanlon said, adding that “one could even imagine mining approaches to beaches with ‘smart mines’ that could be activated in a crisis” involving a PLA amphibious assault.

At this point, there is no strong evidence to suggest that Taipei has given up on defense, even as the current administration seeks to improve relations with Beijing. Rather, the current financial context and unforeseen problems with recruitment, along with institutional inertia, are forcing MND to make difficult choices. With a reinstatement of the compulsory system a political non-starter, Taiwan will have to make do with a smaller force.

If the program is mishandled, the result could be catastrophic for Taiwan, leaving the island incapable of defending itself against an increasingly proficient PLA which, according to the National Defense Report, is expected to be in a position to launch an invasion of Taiwan by 2020. (One of the drafters of the report told this author that the date was referential rather than a definitive assessment.)

Worryingly, politics, rather than decisions directly related to military affairs, could interfere and complicate military reform. Public reactions to the surprisingly lenient sentences given on March 7 to thirteen of the 18 defendants over the death of corporal Hung Chung-chiu, the aforementioned conscript who died as the result of abuse in early July 2013, could exacerbate the military’s inability to recruit soldiers by further eroding confidence in military justice and soldiers’ safety. Already, two large protests, one attracting as many as a 250,000 people, have been held over the unexplained deaths of Hung and dozens of other soldiers. Properly handling the controversy (prosecutors are now appealing the ruling) and the political repercussions could therefore be just as important as other aspects of military reform.

Conversely, the prevailing conditions that militate against an optimal force structure for Taiwan will not necessarily continue indefinitely. Future developments in the Taiwan Strait — from an increasingly assertive Chinese military to greater friction as the political differences between the two sides remain intractable — could generate a “rally round the flag” phenomenon by boosting the sense of nationalism among Taiwanese, which in turn could translate into greater desire to serve in the armed forces and wider support for a boost in defense expenditure. While such a scenario might seem unlikely to observers who have long questioned the martial spirit of Taiwanese (who are often contrasted, somewhat unfairly, with Israelis, from whom the existential threat is a lot more than an abstract concept), the situation could change if China crosses certain lines, as it inevitably will once it starts losing patience with Taiwan on the “reunification” issue.

Given this, getting military reform right and tackling the formidable challenges that stand in the way is absolutely essential if Taiwan is to maintain its way of life. Failure risks breaking Taiwan at the knees and the resulting weakness could serve as an invitation for China to resolve the matter once and for all — with force.