Argument

Taiwan’s Military Is a Hollow Shell

The end of conscription has left the army critically undermanned.

Taiwanese soldiers run through colored smoke during an exercise at a military base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15.
Taiwanese soldiers run through colored smoke during an exercise at a military base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

As threats of military aggression from China grow, the island nation of Taiwan needs a credible military deterrent more than ever. But Taiwan’s military is in a crisis it can barely admit exists.

Even as the military refits itself with flashy U.S. arms purchases, such as M1 Abrams tanks and F-16V fighter jets, its front-line units are hollowed out, and the entire reserve system is so dysfunctional that few experts or serving military personnel believe it can make a real military contribution in the event of a war. These problems are well documented but continue to be downplayed, if not outright ignored, by Taiwan’s political leadership—and there is no clear plan to solve the crisis.

On paper, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has 215,000 budgeted positions among all branches, of which 188,000 are soldiers and the rest civilian employees. Only 153,000 of those positions were filled in 2018—just 81 percent of the personnel the military should have. But even that number doesn’t tell the complete story.

According to a Taiwanese army lieutenant colonel in active service, who asked for only his last name, Lin, to be used, all the army’s front-line combat units he knows of—including armor, mechanized infantry, and artillery troops—currently have effective manpower levels of between 60 and 80 percent. This figure is consistent with Taiwanese media reports, which cite MND figures provided to Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, acknowledging that few front-line units have more than 80 percent of their positions filled.

“That number might not seem so bad until you realize it means at least a third of your tanks are useless in a war because there’s no one to man them,” said Lin, who most recently served as a battalion commander within one of army’s armor brigades.

The personnel shortfalls are a clear consequence of the ill-executed transition from conscription to an all-volunteer military over the past few years. It was a political decision made during Ma Ying-jeou’s administration and continued by current President Tsai Ing-wen, despite their coming from different parties. And despite Tsai’s tough rhetoric about defending Taiwan during her successful recent reelection bid, and her vow to thwart Chinese aggression, she has shown no sign of stepping in to fix the problems.

Universal conscription is mandated in Article 20 of the Taiwanese Constitution, as in several other countries that face an imminent military threat, such as South Korea or Israel (where women are included but some minorities excluded). For some years, before 2017, the term of conscription service in Taiwan was just a year, which was already short compared with South Korea’s 18-22 months, depending on the military branch, or Israel’s 32 months. Most officers felt that the single year of service wasn’t enough for the military to utilize draftees’ full potential but enough to at least turn a recruit into an average soldier.

But 2017’s changes slashed the conscription period to just four months. Most draftees serve even less, as up to two weeks can be deducted if they’ve completed military training classes in high school and college. The four-month conscripts typically receive five weeks of basic training before they are assigned to field units for more specialty training. But they’re more a burden than an aid, not treated seriously by career or noncommissioned officers as their short stays mean they are seen as guests rather than soldiers.

“By design, they don’t participate in any field exercise or combat readiness training anyway,” Lin said. “We just tell them to stay safe and don’t get into trouble. It’s basically a summer camp.” Several individuals who recently completed this four-month service described similar experiences in interviews.

One of the stated aims of the all-volunteer reform was to professionalize the service, staffing the military’s rank and file with a cadre of career-oriented volunteer soldiers who usually serve a minimum term of four years. Despite MND’s talking point that each year’s recruitment drive always hits the set targets and brings with it a fresh crop of volunteers, the rushed transition to an all-volunteer military has clearly damaged the Taiwanese army’s manpower pool—especially on the front line.

The reason for the hollowing out of front-line troops is simple. Unlike conscripts, who could be assigned entirely based on to the needs of the military, volunteer soldiers among the lower enlisted ranks can and usually do seek transfers to units considered desirable—rear-echelon troops such as training schools, garrison units, signal corps, and so forth. Although transfer opportunities are limited, soldiers almost always find a way. This means that armor, mechanized infantry, and artillery units are always in desperate shortage of enlisted soldiers—even though they are expected to be the ones bearing the brunt of ground fighting against the formidable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground force if it comes ashore.

A popular yet cynical explanation as to why these Taiwanese soldiers dislike front-line units simply postulates a common aversion to tougher training and combat duty. But interviews with several enlisted ranks painted a more complex picture. Most complained that the food and living conditions left much to be desired—front-line soldiers must split their time between bases and on field exercises. That, on top of the fact they have far more weapons, vehicles, and equipment to clean and maintain, means these posts are perceived as more work for little reward. The existing shortages also cause an even heavier burden of work on the soldiers left—prompting more of them to put in for transfers.

Polls show varied public opinion on these issues. In 2015, one legislator cited a poll that showed almost 60 support for a return to conscription. In response, the MND cited another poll that claimed 60 percent were satisfied with the transition to all-volunteer forces. At the end of the day, it all seems to come down to how the question is phrased by the pollsters.

No matter which poll you believe, it is clear that the two successive presidents over the past decade, Ma and Tsai, had little or no political interest in the political hassle of bringing back the longer conscription length, despite the evidence of the damage being done to military readiness. Even Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, who lost in the recent presidential election representing the Kuomintang (KMT) party, also declined to advocate a complete return to conscription but proposed a “hybrid approach” that he did not specify the details for.

Chieh Chung, a senior assistant research fellow at Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation, commented that the personnel shortage is a problem well documented by the military itself but has never entered their calculations. Chung, who has worked for several years in Taiwan’s parliament as a legislative advisor focusing on defense issues, said the military’s own exercises and computer simulations always assume all units would have at least 90 percent fighting strength at the beginning of a war—an assumption that might have been true in the conscription era but is a far cry from reality today.

Several officers who have participated in the computer-simulated phase of the annual Han Kuang exercises in recent years also pointed out this obvious flaw. That raises the question of how many of the Taiwanese military’s simulations of its own ability to hold off a Chinese invasion are based on now purely hypothetical soldiers.

These personnel issues would not be so serious if the military had a functional reserve force. On paper, this enormous reserve force is said to be more than 2 million strong. Once activated, these reservists are supposed to fill existing shortages across regular field units, and reinforce casualties, while creating fresh reserve formations from virtually nothing to bolster overall defense, according to the Reserve Command’s own words.

Just about everything in these talking points is pure fantasy, according to James Huang, a retired army lieutenant colonel who has since become a prolific writer on defense issues and military history, with many followers on Facebook. Huang said there was “no way whatsoever” any of Taiwan’s reserves would reinforce existing field units, despite the proven success of the system elsewhere in the world, especially Israel.

That’s the case regardless of whether the reservist is a conscript with four months’ training or a five-year veteran paratrooper just discharged from the special forces. The established practice of Taiwan’s Reserve Command, according to Huang, is not to send reservists back to their previous units but to lump everyone together into the newly activated reserve infantry brigades that possess no specialty, no vehicles, and no equipment except rifles (often older types) and are led by called-up reservist officers who have little experience commanding such ad hoc units.

In theory, all soldiers and officers (both conscripts and volunteers) are automatically enrolled as reservists on being discharged from active service. They are called up at most once every two years by the Reserve Command to receive refresher training for five to seven days. In practice, such training rarely consists of more than just basic drills and a short practice session at the rifle range. A reservist corporal who was a veteran M60 tank gunner, for example, will be activated only as an infantry rifleman even if one of the army’s active armor brigades has tanks sitting unmanned in the base.

“If we go to war, the soldiers currently on roster are all that we have,” said Lin, the lieutenant colonel, who pointed out that he had never heard of any plan to reinforce units he commanded with reserve soldiers. “At best, they might start combining depleted units. We are supposed to fight until everyone is dead or can’t fight anymore.”

And even if Taiwan somehow manages to muster dozens of fresh reserve infantry brigades before Chinese troops come ashore, Huang said they would be little more than cannon fodder consider how poorly the military has trained them in peacetime and the fact that there is not even a clear plan to fit them into the overall defense strategy.

“Show me 2 million rifles in the stockpile, and I will believe Taiwan has a 2-million-strong reserve force,” Huang said. “The military can’t even tell how many reserve troops they will need to activate across Taiwan, let alone where and how to deploy them when the shooting starts across the Taiwan Strait.”

Other military officers and defense experts confirmed the problems Huang cited. According to Jyun-yi Lee, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a recently created think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s MND: “It’s indeed clear to most of us that Taiwan’s reserve system, as it currently stands, will not contribute much to the military’s fighting strength, if at all. No one is pretending soldiers trained by four-month conscription will be effective. They exist for political, not military, reasons. Politicians don’t want to bring back longer conscription or tougher reserve training, as they fear doing so might make them unpopular.”

To its credit, Taiwan’s MND finally began an experimental “reserve warrior program” in recent years that seeks to put skilled veterans back to their original units for refresher training up to a few days per month. Some 214 veterans were said to have signed up in 2019, which is obviously too low to function as a regular reserve force. The program so far seems to matter more to the air force, as it finally provides a channel for retired military pilots to fly again, according to one air force lieutenant familiar with the matter. So far one F-16 pilot and one C-130 pilot reportedly have signed up for the program.

Former KMT legislator Hsu “Jason” Yu-Jen said U.S. Defense Department officials have privately expressed dismal assessments regarding Taiwan’s current force level and reserve system. Hsu quoted Pentagon officials as saying in 2019 that Taiwan’s buying of new F-16s and M1 Abram tanks by the Tsai administration was a “nice political gesture” yet they will hardly matter in a war when Taiwan cannot even man them properly in peacetime.

But saying the problem out loud is a tough task in itself when both Taiwan’s international allies and the Taiwanese public want to hear a success story more than anything else—especially at a time when China’s propaganda machine is running at full speed to portrait Taiwan’s military as both incompetent and ineffective in the face of the PLA’s rapid expansion and modernization.

“You have to acknowledge the existence of the problems before you can fix them,” said James Huang, who noted that some among the military community object to his outspokenness, though he decided to speak on record for this report anyway. “It’s about time someone starts telling the truth.”

Paul Huang is a freelance journalist and a nonresident fellow with the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. He is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan, where he conducts research into China’s military and global influence operations. 

 Twitter: @PaulHuangReport

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