Problems Facing Taiwan's Transition to an All-Volunteer Military

3 MINS READJul 30, 2013 | 10:00 GMT
Problems Facing Taiwan's Transition to an All-Volunteer Military
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters hold up bottles of water during an anti-military rally outside the Defense Ministry in Taipei on July 20.

The transition to an all-volunteer force is a prominent part of Taiwan's military modernization efforts. The Republic of China's previous policy of conscripting young citizens for 12 months of service does not meet Taiwan's increasing need for highly trained troops. The issue is all the more pressing as Taiwan revises its defense strategy in the face of a widening gap between the militaries of the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China. Although the transition is an integral part of Taiwan's military modernization efforts, it is increasingly proving problematic. 

Taiwan's drive to attract high-quality recruits for its transition toward an all-volunteer force has experienced a number of problems in recent years, from low recruitment numbers to financial constraints. The death of Cpl. Hung Chung-chiu from heatstroke July 4, allegedly due to excessive exercise as punishment for smuggling a phone into his army base, has only exacerbated the problem. Thousands of demonstrators continue to protest in front of the Ministry of National Defense. President Ma Ying-jeou publicly apologized and Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu resigned.

Mainland China does not have the amphibious capability to forcibly seize Taiwan through landings, but the ever-growing cross-strait imbalance is increasingly worrisome to Taipei, particularly the potential for bombardment or blockade. Taiwan therefore has gradually moved toward relying less on a large standing conventional military and more on an asymmetric strategy that utilizes its significant geographical advantages. By investing heavily in land attack cruise missiles, stealthy fast-attack boats armed with advanced anti-ship missiles, cyber capabilities and anti-submarine aircraft and by bolstering its special operations forces, the Republic of China hopes to maximize the cost effectiveness of its striking power and hold off the People's Liberation Army long enough for the United States to intervene in the event of a conflict. This strategy requires a smaller but dedicated force of very well-trained and motivated soldiers who can competently handle sophisticated equipment in a highly adverse setting.

The Transition to an All-Volunteer Force 

The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense had been exploring a move toward an all-volunteer force as early as 2002, but the military did not launch a serious transition until a few years ago. Numerous constraints have become apparent since the start of the transition. In 2010 for instance, it was announced that for every 10,000 volunteer soldiers, the military would likely have to increase its personnel spending by $1.6 billion annually. The ratio of personnel spending is set to exceed 50 percent of the total defense budget, crowding out acquisition, operations and maintenance spending without a concurrent increase in the overall defense budget.

Recruitment and retention have also become major obstacles to the modernization plan. The military has repeatedly failed to meet its recruitment goals in the past two years, underperforming by one-half in 2011 and one-third in 2012. The recruitment in 2013 is even worse, underperforming by two-thirds so far this year. This underscores the fact that if Taiwan decides to move to a truly all-volunteer force (under current plans young men will still be conscripted for four months of training) a drastic reduction in the size of the military would be required, significantly beyond what is called for by modernization trends.

Several reasons exist for the Taiwanese military's recruitment problems. Even with planned increases, the wages offered to entry-level volunteer soldiers (approximately $1,000 a month) are not competitive with the private sector. Furthermore, military service is not a glorified career choice in Taiwan, especially in comparison to previous decades. When taken together, these two factors ensure that even those soldiers who do join up tend to be of lower quality than desired. The controversy set off by Hung's death will likely exacerbate the issue further.

With the number of conscripts and their length of service decreasing, a tight military budget that is already being stressed by a number of recent acquisitions and an increasing cross-strait imbalance, the Taiwanese military is certainly facing its fair share of obstacles. The transition to a volunteer force is a key component of addressing some of these challenges. Due to mounting constraints, however, the Republic of China may very well have to modify its current transition plans even if it does not fully abandon them.

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