Ukraine War and Conscripts: Lessons Taiwan Should Not Learn

Written by Shih-Yueh Yang.

Image credit: public domain.

Amid the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022, tensions across the Taiwan Strait arose. The fear of an invasion from the Chinese mainland drove the island’s army to prolong its “educational recall” for reserved conscripts from 7 to 14 days every year. 4 months of military training is required currently. Still, a return of 1-year mandatory military service is considered. In this regard, Ukraine’s successful defence against Russian aggression is well received as an example for Taiwan. Highly motivated soldiers armed with shoulder-launched missiles and rockets are taken as an economic way to fight a much stronger opponent. Nevertheless, with all due respect, these are exactly the lessons not to learn for Taiwan.

First of all, the “success” of Ukraine is mostly the result of the poor readiness of the Russian military. They are short of manpower, training, supply, and modern equipment. Most of the invasion forces are essentially an army of the 1980s, with some slightly upgraded. Some of the best anti-tank weapons in the 1980s utterly outclassed Russian armoured vehicles, let alone those novel systems like NLAW and Javelin. Russians only have a handful of the newest T-90M tanks. However, these are still inferior to the contemporary Western tanks, which are equipped with active protection systems that can shoot down incoming projectiles.

The Russian air forces are also ill-equipped. They may have a large fleet of modern fighter aircraft. However, they are armed largely with unguided munitions, which are only accurate at low-altitude bombings. Thus, they fall prey to shoulder-launched anti-air missiles, which are useful only against low flying targets. Furthermore, Russian air forces merely fly around 200 sorties a day, much less than the 2000+ sorties a day performed by the allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War. A large-scale air campaign is very luxurious, and Russia’s economy simply cannot afford it.

Secondly, the combat effectiveness of Ukraine soldiers cannot be easily reproduced in Taiwan by conscription. A good foot soldier requires a strong body to carry heavy loads while conducting battlefield manoeuvres. The basic gear of a modern soldier often weighs around 40 kg, and those powerful shoulder-launched weapons weigh some extra 20 kg. Most of the Taiwanese younger generation are not suitable for this. They are already familiar with the easy life in air-conditioned offices and classrooms and have little outdoor experience in hard physical labour. For example, construction workers in Taiwan are largely foreign labourers, while local youths would rather work in convenience stores. They are not mentally prepared either. Killing is not easy. A good fighter needs aggressiveness and bravery, but Taiwanese youngsters are mostly kind and polite because of Taiwan’s traditional Confucian culture, which praises harmony rather than conflict within a society. The homicide rate is about 0.8 in Taiwan but 6.2 in Ukraine.

Training can transform sheep into lions but takes time. Difficult and dangerous drills are also required. Not to mention those trained skills have to be maintained through repeated recalls every year, and those reserves need to be mobilized in advance of wars. These will render conscription much more expansive and less effective than it appears. Ukraine’s defence is a failure in this regard. Suppose the Russians were to concentrate their forces in the eastern part of Ukraine from the start of hostility. In that case, Ukraine might lose its entire region east of the river bend of the Dnepr before any significant number of its reserves could join the fight. Even though the Russians suffered heavy losses, a considerable portion of Ukraine’s territory, nearly twice the size of Taiwan, was also ruined. Reserves, as mentioned, are foot infantry. They cannot hold a defensive line without the support of heavy weaponry.  They thus have to allow the enemy to drive straight in and then ambush the enemy’s exposed logistical tail, making the defender’s own homeland battlefield.

Lastly, morale is crucial to conscripts but exactly the Achilles’ heel of Taiwan. Polls from various institutions largely show that most Taiwanese are unwilling to fight in a possible war. War in Ukraine might boost Taiwanese resolve on paper, but how many people will fight when the first wave of missiles explore is highly doubtful. Fighting is different from answering a questionnaire, and Taiwanese netizens are criticized as “keyboard warriors” even by themselves. Their courage is found only in the virtual world. The rise of individualism in modern society provides a partial explanation. Indolence is human nature, and it is easier to talk than die. Yet, the main reason for Taiwan’s lack of fighting spirit is the distorted identities. Who are we? For what are we fighting? Without a true consensus, it is impossible to unite the people.

There is a steady increase in pure Taiwanese identity, but this is far from unanimity and cannot be the source of firm resistance. In any case, people have little incentive to fight for a reality that is at odds with their own ideal, nor for an uncertain future at the cost of their own lives. This distortion is largely the product of the de-Sinicization in education by pro-independence groups. As they gained more power from the votes of those de-Sinicized youths, they pushed for an even tougher de-Sinicization in education. They are pursuing oppressive solidarity based on a relative majority, nothing but a cultural ethnic-cleansing in the form of democracy. If forced learning of mandarin among the Mongolian children is the tyranny of the Beijing regime, it is also the crime of the Tsai regime to teach the Taiwanese students to despise and hate their ancestors.

Taiwan is certainly not ruled by Beijing, but this does not hinder the fact that Taiwan is still a part of China, the Republic of China. Most Taiwanese are essentially Chinese in terms of lineages, languages, customs, and religions, and China has always been a historical and cultural concept, different from today’s communist state. By preserving the Chinese identity, Taiwan can mitigate its political differences with the Mainland and thus be the sustenance of the whole Chinese people for a free, democratic, and equally prosperous China. With such a great and just cause for the future of the Chinese nation, Taiwan will get its strongest defence, and the danger of wars will also be minimized in the first place.

Shih-Yueh Yang is a Professor at the Department of International Affairs and Business, Nanhua University, Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Military Conscription”.

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