Bad Timing or an Opportunity: Taiwan’s Military Service System Reform after the Ukrainian War

Written by Ming-Shih, Shen.

Image credit: 04.17 總統慰勉空軍天駒部隊 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Although the Ukrainian war is not yet over, it has already impacted the global strategic environment. In particular, it affects the unity and expansion of the United States, and further, it impacts the operation of NATO in Europe. But changes do not only happen in Western Europe. Because of China’s military expansion, whether China will invade Taiwan like Russia invaded Ukraine, and can Taiwan resist the attacks from China, has also become a critical issue of global media and power. For example, many experts argue China had lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war and accelerated its combat preparations against Taiwan. However, Taiwan may not resist a hypothetical Chinese attack because of its limited military capability.

After the Ukrainian War outbreak, Taiwan’s most prevalent issue was whether or not its current defence power could repel China’s aggression. Moreover, it concerns whether four months of military training can cultivate soldiers to have enough combat capabilities for future mobilisation in the war. And if the four-month training service is not enough, how long does it take to train soldiers with medium to high levels of expertise to meet combat requirements? The Taiwanese government and society are genuinely concerned about these issues, and there have been many discussions on different platforms, but there is no clear conclusion now. Such a situation is mainly affected by social, political and legal factors.

Social background

The military service system is an important link between the military and society. Civilians can participate in the duty of national defence and security through military service, which is also an important growth process for citizens. Because of the participation of draft-age young men, the army’s human power supply is not short, and the defence budget, especially personnel costs, can be saved. However, the disadvantage is that after the shortened service and deducting the normal leave, the one-year service period will reduce the time of combat readiness training because this high technology training needs more time to train and long service in the military. The brief time training, which is only for basic professional needs, cannot be expanded to the complex and high-technology weapon system training. Suppose these soldiers with basic skills retire but still accept the mobilisation training. In that case, they still need extensive training to improve their military operational ability for defence mobilisation.

Especially for young people, although the four-month service period is short, for those who have difficulty to adapt military life in the army, it is still a long time to stay. In particular, the daily logistic service in the military takes up too much time, and it will also make the young soldiers feel that military service wastes their life. If the service time were extended to one year, these young people willing to serve in the military would probably emphasise that the service training must focus on quality, not service time. The argument of insufficient training time for a qualified soldier will be challenged. If there was a hypothetical restoration of yearly military service (but if problems and shortcomings of the past cannot be effectively improved), various issues such as abusive soldiers cases might reoccur. No matter which party is ruling neither would like to see such incidents happen.

Political Factors

In considering defence security threats and social factors in the reform of the military service system, it is important to ensure that the law will be amended smoothly through political negotiations and consultations with opposition parties, and the people and society will also support the final result. Although the military service system reform was nominally completed during the presidency of former President Ma Ying-jeou, it was only achieved gradually due to the difficulty of achieving it in short term. It was not fully implemented until after Ma left office and President Tsai Ing-wen took office. The Kuomintang’s delay in the military service system has political or electoral considerations; similarly, the DPP’s formal implementation of the military service system cannot avoid the same considerations as Kuomintang. [1] Furthermore, if the yearly conscription system is to be resumed, the ruling party must examine whether such policy interest is still present in deciding to implement the all-volunteer system fully. Of course, if it returns to the conscription system, the ruling party will calculate the votes lost from the young generations.

If it is the case that Taiwan faces an urgent threat to its defence security and thus needs to change the military service system, then the government must create a detailed policy statement. This would prove that extending the one-year time can effectively strengthen mobilisation and combat readiness, or how many troops can be increased to defend against China’s aggression. Otherwise, after political manipulation, the issue of the military service system may become a hot topic in the election, and the political considerations will overwhelm the discussions of the national defence and military professions.

Legal Restrictions

Since former President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, he began to plan the reform of the military service system, attempting to change the original compulsory service to an all-volunteer service system. However, it also involves legal amendments, especially the change of the Constitution. It is stipulated in the Constitution that citizens have an obligation to perform military service. Therefore, the Constitution must be amended first if the military service system is changed to a voluntary one. In Taiwan, the procedure for amending the Constitution is overly complicated, so the Kuomintang amended the law and added four months of military training service to the military service law. However, since Taiwan still faces China’s huge military threats, the amendment also retains the provisions for returning to the conscription system, which is limited to one year only.

In other words, if Taiwan wants to change the military service system, it can first confirm that the country is in a state of emergency. For example, this would be being on the verge of war. In such a situation, the government would directly announce that the service period would be restored from four months to the one-year model in 2008. However, if the service period is to be changed to more than one year, it must go through the process of amending the law again. In terms of the ecology of the Legislative Yuan, with such a critical proposal, the opposition party will inevitably use various political ways, such as requesting public hearings and street demonstrations, to expand its political effect and win the support of young voters. Therefore, even if the amendment is passed, it may not be implemented immediately.

Future policy development

The issue of Taiwan’s military service reform involves social, political, and legal factors, and it is not easy to decide in a simple manner. If society does not accept the reform, the interests of mobilising social power into national defence will be compromised. Moreover, if it is reckless in political operations, it may affect the extent of parties’ support; and too much adherence to legal provisions cannot balance the political factor and defence requirements. Therefore, one must first clarify the purpose and priority of the future reform of Taiwan’s military service system.

It is obvious that given the gap in the size of the armed forces between Taiwan and China, Taiwan’s existing standing troops are far from sufficient., At least three to five times the size of the existing force is required to supplement the force to attain an advantage in defending Taiwan.

According to the lessons from the Ukraine war, reserve mobilisation and training are critical issues for Taiwanese defence. Therefore, the system and the training of mobilisation and reserve forces are especially important. If the four-month training cannot be changed for assorted reasons, the training objects should be placed on the basic combat expertise required for future mobilisation needs. Every reserve soldier must know what his real combat expertise is and which unit he will report to in the future. Coupled with a fixed two-week training yearly, it will maintain reserve soldiers’ combat capability in the war.

Similarly, if the service time can be extended to one year, training these soldiers’ middle and senior expertise and combat practice should be strengthened. Then, in future operations, they should be mobilised to join the standing army or enter the coast defence bridges. This can not only maintain sufficient troops to fight but also help to improve the existing operational capability.

The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war is a reality check for Taiwan. Because Ukraine’s defensive posture is just like Taiwan’s, it also needs to mobilise reserve soldiers on the battlefield to defend its homeland. The professional performance of Ukraine reserve soldiers has stimulated Taiwan to start the reform of the defence mobilisation system. If it is necessary to improve combat power by extending the time of military service, Taiwan should act boldly without worrying too much about political factors. After all, national defence and security are the consensus of all Taiwanese. Therefore, the people and society, in general, will accept the defence system and policy reform.

[1] In 1954, the duty of the standing army was 2 years and 3 years in the navy and air force. In 1996, the army, navy and air force were changed to 22 months. In 2004, it was changed to 20 months; in 2006, it was changed to 18 months. In 2008, change to only 12 months. Although the Taiwan Strait Crisis broke out in 1996, due to internal political factors, the political parties regard reducing the length of service as their main political thinking.

Dr Ming-Shih, Shen is the Research Fellow and Director of the Division of National Security Research and Acting Deputy CEO of the Institute for National Defence Security Research.

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

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