Taiwan’s Security in Light of the Ukraine War: Military Manpower and Asymmetric Defence

Written by Tzu-yun Su.

Image credit: Zhongzheng District Military Reserves’ Counseling Center, Taipei City Reserve Command by Solomon203/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

This article will describe the Chinese threat and the key points on which Taiwan’s military readiness must focus, including a budget, asymmetric warfare options, and reform of the military service system.

As Leon Trotsky said, “You’re not interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine abruptly awoken the NATO and EU, and the tragic reality of the war made distant countries in Asia feel threatened and worried that “today’s Russia is tomorrow’s China”.

Indeed, the fear that Beijing’s military action against its neighbours, especially Taiwan, might come true. But on the other hand, Kyiv’s display of courage reminds us that democracy and freedom need to be militarily protected at all costs.

Taiwan is actually luckier than Ukraine for a few reasons. First, Ukraine and Taiwan have different battlefield environments, one is a land battlefield, and the other is a maritime battlefield. The enemy must cross the ocean for amphibious assault, so Taiwan has a better chance of defending itself. Another factor of Taiwan’s survival is maintaining sea lane security, communication between Europe and Northeast Asia, and nurturing civilised competition between democracy and autocracy. 

In Taiwan, public opinion polls also show a 70+% willingness to go to the battlefield to protect Taiwan and support the restoration of conscription, both of which are mature attitudes of civil society.

Current Status of Taiwan’s Military Manpower and Service

All-Volunteer Army

In 2018, Taiwan reformed its military by adopting an all-volunteer army with a strength of 169,000. The purpose of the all-volunteer military is to increase the army’s professionalism. Five years of service by volunteer soldiers provides a complete experience, reduces training costs, and creates a stable organisational culture and operational effectiveness.

Short-term military service (military training)

The male citizen receives four months of military training, about 85,000 per year, and is discharged from the military as a reservist. Referring to the planning of most countries, for example, the basic training of the United States is ten weeks, and Switzerland is 18 weeks, so Taiwan’s 16 weeks of military training can be said to be sufficient. However, there must be a complete retraining system to support it.

Reserve Forces

According to public data, Taiwan has a reserve force of about 2.3 million people. However, younger people are selected as the main reserve group for the army of about 760,000 people. Furthermore, an average of 260,000 people have trained annually. These men will form twelve brigade-level units to serve as a homeland defence force during wartime and supplement the loss of active troops.

This was a reasonable scenario, but in light of the changing threat from China and the fact that a war would be a quick surprise operation, the military manpower plan would have to be adjusted.

Increased Threat from China

China’s military threats are the most urgent factor, which has the potential to conduct large-scale landings or airlifts in Taiwan, with increased projection capabilities both at sea and in the air. This means that China has a “non-linear” landing potential. Moreover, it can launch simultaneous three-dimensional landings, sending a portion of the army to Taiwan despite significant losses, or even airborne in deep areas, so the size of Taiwan’s active military will have to increase to offset this threat.

The main issue is China’s force projection capability. We can look at a country’s projection capability in both maritime and air components. And since the distance between China and Taiwan is relatively close, the PLA’s helicopter fleet can also be included. Specifically, the Chinese Navy’s 075 landing helicopter assault ships, type 071 amphibious assault transport dock ships, and type 072 landing ships are the main fleets for field landings. The other ships include the “merchant fleet” defence mobilisation ships, especially the sixty or so Ro-Ro ships, which can seize the port and carry out “administrative disembarkation” to send heavy equipment ashore. The air force includes the Y-8/9 series and the newer Y-20 transport aircraft for airborne operations, while the army has nearly 1,000 helicopters for airborne operations. This is indeed a strengthening of the PLA’s trimphibious assault capability than before.

Insufficient volunteer manpower

Meanwhile, the demographic structure of Taiwan is changing, and the birth-rate is gradually decreasing. According to Taiwan’s population pyramid, there will probably only be 120,000 new-borns each year in the future and only about 60,000 male service men each year, competing for manpower with the police, military academies, firefighters, marine patrol, and industry.

This is especially true in modern democracies, where people choose to live a free lifestyle and are less willing to join the armed forces. This is also the main reason countries in Europe, such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Israel, which have smaller populations, keep their military recruitment. Therefore, Taiwan’s main option will be the main option to reinstate the draft.

Taiwan’s Defence Doctrine: Overall Defence Costs 

The core of asymmetric warfare can be described as asymmetric cost. Taiwan is an island nation, and the invading enemy must conduct amphibious attacks. It is the most vulnerable during the sea crossing stage, so the priority option for the defence is to sink the enemy’s fleet. Therefore, the most effective priority is to deploy many anti-shipping missiles ashore.

Taiwan’s defence resources are indeed limited, and China’s defence budget, up to CNY 1.46 trillion in 2022 (equivalent to USD 229.5 billion), is 17 times higher than Taiwan’s. Therefore, a defence circle composed of air and anti-shipping missiles will allow Taiwan to obtain limited air and sea control at an exceptionally low cost and form an area denial to resist invasion.

At the same time, the strengthening of ground defence must also be considered, which involves increasing the length of volunteer service to expand the size of the army to offset enemy forces that penetrate the air and sea defence to land and improve the resilience of Taiwan’s security. Therefore, considering the overall cost of protection and operational effectiveness, Taiwan can withstand the massive Chinese PLA and create the story of weak win wars.

Reform of the military manpower system

And the military manpower system should be reformed. In fact, according to Taiwan’s constitution, there is an obligation to serve in the military. Moreover, the “Act of military service system” at the common law level provides for “four months of training service” and “one year of active service” by the conscription age. This means that the government is legally authorised to reinstate one year of military service. Therefore, considering the PLA’s threat and Taiwan’s defence cost, Taiwan’s military manpower system should be reformed. 

The main approach to reform is to expand the training of the reserve forces, increasing the scale and duration of training to improve readiness for war. The second is the resumption of enlistment for nine months or one year. The balance between national security needs and national career planning is the same as the military service system in Sweden and Norway, and a one-year military service in Taiwan would be a balance point.

In addition, the author believes that a more promising system is the “volunteer reserve force”, just like the U.S. national guard system and the British National Association’s volunteer reserve force. The participants would receive two weekends of training every month, which can maintain a defence force with a high degree of will to fight with less money. Moreover, there are already mature volunteer police and volunteer fire-fighting systems as the basis for developing a volunteer reserve force.

All of this will help improve Taiwan’s defence toughness and resilience. Indeed, having precision ammunition to stop enemy landings and more military manpower to destroy the small number of enemy forces that do come ashore will give Taiwan a better chance of winning and contribute to the civilised competition between authoritarian and democratic systems.

As a result of the war in Ukraine, Taiwan’s security has gained more attention and support. So naturally, any assistance in democratic defence is welcome in Taiwan. But honestly, Taiwan’s defence plan is designed for the worst-case scenario: to defend itself alone without foreign military aid. That is to say, with military investment projects and manpower system reform, the island can effectively build asymmetric capabilities to improve defence capabilities. This will have a better chance of defeating the invaders and establishing Taiwan’s security.

Tzu-yun Su is a Research Fellow and Director of Division of Defense Strategy & Resource at INDSR.

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

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