Snap Insight: Taiwan's military faces more than a recruitment problem
Until shortfalls in training, equipping and strategy are adequately addressed, questions remain over how credible a defence Taiwan’s military can mount, says defence writer Mike Yeo.
MELBOURNE: Taiwan’s decision on Tuesday (Dec 27) to extend its mandatory military service to one year, reversing a decision taken by its previous government, is acknowledgement that the ramifications of what was a political decision are coming home to roost.
Announcing the decision, President Tsai Ing-wen acknowledged that "the current four-month military service is not enough to meet the fast and ever-changing situation" with China's "intimidation and threats against Taiwan are getting more obvious".
The length of service for Taiwanese conscripts was shortened from one year to four months by former president Ma Ying-jeou in 2013, who had plans for Taiwan to transition to an all-volunteer force despite China’s military already strengthening drastically at the time.
Since then, Taiwan’s military has struggled to meet recruitment targets, with its armed forces having 162,000 soldiers in its ranks as of June this year - 7,000 short of its target. This has been blamed in part due to a declining birth rate, although the reluctance of its youth to pursue a military career has also been cited as a reason.
As it is, the Taiwanese armed forces are already substantially weaker than China’s People’s Liberation Army, the latter having undergone a massive military modernisation programme over the past two decades that has seen it quantitatively, and arguably qualitatively, superior compared to its counterpart across the Taiwan Strait.
VITAL REFORMS NEEDED
The extended military service duration, along with a previously reported boost in its defence budget, will however need to be accompanied by other vital reforms to bolster Taiwan’s defence posture.
These include improvements in training and equipping its active and reserve military, which have been beset by shortfalls in both areas. Training has been derided as unrealistic, while recruits have complained of spending too much of their four-month stints on menial tasks like cleaning camps, instead of on physical or military training like shooting live weapons.
The four-month stints also mean that there is barely enough time to train soldiers in basic military skills, never mind specialised vocational skills that require more time and in-depth training.
The training syllabus for Taiwanese reservists is even skimpier, with reservists who have gone through reserve training this year claiming they were issued with nothing more than rubber training boots and having to share weapons during their one-week reservist call-up, which are infrequent and do not appear to have a fixed schedule.
This is despite Taiwan’s defence ministry announcing last year that training for reservists will be doubled to two weeks on each reserve cycle that will include more urban and asymmetric warfare training.
A NEW DEFENCE STRATEGY
Taiwan will also need to continue to pursue reforms to its overarching defence strategy in line with its other military reforms to have a real effect in trying to forestall a feared Chinese invasion.
It has previously flagged an “asymmetric” defence of the island, using means such as long-range land-based missiles to target Chinese ports and forces massing for a potential invasion of the island, small and fast missile-armed boats to interdict ships crossing the Taiwan Strait, and small, dispersed units to attack enemy forces who have landed instead of taking them on in large-set piece battles.
However, efforts at these reforms appear spotty and despite the acquisition of some of the long-range missile capabilities from the United States, there appears to be little headway made in formulating a coherent plan.
Until these shortfalls in training, equipping and strategy are adequately addressed, questions will remain over how credible a defence Taiwan’s military can mount.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for US-based defence publication Defense News.