Two news reports caught my attention recently. The first said that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) reaffirmed a campaign promise to replace the compulsory military service system with a voluntary system, indicating that he is determined to follow through with his pledge. The second said that because of the economic downturn, many graduates who are unable to find jobs are inquiring about the Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) recruitment procedures.
According to an investigation by the Ministry of Audit, the MND recruited more than 34,000 volunteer soldiers from 2003 to 2007. A portion of them are responsible for paperwork, driving, information and regular duties. These recruits’ technical skills are lower, their training periods are shorter, and replaceability is high; their jobs can be performed by conscripts performing compulsory service.
This strategy is not compatible with the goal of cultivating professional talent with excellent credentials in technical positions that require the accumulation of experience.
Neither the MND nor the commands of the different branches of the armed forces have made any assessment of whether the training and deployment of recruits meets the needs of their units.
I contacted the Ministry of Audit to obtain further details and analyze the problem, but was told that despite the non-confidential nature of my inquiry, they would have to decline my request because of objections from the MND.
The MND is not unaware of the key to the success of a voluntary system. As Minister of National Defense Chen Chao-min (陳肇敏) said in a speech entitled “Critical force at a critical moment” during the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference on Sept. 30 last year, there are three obvious obstacles to a voluntary system: legislative amendments, securing personnel budgets and the central issue of the willingness to join the military.
Proposed amendments to legislation remain imperfect and incomplete, and the government is reluctant to invest more in weapons as it strives to boost the economy — though it is pushing hard for a costly voluntary system.
In addition, the success of the system at this time is the result of higher unemployment because of the economic crisis; the primary concern for most applicants is to get a job. The push for a fully voluntary system is thus fraught with contradictions.
At a seminar on Dec. 22, I suggested that the National Security Council’s interest in the arguments of William Murray, an associate research professor at the US Naval War College, was testing the waters. Murray has argued that Taiwan should adopt a “porcupine strategy” that would concentrate on protective measures for critical infrastructure, for example.
But if the government moves in this direction and abandons its supposedly inoffensive method of making cuts to all commands evenly even as it pushes for a voluntary system, then the Military Police, Combined Logistics and Reserve Commands, as well as part of the land forces, are likely to be the first to be downsized and combined.
The MND should consider how to prevent the creation of an M-shaped army divided between old and experienced soldiers and young and inexperienced recruits.
My suggestion annoyed some high-level officers in the ground forces attending the seminar, which highlights the fact that a consensus on structural change in Taiwan’s military has not been reached, and that there is much disagreement among the different branches.
Wang Jyh-perng is a reserve captain in the Navy.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG
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