It seems Taiwanese are conflicted when it comes to conflict. Everyone knows the importance of having a viable national defense mechanism in place, but hardly anyone is willing to serve in the armed forces. According to the latest Control Yuan report, there is real concern that, by 2019, there will be an insufficient number of recruits to sustain the armed forces if the proposed change from mandatory conscription to an all-volunteer recruitment scheme goes forward.
The report adds that the volunteer recruitment system will cost NT$50 billion to NT$60 billion (US$1.67 billion to US$2 billion) more per year to run than the conscription system. This money will have to come from somewhere — likely from education or social welfare budgets, or another sector of state spending.
Naturally, the government’s promotion of the all-volunteer scheme is motivated by electoral considerations. Despite the difficulties encountered in implementing the new system, the government dare not call time on the idea, and similar motivations have led to its reluctance to reinstate the all-conscription system.
The Ministry of National Defense is following the president and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) lead, and has completely disregarded the looming crisis of a military personnel shortage and the advice of experts. Countries that have all-volunteer armed forces generally seek to increase recruitment levels with more generous salary packages. However, will young people tempted into joining the armed forces by cash and material rewards be the type to become outstanding soldiers who serve their country as a vocation? There are many factors to consider when determining the quality or effectiveness of military personnel. Evaluating the armed forces by looking at which recruitment system is used — conscription or volunteer recruitment — leaves too much out of the equation.
The all-volunteer scheme has some major problems, and the armed forces face some serious challenges. These include the need to maintain a standing army that is ready to go into battle when called upon, and the inherent conflict between the all-volunteer recruitment system and the traditional culture of the military machine. The emphasis on conditions, including salary levels, perks and personal rights, are certain to influence the strict discipline and training regimes, even the military’s core values.
The government is trying to attract the younger generation to sign up by promising higher salaries, more perks, better dorms, the choice to spend nights off barracks and a relaxing of bans on smartphones. Are these recruitment marketing ploys really the best way to create a hardened, brave fighting force that is ready for battle and to hell with the risks?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is made up primarily of conscripts, with volunteer recruits representing a small proportion of PLA personnel. Military service is compulsory for males aged from 18 to 22, and in any given year, there are 10 million men eligible, of which the top 10 percent are selected to do military service. The selection criteria include levels of physical strength and health, toughness and education. Taiwan, faced with the PLA as a threat, is gradually reducing the length of military service, and will soon be giving recruits better perks, longer vacations and better treatment. If the nation’s armed forces ever come up against the PLA, the outcome would be predictable before a single shot is fired.