Tuesday was Armed Forces Day. Speaking at the Presidential Office, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) called on Taiwanese to respect the armed forces, and to bolster the bond between the armed forces and the public.
The armed forces could be called upon to defend the nation in the near future, and they are currently going through a major transition in recruitment, from compulsory military service to an all-volunteer force.
Perhaps the most pressing problem with the new system is whether it will be able to attract sufficient numbers to successfully defend the nation.
Given the position that Taiwan is currently in and reports that China’s People’s Liberation Army would be increasingly able to take on the US military in a limited, regional skirmish and win, the maintenance of a fully-manned, well-resourced and competent military is hugely important.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has asked how a pro-independence party could support an all-volunteer system, although the transition was initiated by former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2000. Two years later it was his minister of national defense, Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明), who began the process, even though Tang himself did not believe an all-volunteer force was viable and favored maintaining a professional force in addition to conscripted recruits.
Conscription was hobbled by the reduction in the length of compulsory military service. By the end of Chen’s second term in 2008, conscripts were only expected to serve for one year. By the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) time in office in 2016, it was four months.
Four months is not long enough to train anyone to a meaningful degree. Trainers and trainees failed to see the point in the exercise; morale among them and respect for military service decreased.
There are reasons to recommend instituting an all-volunteer, slightly streamlined professional army. One of these is an enhanced level of morale and self-respect among the troops, as well as a feeling of pride and shared purpose.
The Ministry of National Defense is offering a set of inducements to attract recruits, including higher salaries and the promise of a state-sponsored degree together with a system of attractive bonuses, military housing and other benefits.
The attraction of joining a professional army with comprehensive, ongoing and high quality training is something that four-month, or even one-year, conscription could not offer.
This training will become more important with the introduction of ever more sophisticated and advanced weapons systems and equipment, which demand higher levels of technological skill and coordination between operators, in addition to the increasingly complex challenges that cyberwarfare will bring.
There are problems with this system, of course. Higher salary and more benefits will not only need to be maintained, but increased over time, in line with inflation and increasing seniority. This will put long-term budgetary constraints on a force that will be purchasing or developing more sophisticated and expensive weaponry.
Another issue is demographics, given a shrinking recruitment pool for the foreseeable future, albeit this might be offset by the introduction of artificial intelligence technologies.
One answer is to follow Tang’s original instinct and to reintroduce conscription, although this time for longer periods and with more substantial training.
At this point and given the upcoming presidential election, this would be politically difficult. A proposal could be tabled for the time being. However, if Tsai really wants to support the military, and if politicians really mean to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty, the issue needs to be properly explored.
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