Earlier this month, the Ministry of National Defense said that, beginning in 2011, the military would replace conscripts with professional soldiers at a rate of at least 10 percent annually, with conscription to cease altogether in 2014. At present, men above the age of 20 are required to complete one year of military service.
The idea of a professional Taiwanese army is not a creation of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), nor is it the result of supposedly reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Measures that would create an all-volunteer or “partial” volunteer military were first floated during the first term of the Democratic Progressive Party administration.
Given the increasingly sophisticated weapons systems that soldiers have to operate in a modern combat environment and the relatively short period of training that conscripts receive during their year’s service, attracting motivated career soldiers who can be fully trained and upgraded as systems and concepts change makes perfect sense.
In fact, under the current conscription system, the duration of which has been nearly halved in recent years, it is doubtful that Taiwanese fresh out of compulsory service would be able to defend the nation if it came under attack.
Aside from the month or so they spend in boot camp, the great majority of conscripts spend time pushing paper in a stuffy office and cannot wait to resume civilian life.
Additionally, morale at times appears to have reached an all-time low.
The problem with the ministry’s announcement on March 9, however, is that it comes amid cuts in the military budget by the KMT government, which has used the pretense of warmer ties with Beijing as justification. Taiwan’s defense budget for this year is US$10.17 billion, or US$301.4 million less than last year’s figure.
As studies have shown, creating a fully professional army is a costly endeavor. One initial estimate, mentioned in Taiwan’s Security by US National War College professor Bernard Cole, was more than US$4 billion, while the initial cost for a “partial” professional army was set at US$400 million.
To put things in perspective, creating a fully professional army would cost Taiwan about one-third of its overall defense budget for this year.
Even if this were spread over a five-year period, the project would represent a major investment.
Without an increase in defense spending or special budget allocations, the creation of a fully professional army by 2014 will be financially impossible.
And yet, when the ministry made the announcement, it did not mention any increases in defense spending.
Nor have officials said anything about raising soldiers’ salaries to make the military a more attractive employer (it did, however, announce on Monday a 16 percent troop cut by 2014, which could help in that regard but is, on its own, insufficient).
Absent career opportunities and remuneration that can compete with what is offered in the private sector, or even in academia, there is no way the military will manage to attract talent in large enough numbers to meet its requirements.
What this means is that either the professionalized military will be anything but — a botched job — or the number of professional soldiers that current budgeting allows for will be so low, quantitatively and qualitatively, that the nation’s defenses will be sorely compromised.
Either way, this situation bodes ill for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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