The Ministry of National Defense confirmed on Thursday that it would implement an all-volunteer military system next year and drastically cut down on the military training citizens born after 1993 will have to undergo.
Plans to create a professional military did not begin with the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Not only did Ma allude to a similar commitment in 2008, but the idea was already being discussed under former President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government.
Why two administrations that tend to disagree with each other on so many issues have both expressed a desire to create an all-volunteer military is simple: It makes sense — at least on paper.
However, if such a plan were to materialize next year, the legislature would either have to be willing to release extraordinary budgets or substantially increase the annual defense budget. Judging from its performance in the past four years, the Ma administration, even with his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enjoying a super-majority in the legislature, has shown no inclination to release such a budget. In fact, spending on defense has shrunk during the past four years (with whatever increase in funding in terms of a share of GDP going toward veterans).
The ministry says the budget needed to support an all-volunteer military of about 200,000 soldiers is NT$160 billion (US$5.6 billion), which agrees with earlier estimates under the Chen administration of more than US$4 billion.
However, creating a fully professional military force requires more than just throwing money at it. It involves a thorough transformation of military training, from boot camp all the way to National Defense University. A lean, professional military will depend even more on advanced technology and computer systems to offset its limited manpower. This puts a premium on attracting people who are both motivated and educated. However, if a military career is not made attractive, through a package of opportunities and salaries that are commensurate with the level of education required of professional soldiers, tomorrow’s youth are far likelier to choose medicine, law, high finance or engineering as means to ensure their future and support their families.
Any failure by the military to address these issues could result in it being unable to ensure it has enough boots on the ground to defend the nation.
So far, the Ma administration and the ministry have not said how they intend to tackle these problems. Young Taiwanese need more than abstract figures in the billions of dollars; what they need is proof, with specific salaries and clear indications that they can make a career in the military. Also left unsaid is where the money will come from and how this will affect the annual defense budget. If one goes by Ma’s timeline, Taiwan will be investing in a fully professional military at a time when it faces a backlog of about US$18 billion in arms purchases from the US, which also calls for the release of extraordinary budgets from the legislature. This does not include the 66 F-16C/Ds the Ma administration is still seeking, which would cost an estimated US$5.5 billion.
Excluding the F-16s, Taiwan faces an additional budget requirement of about US$23.5 billion over the next four years or so, or US$5.9 billion a year, which represents nearly 50 percent of total defense expenditures annually.
Answers are needed, both from Ma regarding how he plans to make this happen, as well as from his principal opponent in the presidential election, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is believed to support a dual-track military rather than ending conscription altogether.
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