Reporting by Andrew Maxey and Allen Chen

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) faced scrutiny in February when he claimed Taiwan’s mandatory military draft, or conscription, is “a waste of time” for many young men. He said the Taiwanese army, if faced with cross-strait clashes, would not sustain even two days of war.

Denying Ko’s criticism, Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa (嚴德發) said Taiwan’s conscription equips draftees with various skillsets ranging from aeronautics to cybersecurity. The reality, unfortunately, is much closer to what Ko had proposed.

“For sure nobody will have the balls to fight if a war breaks out,’’ a private surnamed Cho, whose first name is omitted for anonymity, told The News Lens.

陸軍官校95週年慶 嚴德發閱兵分列校閱(1)

Photo Credit: CNA

Serving in the military is not a popular career option in Taiwan as many young people see conscription as stripping away their personal liberty in a democratic society. Military wages are also too low for the university-educated to willingly serve in the army with boring routines like scrubbing toilets or sweeping floors.

According to the 2017 implementation plan released by the Republic of China Army (ROCA), the primary purpose of Taiwan’s conscription is to enhance military strength when mobilization is announced, considering the shortage of volunteer soldiers. In other words, the draftees are no different from military volunteers in times of war. They both must be equipped and ready to fight on the front line if necessary. Thus, the main goal of Taiwan’s conscription is to equip its male citizens with the capacity to fight in a war.

But Taiwan is vastly underprepared to face the looming threats from neighboring states.

Article 1 of the Act Of Military Service System mandates that “male citizens of the Republic of China (ROC) are obligated to take military service,” and Article 16 enumerates the four-month service length. All adult males aged between 19 and 40 are of conscription age and required to serve.

Previously, for those who were born before 1994, the military service could be replaced with a one-year civil service, where they were assigned to different public sectors if they possessed special skills. As for those who were born after 1994, their branches are now assigned purely based on lucky draws, though an overwhelming majority would be assigned to the army. Only for religious or family reasons can some be permitted to do a six-month civil service.

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Photo Credit: CNA

Draftees who have recently fulfilled their service obligation have revealed that the main training program revolves around basic physical training, marksmanship training, and marching. In most cases, no specialized training is offered to the draftees, which results in that every draftee trained for the same skills, rather than specific skills based on their performance and education background.

‘’I am an expert in computer science, but that does not affect what I am assigned to do in the army,’’ said a draftee surnamed Liao, who had worked as a research assistant at the University of Southern California and the University of Toronto.

Worse yet, tactical training is essentially excluded from the program, which means most conscripted soldiers have no clue how the army would structurally respond to a crisis, what strategic tasks they may be assigned to, or even how to fight a battle. If mobilization is announced, draftees and many reservists will be able to do nothing more than showing up at their assigned muster points.

The lack of specialized training and tactical training might be the consequence of a significant reduction in service length. Before 2000, the mandatory service in Taiwan required two entire years, the same as South Korea and Singapore, and then it was gradually reduced to the present four-month requirement.

Does this imply our training quality and efficiency have increased sixfold in the past two decades, and have surpassed that of South Korean and Singaporean? Quite the contrary, Taiwan’s national defense is in a weak state.

A sergeant surnamed Chu, who requested anonymity, said the current training is not equipping the draftees with sufficient skills to fight in a war at all, “unless the top (of the military) only wants shooters who blindly follow orders and know nothing about modern warfare.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Thousands of protesters rallied in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei demanding the government to investigate the death of conscripted soldier Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) on August 3, 2013.

This predicament is largely due to the massive protest against the military in 2013 following the death of Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), a conscripted soldier. Ever since then, the government has become extremely and perhaps too careful in designing its military training program. Public resentment has outweighed the need for national defense.

The lack of mental preparation for potential wars spells outs an inevitable defeat if Taiwan was under attack. For the entire four months of training, there is no provision made for boosting general morale or motivating the draftees. They simply go through all the physical training required to become a marksman without being psychologically prepared to shoot the enemy or deal with moving and fighting under combat conditions.

Beyond a lack of mental preparedness, the subpar physical training for draftees is also a concern. Generally, running exercise is not a strict requirement in the training program. If a draftee feels too "uncomfortable’’ to run, it is his choice not to run. Interviewees from the army have suggested that many people feign illness just to skip running, same for push-ups, sit-ups, and many other elements of basic training.

In the face of increasing geopolitical conflicts in Asia and around the world, Taiwan is in no position to lower its guard. Taiwan’s national survival is tied to its preservation of democracy and the Taiwanese people’s way of life. A dramatic reduction in both service length and training intensity not only wastes one’s time and the government’s resources, but also exposes the whole country to grave national security threats.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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