Taiwan’s Compulsory Military Service: Fix it or Drop it

Photo: J. Michael Cole
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If Taiwan is to retain a basic military training program, it should make sure the nation gets a proper return on the investment.

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For years now the Taiwanese armed forces have sought to phase out conscription, an increasingly unpopular citizen’s duty among young Taiwanese, and replace it with an all-volunteer military system. Blaming an inability to attract sufficient numbers of qualified soldiers, the government has repeatedly delayed full implementation and ended up adopting a “dual track” mix of conscripts and volunteers. By doing so it has ensured there are enough “boots on the ground,” but the current conscripts’ training program is an enormous waste of time and money. What’s even worse is that it does nothing to prepare young men and women for combat.

Countless young men who have completed their military service in recent years have emerged disillusioned with their training, which more often than not consisted of endless weeks spent in an office pushing paper. Many have also been used as cheap labor — often on as little as NT$10,000 (US$300) per month — acting as clerks, office workers, or helps for people with mental disabilities.

Asked if basic training, which was scaled back to 12 months in 2008 from 20 months a decade ago, in any way prepared them for combat, the answer has been a resounding no. In fact, many of the conscripts will not fire a single bullet during their months in the military, let alone learn how to handle a firearm.

Under the program, conscripts born before January 1994 who have not completed their 12-month compulsory service before the transformation deadline must now do alternative service instead. Eligible men born after Jan. 1, 1994, no longer need to complete compulsory military service and instead must undergo four months of military training. Already delayed twice, it now looks likely that conscription will continue into 2017 and past the last deadline set by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. The Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration has said it would evaluate the matter 10 months after entering office.

One young Taiwanese who is currently doing his alternative service told The News Lens International recently that the military establishment seemed reluctant to provide the kind of “boot camp” training that could result in injuries. Such fears were no doubt exacerbated by the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) in July 2013, an incident that sparked mass protests and forced the reopening of several cases involving unexplained deaths of young members of the armed forces over the years.

The risk-averse military establishment has consequently created an army of office workers, unable to fight, but at low risk of sustaining injuries more serious than carpal tunnel syndrome.

As a result, many young men have come to regard their military service as an irritant, a waste of time and an unnecessary barrier to their entering the workforce. Their experience furthermore leaves them with a cynical view of the military establishment, which is deemed unserious, unreliable, and certainly not a viable career option.

Transform or drop

Faced with the challenges discussed above, and assuming that a dual-track system will be necessary for a few more years, the Tsai administration will have to find ways to ensure that the four-month military training that young men will continue to receive is a good return on the investment. If the military establishment cannot provide adequate training on the basics of the profession of arms, then it should be abandoned altogether.

It is important to note that people who have undergone basic military training would be activated as a reserve force during an emergency, such as an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army. Given this, basic proficiency with firearms, along with baseline knowledge of fundamental military tactics, should be requirements if basic training is retained.

To do so, the military establishment will have to abandon its current risk aversion while doing what is necessary to provide a safe environment for trainees. Additionally, routine refresher drills should be held (preferably every two years) to keep the reserve force minimally proficient and combat-ready. Well-protected arms caches should be distributed nationwide and unlocked in time of mobilization to facilitate speedy acquisition and deployment.

Although a more robust basic military training program would likely generate a modicum of discontent within an understandably skeptical society, in the long run this disadvantage should be offset by the pride and sense of mission that would be cultivated among those who went through it. At the very least, the trainees would have the assurance of having learned new skills and the knowledge that did not waste their time. If done well, basic training could even serve as recruitment grounds for future professional soldiers.

Additionally, the four-months basic military training program should include rigorous training in a foreign language. Basic English communication skills would be crucial in situations where the Taiwanese military is called upon to work alongside, or train with, foreign forces, such as the U.S. military. After an initial evaluation, those who are exempt from English classes should have the opportunity to learn another language, such as Japanese, Korean, or any of the main languages spoken in the region. By adding foreign-language acquisition to the basic military training, young Taiwanese would emerge with new skills to use in their future careers. This wise use of taxpayer money would create a win-win for the military and society.

Basic combat skills and foreign-language acquisition should form the backbone of Taiwan’s future basic military training; the structure could either be combat training in the morning and language class in the afternoon, or two months of boot camp and two in the classroom, whichever is most practical.

Professional soldiers alone will not be enough to defend the nation against a major external contingency, such as a PLA assault to resolve the Taiwan “question.” A combat-proficient reserve force that can be quickly activated could mean the difference between defeat and victory. At a minimum, a reserve force comprised of civilians who know how to fight would add to Taiwan’s deterrent.

The current system, however, makes it impossible to develop such a force. Reform is in order.

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Second Editor:J. Michael Cole
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