What you need to know
As Taiwan transitions to an all-volunteer armed force, the military must do more to build troop morale and public support.
Over the last year, there has been a noticeable uptick in public commentary on Taiwan’s preparedness to defend against an attack from China's People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These assessments, by and large, have shared a confidence in the capabilities of the Taiwanese military.
Troops are seen as ready to defend the island at a moment’s notice and trained for the absolute worst-case scenario of urban warfare in an all-out Chinese invasion. What these analyses largely fail to address, however, is the impact the ongoing transition to an all-volunteer force (AVF) has upon Taiwan’s national security. Though the AVF transition was finalized in January 2012, it remains a work in progress, beset by the challenges of low recruitment and budget constraints. Taiwan’s experience is not unique; the historical experiences of the United States, nearly two dozen European nations, New Zealand, Australia, and others make clear that building a professional volunteer military is no easy task. It is a costly, time-consuming process that requires the support of the public just as much as it does the tireless attention of legislators, policymakers, and society.
Taiwan’s decision to shift to a volunteer recruitment model stands in contrast with the experiences of other countries, who abolished conscription amid broader geopolitical trends that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War. The demands of fielding technologically advanced forces could not be sustained through short periods of mandatory national service. Additionally, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, the military threat for many countries vanished nearly overnight. Governments had to determine the purpose of their militaries in a new security environment defined both by the absence of an existential threat and the emergence of new collective security mechanisms such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
For Taiwan, by comparison, the transition to AVF was triggered by an extant demographic dilemma. At present, the birth rate in Taiwan is the third lowest in the world – well below the replacement rate needed to sustain the required numbers of able-bodied service members. The operational demands placed upon the Taiwanese military have further fueled the transition to a professional force. Today, the size of Taiwan’s active military, around 200,000 troops, makes it approximately the same size as the U.S. Marine Corps. A recent report published by the Control Yuan, Taiwan's investigatory agency that monitors other branches of government, notes that should the number of service members decrease further, the island’s ability to adequately respond to external threats would be severely handicapped. Add to this the lingering possibility of pension reform, and the outlook for military recruitment at a time when volunteers are most needed is bleak.
Beyond the challenges of the AVF transition, the administration must also reorient the military within Taiwanese society. In other countries with professional militaries, such as the United States, large proportions of those who choose to serve come from military families; how to sustain a volunteer force beyond this "warrior caste", thus becomes a top defense policy priority.
For Taiwan, the civ-mil puzzle is slightly different. The government must maintain a professional military in an environment in which few want to serve. A societal overfamiliarity with the military, as an official in the Executive Yuan noted, has bred an underappreciation of the role of the Taiwanese military, dealing a damaging blow to morale and weakening the backbone of the island’s national security. This aversion to the military, and tacit acceptance that "good men don’t make soldiers; good iron doesn’t make nails" (好男不當兵、好鐵不打錠) is bolstered by the experiences of young conscripts who believed their duty of national service to be a "waste of time" given poor training regimens and inadequate resources.
Of course, the easiest solution would be to reinstate conscription, a policy that roughly 86 percent of the Taiwanese population still favor according to a 2017 Academia Sinica survey. In doing so, Taiwan may look to the examples of Lithuania, Ukraine, or Sweden who have re-introduced conscription in recent years in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. Conscription could be targeted, as in Lithuania, to raise the number of active reserves – reserves that maintain a minimum level of physical fitness, participate in realistic training, and know where to report in a military contingency. If not enough young men (or women) are found for the volunteer forces, then conscripts are called upon to fill the reserve forces. In the case of Lithuania, the process of reinstating conscription was aided by clear promises from defense policymakers: conscription was not returning indefinitely and the small number of individuals required to sustain the Lithuanian forces would receive suitably robust remuneration.
As the political leadership pushes ahead on the AVF transition, the civ-mil relationship and the dual issues of public and troop morale in Taiwan must thus become an integral part of policy.
The threat Taiwan faces from China and the PLA is arguably no less severe than that experienced by Lithuania, Ukraine or Sweden vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, amid the AVF transition, the approach Taiwan has taken has often put the severity of the Chinese threat at odds with the demands of national defense. The estrangement of the military from the broader Taiwanese populace impedes efforts to build a professional force capable of deterring and defending against a Chinese attack. As the political leadership presumably pushes ahead on the AVF transition, the civ-mil relationship and the dual issues of public and troop morale in Taiwan must thus become an integral part of policy. Domestic policies must distinguish the military from society in a manner which supports the professionalization of the Taiwanese military and ensures that the AVF is equipped with the people and resources necessary to defend Taiwan. Taipei should strive for a "healthy" civ-mil gap characterized by a respect for and societal support of those that self-select to pursue careers in the armed services.
These challenges demand strong presidential leadership – which, fortunately, Taiwan already has under Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). In the nearly two years since stepping into office, Tsai has given clear priority to nearly every facet of the island’s national defense. Though pension reform for service members was recently put on indefinite pause, interim policy discussions must center upon how to create a military that Taiwanese want to voluntarily serve in.
Professional military education (PME), remuneration, and other benefits should go beyond the average civil servant incentive package. Advancing these changes will require the Taiwanese military to broaden its public outreach, moving beyond the Ministry of National Defense social media pages to a direct engagement with the public. One option would be for military officers and defense officials to travel around the island to hold public forums and solicit opinions on how to make military service a more attractive career choice.
A listening tour could further support discussions on pension reform by involving retired officers, promoting an understanding of the service members’ point of view and also mitigating public opposition to any future pension reforms that would require a larger cut of public funds. It is this sort of direct communication and engagement with interest groups (in this case, the military) and society more broadly that will be critical to sustaining the the AVF transition, any future pension reform efforts, and gradually elevating the role of the military in the eyes of the Taiwanese public
So long as the Tsai administration remains committed to the AVF transition, the question of how to retain troops – and whether troop levels are adequate – will remain at the forefront of the policymaking agenda. Though far from a silver bullet solution, this transition requires a strategic approach to rebuilding morale, not only within the military itself but also within how society perceives the military. A failure to do so will have political ramifications for the current administration, and national security consequences that will weaken Taiwan’s ability to stand up to the ever-growing threat from across the Strait.
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Editor: David Green