The Challenge of Doing without Conscription

New recruits prepare to start training. Photo: Wikipedia

Sweeter offers and heightened outreach have raised recruitment numbers as Taiwan’s military rapidly transitions to an all-volunteer force.

Most nations facing an implacable, existential military threat – examples are Israel, South Korea, and Finland – require military conscription, at least for all adult males. The policy not only helps ensure adequate levels of active-duty personnel but also creates a deep pool of reserves capable of being called up in times of crisis. Not least, it instills a broad sense of duty to defend the country.

Universal conscription “provides not just for building up your armed forces but also for some sort of national education and building social cohesion and patriotism,” notes Drew Thompson, a former Director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Taiwan, in contrast, has opted to transition to an All-Volunteer-Force, joining the U.S., Japan, and most Western nations. Russia retains conscription, as does China.

In Taiwan’s democratic environment, phasing out the draft has been politically popular. Young people and their parents tend to resent a lengthy interruption for national service that keeps new graduates from moving on with their careers.

In addition, a professional military offers a number of advantages. Rather than being forced to accept all conscripts regardless of ability or intelligence, the military can select quality personnel. Longer service durations – in Taiwan four years for recruits, compared to only four months for conscripts, down from 11 months prior to 2012 – makes it possible to retain skills and obtain more return from investment in training.

Recruiting message on the website of the national armed forces recruitment center.

An All-Volunteer-Force is also more expensive, however. “If you want high-quality personnel you have to spend the money,” says Admiral Pu Tze-chu. A graduate of both the Republic of China Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval War College, he has been in charge with overseeing the recruitment drive since stepping down as Vice Minister of National Defense in 2018.

Pu says that recruitment efforts have been bringing improved results in 2019. “The goal this year was an 85% volunteer force, but we can reach 87.5% – exceeding the goal,” he says. Recruitment into the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs in Taiwan’s universities rose 128% this year, he adds, while recruitment into the three military academies is similarly up by 111%.

The reason for the recent success? “It’s the incentives, the salary,” says Pu.

Taiwan has raised monthly salaries for recruits from NT$29,625 (US$970) in 2013 to NT$34,340 (US$1,125). In Purchasing Power Parity terms, new recruits now earn the equivalent of US$2,058 a month – well ahead of volunteers in the U.S. Army, who start at just US$1,514.

Privates can also earn substantially more per month (as much as NT$50,000) if they are skilled in cyberwarfare or up to NT$20,000 if they serve on Taiwan’s outer islands. Housing and medical care are mostly free, and opportunities are available for higher education, including master’s and doctoral-level programs.

The Ministry of National Defense has also sweetened the deal for ROTC cadets. Along with free tuition and an NT$5,000 textbook subsidy, they receive a monthly stipend of NT$12,000. After graduating from an ROTC program or military academy, lieutenants start their military careers earning NT$48,990 (US$1,604), the equivalent of US$2,937 in PPP terms. That compares to US$3,580 for first lieutenants in the U.S. Army.

These incentives have “definitely” put pressure on military budgets, says Admiral Pu. Taiwan has raised its defense budget by 18.8% for the coming year – from NT$346 billion in 2019 to NT$411.3 billion in 2020. Defense now takes 16.4% of the entire national budget, equivalent to 2.3% of GDP, both higher levels than in recent years.

Despite expectations that personnel would eat up nearly 50% of the defense budget by 2020, manpower costs have been held to about 40% – but at the expense of force size. The total military population has declined from some 290,000 troops prior to 2013 to a current official figure of around 215,000, which is considered the minimum active force level required for national defense.

That number may be overly optimistic. “There are actually only 188,000 in total,” longtime defense expert Wendel Minnick recently wrote in The National Interest. “And if you exclude civilian employees, noncombat personnel, those on leave, and cadets, the actual number of warfighters is 152,280” – 81% of the “authorized strength levels needed for fending off an invasion.”

At a ceremony at an air base in Taitung, the Air Force honored a group of female
fighter pilots. Photo: CNA

Maintaining even that scale will be a challenge given Taiwan’s ultra-low birthrate.  There were only 181,601 births in Taiwan in 2018, which will leave it with fewer than 92,000 18-year-old males to recruit from by 2036. The defense ministry is already encouraging the recruitment of women and aims for them to eventually account for 30% of total personnel, but recruitment will remain a challenge. 

Role of the reserves

Another issue that troubles analysts is the strength of the reserve force. Officially Taiwan has 1.7 million reservists available for duty in case of a national emergency. The quality of these reserve forces has been called into question, however.

Nominally, all of Taiwan’s conscripts continue to be reservists until they are 45 years old. But in practice, only around 40% actually report for duty when called up. In addition, reservists receive on average of only 20 days of training over eight years, according to a report by Project 2049, a Washington DC-based research center.

Moreover, as conscription is reduced, “they will need to rely on a professional reserve to support a professional army,” observes Thompson. With force reductions, “the numbers won’t be there.”

Thompson adds that the role of the Taiwan reserves is unclear. “The role of the reserves historically was go to the beach and slow [the enemy] down while the regular army fills the gaps,” he says. But the current reserve force may lack sufficient training to be effective in combat.

“Our military needs to reconsider how it uses the reserves because the training frequency is not enough,” admits Admiral Pu. “We don’t train them for specific jobs such as operating a missile launcher. More often, their roles in the military will reflect their civilian roles. Basically we use them as manpower.”

Rethinking the responsibility of the reserves could be politically unpalatable, however, as it would likely entail greater obligations from its millions of members. 

Interestingly, the role of patriotism is rarely invoked publicly in discussions over military recruitment. “My impression is the Taiwanese people are as patriotic and nationalistic as anyone else, and perhaps more so because of the manifestly unjust way their country is treated in the international community,” Taiwan defense expert and Project 2049 research fellow Ian Easton said by email.

ROTC students never claim that they are seeking a military career out of love of country, says Chiao Chuan-chin, associate vice president for academic affairs at National Tsing Hua University and head of its ROTC program. “They might feel that in their hearts, but they will never say it. They will think that we [the admissions committee] would assume they are lying, just saying what we want to hear.” 

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