Without new policies such as greater use of technology and conscripted national service for women, maintaining an adequately sized military could become increasingly difficult.
The impending transformation of Taiwan into a super-aged society by 2025, when at least 20% of its population will be aged 65 or above, is poised to usher in significant consequences beyond the impact on the economy and healthcare system. In the face of rising military pressure from China, the island’s demographic situation is also becoming a national security issue.
In the years ahead, it could be a struggle for Taiwan to maintain a military of sufficient strength, given the ever-shrinking pool of military-aged men (conscription only applies to males in Taiwan). The fertility rate has fallen to around one child per woman and has minimal prospects of increasing meaningfully. Government incentives to persuade couples to have more children have not borne fruit, while large-scale immigration remains unlikely for both political and cultural reasons.
Research by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) affiliated Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) shows that the number of military-aged men was 110,000 in 2016 – sufficient to sustain the nation’s all-volunteer military – but has fallen every year since. Should the pool of military-aged men continue to decline to 74,000 by 2025, as suggested by census data, Taiwan would only be able to recruit 9,000 soldiers a year – an inadequate level to sustain its all-volunteer force. Within the next decade, Taiwanese young adults available for recruitment could fall by up to 33%, INDSR predicts.
Taiwan had 162,000 soldiers in June last year, 7,000 shy of its goal – though according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2022 report, the Taiwanese military has 169,000 active-duty troops.
If Taiwan consistently misses its military recruitment targets, the impact on national defense could be corrosive. “You’ll end up with an older force, and one that is overworked – and that leads to declining capabilities and weak morale,” says Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and diplomat.
“Commanders end up just trying to keep things going – and don’t have the luxury of trying new operating concepts and ways of defending the nation as they ought to,” he says. Newsham adds that “if recruitment targets aren’t being met, that is ultimately the fault of civilian leadership.”
In the past year, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has taken some initial steps to address the recruitment problem, overcoming concerns about the related political ramifications. Effective 2024, conscription was extended from four months to one year last December for all males born after January 1, 2005, a move widely welcomed but acknowledged as belated and inadequate to ensure troop strength and readiness.
The public has been broadly supportive of the extension of compulsory service to one year. Polls taken this year by both the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) and Taipei-based 21st Century Foundation have found that more than 70% of Taiwanese support the decision, while a March INDSR poll showed that backing at a commanding 85%.
In July, the MND relaxed its recruiting standards for the military after referencing volunteer requirements in the U.S. and Japan. The amendments focused on articles 4 and 8 of the Volunteer Soldier Selection and Training Act, loosening height and body mass index (BMI) requirements. Additionally, Taiwan will increase the salaries of military personnel by 4% on January 1, 2024, as part of a broader increase for all public servants.
These changes come as the number of volunteer enlisted soldiers determined unfit for active duty reached a record high of 4,066 in 2022, according to data compiled by the MND. Of these, 3,756 applied for early release, while 310 were expelled for receiving three major demerits or two major demerits and an annual performance grade of “C” or below within a year.
More is better
Since then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taipei in August last year, China has used increasingly belligerent rhetoric toward Taiwan. Soon after Pelosi arrived in Taipei, Beijing also began a series of unprecedented military drills around the island.
Tensions have remained high since then, especially after Chinese Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping told a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was unavoidable and that he reserves the option of taking “all measures necessary.”
Given Taiwan’s daunting demographic trend, the island likely needs to take additional steps to ensure that its military can meet the growing challenge it faces from China. One possibility is strategically boosting the role of advanced technology in Taiwan’s defense.
“Taiwan should rapidly adopt intelligent autonomous systems, including various low-cost drones and munitions. These technologies reduce human workload and serve as force multipliers,” says Ivan Kanapathy, a former China, Taiwan, and Mongolia director at the U.S. National Security Council and now senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
In June, Reuters reported that Taiwan had created a “Drone National Team” program in a bid to develop a self-sufficient supply chain for unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones could potentially simplify target detection for Taiwan, says Eric Chan, a senior strategist at the U.S. Air Force, where he focuses on Taiwan and Korea. London-based publication The New Scientist reported in July that the U.S. military may soon have drones powered with artificial intelligence that is better than humans at identifying targets. Human drone operators can lose their concentration after spending hours watching streaming video.
Yet while technology might be able to give Taiwan’s military a boost, it cannot wholly replace human soldiers. “Think of the war in Ukraine,” says retired Marine Newsham. “Drones, satellites, and precision-guided weapons are all important, but ultimately you’ve got to have enough people to cover terrain and especially to replace casualties.”
Some observers have suggested Taiwan follow Israel’s example and start requiring both men and women to serve in the military. Currently, more than 10% of the voluntary military force consists of women.
Chao Hsuey-wen, an assistant law professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, said in a September 2022 Taipei Times commentary that Taiwan should amend its Military Service Act to stipulate that women of military age be required to perform what Taiwan calls “substitute service” – including firefighting, social services, and ambulance assistance – with the length of service to be determined by the legislature. He quoted opinion polls showing that more than 40% of Taiwanese women would be willing to serve in the military.
Enlisting more women would require expanded gender sensitivity training for all servicemembers to ensure that women are treated fairly and equally in the military. It would also require such initiatives as building additional daycare and preschool centers for service-members’ families near military stations. As of 2022, the MND has only opened one preschool, the Dazhi Non-Profit Preschool, for the children of servicemembers. However, it’s unclear whether Taiwanese society, which is in some ways more conservative than Israel’s, would accept the idea of extending mandatory military service to women.
“There are more than enough males available to serve, so this is a societal decision for Taiwan’s democracy to make,” says CSIS’s Kanapathy. “The United States, Singapore, and South Korea have not instituted female conscription.”
Chan urges the Taiwanese military to make better use of its existing human resources, which could have positive implications for everything from readiness to efficiency and morale. “They could farm out menial tasks [which in the past have included cleaning toilets and sweeping floors] to contractors so that soldiers could focus on what’s really important,” he says. By allowing soldiers to put more focus on defense, Taiwan could foster a more efficient military force.
“The best and worst recruiters are currently serving military personnel,” Kanapathy says. “By ensuring that current military members are fairly compensated, well trained, and feel a strong sense of purpose, Taiwan should have no problem finding new recruits.”
Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) Non-resident fellow Thomas Shattuck proposed in a January article published by GTI that Taiwan launch a new initiative to increase civilian buy-in for its military in order to increase recruitment. The initiative, he said, could be based on the United States’ Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), an annual program convened by the Department of Defense that brings civilian leaders to military bases across the United States.
“A Taiwan JCOC would allow Taipei to utilize the country’s civilian elite to achieve some of the goals that government officials struggle to achieve on their own,” said Shattuck. “Having greater public buy-in from [influential] figures has the potential to change the public perception of volunteer military service.”
For his part, in addition to highlighting the importance of good compensation, Newsham emphasizes that the military must become “a respected profession” in Taiwan. “Taiwan’s armed forces haven’t gotten [respect] for years,” he says. “That’s where political leadership has the main responsibility.”