Military all-volunteer system faces uncertainty
The military has drawn criticism with its latest announcement that it will continue to draft able-bodied males into the Armed Forces as a result of difficulties implementing the volunteer system.
The nation had thought that during the transition to the full implementation of an all-volunteer force in 2017, conscriptions into the military would be replaced by alternative services in other government bodies, such as police and fire departments.
But the military has now broken its promise by planning to draft some of the conscripts (those born before 1994) into the Armed Forces next year to make up for a shortfall in troops.
The military has had difficulties meeting its recruitment goals since starting the shift. One of the main reasons is clearly a lack of monetary incentives for a job that requires a lot of sacrifices: soldiers are supposed to come under strict discipline; they don’t have the kinds of freedom that ordinary citizens enjoy; and their jobs are innately dangerous with death and injury taken for granted during war.
Volunteer soldiers in Taiwan may be offered salaries higher than ordinary workers in civilian jobs, but the sums are apparently not high enough to convince people to join the military and make those kinds of sacrifices.
Taiwan’s Armed Forces have been downsizing because in modern warfare, sheer numbers may no longer be important.
But the downsizing may not be enough to free up the expenses needed for the volunteer system. If the military does not sharply cut its troop number from the current size of well over 200,000, we don’t see how it can further raise the salaries to attract volunteers, granted that the national defense budget is unlikely to see significant increases.
Australia, a country with a much bigger territory than and a similar-sized population to Taiwan, maintains an all-volunteer force of well under 100,000. Britain has an active force of about 150,000 troops.
Of course we can’t compare different countries’ armed forces simply in terms of troop numbers, because they may have different defensive needs. But Taiwan’s military should learn how other countries manage with smaller numbers of troops, and whether there are things the country can learn from.
The military downsizing reflects changes in Taiwan’s defensive needs over the past few decades although its main enemy is still supposed to remain the same: China.
When military tensions were high across the strait during the Cold War era, Taiwan conscripted all able-bodied male adults to a two-year service in the forces. As tensions eased, the military conscription was cut to one year during the last decade.
Despite the improving relations across the strait, the threat from China remains. With China keen to increasing its military might — as we shall soon see in a massive parade — Taiwan must spend its defense budget wisely.
The plan for the volunteer system now requires all males (born in 1994 and after) who are not joining the forces voluntarily to undergo military training for four months instead of doing active service.
The military is arguing that the nation misunderstood the plan for the military restructuring; the Armed Forces are still maintaining a mixed system of volunteers and “conscripts,” because all able-bodied males will still have to fulfill their military obligation as defined in the R.O.C. Constitution.
The military says it is therefore not breaking its promise by continuing to draft males into the forces next year.
Although the military has maintained that it will honor its promise that males born in 1994 and after will not be drafted and will definitely only be required to receive the 4-month training, people are skeptical.
If the recruitment of volunteers continues to fail to meet the targets, it won’t be inconceivable that the government will again break its promise.
And the political climate has created further uncertainty for all young people who have not served in the Armed Forces or received military training.
The Democratic Progressive Party, whose leader, Tsai Ingwen, stands a good chance of becoming president, says it will introduce a revised version of the volunteer system. It remains to be seen how much the DPP, if it becomes the ruling party, will revise it.