As threats of military aggression from China grow, the island nation of Taiwan needs a credible military deterrent more than ever. But Taiwan’s military is in a crisis it can barely admit exists.
Even as the military refits itself with flashy U.S. arms purchases, such as M1 Abrams tanks and F-16V fighter jets, its front-line units are hollowed out, and the entire reserve system is so dysfunctional that few experts or serving military personnel believe it can make a real military contribution in the event of a war. These problems are well documented but continue to be downplayed, if not outright ignored, by Taiwan’s political leadership—and there is no clear plan to solve the crisis.
On paper, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has 215,000 budgeted positions among all branches, of which 188,000 are soldiers and the rest civilian employees. Only 153,000 of those positions were filled in 2018—just 81 percent of the personnel the military should have. But even that number doesn’t tell the complete story.
According to a Taiwanese army lieutenant colonel in active service, who asked for only his last name, Lin, to be used, all the army’s front-line combat units he knows of—including armor, mechanized infantry, and artillery troops—currently have effective manpower levels of between 60 and 80 percent. This figure is consistent with Taiwanese media reports, which cite MND figures provided to Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, acknowledging that few front-line units have more than 80 percent of their positions filled.
“That number might not seem so bad until you realize it means at least a third of your tanks are useless in a war because there’s no one to man them,” said Lin, who most recently served as a battalion commander within one of army’s armor brigades.
The personnel shortfalls are a clear consequence of the ill-executed transition from conscription to an all-volunteer military over the past few years. It was a political decision made during Ma Ying-jeou’s administration and continued by current President Tsai Ing-wen, despite their coming from different parties. And despite Tsai’s tough rhetoric about defending Taiwan during her successful recent reelection bid, and her vow to thwart Chinese aggression, she has shown no sign of stepping in to fix the problems.
Universal conscription is mandated in Article 20 of the Taiwanese Constitution, as in several other countries that face an imminent military threat, such as South Korea or Israel (where women are included but some minorities excluded). For some years, before 2017, the term of conscription service in Taiwan was just a year, which was already short compared with South Korea’s 18-22 months, depending on the military branch, or Israel’s 32 months. Most officers felt that the single year of service wasn’t enough for the military to utilize draftees’ full potential but enough to at least turn a recruit into an average soldier.
But 2017’s changes slashed the conscription period to just four months. Most draftees serve even less, as up to two weeks can be deducted if they’ve completed military training classes in high school and college. The four-month conscripts typically receive five weeks of basic training before they are assigned to field units for more specialty training. But they’re more a burden than an aid, not treated seriously by career or noncommissioned officers as their short stays mean they are seen as guests rather than soldiers.
“By design, they don’t participate in any field exercise or combat readiness training anyway,” Lin said. “We just tell them to stay safe and don’t get into trouble. It’s basically a summer camp.” Several individuals who recently completed this four-month service described similar experiences in interviews.