Written by Michal Thim.
Last month, the planned transition from a conscript-based system of National Service to a professional all-volunteer army was postponed in the aftermath of the outrage surrounding the death of soldier Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) on 4 July, 2013. Hung’s death resulted in a number of demonstrations, including one that drew around 250,000 protesters to Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei. However, mistreatment of conscripts is not the only problem Taiwan’s armed forces face and is not the real cause of reform delay, although the case is likely to impact already poor recruitment figures. Beside volunteer recruitment, budgetary problems, low morale, and the situation at the Ministry of National Defense are other contributing factors. Problems with the military reform are adding to the miserable situation in which President Ma has found himself since the beginning of his second term, which witnessed his approval rate sink to a barely credible 9.2%.
Military reform was an important part of Ma’s election programme in 2008 although the campaign resonated around issues of corruption, abuses of judiciary, cross-Strait relations and the performance of economy, all of which is now biting Ma in the back. During the 2008 campaign, Ma (together with running mate Vincent Siew) presented a National Defence Policy document in which he outlined planned military reform under the concept of ‘Hard ROC’. Ma lashed out at then ruling Democratic Progressive Party for inadequate defence spending which in 2008 represented 2.5% of GDP (p. 2) and pledged a defence budget that would not go under 3% of GDP. Structure-wise, the budget under Ma’s administration would be divided into a 4:3:3 ratio for personnel costs, operation and maintenance costs, and defence investment (including arms procurement and research and development). In addition, Ma’s defence program reiterated the importance of increasing training quality, exchanges with foreign militaries, and improvement of morale. These would allow for building up defences while avoiding provocations and stronger defence posture would then translate into better negotiating position vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Most importantly, Ma outlined the introduction of all-volunteer force (AVF) that was to replace current army of conscripts. Ma’s ‘National Defence Policy’ found its way in the Quadrennial Defense Reviews of 2009 and 2013, thus becoming the source of Taiwan’s defence strategy.
Transition to AVF is indeed a major part of Ma’s defence plan and one that became the target of critique. The expected decrease in size of the military from 270,000 to 215,000 is less an issue. The combat conditions for 21st century conflicts add an extra requirements on the soldiers’ skills and sheer numbers is not what improves Taiwan’s defence. Moreover, given the low birth-rate, transition to a slimmer, professional military is rather necessity than an option. However, in the light of problems in major areas of the reform, push for rapid transformation appears to be hasty and also without needed financial backing. Closer examination of three issues will help to illustrate why September’s delay of the transition to AVF from 2015 to 2017 – already second one as the original implementation date was set for 2014 – might not be the last one.
Firstly, there are serious problem with recruitment. J. Michael Cole summarized the major problem: Even before Hung’s death, the military was failing to meet the benchmarks it had set for itself, including a total active duty force of 215,000, of which 176,000 are to be volunteers. It attracted half of the 4,000 volunteers it was aiming for in 2011, and only 11,000 in 2012, missing its target by 4,000. The figures for the first half of 2013 are even more dismal, with 1,847 signing up through July 3. The ministry’s recruitment goal for the year is 17,447. Moreover, this figure reflects the situation before the outrage over Hung’s death. Related issue is the image of the military, and land forces in particular. The public protests were not incited by Hung’s death per se but by the perceived cover up of the military investigators. When trust in the military as an institution is low, it would be naive to expect many people to be eager to join.
Secondly, AVF transition is not financially sustainable. Despite Ma’s pledge, the defence budget constituted only 2.1% of GDP in 2013 (p.2), even lower than during last years of DPP administration. This year, Taiwan’s defence budget was equal to US$10.5 billion under the situation where large majority of soldiers are still conscripts who receive monthly less than US$200 (and around US$500 when stationed outside of Taiwan-proper). However, AVF reform includes entry-level salary just below US$1000. Tienlin Yeh notes that transition to AVF would require roughly US$1 billion just for the new salaries, excluding training, education, benefits, housing, etc. That is roughly a 10% increase of the budget just to cover salaries for professional soldiers. Without an adequate increase of the budget, personnel expenses risk jeopardizing resources available for operations and maintenance.
This is not a good idea considering that, for instance, Taiwan’s air force is ageing without the prospective of new replacements. Thus, operation costs are very likely to rise and without available budget the combat preparedness would be under great stress. In 2008, Ma pledged ratio 4:3:3 for personnel, operation and maintenance, and defense investments. Reality in 2013 is ratio 4,75:2,32:2,77 (p. 26). Again, this situation still reflects military that looks much more like conscription-based than all-volunteer. The conclusion is clear: if AVF transformation proceeds without appropriate funding, the operation and maintenance parts of the budget will suffer together with defense investment (and R&D in particular), while personnel costs will rise well above 50% of the budget. Needless to say that this would not be a sustainable situation. Similar to Ma’s pledge in 2008, the DPP in 2013 promises that defence spending would not fall below 3% (p. 19) once the main opposition party is in power. However, fulfilment of this pledge does not depend only on the result of elections but also on political will to increase defence spending on the expense of cuts in areas like electricity and petrol subsidies or public healthcare despite expected public opposition.
Thirdly, civilians will need to foster control over the Ministry of National Defence if the reforms are to be implemented as politicians expect. A situation where a minister is the former head of General Staff with a background in the Air Force and his deputy is an Army general is highly abnormal for a democracy. Granted, a civilian in charge of the MND does not have a great tradition in Taiwan. The last civilian who was in charge of the MND, Andrew Yang, held his post only six days (1 August – 6 August 2013) before he resigned over allegations of plagiarism in one of his earlier publications. However, reform of the armed forces often goes against vested interest of the different branches in the military. Having soldiers managing the MND plays into these interest because one can hardly expect stakeholders to chop the branch they are sitting on.
The title of the article contains word ‘aborted’ and that might not be a totally fair judgment. However, it is aborted from Ma’s perspective as he won’t be the person overseeing its implementation and military reform will be yet another item the embattled president will not be able to tick off his list. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s military needs reform and an all volunteer force is a step in the right direction. However, it will require a complex effort including improvement of the military’s image and allocation of adequate resources.
Michal Thim is a PhD candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. Michal blogs at Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim.