A professional military by 2014? A pipe dream
On Monday, the Ministry of National Defense said that starting in 2011, the Taiwanese military would start replacing military conscripts with professional soldiers at a rate of at least 10 percent annually, with conscript measures ending in 2014. At present, all men above the age of 20 are required to do one year of military service.
The idea of a professional army is not a creation of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), nor is it the result of supposed reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In fact, plans to create an all-volunteer or “partial” all-volunteer military were first floated during the first term of the Democratic Progressive Party administration.
Given the increasingly sophisticated weapons systems soldiers have to operate in a modern combat environment and the relatively short period of training conscripts receive during their one-year compulsory service, attracting motivated career soldiers who can be fully trained and upgraded as systems and concepts change makes perfect sense. In fact, under the current conscription system, one could be excused for doubting that young Taiwanese fresh out of compulsory service would be able to defend the nation if China attacked. Aside from the month or so they spend in boot camp, the great majority of conscripts spend time pushing paper in a stuffy office and cannot wait to resume their civilian life.
The problem with the ministry’s announcement on Monday, however, is that it comes amid cuts in the military budget by the KMT government, which has used the illusion of warmer ties with Beijing to justify the reduction. Taiwan’s overall defense budget for 2009 is US$10.17 billion, or NT$10.4 billion (US$301.4 million) lower than the 2008 level.
As studies have shown, creating a fully professional army is a costly endeavor. One initial estimate, mentioned in Bernard D. Cole’s Taiwan’s Security, was more than US$4 billion, or NT$138 billion, while the initial cost for a “partial” professional army was set at US$400 million. To put things in perspective, creating a fully professional army would cost Taiwan about one third of its overall defense budget for 2009. Even if this is spread over a five-year period, the project represents a major investment.
Without an increase in defense spending or special budget allocations, the creation of a fully professional army by 2014 will be financially impossible. And yet, when the ministry made the announcement on Monday, it did not mention any increases in defense spending. Nor has it said anything about raising soldiers’ salaries (about US$1,000 a month presently) to make the military an attractive employer for young Taiwanese. Absent career opportunities and remuneration that can compete with what is offered in the private sector, or even in academia, there is no way the military will manage to attract the talent, in large enough a quantity, it needs to meet its requirements.
What this means is that either the professional military will be anything but — a botched job — or the number of professional soldiers that current budgets allow for would be so low as to make Taiwan’s military unable to defend the nation. Either way, this bodes ill for Taiwan’s future ability to defend itself.