Who is to Blame For Taiwan’s Military Woes?

Chiang Kai-shek reviews Taiwanese conscripts in the 1950s.

Image source.

Two weeks ago The National Interest published an important, hard-nosed essay by Wendell Minnick. I have had the opportunity to meet Minnick before. His knowledge of and long experience with the ROC Armed Forces (the “guojun” 國軍) has few equals. His assessment on Taiwanese defense preparations is unsparing:

There is a large-scale masquerade ball on the island of Taiwan; a façade that will quickly crumble when the first arrows are drawn from the enemy’s quiver.

Washington policymakers need an entire rethink on the island’s defense posture….

Washington must concoct a way to convince Taiwan’s idealistic idle chattering political elites to stop believing in the fantasy that American troops will swing-in like Tarzan and save them from the tiger—especially with the current destabilization of American political culture.

Taiwan’s military brass are very cognizant of the China threat; it is Taipei’s political leadership that has forced the military to reduce military readiness over the past twenty years. Public lethargy and a lack of confidence in the military has drained the armed forces of manpower and morale. And it is this lethargy, along with the unwillingness of Taiwan’s political elites to communicate this imminent threat to the public, that must be addressed.

Taiwan’s military wants to procure big-ticket items from the United States, but at the same time it has been forced to reduce conscription and training due to funding issues and an apathetic civilian population.

Taiwan’s Air Force just announced an official request from the United States for sixty-six F-16V fighter aircraft; the Army has secured the sale of M1 Abrams main battle tanks; and the Navy has gone forward with the initial procurement of the Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) for its upcoming local-build corvettes. The VLS will be fitted with the Tien Hai (Tien Kung variant) surface-to-air missile.

Even if Taiwan procures all of its dreams and desires from the U.S. government, then the question becomes: who will fly them, drive them, sail them and fire them.

According to the Ministry of National Defense (MND), the current estimate of personnel officially stands at 215,000. Many critics argue that this is the bare minimum needed to repel the first wave of a Chinese invasion.
Now remember, that is the minimum.

The reduction to 215,000 was the result of the 2011–2014 Jing-cui streamlining program, which was extended to 2015. Fortunately, the follow-up Yung-gu plan was canceled. It would have further reduced the number from 215,000 to 175,000 and eliminated conscription entirely, opting for an all-volunteer force. 

Now, recruiters face a real nightmare. Last year the big brains in the presidential office cut pensions 30 percent, with plans to further reduce it 50 percent.

Even though Yung-gu is temporarily on hold, the official current number, 215,000, is an outright lie. The actual number of operational active duty personnel is devastating.

There are actually only 188,000 in total and if you exclude civilian employees, noncombat personnel, those on leave, and cadets, the actual number of warfighters is 152,280; 81 percent of the authorized strength levels needed for fending off an invasion.

Part of the problem is conscription and a decline in patriotism.

Those born before 1994 were required to serve one-year conscription, but it dropped to four months in 2016 when that generation turned eighteen. Since the end of year-long conscription service, the military has been relying on personnel from the four-month program to fill in at least 10 percent of the frontline strength.

Conscripts now receive five weeks of basic training and eleven weeks of specialized training. This will average about five turnovers per year for individual field units. They are also counted as active duty personnel, despite their lack of real contribution to the overall warfighting capabilities of the island…

Anyone suggesting Taiwan’s ennui over a Chinese invasion is a new problem would demonstrate a lack of institutional memory, if not idiocy.

When Taiwan first procured 150 F-16A/Bs in the 1990s, it badgered, ranted and whined about Washington’s refusal to release the AIM-120 AMRAAM’s for its F-16s, yet when they were released in 2004, the initial order was only for 200, then cut to 120. Critics complained Taiwan’s military was the only one on the planet that would procure 120 bullets for 150 guns. The Air Force procured more over the years, 218 in 2007, but its reputation was badly damaged.

As a general rule, Taiwan has about one-third to one-half of the munitions it needs for two-days of aerial combat; it plans to place an emergency order with the United States when a war is on the horizon. In 1996, during the height of the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis, emergency orders were sent to Washington for a wide array of missiles and bombs, but quickly canceled when the crisis ended.

How to change this persistent charade is not for Washington to send more think-tank types pontificating on the island. Based on my discussions with MND, they can no longer tolerate any more advice from analysts and pundits visiting for only a week at time to give unwelcome—and often moronic—advice to them.

The MND has already suffered through numerous academic recommendations that include preparing a guerrilla army to continue the fight after the invasion. There was also the so-called “porcupine strategy” that the MND finally dismissed as a Washington prank.

The MND is so annoyed by the endless parade of DC wonks, think-tank types, and pundits, it has created the Institute for Defense and Security Research (INDSR) as a buffer. The organization successfully baffled RAND visitors recently during an entire day of questioning that went nowhere, and good riddance, they say.

It has to be the White House, not just the Pentagon, that has to “get medieval” on Taiwan’s political elites who no longer heed warnings from their own military.

Taiwanese, all by themselves, must accept the fact they will have to get waist deep in the primordial ooze to defeat an invasion.[1]

Minnick decries the weak bellies of the Taiwan’s “political class.” He is right to do so. Taiwan now enters a decade of grave concern; Taiwan must now decide whether it is willing to make the sacrifices needed to maintain its freedoms. Despite this dire hour, Taiwanese politicians lack the boldness needed to discuss this frankly with their people. They fear issuing calls for sacrifice. This underestimates the Taiwanese people—I sincerely believe if urged to action, the people of Taiwan would not shirk the call. But no call is issued. And so the island lists ever deeper into its ennui.

Yet I cannot put full blame for this state of affairs on the Taiwanese political class. Responsibility for Taiwan’s languor also lies at the feet of the island’s upper brass. They have badly mismanaged their soldiery, and this mismanagement has had grim consequence on national morale. The conscription system is the best example of this: I cannot count the number of Taiwanese men I met who were eager to enter service for their country, only to discover that the Taiwanese conscript wastes their year in what Minnick aptly calls a ‘masquerade.’  Ask them what they learned in their year of service, and they will tell you: “All I learned was how to clean floors really well,” one might say. Or “All I learned was how to stand still for a few hours at a time and check is base visitors have ID.” The overwhelming consensus among young Taiwanese is that conscription (當兵) is an utter waste of time. Conscripts not only do not learn any useful professional skills they can take with them to their post military career—most report that they do not even learn how to kill the enemies they may one day be asked to face.

This is a subset of a larger problem. It—just as much as a decline in toughness or patriotism—is the reason why Taiwanese voters agitate against conscription, and young Taiwanese men are so chary about making a career of military service. It is one of the central reasons Taiwanese have such little confidence in their military and have so little hope for withstanding their enemies across the strait. For most Taiwanese men, conscription is an education in weakness.

And most importantly for the purposes of this blog post: this is a problem that Taiwan’s upper brass cannot blame on Taiwanese democracy. They own this problem, however loathe they are to admit it.


[1] Wendell Minnick, “How to Save Taiwan From Itself,” National Interest (19 March 2019).

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If the Taiwanese are unwilling to take their own defense seriously, why not just sell Taiwan to China?

I can't think of any reason why Taiwan would be able to defend itself.

It's an island nation, so the idea of developing a tradition of land combat is laughable. There's no one to fight for practice. And don't get me started on guerrilla warfare. The Taiwanese are fundamentally Chinese, they will not resist China for any significant period of time.

It would be wiser to develop as a naval power, but again, why? America is the dominant naval power in the region, and the next in line would be Japan. Taiwan doesn't even have the ability to establish a local trade empire because they have no diplomatic or trade relationship with the mainland.

Actually developing military capabilities would upset the regional balance. Being a US client state is good enough for them. If they want to form a long-term political strategy, they should maximize their cultural power to secure the best possible position for themselves in the event of reunification. he next best strategy would be to develop covert ties with local Party officials so they can integrate themselves seamlessly into the rest of China.

Did you read Ian Easton’s piece in the National Interest about how taiwan can defend itself, and how the US can help? His take on the shift to a volunteer force is more optimistic:

‘Taiwan is at the tail end of a transit from a conscription force to an all-volunteer military. Building an elite force of professional warriors is a good thing. It gives Taiwan a comparative advantage. China has no national army and relies mostly on short-term draftees.”

FWIW, I think Minnick is much closer to the heart of the matter on this. Just interested in your take.



I think Easton is right in theory, but Minnick is right in practice. The one thing Easton is very much correct on that I wish more Taiwanese realized is the rather poor quality of the PRC conscript. I have met them. Peasant kids, mostly, neither educated nor particularly tough. The distance between them and say, your average US Marine rifleman, leaps out to me everytime I interact with them.

So yes, a professional force should have an advantage here. It is just a question fo whether the MND can build one. (Though as someone pointed out on Twitter: the Navy and the AF are in much better shape, professionalism wise, than the ROC Army. But it is the Army that sweeps up most of the conscripts.)

Ian Easton doesn't know anything about war. He's another useless academic clown military groupie. Taiwan needs a large ground force, similar to Israel's, fighting as part of a combined arms maneuver concept. It will have to be a conscript force, since they don't have the budget for a massive volunteer force. But they will have to do the fighting and dying. And they will need boat loads of ammo to do it with. And if they don't want to, then they will be Chicom slaves.

I recently completed the War College with a Taiwanese Marine. Nice guy, but he was very negative on his country's will to fight. If Hong Kong hasn't changed that, then there is no point in the U.S. supporting them. They are doomed. I sure as Hell don't want my kids (both Army) fighting for people who won't fight for themselves.