Defense of Taiwan Post-2016 Elections: Legacy and New Challenges of Military Transformation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 1

Outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Yingjeou is seen here observing Taiwan's annual Han Kuang military exercise in 2013

Taiwan’s presidential election is slowly but surely approaching its end, entering the last week before voters cast their ballots on January 16, 2016. Taiwanese elections are rarely uneventful, and this time they promise quite a shake-up of the domestic political environment. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is poised to comfortably win the presidential elections and possibly even a legislative majority during the concurrent legislative races for the first time in the country’s democratic history. Since Beijing’s attempt to influence elections by force in 1996, a possible change of the ruling party in Taiwan has always drawn special attention to Taipei’s complex relationship with Beijing. Moreover, the most recent iterations of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense’ (MND) annual report on the People’s Liberation Army (104年中共軍力報告書) and biannual National Defense Report (104年國防報告書) re-emphasized a claim made two years ago that by 2020 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will acquire sufficient capabilities to use force against Taiwan and prevent third party intervention. [1] The key take away from the MND’s reports is not so much the exact year, as the fact of continuous force build-up by China that defense planners will have to address with limited resources at their disposal.

As the primary existential threat to Taiwan’s independence, China’s military is a constant in Taiwan’s defense planning and is the main factor underpinning defense policymaking of the new administration. However, this has not guaranteed that defense issues are high on the election campaign agendas. A rare exception was the DPP’s defense policy briefing at the end of October, during which the party endorsed the plan to develop a 1,500-ton submarine and announced the proposal to establish an Information Communication Electronic Warfare Force in 2019 as part of the DPP’s ten-year defense policy plan (United Daily News, October 29, 2015; Taipei Times, October 30, 2015). Based on Kuomintang’s presidential candidate, Eric Chu’s presentations on December 25 and the first presidential debate on December 27, he would largely follow Ma’s defense policies (Liberty Times, December 26, 2015; ETToday, October 27, 2015). Irrespective of the winner, the new administration will inherit a challenging defense agenda underscored by increasing Chinese military capability and the will to impose it on Taiwan. But that is only part of the problem. Whoever replaces President Ma Ying-jeou will have to deal with a number of enduring problems from Ma’s and previous presidents’ administrations.

Troubled Transformation

Chief among the pressing issues is the unfinished transition of the military to an all-volunteer force (AVF), which President Ma announced during his election campaign in 2008 and had attempted to accomplish by 2014 (United Daily News, January 22, 2015). The decision to move toward a volunteer force was made in 2005 following the conclusion of the Military Service Overall Review Taskforce (兵役制度全面檢討改進推動小組)—several years before Ma made the AVF transition the backbone of his defense policy platform in 2008 (Awakening News Network [台灣醒報], March 30, 2015). Twenty years of downsizing has seen Taiwan’s military shrink from just below 500,000 in 1994, to a projected 190,000–170,000 men and women by 2019, a leaner force better suited for the requirements of modern warfare according to defense planners (Central News Agency, August 26, 2015).

The essence of the AVF transition is to replace conscripts with career soldiers. But downsizing does not address the AVF project’s woes. The final implementation date has been moved back from 2014 to 2015, and then to 2017 (Taipei Times, September 13, 2013). The whole process has been plagued by dismal recruitment figures, leaving much doubt over the future of the program (Focus Taiwan, August 26, 2015; Taipei Times, August 27, 2015). Moreover, the quality of the recruits also left much to be desired (United Daily News, October 12, 2015). The new president will have to decide whether to continue with the plan as envisioned by Ma, or implement changes, possibly keeping the current mix of mandatory conscription and volunteer force. Even though the transition to the AVF has been somewhat controversial, a reversion to a conscription-based force is not possible due to Taiwan’s declining birth rate and the greater demand on technical skills of new recruits—a consequence of the ever-increasing technological sophistication of modern weapons and communications (Apple Daily [Taiwan], August 27, 2015).

Lack of recruits for the all-volunteer force is not the only problem. A closely related issue is Taiwan’s relatively low defense spending. Like the KMT in 2007, the DPP in 2015 is promising to raise spending levels from just above 2 percent of GDP to 3 percent (Apple Daily [Taiwan], September 2, 2007). [2] Also like the KMT after it took power, the DPP will be hard pressed to fulfil its election pledge especially if it will require cuts elsewhere such as energy and fuel subsidies. The total sum allocated to defense spending tells only part of the story. Equally important is the structure of the spending. In 2008, Ma has promised an allocation ratio of 4:3:3 between personnel expenses, maintenance, and acquisition and research and development (R&D). Last year, Taiwan came close to the “golden ratio” with personnel expenses at 44.8 percent, maintenance costs at 23.1 percent, and R&D and acquisitions at 30.6 percent (China Times, September 5, 2014). However, it is unrealistic to sustain this allocation without increasing the size of the budget. For example, maintenance costs jump in cycles between the purchase of spare parts for several years ahead; as weapons inventories age, maintenance costs are bound to rise. Moreover, the AVF transition is going to put further pressure on the budget that is already stretched thin. The military, which has benefited from “cheap labor” provided by skilled conscripts in the areas of maintenance and medical services, will need to offer competitive salaries for new recruits and experienced officers alike. It is clear that the next government will have to take bold steps if it is serious about addressing its defense needs via Taiwan’s indigenous arms industry. Otherwise, with personnel and maintenance costs on the rise, the R&D and acquisition portion of the budget will suffer.

Acquisition and Personnel Issues

Under the broader category of arms procurement issues are Taiwan’s nascent indigenous submarine program and the difficulty in acquiring new fighter jets for Taiwan’s air force (Republic of China Air Force, ROCAF) (China Brief, March 30, 2012). These issues also illuminate Taiwan’s relative dependence on U.S. arms sales and connect it to the necessity of a greater defense budget. Taiwan’s submarine program alone offers an uphill struggle for the incoming president. The next few years will be critical for addressing the requirements needed to undertake this project, with which domestic shipbuilders have little technical experience and scarce human resources to offer. The submarine program is one of several projects pursued by Taiwan that seek to address its defense needs which have been constrained by limited access to foreign military sales. “Innovative and asymmetric” (創新/不對稱) measures are meant to help Taiwan to re-define the military balance across the Strait by providing a new form of credible deterrence (United Daily News, October 6). [3] Effort on the part of the domestic arms industry is indispensable in this pursuit. The DPP, as the likely winner of the 2016 elections, appears to grasp the necessity of greater investment in the defense industry, and it dedicated the last of its 12 Defense Blue Papers entirely to redevelopment of an indigenous defense industry. [4] Together with sales of diesel-electric submarines, acquisition of new fighter jets is another recurring feature of Taipei’s defense procurement process. ROCAF has not obtained a new fighter jet since buying the Mirage 2000-5 Ei/Di and the F-16A/B Block 20 from France and the U.S., respectively, in early 1990s. The next generation fighter the ROCAF brass want—the F-35—will not be available in the foreseeable future (Now News, August 19, 2014). Since the upcoming tender for the new jet trainer, scheduled for 2017 and the upgrade programs for the F-16 and the F-CK-1 will consume a significant share of the budget allocated for the air force, Taiwan’s ability to attain qualitative superiority or even maintain technological parity through equipment, is an unrealistic prospect (China Times, September 27, 2015; United Daily News, October 22, 2015; ETToday, December 4, 2015). Taiwan’s next president will have to decide whether to focus on domestic fighter development, re-focus on the longer-term availability of the F-35, or perhaps even scale back the fleet of combat aircraft, and put emphasis on area-denial counter-measures in the form of modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

However, Taiwan’s diminishing ability to maintain control of the airspace is not just a matter of replacing old hardware with new. In addition to an aging fleet, ROCAF effectiveness as a fighting force has also been severely hampered by a serious shortage of pilots, the eroding qualitative advantage vis-à-vis the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and the vulnerability presented by relatively small number of primary airbases. [5] While most ROCAF pilots are well trained, with a higher than NATO standard of 180 flying hours per year, the deteriorating economic situation in Taiwan has forced the government to cut back on bonuses and other incentives, which resulted in a net loss of experienced pilots (China Times, January 8, 2014). As a result, the ROCAF has a dismal ratio of qualified pilots per plane (pilot-to-cockpit ratio) of less than 1.5 pilots per plane (China Times, September 1, 2008). This means that wartime sortie generation would be gradually hampered as pilots become exhausted from one mission to the next without the possibility of relief. These exhausted pilots would be up against newer Chinese J-11s, J-10s and Russian-built Su-30s. In addition to future additions to the PLAAF’s inventory, PRC pilots are getting more time in the air. PLAAF pilots’ average flight hours have been gradually increasing from 6 or 8 hours per month to 12, with pilots from its frontline regiments (歼击航空团) reaching 180 annual hours in recent years (Liberty Times, October 23, 2008; China Review News [中國評論新聞網], January 13, 2014). Consequently, the qualitative advantage that the ROCAF enjoyed for the past few decades is rapidly shrinking.

A potential solution to ROCAF woes could be gleaned from U.S. Naval War College professor William S. Murray’s controversial Porcupine strategy proposal. [6] Through hardened C4ISR and the efficient integration of both the Air Defense Missile Command and the Air Defense Artillery Command, Taiwan could conceivably reach a higher cost/benefit ratio in the fight for control of the skies over Taiwan. Problems facing such an approach are numerous, not the least being the number of scandals and low morale that have plagued the Air Defense Missile Command—allegedly one of the reasons behind the command’s separation from the Air Force (Apple Daily [Taiwan], March 1, 2015; Liberty Times, April 9, 2015; Central News Agency, November 4, 2015; Now News, March 23, 2012). However the MND is considering the reintegration of these two commands under the air force again in the near future and that should pave the right way toward an efficient integrated air defense system that could lessen the load for the active fighter complements (United Daily News, May 2, 2014).


According to Taiwan MND estimates, the PLA will be able to field a maximum force of 410,000 troops for an amphibious landing on Taiwan, consisting of 30 infantry and four armored divisions. An invasion force of this size would necessitate a minimum force level of 192,500, with a 92,500-strong army and 50,000-strong air force and navy, respectively (Apple Daily [Taiwan], August 27, 2015). With Taiwan’s birthrate significantly below the replacement rate, at 1.07 percent, the complete transition to an AVF would require the adoption of a more professional reserve component, not unlike the Active Guard Reserve (AGR) of the U.S. Army in order to supplement the shortage of experienced personnel (ETToday, October 12, 2015).

The most severe issues hampering the effectiveness of the ROCAF are low numbers of pilots and the difficulty in acquiring combat aircraft. Numerous concerns, including budget cuts that resulted in less training and insufficient protection in the form of hangers and bunkers also put the survivability of the fighter fleet in question (Liberty Times, October 23, 2008; Liberty Times, October 25, 2015). [7] Therefore, a shift toward a SAM-based area-denial approach may help relieve the air force’s struggle for air parity across the Strait, provided that the integration of the Air Defense Missile Command (防空飛彈司令部) and Air Defense Artillery Command (防空砲兵指揮部) could be achieved in an efficient manner.

What will be required from the incoming administration is the political will to make the necessary steps, which start, but by no means end, with an increase of defense spending, even if it would mean alienating voters. This is no small feat for a government that derives its mandate to govern from democratic elections. However, what is at stake is not an election loss four years later, but the ability to stand up to Beijing’s demands and preserve Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty against the backdrop of a deteriorating security environment.

Michal Thim is a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, currently working toward postgraduate research degree in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham. He has been published in The Diplomat, The National Interest and The Strategist, among others.

Liao Yen-Fan is a Taipei-based analyst for the Cyber Security firm Team T5, specializing in cyber security, air power and the Taiwanese military. He has previously written for The Diplomat and Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security.


1. The 2013 National Defense Report (102年國防報告書) states that “The PRC plans to build comprehensive capabilities for using military force against Taiwan by 2020. In the future, the PRC will continue to use joint operations as the basic form of operations, and aims to effectively prevent foreign forces from intervening in its operations against Taiwan, posing a growing threat.” The complete collection of English versions of National Defense Report (1992–2015) can be found on the author’s blog Taiwan in Perspective, <>

2. The DPP’s Blue Defense Paper No. 1 states: “budget deficiency in recent years has already seriously affected military acquisition and readiness. The administration should increase the defense budget at once. We will set a 3 percent of GDP level as the goal of the annual defense budget and significantly increase acquisition expenditure when the DPP returns to power.” DPP’s Defense Agenda (民進黨的國防議題), Democratic Progressive Party, June 2013 <>.

3. The term can be found in the latest iteration of National Defense Report (104年國防報告書) 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review <>.

4. Preparing the Development of Indigenous Defense Industry (本土國防產業發展的準備), Democratic Progressive Party, May 2015 <>. The entire collection of DPP Defense Blue Papers can be accessed at <>.

5. Liao Yen-Fan, “F-35B Lightning II, Is it right for ROCAF?,” Strategic Vision, Vol. 3 No. 16 <> or; The ROCAF’s order of battle is available as an infographic on the author’s blog “Taiwan in Perspective” <> or at CIGeography <>.

6. Murray argued, in 2008, that Taiwan should focus on infrastructure hardening and redundancy instead of pursuing high-profile advanced weapon purchases from the U.S. His proposal found some audience in Taiwan as there were certain similarities drawn with Ma Ying-jeou’s “Hard ROC” (固若磐石) plan. William S. Murray, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 <—William-S–.aspx>.

7. According to the Liberty Times report, the Control Yuan (監察院) has, for the second time in five years, pointed out that the Air Force was negligent in providing sufficient protective hangars for its fighter fleet. ROCAF officials acknowledged the insufficient protection offered by the current system but claimed that a solution has already been found, albeit a classified one. On the other hand, Taiwan has been highly regarded for its Rapid Runway Repair (RRR) capability. See Ian Easton, Able Archer: Taiwan Defense Strategy in an Age of Precision Strike, Project 2049 Institute, September 2014, pp. 17–18 and 52–53 <>.