Taiwan Military Reform: Declining Operational Capabilities?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 12

The DPP Rolls Out Their Critique of Taiwan's Defense Policy

On June 6, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) released its first “Blue Paper” evaluating Taiwan’s defense requirements. Although the report probably serves a political purpose, the DPP’s critical assessment of Taiwan’s military budget, readiness and acquisition joins several other recent developments—including Taiwan’s second Quadrennial Defense Review released in March—in raising questions about the island’s warfighting capabilities (Taipei Times, June 7). Declining operational capabilities in the Taiwanese armed forces will diminish the military’s deterrence value—the key component in Taiwan’s defense strategy. This would leave U.S. policymakers and military with little time to decide on a response to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military operations aimed at changing the status quo. Although it is difficult to make a firm judgment with high confidence, Taiwanese official evaluations and press reports on the island’s defense posture raise questions that Taipei needs to address materially or in communications with Washington.

One of the most recent voices to draw attention to this situation was William Stanton, who was until last year director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). He told a March conference in Taipei that defense spending is unrealistically low, jeopardizing the implementation of an all-volunteer force. Stanton further assessed armed forces morale as low, and believes that there are signs of a weakened commitment to military readiness, including a lack of concern by the Taiwan people over a cross-Strait military imbalance.

Foreigners, however, are not the only ones to express concerns about Taiwan’s current defense posture and morale vis-à-vis mainland China. In March, a Taiwan military spokesman stated that PLA modernization and military buildup is increasing the cross-Strait military imbalance in favor of Beijing; while former Taiwan National Defense University President Hsia Ying-chou recently stated that Taiwan cannot compete with China’s military buildup regardless of the level of defense spending (China Post, April 9; March 27). Stanton’s remarks about Taiwan’s morale echoed sentiments expressed in the press by Taiwanese college students. A Taipei university student said, “We have good economic relations with the mainland, so there’s no reason to think that an attack will ever happen;” while a Taiwan National University student was quoted as saying, “I think Taiwan has no chance of winning a fight against China” (Associated Press, March 13; China Post [Taiwan], January 11; Taipei Times, January 11).

Tensions have greatly eased between Taipei and Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou was first elected in 2008, however, the mainland has not renounced the use of force to resolve the core issue of Taiwan. Furthermore, PLA military modernization has emphasized forces with a potential Taiwan contingency mission, increasing the cross-Strait military imbalance, and making careless optimism a luxury.

Defense Strategy and Future Requirements

Current Taiwan defense strategy is based on deterrence, including building a “Hard ROC” defense force and the military strategic concept of “resolute defense, credible deterrence.” Credible deterrence includes training and combat preparation to dissuade Beijing from conducting military operations. Resolute defense includes a fortified defense and counterattack capability that can absorb the PLA’s first strike, and prevent PLA amphibious and airborne forces from establishing footholds on the island (TWQDR 2013, pp. 40–42; ROCNDR 2011, p. 145) [1].

If deterrence fails, the defense strategy is to counter PLA blockade operations to maintain vital sea and air lines of communications, interdict or delay PLA forces approaching Taiwan as well as defend against PLA amphibious and airborne landings. The goal is to strike PLA forces in the midst of a transit of the Taiwan Strait in order to prevent a landing and lodgment with the Army representing the last line of defense (ROCNDR 2011, pp. 108–110, 131–132).

Much of the MND’s warfighting concept remains visionary, pinned on future acquisitions of weapons systems and equipment, and improvement of joint operations capabilities. For example, joint counter air capabilities are cited by the MND as an important component for Taiwan force protection. According to the MND, these counter air operations hinge on future acquisitions and improvements to intelligence, early warning and tactical air control; air interception; joint air and missile defense; and base and facility protection capabilities. Improving intelligence, early warning, and tactical air control capabilities will require construction of regional operations control centers to support an integrated air defense systems, improved early warning systems, and enhanced all-weather surveillance and warning systems. Air interception capabilities require acquisition of next-generation fighters with stealth, air-refueling, long-range and beyond visual range engagement capabilities, advanced EW systems, air-launched, land-attack, and anti-ship missiles, and unmanned combat air systems; long-range missile systems with multi-target engagement capabilities and anti-radiation missiles; and continued development of advanced data link systems to enhance digital C2 capabilities of existing fighters. Joint air and missile defense capabilities require integrated warning systems and centers, PATRIOT systems and new types of missiles, and a multi-layered integrated air defense systems and network. Protection capabilities for critical bases and infrastructure require underground and hardened construction, greater force mobility, counter anti-radiation missile capabilities, and system redundancy and recovery capabilities. This is a considerable acquisition list, and similar wish lists are provided for the other key capabilities required to counter PLA operations (TWQDR 2013, pp. 44–65).

Reform and Restructuring Plans

The current restructuring plan for 2011–2014—although some reports indicate the plan has been extended to 2016—includes streamlining the command structure. The Taiwan military faces resource constraints and a dwindling manpower pool due to low birth rate, both of which have driven continued force reductions and the current transition to an all-volunteer force. The military hopes the smaller all-volunteer force will attract quality, long-term servicemen to maintain a credible warfighting capability (TWQDR 2013, pp. 24–31, 69; China Policy Institute, April 2).

Reductions have occurred, in part, to rebalance the military from an Army-centric force supported by the Navy and Air Force to a more balanced military better structured to counter potential threats from the PLA. Major personnel reductions, primarily in Army units, began in 1997 when overall strength was 452,000, falling to 275,000 in 2008. The target end strength of the reforms is 215,000 planned for the end of 2014, when the all-volunteer force is scheduled to be fully established (TWQDR 2013, p. 52). Press reports, however, indicate that further reductions may be under consideration, reducing the total force to 176,000 personnel by 2015 (Taipei Times, May 14; ROCNDR 2011 pp. 132, 165).

The MND hopes relying on volunteers rather than short term conscripts will improve readiness and training, providing greater stability particularly in the Navy and Air Force. For example, higher skill levels are required for personnel to operate and maintain higher tech weapons systems and equipment in the Navy and Air Force. The move to volunteers is also likely to provide some improvement to the noncommissioned officer (NCO) ranks. The ratio of volunteers to conscripts for NCOs has increased from 70:30 in 2009 to 90:10 in 2011, which combined with improved education and training should provide greater quality in an NCO system that was in need of reform (ROCNDR 2011, pp. 132, 165).

Potential Problem Areas

Currently, there are at least five potential problem areas in Taiwan’s defense that deserve attention: problems in the movement toward the all-volunteer force; limited training for combat operations; a shrinking defense budget; vulnerability to espionage; and the challenge of countering PLA joint strike capabilities.

All-Volunteer Military

Creation of the all-volunteer force only refers to active duty units, with Taiwan still relying on a reserve force based on a shortened compulsory service requirement. Compulsory military service for men born after January 1, 1994 has been reduced from one-year to four months of basic training before being assigned to the reserve force. Reserves man all of the infantry brigades that will defend beaches against PLA amphibious landings, and reservists probably are required to bring at least some active duty units to full strength in wartime. Reservists called up for compulsory service now will receive only four months of training, two months of basic followed by two months of specialized training. College students can apply for a two-phase military training program spread over two summers. Reservists are subject to recall for five to seven days training every two years during an eight-year period (Taipei Times, February 20; China Post, January 1; TWQDR 2013 pp. 86–88; ROCNDR 2011, p. 215).

The plan to implement the all-volunteer force already is running into problems attracting the requisite recruits. Recruitment was 2,000 short in 2011 of a target of only 4,000 volunteers, and 4,000 short of the 2012 goal of 15,000. The MND hopes to recruit more females, with 2,309 the target for 2013. Inadequate compensation is cited as a major reason for difficulties attracting quality personnel. Proposals this year to slash veteran benefits appears to be undermining recruitment further. The military also faces a problem with volunteers opting for noncombat over combat units with only half of the 2012 recruitment goal for combat positions being filled, an indication that combat units in the services could be understrength. The actual active duty force is currently estimated to be 40,000 personnel below the authorized level, which will affect readiness levels. The MND also faces competition for a dwindling pool of talented recruits from the police and coast guard (Associated Press Taipei, March 13 Taiwan Today, March 13; Central News Agency, February 24; China Post, January 11; ROCNDR 2011, pp. 132, 165).

Finally, there is the issue of civilian perceptions of military service. A Taipei citizen repeated the saying that “good people do not go into the military” and added “I myself did just a couple of weeks of training and it was a total waste of time” (Taipei Times, January 11; China Post, January 11).


Disaster prevention and relief have become core missions of the Taiwan armed forces since Typhoon Marakot struck the island in 2009. The military, including reserves, now routinely conducts disaster preparedness exercises across the island, which is taking away from limited combat training and exercises. Joint training is largely limited to the annual Han Kuang command post wargame. This years’ Han Kuang 29 was the first exercise in several years to include a live fire phase. Combined arms field training is greatly inhibited by space limitations. There is also the fear of accidents that restricts realism and limits the effectiveness of unit training and exercises. Officers are held accountable for training accidents in their units regardless of whether they had any responsibility, with careers effectively ended when something goes wrong. The limited reserve training will have a significant impact on the Army’s defensive brigades even though they have a single mission. Once mobilized in a crisis, these reserve brigades will require training to bring them up to a minimal operational capability because of the short training period when first called up. In addition, they will need to prepare their defensive positions and extensive obstacle belts, which could easily require weeks. In addition to reduced initial training, reservists who are called up for training often perform disaster relief-related training rather than combat training, further lowering their readiness for combat missions (Taipei Times, February 24; TWQDR 2009, p. 25).

Defense Budget

The MND has stated that a defense expenditure not less than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is required to support defense reform and modernization, meet the increased costs of the all-volunteer force, acquire major weapons systems, and maintain and repair equipment (TWQDR 2013, pp. 75–76; TWQDR 2009, p. 106). Defense spending, however, has fallen to 2.2 percent of GDP, placing the future of the all-volunteer force and modernization plans in jeopardy (Associated Press Taipei, March 13). The cost of the all-volunteer force is reportedly adversely impacting equipment modernization, calling into question the MND’s warfighting requirements that are needed to counter PLA operations. In 2008 37.7 percent of the budget went to personnel and 35.9 percent to weapons purchases, in 2011 approximately 47.5 percent went to personnel and 27.74 percent for military investments and, in 2013, 50 percent of the budget is marked for personnel with 25 percent for modernization (China Post, May 9).

Spy Cases

The number of Taiwanese espionage cases over the last decade has raised U.S. concerns about the integrity of military and intelligence information. During his March address, former AIT Director Stanton was only the latest individual to raise such concerns. Chinese penetration has included the army’s electronic information division, the presidential office, the intelligence services, and the Taiwan Navy (Central News Agency, April 18; March 1; Taipei Times, June 16, 2012; Wen Wei Po, March 1, 2012; “Taiwan Espionage Cases Highlight Changes in Chinese Intelligence Operations,” China Brief, July 1 ,2011). The frequency and number of these cases makes Taiwan’s denials of any significant damage seem a little glib. Although there is no definitive way to answer how successful Beijing has been at acquiring Taiwanese secrets, this is another example where questions are raised about Taiwan’s readiness to resist cross-Strait coercion. Finding a way to reassure foreign partners about the supposedly limited damage is one area where consultations rather than material changes would make a difference.

PLA Joint Firepower Strike Capabilities

The Taiwan Air Force and Navy are keys to the defense strategy to interdict or delay PLA force movements towards Taiwan. Their ability to operate and sustain combat operations against PLA forces, however, is threatened by PLA modernization and increasing joint firepower strike capabilities which can repeatedly strike air fields and naval bases. The MND recognizes growing PLA capabilities to conduct joint firepower strikes, including anti-radiation missiles and targeting capabilities, as representing a serious threat to Taiwan forces and infrastructure. Taiwan is improving ballistic missile defense capabilities, acquiring an offensive missile capability and purchasing rapid runway repair kits. Taiwan Air Force and Navy capabilities to conduct sustained operations, however, will be difficult at best in the face of overwhelming strikes by PLA missiles, aircraft, long-range rockets and special operations forces (TWQDR 2013, pp. 18–21; Taipei Times, January 1, Military News Agency, February 5).


The Taiwan military does have a professional officer corps, and limited modernization is occurring, but a number of serious issues are adversely impacting Taiwan military capabilities to execute defense plans. The all-volunteer force is facing difficulties attracting quality personnel, especially for combat units, even with a dwindling force structure, as well as squeezing funding for modernization in an inadequate defense budget. The Taiwan Army, as a last line of defense, and perhaps the most survivable of the three services from PLA offensive operations, is most adversely affected by force reductions and the all-volunteer force, which leaves it with a large reserve component with limited training. The reserve brigades upon mobilization will need to train and prepare field fortifications which could take weeks. Joint operations are cited by the MND as a key capability, and C4ISR modernization will support joint command, however, limited joint training occurs. The disaster relief mission is now taking critical training time away from active duty and reserve unit combat training. The defense budget has fallen below levels the MND states is necessary to support the all-volunteer force as well as modernization requirements. This combined with continuing PLA modernization is increasing the cross-Strait military imbalance. Taiwan Air Force, Navy, and fixed infrastructure are vulnerable to intense PLA joint firepower strikes, calling into question their ability to withstand a first strike and continue operations. The overall ability of Taiwan forces to withstand initial strikes and maintain a credible force against PLA operations could well be limited.

Former AIT Director William Stanton raised serious questions about Taiwan operational readiness, in addition to warnings over the growing imbalance in cross-Strait military capabilities. Falling operational readiness undercuts the deterrent element of Taiwan’s defense strategy. Reduced Taiwan military readiness will lower capabilities to interdict, delay, defend, or hold out against PLA forces with increasingly diverse operational capabilities. This could well leave a shortened timeframe for U.S. decision makers to act, and for the U.S. military to respond, potentially leaving both Washington and Taipei with a fait accompli.


  1. Taiwan Quadrennial Defense Review 2013, Taipei: Ministry of National Defense, 2013, available online <https://qdr.mnd.gov.tw/encontent.html>. Hereafter, the report will be cited in-text as (TWQDR 2013, p. #). National Defense Report Editing Committee, 2011 Republic of China National Defense Report, Taipei: Ministry of National Defense, August 2011, Available online <https://2011mndreport.mnd.gov.tw/index.html>. Hereafter, the report will be cited in-text as (ROCNDR 2011, p. #).
  2. Author’s observations and conversations with Taiwan Army officers.