Taiwan’s Military Reforms and Strategy: Reset Required

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 13

Taiwan's military reforms face difficult obstacles. (Credit:wikicommons).

According to recently inaugurated President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s military is in need of “drastic” reforms to address a number of problems including military officers’ lack of strategic guidance, limited resources, and issues with force structure, training, morale and discipline (Taipei Times, July 5). President Tsai and her administration face serious defense reform issues requiring new and innovative solutions to counter PLA threats and overcome serious problems within the Taiwan military. Under former President Ma Ying-jeou and with the backing of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Taiwan moved toward an all-volunteer force which has encountered serious obstacles that are reducing operational readiness and the capability to defend Taiwan (China Brief, August 23, 2013).

Military Reforms and Reductions

A centerpiece of Taiwan’s military reforms is the transition to an all-volunteer force, a goal that has now been pushed back to beyond 2017. This planned “all-volunteer” military would actually serve as the peacetime core of a larger wartime military that would mobilize reserve units as well as integrate reservists into active-duty units during a crisis. Under the current system, more than 140,000 reservists are subject to only 5–7 days of training in disaster relief and basic training including administrative tasks every two years, with a maximum of two call-ups in every eight year period, but Taiwanese military officials noted frequent abuse of even this minimal mobilization—as many as 21 percent of reservists in 2016 exploited loopholes, such as booking trips overseas before their mobilization, to avoid being called up.

The reforms included a planned force reduction from 400,000 to 215,000 personnel. However, the inability to attract the necessary quality and quantity of volunteers is forcing reductions below what the military had considered essential to execute the national defense strategy. Failure to recruit volunteers has forced the military to continue supplementing the force with conscription past 2015 when it was planned to have ended, forcing the MND to continue conscription into 2017 (FocusTaiwan, August 16). The revised reform plan launched in 2015 will reduce the military below 200,000 by the end of 2019 in order to match the numbers of volunteers recruited. Some estimates project the military’s end strength will be around 170,000 (China Post , June 8; China Post, May 27).

The inability of the military to meet the quota of volunteers has left active duty units understrength, putting the transition to an all-volunteer force in doubt. Many issues contribute to low recruitment rates, including inadequate compensation and benefits, a general low regard for military service, better opportunities in the civilian economy, and falling birth rates. The Republic of China Military Academy is facing declining numbers of applicants, with enrollment falling short by 210 students in 2016 in part due to qualified applicants deciding instead to enroll in civilian universities. President Tsai has publicly acknowledged the effect of staff and personnel shortages on combat readiness. Fewer bodies means more stress and additional burdens for troops who must perform multiple tasks (Taipei Times, June 18; China Post, June 8).

There are additional indications of morale problems. Taiwan legislators have recently criticized the military over personnel leaving service by questionable means, particularly officers. An unusually large number of officers are reportedly being treated for psychiatric disorders at military hospitals, with legislators calling for an investigation of officers claiming mental health issues to enable them to retire early with pensions. On the other hand, volunteer soldiers claiming an inability to adapt to military life are forced to fulfill their service (Taipei Times, June 1).

The 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review published during President Ma’s administration stated that the minimum level of defense expenditure was no less than 3 percent of GDP to support a force of 215,000. However, during his presidency the defense budget continued to decline to about 2 percent of GDP. The lack of urgency on defense issues during Ma’s administration is no doubt tied to his assessment that a conflict is not likely. President Ma’s administration also failed to assess the high cost associated with the transition from a conscript to a volunteer military requiring higher pay and benefits to attract qualified personnel. The defense budget under the new DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) administration is not scheduled to reach 3 percent of GDP in 2017 due to Taiwan’s current financial situation, despite urging by Senator John McCain and others that Taiwan’s 2.1 percent of GDP defense spending is inadequate. The increasing amount of the defense budget that is devoted to personnel, 50 percent of the 2013 defense budget, is limiting weapons procurement, 25 percent of the defense budget in 2013, as well as training and readiness (China Brief, June 7, 2013; Taipei Times, May 8, 2015; Focus Taiwan, June 21; Taipei Times, June 11). [1]

Combat Training versus Disaster Relief

Taiwan’s military has a number of training problems that need to be addressed in order to enhance wartime operational capabilities. Recently a supersonic Hsiung-feng II anti-ship missile was accidentally fired from a corvette at Zuoying Navy Base. The missile traveled approximately 75 km and hit a Taiwan fishing trawler in waters near Penghu killing the boat’s captain and injuring three crew. A Taiwan Navy NCO, a second class petty officer and the weapon systems operator, mistakenly fired the missile during a training drill when he switched from simulation to combat mode, exhibiting poor training with no officer present. This incident is the most recent symptom of poor training and lack of discipline within the Taiwan military. The military also experiences a lack of realistic combined arms and joint training that reduces operational capabilities. The anti-ship missile accident, combined with public criticism of a recent incident of Marines torturing and killing a dog at a military base, has raised questions in Taiwan about military morale and discipline, as well as a need to improve operational guidelines (China Post, July 2).

Since Taiwan was hit by the deadly Typhoon Morakot in 2009, the Taiwanese military has emphasized disaster relief training. As President Ma put it, “There is little chance of war breaking out, but natural disasters happen almost every year.” He announced that the military should purchase “weapons systems” that could be employed during wartime and peacetime to enhance disaster relief (China Post, January 12). The Taiwan Army in particular spends substantial training time each year conducting disaster relief exercises with civil authorities to prepare to respond to frequent natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes (Military News Agency, April 18). President Ma also diverted 15 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 60 purchased for the Taiwan Army to the National Airborne Service Corps (NASC) to boost the organizations disaster relief capabilities. His administration was criticized for the move since the Black Hawks were originally purchased to replace aging UH-1 Iroquois helicopters. The Army Aviation and Special Forces Command’s 601st Army Aviation Brigade (3rd Theater of Operations) and 602nd Army Aviation Brigade (5th Theater of Operations) are key units supporting the two field armies in northern and central Taiwan. Critics believed that Eurocopter AS365 Dauphins should have been purchased for NASC as a less expensive alternative that still met the requirements of rescue missions (China Post, March 24). The time allocated to disaster relief training takes valuable time away from combat oriented training and lowers operational readiness to respond to PLA threats.

Military training is hampered by terrain in built-up areas or mountainous regions that forces the Army to rely on small training areas that cannot accommodate realistic combined arms training. For example, the single Joint Operations Training Base in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan is relatively small, and has been on the receiving end of protests from local residents over environmental concerns, and fines from the local government over damages caused by live fire at the base. In fact, this training area is actually designated as a joint live fire range rather than as a training area for conducting joint operations and maneuver. Military exercises also have been reduced elsewhere in response to public protests or disruptions (Taipei Times, September 10, 2015; China Post, December 15, 2015; China Post, September 11, 2014). Limited space and extensive restrictions on training areas further degrade the Taiwan military’s capability to execute combat missions in a crisis.

Military Strategy and the PLA Threat

President Ma initiated a “Hard ROC” defense strategy based on the strategic concept of “resolute defense and credible deterrence,” and a military reform and reduction plan intended to build a “small but smart and strong” modern force. The strategic intent was to build an “impregnable defensive force that …could not be dislodged, shattered or breached by a numerically superior enemy….” [2] However, invasion is not the only method mentioned in PLA discussions of Taiwan. The PLA threat facing Taiwan includes the following: the “Three Warfares” (public opinion, psychological, and legal warfare); information warfare; joint blockade; joint firepower strike, and joint island landing campaign.

Mainland coercive threats to Taiwan include the “Three Warfares,” information and cyber operations. The MND’s 2015 National Defense Report concludes that China has been conducting the “Three Warfares,” integrated into the PLA Political Work Regulation, against Taiwan since 2003. [3] Taiwan plans to establish a cyberwarfare force proposed by the DPP in 2015. A cyber headquarters would employ some 6,000 personnel and integrate communications, electronics and information; intelligence and surveillance; digital warfare; and the Communications Development Office responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT). The MND intends to recruit information technology experts from the civilian sector to upgrade the military’s capabilities (Taipei Times, May 27; Taipei Times, June 12). However, the significant number of documented mainland espionage cases and cyber intrusions indicates a serious level of infiltration of the military and hemorrhaging of sensitive information on operational planning and capabilities that could prove fatal during a conflict. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) reported a scale of mainland cyber-attacks reaching the level of a “quasi-war,” noting that mainland actors have infiltrated key national defense, diplomatic, utilities, air traffic control and telecommunications systems (China Post, May 12; Taipei Times, March 18; China Post, April 28; VOA News, April 28).

A PLA air and maritime blockade could be initiated to coerce Taipei or to gain air and sea dominance in preparation for island landing operations. The PLA is currently capable of successfully blockading Taiwan held outer islands with a combination of PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and PLA Army (PLAA) conducting maritime and air interdiction, joint fire strikes, mining, and information dominance or information blockade operations. Taiwan and the U.S. Department of Defense currently assess that the PLA can impose a partial blockade against Taiwan. Alternatively, the PLA could attempt to impose a virtual blockade against Taiwan by declaring exercise or missile closure areas on approaches to Taiwan. [4]

PLA joint fire strikes could support blockade or island landing operations, or represent a stand-alone campaign to coerce Taipei. PLA joint fire strike capabilities threaten to overwhelm Taiwan air defenses including early warning and radar systems, disrupt command and control, destroy or neutralize air and naval bases, and critical infrastructure, as well as neutralize Taiwan’s leadership or break the population’s will to resist. The Taiwan 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review assessed the PLA Rocket Force as deploying ballistic and cruise missiles with greater accuracy and maneuverability capable of striking Taiwan with the intent to block or disable Taiwan forces and deny intervention by the U.S. [5]

The PLA could successfully conduct a joint island landing against Taiwan held outer islands. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) assesses that the PLA could accomplish an invasion of a small Taiwan held island with little or no warning. An amphibious landing against Taiwan would represent a complex, phased joint operation. Sea, air and information superiority would be initial requirements, followed by joint fire strikes to neutralize or destroy key Taiwan forces and capabilities. Logistics support for the operation including landed ground and airborne forces would be complex and difficult. DoD assesses that the PLA is not currently capable of a full scale invasion of Taiwan without a multiyear ramp up in capabilities and most importantly construction of additional amphibious landing ships. [6]

The Way Forward

President Tsai and the DPP have serious defense issues to address, with no easy solutions. An immediate problem is the military reform and reduction plan the DPP inherited. The all-volunteer system is not working, placing stress on an understrength military which is leading to discipline, morale and operational problems. Taiwan demographics make a return to conscription problematic, but a combination of volunteers supplemented by conscription to meet minimum required force levels could provide a solution to maintaining the necessary force. Reaching a fully manned active duty force could reduce stress on personnel, raise morale, and increase discipline within a force experiencing disturbing problems.

The MND has identified 3 percent of GDP as the minimum requirement of the defense budget to meet assigned military missions. Inadequate assessment of the pay and benefit requirements for the transition to the all-volunteer force has exacerbated the problem by further reducing available funds for equipment modernization, training and operations as the defense budget has declined since 2008. It is clear that the DPP will not be able to meet the 3 percent of GDP minimum defense budget in the 2017. President Tsai’s administration will need to rethink Taiwan’s national security strategy and prioritize mission requirements in response to inadequate funding for the military.

Improved training is necessary to increase combat capabilities. Combined arms and joint training need to be increased. Enhanced combined arms training for the Army will be difficult without expansion of key training facilities or establishment of a national training center with adequate size for combined arms battalion training. Joint training, particularly by the Taiwan Air Force and Navy, should be increased, supplemented by joint simulation training. Reserve training should be increased, as the current call-up twice during an 8-year period for 5–7 days is inadequate to provide a minimal requirement for combat training. Disaster relief training currently takes time away from active duty and reserve combat training, reducing wartime readiness and capabilities. Resolving the competing demands of disaster relief units and the military should be the new administration’s top priority.

President Tsai and her advisors need to seriously rethink and reprioritize the ROC’s military plans and modernization to meet the most immediate mainland threats. The PLA is currently capable of conducting several operations that present serious challenges to the ROC, in particular information warfare, blockade, and joint firepower strikes. Current PLA amphibious and airborne landings represent a threat against Taiwan held islands, but not against Taiwan proper due to the lack of amphibious and air transport lift required to land and sustain an invasion force, although this could change in the future. Taiwan military missions and limited modernization resources should therefore focus on the more immediate threats. Taiwan is beginning to address the information warfare threat. PLA joint fire strikes that could destroy or neutralize air and naval bases, and air defenses, and growing blockade capabilities that could isolate the ROC require inexpensive solutions capable of surviving and countering this threat. The ROC needs to address military manning, training, strategy, and modernization priorities in the face of budget constraints that have weakened combat effectiveness in the face of Beijing’s military reforms and increasingly assertive posture toward territorial issues.

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Taiwan during 31 years in the federal government. He has written numerous intelligence products for decision makers, combatant commands, combat and force developers, as well as contributing to the annual Report to Congress on China’s military power. Mr. McCauley has a forthcoming book, “Russian Influence Campaigns against the West. From the Cold War to Putin.”


1. Ministry of National Defense, 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review, pp. 12–14.

2. Ministry of National Defense, 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review, pp. 4–17.

3. Ministry of National Defense, 2015 National Defense Report, pp. 52–53.

4. Ministry of National Defense, 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review, pp. 20–21; U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016, pp. 59 and 88–89.

5. Ministry of National Defense, 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review, pp. 19–20.

6. U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016, pp. 89–90.