MELBOURNE, Australia — Taiwan’s military is not yet “optimally manned, trained, equipped and motivated to defend against an attack” by China on the self-ruled island, and efforts at defense reform face obstacles from institutional opposition from senior officers and a lack of time.
This is according to Michael Hunzeker, assistant professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government, who testified to the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The hearing was held last month to discuss ways to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province and has vowed to take back by force if necessary.
Hunzeker added that Taiwan’s military needs to focus on countering the threat of a full-scale invasion by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army vis-a-vis “sub-invasion” scenarios that would see large-scale missile strikes, blockades or the seizure of Taiwanese islands located in the Taiwan Strait separating the two countries.
He argued that the defensive capabilities and preparations that will help Taiwan defend against a full-scale invasion will also be useful against “lesser” threats rather than serving as a distraction against them.
However, he noted, Taiwan’s military is experiencing several shortfalls in active and reserve personnel numbers, equipment, doctrine, and training. For example, the 153,000 personnel in Taiwan’s Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps represent roughly 80 percent of its authorized end strength, with this percentage falling to 60 percent in its front-line units as the military seeks to transition away from conscription and into an all-volunteer force.
And while its equipment numbers look imposing, supply and maintenance issues as well as the age of some of Taiwan’s platforms mean availability rates are low, potentially affecting training in peacetime and effectiveness in conflict. Even worse for the armed forces is the obsolescence some of those platforms, an issue exacerbated by Taiwan having to regularly scramble aircraft and maritime vessels to investigate Chinese military activity around the island.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s military doctrine for countering a Chinese invasion calls for a symmetric response, therefore shaping its force posture and acquisition of expensive and high-end platforms, which is “high on prestige but of limited utility in an actual conflict,” Hunzeker warned. This is particularly the case, he added, as the People’s Liberation Army has a qualitative and quantitative edge over Taiwan’s military.
In addition, Taiwan’s conscripts and reserves leave much to be desired, with the former spending too little of their 16-week service on combat training, he said.
Nevertheless, Hunzeker noted, the Taiwanese government under President Tsai Ing-wen has introduced a series of reforms for the military. Known as the Overall Defense Concept, or ODC, it seeks to address many of the aforementioned shortfalls and adjust the military’s posture to a multilayered, asymmetric force.
But while the ODC is “more appropriate to Taiwan’s threat environment,” its implementation is facing opposition from military officers and officials in the Defense Ministry, some of which are veterans, according to the expert. He suggested this is driven by “interpersonal animosity, principled disagreement or bureaucratic inertia.”
Hunzeker also questioned whether the ODC will take hold at all, with the current administration seemingly “unwilling or unable” to compel the ministry to implement it, partly due the ODC proposing politically sensitive moves, such as a return of full conscription.
Even if the ODC is implemented, he fears time is against Taiwan’s side, with weapons acquisition and development plans years away from delivery. He said even more time is needed to change doctrine, training, logistics and sustainment systems, and the military’s culture.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.