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Barriers and misconceptions facing an all-volunteer force

An old Chinese saying goes: “Good iron shouldn't be used to make nails and good (young) men won't become soldiers.” That explains why the writers of the Constitution had to include Article 18, which reads: “The people shall have the duty of performing military service in accordance with law” in order to secure enough young men for the armed forces. It authorizes the government to conscript able-bodied youths as soldiers.

President Ma Ying-jeou wants to terminate conscription. So the Ministry of National Defense (MND) has come up with an ambitious plan to scrap the conscription system by creating an all-volunteer defense force by 2016. Under this plan, 210,000 volunteers will have to enlist to replace the entire conscripted force.

The recruitment of volunteers, however, hasn't gone well. As a matter of fact, it has been a flop, which the military had to admit in a personnel recruiting report submitted to the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee of the Legislative Yuan last week.

The report showed that only 8,603 volunteers enlisted in the first 11 months of this year. The number of enlistees accounted for a mere 30.15 percent of target recruitment numbers, and was down 300 men from the corresponding period last year. The target strength was 28,531 personnel. This means nothing can be done to replace all conscriptees with volunteers in three years' time.

Of course, the old saying plays a part in discouraging young men from volunteering to join the colors. But one more important reason for not soldiering in times of peace while young people are having a hard time getting a job during this economic downturn is the poor pay given to volunteers. It is explained in the MND report as a “lack of (monetary) incentives.”

One sure way to get more young men needing jobs to enlist is to raise their pay. Another way is to reduce the troop strength to less than one-third of current numbers, or below 54,000 personnel, to create a much smaller all-volunteer defense force. A government that refuses to increase taxes to make ends meet won't pay soldiers who might never be asked to go to war much more than they are getting now.

Can the MND reduce the troop numbers that it insists are necessary to defend Taiwan against the People's Liberation Army, which threatens to invade the island in the even of military conflict with mainland China? Most unlikely. The military may reduce troop strength a bit, but not to the tune of less than one-third, which would mean that most of the top brass would be out of a job.

So, the only alternative remains to scrap the MND plan and restore the system of conscription, as long as troop strength has to be kept at current levels. That goes against President Ma's promise.

What his government has to do now is to face the nation and own up to the people that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. The people have to be told honestly that they have to pay more taxes to compensate volunteer soldiers, or else their sons must be conscripted. A referendum has to be held.

To be sure, Taiwan doesn't need as many men and women in uniform as the MND says it does. Japan, with a population of 120 million, has a 200,000-strong defense force made of volunteers. Why should Taiwan keep a standing defense force larger than Japan's? We can reduce it by half or even less and keep a large standby reserve force preserved by conscription.

Chiang Kai-shek boasted a 600,000-strong army that he claimed was capable of mounting a counterattack against the Chinese mainland, and the top brass now can't get rid of a big-army mindset.

If a referendum were held alongside nationwide local elections next year, Taiwan would have a much smaller defense force of enlisted men without its taxpayers paying more taxes.

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