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A possible solution to problems facing Taiwan's armed forces

President Ma Ying-jeou is sticking to his campaign promise — he wants to abolish conscription before he steps down in 2016 and create an all-volunteer defense force. It's a lofty idea, but not practical if he wishes to maintain Taiwan's defense armed forces, which the Ministry of Defense says must remain at 215,000 personnel. That's why President Ma pronounced at a promotion ceremony for generals and admirals last Thursday that a little more than 10,000 volunteers would be enough for the defense forces to accomplish their mission to “defend Taiwan and effectively deter” the People's Republic of China. Moreover, he added that “after 2016, only 7,000 volunteers will be enough.”

The justification for reducing the personnel strength is that his “defend Taiwan and effectively deter” strategy is working — there doesn't need to be huge numbers of soldiers when a small defense force with a very strong combat capability manned by high-quality volunteers can do the job. But he didn't make clear whether he wants to reduce the armed forces to a division-size defense force.

That's the answer he gave Control Yuan ombudsman Huang Huang-hsiung, who pointed out in his military personnel recruitment mid-term report that there wouldn't be 7,000 volunteers desiring to enlist after 2016 and called on the president to reconsider scrapping conscription or letting conscription and enlistment coexist. Ma insists on volunteers.

There is one way for Ma to have his cake and eat it, too. He can follow the method the Japanese Self-Defense Forces use.

Japan, with a population of 126 million and facing only China as a potential enemy, has a unique military force of 247,000 personnel. All SDF personnel are technically civilians, classified as special civil servants subordinate to ordinary civil servants who run Japan's Ministry of Defense. There are no disclosures of military secrets, military law violations or any other offenses committed by military personnel — whether on base or off base, on duty or off duty, or of a military or non-military nature. All these are adjudicated under normal procedures by civil courts in appropriate jurisdictions. As a result, the SDF has no regular army, navy and air force. It has five armies, five maritime districts and three air defense forces manned by volunteer special civil servants.

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