A US Department of Defense report on China’s military power has drawn into question Taiwan’s plans for an all-volunteer army. Taipei is reportedly now reconsidering its plan to scrap mandatory national service of at least one year for all male citizens when they reach the age of 18.

In an annual congressional report titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018,” the Pentagon said savings from scaling down Taiwan’s troop headcount could improve remuneration and accommodation for those on active duty, but the benefits of an all-volunteer military “may not be enough of a lure.”

An all-volunteer military would cost more than the government could anticipate and drain funds meant for self-defense, training and budget reserves, said the report.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry will have to offer more attractive pay and benefits to attract potential recruits when it aims to trim the size of the military and rely solely on volunteers.

At present, 75% of Taiwan’s 215,000 soldiers are already volunteers who are backed by a 1.7-million-strong reserve force. It is estimated that if conscription were to be terminated, the number of active servicemen would fall to around 175,000.

The Pentagon report said the savings from reducing troop numbers would still be inadequate to attract and retain soldiers in an all-volunteer force, and that extra funds would also be required to use as compensation for laid-off soldiers.

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Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen talks to a number of new recruits of the Taiwanese Army. Photo: Presidential Office of Taiwan

The need to maintain a sizable, war-ready army is of paramount importance if Taiwan were to defend itself and win time for mediation by the West if hostilities were to break out between the island and mainland China. Time would be of the essence, when it appears that much of China’s military spending is in preparation for the recapture of the island.

“Concurrently, the People’s Liberation Army continued to develop and deploy increasingly advanced military capabilities intended to coerce Taiwan, signal Chinese resolve, and gradually improve capabilities for an invasion,” said the report.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has said that the number of active troops would remain at 215,000 and there would be no plans for further lay-offs. However when taking into account new inductees, trainees and those hospitalized, the actual deployable number fluctuates between 150,000 and 160,000, according to the Central News Agency.

Furthermore, former American Institute in Taiwan director William Stanton is also quoted by Taiwanese papers as saying that an all-volunteer military would be a “bad idea” and the belief that a cheap army could increase the military’s budget was a “fallacy.”

Citing the US military as an example, Stanton said at a forum in Taipei this month that having an all-volunteer military could end up costing the government more, as it would have to provide families of soldiers with housing and education.