Reconceiving Taiwan’s Reserve Forces
By David G. Brown
Taiwan’s Reserve Forces could make an important contribution to deterring Chinese aggression. But as presently constituted they do not. With the PLA threat growing, there is an urgent need to reconceive the way the reserves are constituted.
Under Taiwan’s tri-service reserve system, upward of 2.5 million retired military personnel are identified and organized in a meticulously maintained system so they will be available for service with designated roles when an attack seems imminent. The system looks good on paper but in reality it does not contribute effectively to deterrence or defense. Speaking candidly, a former Vice Minister of Defense called the reserves “a joke.”
There are many questions about the utility of the current reserves. Much of the reserve manpower is now comprised of those who have undergone only four months of service under the current conscription system. This short period of service does not produce warfighters. Once in the reserves, these minimally trained personnel are only required on paper to do reserve service five days every two years. If actually performed, these five days are usually devoted to basic tasks and drills rather than weapons or unit training. Youth perceive these five days as nothing more than discouraging make-work. Consequently, it is hard to see how they could function effectively under wartime circumstances. Some have speculated that a likely use of reserve personnel in the event of an imminent attack would be to fill vacancies in the habitually undermanned regular army units. Although the Armed Forces authorized strength is a very modest 215,000, the actual number of active duty personnel is usually over ten percent below that level.
The Reserve Command also oversees the General Coordination Organizations of All-Out Defense Capabilities. This is a peacetime mechanism that is organized at three levels—the city/county, combat zone, and national. The General Coordination Organizations too exists largely on paper and, since it is peacetime focused, contributes little to deterrence and defense.
Given these weaknesses, the reserves do not appear to contribute to deterring PRC aggression. A 2017 RAND study examined the Beijing’s assessment of Taiwan’s reserves. It reported that Chinese documents indicate the PLA believed that the quality of the reserves had declined over the previous decade. The RAND study concluded that, “the reserves do not factor into higher-level PRC assessments of Taiwan’s military power.” A further problem, is that the Reserve Program does not inspire enthusiasm and commitment from those in the reserves. To the contrary, public and political pressure led in recent years to the reduction of the reserve duty from one month to five days just as similar opposition to the conscription system shortened conscription service from one year to four months. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) does not enjoy broad public support.
The reserve system appears to be functioning so ineffectively that it requires a major review. This paper suggests some crucial perspectives that should be borne in mind when considering a fundamental reform of the current system.
Design First for Deterrence: The current system is designed for defense. It exists largely on paper until it is called up to defend against an imminent invasion. Occasionally, it is utilized in peacetime emergencies. As such it is not contributing to deterrence. Given the PLA’s increasing capabilities, Taiwan needs a more robust deterrence, one element of which could be a restructured reserve force. To contribute to deterrence, the reserves must exist as real capabilities in times of peacetime tension such as Taiwan faces today. Only if they exist in peacetime will it represent capabilities that the PLA and CCP leadership would have to take into account in deciding whether to attack.
Design to Attract Participation: The current reserves do not attract youth participation or broad public support. Without such support, the PLA and CCP leadership can dismiss the current reserves. However, there is evidence from recent public opinion surveys that young people in Taiwan, both men and women, express a willingness to “resist” Chinese attacks.2 There is widespread admiration for the courage young Hong Kong demonstrators have demonstrated in resisting China’s plans for the territory. President Tsai’s call to resist China by defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and democratic way of life resonates with Taiwan’s people, particularly youth. However, there is no vehicle available to channel this energy other than full-time military service. A reformed reserves structure could provide such a vehicle to attract those able to make a part-time commitment. That commitment to resisting aggression would also need to be reinforced by providing competitive compensation for the participant’s service and by providing meaningful tasks and training. In addition, the participants should be guaranteed job security, and employers required to facilitate their participation.
Focus Locally: The current reserves are organized nationally under MND. A reformed structure could be focused locally. Establishing units that are recruited locally, led by local officers, under local leadership with meaningful missions for local defense should have greater ability to attract participation. My expectation that the local focus would attract greater commitment needs to be tested and confirmed. The reserve command has an existing organizational structure at the county/city and township level that could be built upon. Alternatively, the General Coordination Organizations mechanism, built theoretically on a city/county base, might be utilized as a framework for establishing local units, provided they were given clear defense missions. Local leadership could involve putting the new system under democratically elected county/city leaders rather than under MND and having a locally recruited officer serve as commander of the local forces. To avoid partisanship or local faction influence, the local commander and his small full-time staff should be personnel with professional qualifications certified by MND.
Real not Paper Capabilities: To create real capabilities, the reformed organization should require that units exist and operate on a part-time basis in peacetime. For example, initially the battalions within the eight or nine existing A-level reserve brigades could be reorganized and brought up to fully-manned, trained and equipped units at an “operationally ready” level, similar to the capabilities of Singapore’s reserve units. This would require a meaningful commitment to at least a weekend of training each month and annual unit exercises, all appropriately compensated. To test integration with regular forces, reserve units should be incorporated routinely into the annual Han Guang exercises. Under MND guidance, roles and missions that are appropriate for local circumstances would be defined for these local battalions. Their local military roles might include: defending against enemy special and irregular forces air-dropped behind front lines, securing critical infrastructure and transportation nodes, countering fifth column sabotage operations, specialized intel/cyber units, and establishing emergency medical facilities for armed forces casualties and detention centers for captured PLA soldiers. If many of these units were seen as territorial defense forces able to counter any PLA forces that got behind front lines that would make a major contribution to deterrence. As with the current system, the roles would be primarily army related, though some specialty air and naval units could be included. These real part-time capabilities would buttress deterrence in peacetime and be available for fulltime mobilization when aggression appeared imminent.
ROC Army Reserve Brigade in Hsinchu. (Source: youth daily news)
Quality over Quantity: The current paper system theoretically envisages a wartime reserve of 2.5 million. A reformed system could consist of much more modest but real capabilities. Each city and county could initially have one to five 600-1,000 member battalions with missions relevant to local defense circumstances. Each unit member would have uniforms at home and appropriate weapons and equipment located locally. The increased service commitments would provide time for realistic training relevant to each unit’s responsibilities. The three existing reserve training centers could be reorganized so that each of Taiwan’s cities and counties would have a local armory to house the weaponry and equipment needed for the local units and to provide an organizational structure to conduct the training needed to build and maintain unit capabilities.
A New Name: It is a regrettable that contemporary Taiwan still experiences an authoritarian hangover that perpetuates negative attitudes toward the military and MND. President Tsai has worked hard to change these attitudes, but they remain a reality that undermines the attractiveness of participation. To attract broader support, the new structure should not use the term “reserves.” To mark a clear break, new terminology should be chosen. In choosing new terminology, highest priority should be given to finding a new name that would have greater appeal to potential participants. As suggested in this paper, terminology that captures the new organization’s local or territorial defense role should be considered. In the background, MND would continue to provide coordination, establish roles and missions, create and enforce standards, perform inspections and oversee the whole structure to ensure integration with the regular forces.
Creating such a new locally based structure would represent a major conceptual and organizational change. How can reform be accomplished within the existing relationship between the center and cities/counties? The first challenge would be to build a national political consensus that such major reform is necessary. This would include molding new public understandings and attitudes about the role of localities in their own defense. This in turn would require both a great deal of time and consistent leadership by the President, by mayors and magistrates, by the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff.
Two specific obstacles would have to be addressed. The initial reaction of many in the armed forces leadership will likely be to resist reform. There will be resistance to ceding power and budget resources to localities. There will be skepticism that locally recruited and led units will be militarily relevant and responsive. The military’s concerns will have to be addressed, and they will have to be convinced that a reformed system will actually contribute more to deterrence and defense than the existing reserves.
The second hurdle will be budgetary. A reformed force that is smaller but more effectively designed, equipped and trained will cost more than the paper forces that currently exist. Overall budget limitations, competing civilian priorities and recent increases in defense spending including the special procurement budgets will likely be cited as reasons why reforming the reserves is not affordable. On the other hand, almost all of the costs or creating and maintaining the reformed system would be domestic costs plowed back into the Taiwan economy. Hard thinking on how to realign defense spending to maximize deterrence and defense will be required.
Nevertheless, the effort to overcome obstacles would be worthwhile because it would yield real benefits for Taiwan. First, if even at the outset each city or county would have only one or two operationally-ready battalions, then Taiwan would have about 30 fully manned, equipped and trained battalions that don’t exist under the current reserve system. That would be a meaningful increase in Taiwan deterrence capability.
Second, opinion polls indicate that many civilians in Taiwan do want to participate in resisting Chinese aggression. A reformed system would provide a meaningful vehicle to channel such people’s interest into real contributions to Taiwan’s deterrence and defense. This would demonstrate greater public willingness to fight, something which many, including the PLA, now discount. And this public commitment would in turn strength the willingness of the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s assistance.
Finally, the real capabilities of the reformed system combined with the increased evidence of public commitment to defend Taiwan would have to be taken into account by PLA defense planners and the CCP leadership. This means that the reformed forces would contribute to deterrence, something that the current reserves do not.
The purpose of this paper is to raise issues facing the reserves and to provoke hard thinking about a new system. Many will believe the ideas are too radical, too ambitious, too time consuming. Their thoughts on alternative, more practical and rapid ways for reforming reserve forces that will make a meaningful contribution to deterring Chinese aggression are welcome.
David G. Brown is a scholar affiliated with the China Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. The author appreciates the assistance of those who took the time to read and comment on drafts of this paper.
Ian Easton, et. al, Transformation of Taiwan’s Reserve Force, Rand, 2017.
For Example: Survey of “Taiwan’s Democratic Values and Governance” (in Chinese), Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, 2018 and 2019; Yao-yuan Yeh, et. al., “Are Taiwanese Citizens Willing to Fight Against China?” The Diplomat, March 22, 2019.