Taiwan’s former conscripts say they feel unprepared for a possible conflict with China

Taipei, Taiwan

Growing concern over China’s increasingly aggressive military maneuvers has led Taiwan to extend the mandatory military service period that most of its young men must serve. But former recruits interviewed by CNN say Taipei will have to do much more than that if the training is to be effective.

Outdated, boring and impractical. That was the verdict of six young men who spoke to CNN about their recent experiences of compulsory service in Taiwan’s military.

They describe a process that was designed decades ago with a heavy emphasis on bayonet training, but no instruction in urban warfare strategies or modern weapons like drones. Some say there were too few rifles to go, or that the weapons they trained with were too old to be useful. Others describe “specializing” in gun, grenade, and mortar units, but never receiving any ammunition for training.

His criticism comes at a crucial time for Taiwan’s military. President Tsai Ing-wen recently announced that the mandatory service period for men born after 2005 will be extended from four months to one year, saying the current system “no longer fits the needs ” of the defense of the island. The military says the rethink follows comparisons with militaries in other democratic jurisdictions that have longer enlistment periods, including South Korea (18-21 months), Singapore (24 months) and Israel (24-30 months) .

Strengthening the island’s military has become a key concern for Tsai, who has spoken of the need to highlight Taiwan’s determination to defend itself amid increasingly aggressive noises from Beijing. The ruling Chinese Communist Party claims the self-governing democracy of 23.5 million people as part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and has sent record numbers of air and sea patrols to harass it since the former president of the United States House, Nancy Pelosi, visited her in August. . . Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force to “reunify” the island with mainland China.

“No one wants war,” Tsai said when announcing the extension of mandatory service periods in December. “This is true for the government and people of Taiwan and the global community, but peace does not come from heaven and Taiwan is on the front lines of the expansion of authoritarianism.”

A military exercise in Taiwan simulates an invasion of China in January.  6, 2022.

But former conscripts are skeptical, telling CNN that the problems with conscription go beyond the short term and will only be fixed with a more comprehensive overhaul.

Tsai herself has acknowledged that many citizens feel that serving in the military is “just a waste of time.”

“In our company, we had more than 100 assault rifles, but only a little more than a dozen could be used for shooting practice,” said Frank Liu, a 26-year-old auditor from central Changhua County who served in 2021. he said about 140 recruits received training at his company.

“Many of these assault rifles were made many decades ago, and many were too worn to be used in training. The weapons had to be rotated between us.”

Paul Lee, a Taipei factory manager who served in 2018, had a similar experience.

“We didn’t shoot a lot of rounds during military training,” Lee said. “I was practicing with the T65 assault rifle and only fired about 40 rounds during the entire training period.

“I worry that many people who trained with me can’t even handle a rifle with confidence.”

Reservists participate in military training at a base in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on March 12, 2022.

Under current rules, the four-month tour of duty is usually split into two parts: five weeks of basic training and 11 weeks of ground training at a military base.

During the ground training period, recruits are often assigned specialties, but even then some say they only receive the most cursory information.

Dennis, a 25-year-old engineer from Taichung City who served last year, said that while he was assigned to specialize in cannons, he never learned how to fire them because trainers were worried that recruits might to get hurt. He asked only to be identified by name because he remains a reservist.

“We were assigned simple tasks and spent most of our time helping to clean and wash the gun carriages,” he said. “If war breaks out today and they tell me to work as an artilleryman, I think I’ll become cannon fodder.”

Adam Yu, a 27-year-old designer from the northern city of Keelung who served in 2018 and has specialized in mortars and grenade launchers, said that although he had been taught how to prepare the weapons, he had never been given ammunition or he had practiced shooting them. . .

“I’m not sure I can use these weapons,” Yu said, adding, “I still don’t know how these weapons are supposed to be used on the battlefield.”

That sentiment was echoed by another former recruit surnamed Liu. The 28-year-old salesman majored in data processing with the Air Force and received training in southern Pingtung County in 2015. He also asked not to be named, saying he could still be called by to additional training of reservists.

“Our commanders barely taught anything during our training on the ground, because they thought we would only be here for a few months and it wouldn’t make much of a difference to them,” he said.

New recruits practice with bayonets at a military training center in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, on April 22, 2013.

Taiwan has a professional volunteer military force that last year numbered 162,000 full-time soldiers, according to a Legislative Yuan report. In addition to this, an estimated 70,000 men complete a period of compulsory military service each year.

Recruits must undergo a period of physical training and are taught to shoot rifles and use bayonets.

Several who spoke to CNN questioned the amount of time spent on bayonet training, arguing it was outdated, although some military personnel continue to teach it in recruit training programs.

“I think the bayonet training was just a waste of time, because I couldn’t really think of how we could put it into practice,” Frank Liu said.

“Just look at the war between Russia and Ukraine, there are so many types of weapons used. When does a soldier ever have to resort to a bayonet to attack his enemy? I think it was really outdated.”

Yu, from Keelung, said his commanders had put a lot of emphasis on bayonet training because it was part of the end-of-year exam.

“We were ordered to memorize a series of slogans,” he said. “When we practiced the bayonet, we had to follow the squad leader’s instructions with a specific chant for each movement, and we had to repeat it in the exam.”

Some of these criticisms were acknowledged, tacitly or not, when Tsai announced the extension of the recruitment period and at the subsequent Ministry of Defense briefing in early January.

The ministry said that when the new policy begins in 2024, all recruits will fire at least 800 rounds during their service and will be trained in new weapons such as anti-tank missiles and drones. Bayonet training will be modified to include other forms of close combat training, he added, and recruits will also be able to participate in joint military exercises with professional soldiers. Meanwhile, basic training will last from five to eight weeks.

Su Tzu-yun, director of Taiwan’s government-funded National Security and Defense Research Institute, said he is confident the reform will boost the island’s combat capabilities.

He also believes it is worth keeping bayonet training on the curriculum.

“It helps increase a soldier’s courage and aggressiveness,” he said. “If soldiers are involved in a mission that is not suitable for firing weapons, they can also use the bayonet as an alternative option.”

A CH-147F Chinook participates in exercises to demonstrate combat readiness ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday at a military base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on January 11.

Su added that while modern weapons will be included in the new training curriculum, it would be impractical for all soldiers to practice firing them because it would simply be too expensive.

“In the USA, Javelin training [anti-tank missiles] it’s done through simulation, because each missile costs $70,000 and it’s not possible for everyone to fire them,” he said. “Usually the whole unit finishes the simulation, then the commander will pick a few soldiers to practice firing it.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement to CNN that it has invited experts to numerous academic seminars on reforming the recruitment system and accepted many of their suggestions to increase the intensity of training.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

“I don’t think that lengthening the service alone will lead to better national defense,” said Lin Ying-yu, an assistant professor at Tamkang University’s Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies.

He said the “biggest issues” involved clarifying in detail the type of training the new recruits would receive.

And on that point, former recruits who spoke to CNN remain skeptical.

“When I saw that they wanted to add drones to the training, my question was, are we going to have one drone per person and multiple opportunities to practice flying?” Yu said.

“If they stick to their old way of teaching, they’ll just tell us to follow their instructions and memorize their weight and flight distance, and we won’t be able to operate it.”

The fear among conscripts is that the new form of conscription will end up looking more or less like the old form, only longer.

“During my service, most of the time we were just asked to perform tedious tasks like moving weapons to show our commanders, and we spent a lot of time waiting,” said Dennis, the engineer.

It remains to be seen whether recruits’ time will be more fruitfully spent when the new rules arrive next year, but all parties agree the stakes are high.

“Active citizens are the basis and foundation of our will to resist,” said Enoch Wu, founder of civil defense think tank Forward Alliance and a member of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“If the public decides that our home is not worth fighting for – or that we have no chance – then you can have the most professional military and it will still be too late.”

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