Taiwan’s Future Military Manpower Gap
According to trends inferred from data released by Taiwan’s National Development Council (國家發展委員會)—a cabinet-level policy planning agency for sustainable national development—the country’s military will face a recession in prime conscription age personnel starting next year and a military manpower gap will emerge in the coming decade. Barring a dramatic change in the current population growth trajectory, population growth estimate for the country from the NDC reportedly indicates that people aged 15 to 26, which is around 3.413 million in 2019, is forecasted to drop to 2.478 million by 2029—a difference of 935,000 persons.
A senior official cited by Storm Media stated that the force scale of the military will likely have to be further reduced based on a net assessment that takes into consideration other variables such as the size of the military to the total population, as well as missions, equipment, and firepower. According to the Storm Media report, the Ministry of Defense brings in an average of about 15,000 recruits each year and the number of military officers that graduate from Taiwan’s military academies per year is around 2,400 (including professional officers and non-commissioned officers), so there is reportedly a total of 17,400 persons brought into military services every year.
Against the backdrop of the country’s demographic trajectory, this trend line does not bode well for the military. The country’s troubling demographics trends of both an aging and shrinking population are consistent with overall national trends (and for Northeast Asia as well). In Taiwan, the number of newborns in 2000 was around 305,000 and dropped to around 181,000 in 2018.  Based on the aforementioned data comparing the number of conscription age adults and population growth estimate, according to one media report, there could be a 3,000 manpower gap per year in 10 years (this figure appears to assume a constant recruitment goal of the military).
Specific targets aside, this particular challenge is not lost on the military planners on the island. As pointed out by GTI Senior Non-Resident Fellow Mike Mazza in the Global Taiwan Brief, the Ministry of National Defense’s National Defense Report of 2011 underscored this challenge:
The number of draft age men has trended downwards in recent years due to the low birth rates; statistics show that the number of draft age men each year has dropped from over 120 thousand to some 110 thousand, and this number will continue to drop in the future […]. Moreover, competition from similar agencies, such as the police and coast guard, has made talent recruitment more and more difficult.
The National Defense Report also noted that the number of “draft age men” was projected to drop from 123,465 men in 2010 to 75,338 in 2025. Most notably, the report also projected how “draft age men” will peak in 2020 at 112,370, then drop to 94,017 (2021), 90,398 (2022), 83,453 (2023), 80,044 (2024), and finally hit 75,338 in 2025. As Mazza observed in the Global Taiwan Brief:
… population change is an important impetus behind Taiwan’s shift to an all-volunteer military, which will require greater investment in personnel, materiel, and training if it is to be an effective fighting force. How Taipei manages this tension will have far-reaching effects on Taiwan’s national security in the coming decades.
Furthermore, Mazza noted:
Ideally, moving to a smaller, all-volunteer force will contribute to a better allocation of human resources in Taiwan, while creating a leaner, more professional military. On the other hand, all-volunteer forces are expensive to maintain due to the need to offer competitive pay, benefits, better healthcare, and pensions. This will present a challenge as government revenues decline. Over time, personnel costs in Taiwan will threaten to crowd out spending on training and advanced armaments, which, if anything, become more important the smaller a military becomes—and if tax revenues do decrease over time, mounting political pressure could see the active-duty force shrunk further.
Since 2010, Taiwan has planned to transition from a conscription force to an all-volunteer force and reduce its active-duty force from 275,000 to approximately 175,000 personnel. Currently, Taiwan’s military personnel system is a combination of recruited and volunteer armed forces. Conscripted soldiers are trained for four months while volunteers need to serve for at least four years. According to an MND spokesman, Taiwan’s defense ministry says it has already met 84 percent of its goal for a volunteer armed force and that number should reach 90 percent by 2020. Currently, Taiwan has a reserve force of 2.3 million men and about 900,000 of them left the military less than 8 years ago. This demographic trend and the shift to an all-volunteer system would only further underscore the importance of the reserve systems.
The main point: Taiwan’s shrinking conscription age population over the next decade and the shift to an all-volunteer system will reportedly lead to a manpower gap of 3,000 per year and further underscore the importance of developing the country’s reserve systems.
 A presentation delivered at a conference in Maryland in early October 2019.
Taiwan’s Military Commemorates 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Guningtou
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the battle that saved Taiwan from falling into Communist control 70 years ago during the Chinese Civil War. On October 24, 1949—only a week after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) captured the offshore island of Xiamen from the Nationalists—around 9,000 PLA soldiers landed on Kinmen. Three days of intense fighting ensued between Communist and Nationalist forces in a battle that came to be known as the Battle of Guningtou (古寧頭戰役). All PLA soldiers who landed in the initial wave were captured or killed, resulting in a rare victory for the Nationalist forces that had just been routed from the mainland. The battle not only safeguarded Kinmen—which is still under administration by Taiwan’s government—but also stopped the PLA from advancing on to Taiwan.
On October 18, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense organized an opening ceremony for a special exhibition at the Armed Forces Museum (國軍歷史文物館) commemorating the 70th anniversary of this battle and invited veterans of the battle to participate in the event. In a speech at the opening ceremony, the chief of staff of the Ministry of National Defense, Shen Yiming (沈一鳴), thanked and commended the veterans for their determination to defend their homeland and will to fight. Their service and the sacrifices of those who died laid the foundation of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait for the last 70 years. Shen appealed for the people to recognize the historical significance of the Battle of Guningtou and Battle of Dengbu Island (登步島戰役) and hoped that the commemorative exhibition will inspire the officers and members of the military by the sacrifices of their predecessors as protectors and defenders of the country.
The significance of “The Great Victory at Guningtou,” (古寧頭大捷) is also remembered by the Chinese side—albeit for different reasons. Former PLA general Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲)—the husband of Li Xiaolin (李小林)—has reportedly written a paper analyzing this battle. According to a media report, General Liu—lamenting the bad timing of the attack—wrote: If we attacked three days earlier, we would have been able to rout the KMT forces before Hu could arrive. If we attacked three days later, we would have known about Hu’s arrival and had a chance to reevaluate our strategy.” According to the PLA’s official report released on October 29, 1949, the main reasons for their defeat was “rashness of the plan and underestimation of the enemy.”
The former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), posted pictures of him visiting the battle exhibition on his Facebook page and commented how the young soldiers who defended the coastlines at Guningtou laid the foundation for victory in this first battle to defend Taiwan. To the soldiers, the former president added: “Thank you for your sacrifice and dedication, thank you for defending Taiwan, and thank you for safeguarding the Republic of China!”
This wartime commemoration stands in stark contrast to efforts on the Chinese side, especially in recent years, to use commemorative events of significant battles during the Sino-Japanese war to lure retired generals and senior military officers from Taiwan to China. For instance, in August of this year, the “Symposium on Passing on Chinese Anti-Japanese War History and Anti-War Spirit” (中華民族抗日戰爭史與抗戰精神傳承研討會) was held in Nanning, Guangxi province. The meeting was the third iteration in a series that included previous conferences held in Nanjing in 2017 and Wuhan in 2018—both places were also major battle sites in the Second Sino-Japanese War. For instance, the conference in Nanjing was held to mark the 80th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (also known as the July 7th Incident, 七七事變) in July 2017. These cross-Strait symposiums have been occurring on a more high-profile and frequent basis after the mid-2000s and are part of a concerted effort by the CCP to reframe the country’s narrative on history, especially those events involving the Communist and Nationalist parties during the Republican period. This is ostensibly an effort to forge a common and united narrative between the two parties, particularly the retired military officers.
According to a report, when KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) heard that the Nationalist army had defeated the Communist forces at Kinmen at Guningtou, he shed tears of relief, stating, “Taiwan is safe […]. This is the turning point of our revolution.” Generalissimo Chiang was correct that this is a “turning point.” As Wang Yizhen (王翼薊), who was one of the veterans of the battle that spoke at the opening ceremony, said: “without the battle of Guningtou there would not be the stable and prosperous Taiwan [that exists today].”
The main point: Taiwan’s military hosted a special exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Guningtou, which saved Taiwan from falling into Communist control 70 years ago.