Taiwan Contemplates Reforms to Its Military Reserve Forces

Taiwan Contemplates Reforms to Its Military Reserve Forces

Taiwan Contemplates Reforms to Its Military Reserve Forces

The invasion of Ukraine has spurred renewed discussion regarding Taiwan’s defense needs, as well as the preferred course of its future defense strategy. Inspired by the dogged resistance to Russian forces demonstrated not only by Ukraine’s regular military, but also by the citizen-soldiers of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force (TDF), many observers both in Taiwan and the broader international community have begun to ask whether such a trained and regulated militia force would bolster Taiwan’s own defenses against a potential invasion by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Such discussions intersect with longstanding debates regarding the viability of Taiwan’s existing military reserve and civil defense architectures, as well as the prospects for potential bureaucratic and legal changes to these systems.

Legacy Problems with Taiwan’s Reserve Force

Taiwan’s armed forces, whether active or reserve, have long been subject to criticism by both domestic and foreign observers who have identified problems with poor morale and inadequate levels of training. Harsher critics have gone so far as to call Taiwan’s military a “hollow shell,” allegedly so weakened by low morale and poor levels of readiness as to be combat ineffective. Others have cited “the risk of Americans fighting and dying for a nation that is unwilling to defend itself.” This is further exacerbated by chronic undermanning in the ranks, a problem that follows the shift from a conscript to an all-volunteer active-duty force in the 2010s.

Young men in Taiwan are still required to undergo military training and a brief period of military service. At one time, this service period was two years, but was reduced to one year in the 2010s. This was further reduced in 2017 to four months of basic training, which some have derisively compared to attending a “summer camp” that lacks effective combat training. After this, discharged young men “will register with [their] local reserve command, where [they] will report for duty only once every two years for a mere five to seven days of refresher training.” [1] Such a system hardly confers confidence that Taiwan’s reservists will be prepared to smoothly assume military duties in a crisis—especially when compared to a more rigorous reserve system such as that found in the United States, where reservists typically perform at least 38 days a year on duty, irrespective of occasional longer periods of active duty.

Bureaucratic Changes for Administration of the Reserve System

In April 2021, the Ministry of National Defense (MND, 國防部) announced plans for major reforms to Taiwan’s system for reserve administration, including the consolidation of existing agencies. This bureaucratic reorganization became official on January 1, 2022, when the MND’s existing Reserve Force Command was placed underneath the All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency to create a consolidated “Armed Forces Reserve Command – All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency” (全民防衛動員署後備指揮部), whose “primary mission is to be planning for mobilization, management, service, civil defense, [and] building reserve capacity.” The agency remains within the MND, under the supervision of the ROC premier. As of February 2022, the agency’s commander is Lt. General Fu Cheng-cheng (傅正誠).

More Rigorous Training for the Reserve System – and Possible Extended Service Time

In tandem with these bureaucratic reforms, in November 2021 the MND also announced plans to make training for reservists more rigorous. Under a pilot program initiated in March 2022 and scheduled to extend through the first three quarters of the year, 15,000 reserve personnel will be subject to two weeks of refresher training in a series of facilities around the island, including weapons familiarization and basic combat training. In at least some cases, this will reportedly involve limited field exercises: state media reporting in early March described the “toughest ever” training for reservists, involving 400 reserve personnel mustered for a two-week scenario centered around the defense of a beach near the Linkou District (林口) in New Taipei City.

There are also indications that reserve forces may receive upgrades of equipment that would increase their combat striking power, albeit with second-line equipment. At the same time that the plans for enhanced reservist training were announced in November 2021, Major General Ma Chia-long (馬家龍), deputy director of the then-existent All-Out Defense Mobilization Office, announced that the ROC Army had plans to refit some of its older combat vehicles—including CM-11 “Brave Tiger” (勇虎) tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers—and hand them over to reserve forces once the 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks purchased from the United States had been delivered.

Perhaps most controversially, senior defense officials and political figures have also begun to talk publicly about extending the period of conscripted military service for young men—from four months back to one year. In mid-March, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) was quoted as telling legislators that “If a war broke out in Taiwan, the four-month military training we currently have is not enough,” and indicated that a task force was reviewing the issue. The same week, Xavier Chang (張惇涵), a spokesperson for President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), indicated that such a measure was under discussion, and Interior Minister Hsu Kuo-yung (徐國勇) commented on the extension of obligated military service time by saying that “If it would benefit the safe and sustainable development of our country, then several months or a year more shouldn’t be a problem.”

What Should Taiwan’s Reserve Forces Look Like?

Alongside these reforms, a further debate is brewing in regards to what form Taiwan’s reserve system should take. One of the more fundamental questions is whether it should be an operational reserve system intended to directly bolster the active-duty force (the model upon which US military Reserve and National Guard forces are largely constituted); or whether it should be a citizen militia acting alongside, but separate from, the active-duty armed forces (the model of the Ukrainian TDF).

In a commentary published in March by Dr. Michael Hunzecker and Admiral Lee Hsi-min (李喜明)—a former ROC chief of general staff, and the figure in Taiwan defense circles most closely associated with the “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC, 整體防禦概念)—the two authors advocated for “the creation of a standing, all-volunteer, Taiwanese territorial defense force.” Inspired in part by the success displayed by the Ukrainian TDF in resisting the Russian invasion, the authors call for an entirely new service branch—manned by civilian volunteers and distinct from an operational reserve force—that would be positioned to attack the logistics and rear-echelon elements of an occupation force, and to provide the nucleus of an insurgent resistance. The authors state that “popular resistance has merit and might be the difference between Taiwan surviving an assault from the mainland and succumbing,” and that “a bottom-up force credibly organized, trained, and equipped to reshape Beijing’s calculus” could provide a key pillar of deterrence.

Potential New Models for Civil Defense Mobilization

Such arguments stand alongside the efforts of individuals such as Enoch Wu (吳怡農), a former soldier and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) politician, to further involve Taiwan’s general population in civil defense and disaster relief. Wu is the founder of Forward Alliance (壯闊台灣聯盟), which advocates for enhanced civil defense preparation on the part of the general public. Wu has commented that “The threat [from the Chinese military] is quite serious, in my view,” and further stated that “The best way to deter military conflict is to demonstrate a credible national will to resist, by combining military readiness with civil preparedness.”

Senior Taiwan officials have also discussed changes to civil defense mobilization outside of military channels. In testimony before the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee (立法院外交及國防委員會) in April 2021, Defense Minister Chiu indicated plans to amend the Civil Defense Act (民防法) in order to allow defense officials to mobilize groups of disaster relief workers from religious institutions—a so-called “temple militia” (寺廟民兵). This proposed move would not only allow the organization of additional logistical and emergency aid personnel, but would also allow for further government oversight of Buddhist and Taoist temples that have been heavily targeted for united front recruitment.


The arguments for creating a citizen militia force appear unlikely to gather much support inside the ROC MND, which has historically kept counter-invasion contingency planning firmly within conventional military and political channels. Furthermore, Taiwan society as a whole lacks a widespread tradition of firearms ownership and handling, and it is unclear how a theoretical militia modeled on the Ukrainian TDF would store weapons or conduct training, or how it might be administered by a likely skeptical national defense establishment. Instead, it is likely that reserve reforms will continue to be directed on the operational reserve model, with perhaps increasing public engagement in the field of civil defense preparation. 

Whatever direction these reforms take, however, the very fact that there is now serious debate over topics once considered politically impossible—including extended conscripted service time, and increased reserve duty training requirements—demonstrates just how far the war in Ukraine is shaking up attitudes in Taiwan. There’s a long way to go in reforming Taiwan’s currently ineffective military reserve system, but the reforms either underway or under discussion represent significant steps in the right direction.

The main point: Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and senior political figures are currently engaged in either debating, or actually implementing, a series of major reforms to the way that military reservists are trained and administered. These reforms, if followed through, could significantly bolster the capacity of Taiwan’s active-duty armed forces to respond to a PRC military attack.

[1] Easton, Stokes, Cooper, and Chan, Transformation of Taiwan’s Reserve Force (RAND Corp., 2017), p. 6.