The issue of conscripted military service has long been a contentious matter in Taiwan, where, despite the serious and growing threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), military service is widely unpopular among young people. As a result, the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) armed forces have historically struggled to attract enough volunteer recruits to man the ranks. During the 2010s, Taiwan’s government repeatedly reduced the period of required compulsory service for young men, first from first two years down to one, and then from one year to four months, where it has stood since 2017. The four-month term of service has been criticized by critics both within and outside of Taiwan as woefully inadequate, with many deriding it as a “summer camp” experience that lacked rigorous and meaningful training for most recruits. Furthermore, the lack of follow-up obligations—reservists were only required to perform five to seven days of refresher training on alternate years, with the refresher training itself broadly criticized as inadequate, and deferments widely available—further led critics to question its value.
This lack of an effective conscription and reserve management program to back up Taiwan’s active-duty volunteer force in the event of a major crisis is one of the significant factors that has led many to argue that Taiwan was failing to provide for its own defense. However, in December 2022, the administration of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) officially announced its plans to extend the island’s program of mandatory conscription and military training for young men back to one year of required service. (For a fuller discussion of the issues associated with conscripted service, and the provisions of the plan announced in December 2022, see the earlier Global Taiwan Brief article “Taiwan’s ‘Military Force Restructuring Plan’ and the Extension of Conscripted Military Service” [February 8, 2023].)
As of January 2024, the new one-year program of conscripted service has entered into effect, and the first cohorts of affected young men (the conscription program is male-only, although women serve in the active-duty military) reported for basic training. While much about the provisions of the program remains unclear, the Ministry of National Defense (MND, 國防部) has released some details about the planned implementation of the new one-year program. These provisions of the program, and what they portend for Taiwan’s overall defense structure, will be examined in this article.
Image: ROC Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Chen Chien-yi speaking at a press conference on January 16, in which he briefed reporters on aspects of the military’s new one-year conscription program. (Image source: ROC Ministry of National Defense)
The MND’s Announcements about the New Training Program
On January 16, ROC Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General (LtGen.) Chen Chien-yi (陳建義) was the featured speaker at an MND press conference, during which he presented a briefing—titled the “One Year Mandatory Military Service Training and Reorganizing Survey” (一年期義務役入伍接訓整備概況)—on the provisions of the new program. LtGen. Chen stated that the training program for conscripts had been developed based on iterations of the eight-week basic training course for active-duty soldiers conducted between April – August 2023, and that 900 personnel (presumably consisting primarily of non-commissioned officers) had qualified as trainers to supervise the more rigorous training of new recruits from January 2024 onwards. He provided some basic figures for the program, as follows:
- The first cohort of new recruits would report for training on January 25 (see image below).
- There would be 12 training cohorts (梯次) this year, with the first cohort containing 670 personnel.
- 9,127 recruits were projected to be drafted this year—with the majority (7,514) going into the ROC Army, with the others to be assigned to the other branches of the armed forces.
- Five main training units had been identified for the army recruits, including the 206th Infantry Brigade (Hsinchu—north region), 302nd Brigade (Taichung—central region), and 203rd Brigade (Tainan—southern region).
- NTD $4.04137 billion (approximately USD $129.68 million) had been allocated for the years 2023-2025 for training facilities upgrades and quality-of-life (barracks, etc.) upgrades.
LtGen. Chen’s briefing described the intent of this “from civilian transforming to soldier” (由民轉軍) program as preparing recruits to “follow orders, identify with the country, to be loyal and patriotic” (服從命令、認同國家、忠貞愛國), and to “carry out assignments at the squad level and below” (能接受班以下任務式指揮). The eight-week basic training program is to be structured as follows:
- Phase One (week one)—“Soldier’s Core Values” (軍人核心價值): In-processing, political instruction in military core values and patriotic awareness, and introduction to basic physical fitness.
- Phase Two (weeks two-five)—“Fundamentals Training” (基礎訓練): Basic weapons training and marksmanship.
- Phase Three (weeks six-seven)—“Advanced Combined Training” (進階暨訓練): More advanced combat training, including night training. Week six will also include selections for the recruit’s military specialty; for those who do not receive a specialty designation, they will receive a unit assignment in week seven.
- Phase Four (week eight)—“Final Evaluation” (期末鑑測): Final recruit assessment of physical training, weapons handling, and a sequence of “3-day / 2-night comprehensive combat training” (三天二夜綜合戰鬥教練). Recruits who fail the final assessment will be recycled for an additional week of training. 
Image: “One Year Compulsory Military Service New Soldiers Say It Isn’t So Terrible”—a photo from a government news agency report about some of the first conscripts reporting for training duty (at the ROC Army base at Cheng-gong-ling, Taichung) under the MND’s extended one-year conscription program (January 25). (Image source: CNA)
With the first cohorts of conscripts under the new program reported to their training facilities, the MND has clearly taken pains to present to the public a message that the new recruits are being well cared-for. This reflects a lingering concern for the armed forces, whose image—and the public’s view of military service—have been damaged by past instances of alleged hazing or abusive discipline, including an incident that resulted in the death of a soldier by heatstroke in 2013. As an example of this messaging effort, the state-affiliated media outlet Central News Agency (CNA, 中央社) ran a story profiling the induction process at the ROC Army training facility at Cheng-gong-ling (成功嶺新訓中心), Taichung, which featured a brief interview with a new recruit who stated: “[Before reporting] I was a little perturbed […] but after I arrived at Cheng-gong-ling, I found that everything here was very tidy and orderly, and the officers were not as terrible as I had heard from the previous generation.”
The Intended Employment of Conscript Soldiers
The government’s December 2022 announcement of the future “Strengthening All-People’s Defense Military Force Restructuring Plan” (強化全民國防兵力結構調整方案, called the “Military Force Realignment Plan” in the government’s own English-language communications) laid out four broad categories of duty for military servicemembers: the “main battle troops” of the volunteer active-duty force; conscripted “garrison troops,” whose duties would be focused on facilities protection and territorial defense; the “civil defense system”; and the “reserve system” for military reservists.  The December 2022 materials indicated that the service of the one-year conscripts would be directed primarily toward the second category of “garrison troops” (and presumably shifting to the fourth category once their obligatory year of service ended).
The MND’s January 2024 briefing appeared to confirm this intended orientation for the one-year conscripts once they complete initial training. The briefing did not cover follow-on training in a military occupational specialty (MOS), although this would presumably be the case for at least some soldiers (those whom, as noted, receive such a designation in basic training week six). It did indicate that, following training, they would be assigned “to the garrison troops (守備部隊) in the main or outer islands based on the area of their registered place of residence.” On a voluntary basis, training graduates may elect to serve with one of the “main battle” units of active-duty troops, where their duties and continued training would presumably be more rigorous.
LtGen. Chen’s briefing was very much focused on the role of recruits in the ROC Army, and did not dwell upon the roughly 1,600 recruits (approximately 20 percent) of this year’s draftees who would be assigned to the other branches of the armed forces. However, his brief did contain a slide that indicated paths for conscripted troops to serve in “guard platoons” (戒護排) of the navy, air force, and MND Information, Communications and Electronic Force Command (ICEFCOM, 國防部資通電軍), as well as for service with the military police (憲兵). (The small ROC Marine Corps appeared to be left out of plans for conscript augmentation.) This appears to indicate that draftees assigned to the other services will also perform in a primary “garrison troop” role of providing sentries for fixed facilities—perhaps allowing volunteer active-duty personnel to focus their efforts on more specialized command functions. However, this remains unclear, and further time will be required to see how such divisions of work responsibilities play themselves out.
The late 2022 announcement by the Tsai Administration regarding the extension of conscripted military service for young men—a controversial decision that cost the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨)-led government critical political capital in the lead-up to an election year—was implemented on schedule in January of this year. This marks both a significant social change in Taiwan, and a potentially substantial increase in the manpower available to the understrength ROC armed forces. With the victory of current Vice-President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) in the January 13 presidential election, the policy is almost certain to continue under the incoming administration (although conflicts over defense appropriations could well emerge under the new Legislative Yuan speakership of Han Kuo-yu [韓國瑜]).
Taiwan’s MND is attempting to create a larger body of soldiers (and they are primarily soldiers, as opposed to sailors or airmen) who have received an introduction to military organization and discipline, and at least rudimentary training in weapons usage and small-unit infantry tactics. The seeming intent to employ the conscript soldiers primarily in a facilities security role is unlikely to develop those skills further; however, it would at least provide a minimal baseline for such skills, should they ever be required later. Furthermore, the additional manpower provided for essential—but relatively uncomplicated—tasks such as guard duty and unskilled labor could free up time and resources for longer-serving volunteer enlisted personnel to dedicate themselves to more advanced training and professional development.
The new one-year program should help to address, at least in part, the legitimate criticisms from both domestic and foreign critics that Taiwan has not allocated sufficient resources and social capital toward its own defense. It could also help to potentially increase the value of deterrence efforts in the face of a potential PRC invasion. (It is no accident that, throughout Europe’s violent 20th century, potential aggressors steered clear of Switzerland and its well-regulated, universal-service, citizen-reserve army.) However, much about the new program remains unclear, including the extent of follow-on military specialty training and the degree to which such soldiers might be integrated into the larger force, as well as how personnel will be distributed to services other than the ROC Army. Perhaps most importantly of all, it remains to be seen whether the MND will implement an effective program of reserve force management and refresher training for conscript soldiers once they are released from their one-year term of active-duty service.
While the move to one year of service remains a limited measure in light of the existential threat Taiwan faces, it is a significant step in the right direction—and one of a number of positive steps, to include major increases in the defense budget, made under the cognizance of the Tsai Administration. The specifics as to how the new conscription program plays itself out through the rest of 2024 will be well worth watching.
The main point: In January, Taiwan’s government followed through with plans to initiate a new, extended program (from four months, to one year) of obligatory conscripted military service for young men. Most of the new recruits will be directed to service in the ROC Army, with follow-on duty in the “garrison troops”—performing facilities security and rear-echelon service—as defined by the government’s plan released in late 2022. The new program represents a significant social change, and could provide substantial additional manpower to the understrength ROC armed forces.
 The briefing indicated that recruits who still failed the comprehensive assessment after this would not receive a “specialty certificate” (專長證書) (no further details provided), and would not receive the NTD $10,800 (USD $346) “specialist bonus” (專業加給) allotted to training graduates. It is unclear whether this would then affect their subsequent military duty status.
 The four categories are: (1) “Main Battle Troops” (主戰部隊): The volunteer personnel of the active-duty military (currently manned at approximately 155,000, with a desired goal of 210,000), who will bear the primary burden of any potential future front-line fighting; (2) “Garrison Troops” (守備部隊): Comprised predominantly of conscripted (“mandatory service”) personnel, these soldiers will be oriented primarily towards infrastructure protection and territorial defense; (3) the “Civil Defense System” (民防系統): “Alternative service personnel” (presumably, to include those deferred from combat service due to medical, conscientious, or other reasons) who are to be integrated into a public-private partnership system for disaster relief, medical services, and other aspects of civil defense, as well as for unspecified, but presumably logistical, military support operations; and (4) the “Reserve System” (後備系統): A revamped system for military reservists, intended to “replenish our main battle force with retired volunteer soldiers, and our garrison force with former mandatory servicemembers.” (See: “President Tsai Announces Military Force Realignment Plan,” ROC President’s Office, Dec. 27, 2022, https://english.president.gov.tw/News/6417.)