Former recruits in Taiwan say they feel unprepared for potential conflict with China

Taipei, Taiwan

Growing concerns about increasingly aggressive military maneuvers by China have prompted Taiwan to extend the period of mandatory military service that most of its young men must serve. But the former recruits interviewed by CNN said Taipei will need to do much more than that if it is to make the training effective.

Outdated, boring and impractical. That was the verdict of six young men who spoke to CNN about their recent experiences serving in the Taiwanese military.

They describe a process designed decades ago with a heavy emphasis on bayonet training, but lacking instruction in urban warfare strategies or modern weaponry such as drones. Some say there were too few guns, or that the weapons they trained with were too old to be used. Others recount “specializing” in cannon, grenade, and mortar units, but receiving no ammunition to train with.

Their criticism comes at a critical time for the Taiwanese military. President Tsai Ing-wen recently announced that the mandatory service period for men born in or after 2005 would be extended from four months to a year, saying the current system “no longer suits the needs” of the island’s defense. The Army says Rethink draws comparisons to the militaries of other Democratic jurisdictions that have longer enlistment times — such as South Korea (18-21 months), Singapore (24 months), and Israel (24-30 months).

Strengthening the island’s military has become a major 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-democracy of 23.5 million people as part of its territory, though it has never controlled it, and has sent record numbers of air and sea patrols to harass it since former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited in August. . Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force to “reunify” the island with mainland China.

“Nobody wants war,” Tsai said in announcing the lengthening of mandatory service periods in December. “This is true for the government and people of Taiwan, and for the world community, but peace does not come from heaven, and Taiwan is on the front lines of the expansion of authoritarianism.”

But former recruits are skeptical, telling CNN that the problems with mandatory military service go beyond the short time frame and will only be resolved through a more comprehensive renewal.

Cai herself admitted 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 ten can be used in shooting practices,” said Frank Liu, a 26-year-old auditor from central Changhua County who served in 2021. He said that about 140 recruits have received training in his company.

“A lot of these assault rifles were made several decades ago, and a lot of them were too worn out to be used for training. We had to rotate the guns among ourselves.”

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

He told me, “We didn’t fire many shots during the military training.” “I was training with the T65 assault rifle, and only fired about 40 rounds during the entire training period.

“I am concerned that many of the people who have undergone training with me will not even be able to operate a rifle with confidence.”

Reservists take part in a military exercise at a base in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on March 12, 2022.

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

During training on the ground, recruits are often assigned majors—but even then some say they only receive the quickest ideas.

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 coaches worried about injuring recruits. He asked only to give his first name because he is still in reserve.

“We were given simple tasks,” he said, “and most of the time was spent helping to clean and wash the gun carriages.” “If war broke out today and I was asked to serve as an artilleryman, I think I would become mere cannon fodder.”

Adam Yu, a 27-year-old designer from the northern city of Keelung who served in 2018 and who specializes in mortars and grenade launchers, said that while he was shown how to prepare the weapons, he was not given any ammunition or trained to fire them. .

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

This sentiment was echoed by another former recruit named Liu. The 28-year-old Seller is a data processing specialist with the Air Force and trained in southern Pingtung Province in 2015. He also asked that his first name be withheld, saying he might be called up for additional reserve training.

“Our commanders hardly taught anything during our ground exercises,” he said, “because they felt we were only going to be here for a few months and it wouldn’t make much difference to them.”

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

Taiwan has a professional volunteer military force that as of last year numbered 162,000 full-time soldiers, according to a report by the Yuan Legislative Council. Furthermore, it is estimated that 70,000 men complete their mandatory military service each year.

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

Many of those who spoke to CNN questioned how much time they spend on bayonet training, arguing that it is outdated, even though some militaries continue to teach it in recruit training programs.

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

Just look at the Russian-Ukrainian war, there are many types of weapons used. When should a soldier resort to the bayonet to attack his enemy? I think this is really outdated.”

Yu, from Keelung, said his commanders placed great emphasis on spear training because it formed part of the end-of-term examination.

He said, “We have been commanded to memorize a series of slogans.” “When we were practicing the bayonet, we were required to follow the division commander’s instructions with a certain chant for each movement, which we had to repeat in the exam.”

Some of these criticisms, tacit or otherwise, were acknowledged when Tsai announced the extension of the conscription period and in the subsequent news briefing by the Ministry of Defense in early January.

When the new policy begins in 2024, the ministry said, all recruits will have fired at least 800 rounds during their service, and will be trained with new weapons such as anti-tank missiles and drones. It added that Bayonet training will be modified to include other forms of close combat training, and recruits may also participate in joint military exercises with professional soldiers. In the meantime, basic training will go up from five to eight weeks.

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

He also believes there is value in keeping bayonet training in the school curriculum.

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

A CH-147F Chinook takes part in an exercise to show 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 would be included in the new training curriculum, it would be impractical for every soldier to practice shooting them as this would be too expensive.

In the United States, javelin training [anti-tank missiles] The simulation is done because each missile costs $70,000 and not everyone can launch it.”

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

However, not everyone was convinced.

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

He said the “more important questions” included detailing what kind of training the new recruits would receive.

On this point, the former recruits who spoke to CNN remain skeptical.

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

“If they stick to their old way of teaching, they will only ask us to follow their instructions and memorize their weight and flight distance, and we will not be able to operate them.”

The fear for recruits is that the new form of compulsory service may eventually look a lot like the old one, only for a longer period.

“During my service, most of the time we were required to do 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 if recruits’ time will be better spent when the new rules come next year, but all sides agree the stakes are high.

“Active citizens are the foundation and solid base of our will to resist,” said Enoch Wu, founder of the Forward Alliance Civil Defense Foundation and a member of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“If the public decides that our house is not worth fighting for—or that we stand no chance—then you could have the most professional army and it would still be too late.”

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