Taiwan hopes to give its ‘strawberry soldiers’ real bite after critics warn reserve can’t fight PLA
- The island’s defence ministry is planning to overhaul the training conscripts that reservists are given amid growing tensions with the Chinese mainland
- Critics have said their current training is inadequate, leaving a reserve force that, like the fruit, can be easily squashed
“I don’t think I will be OK if I have to go to war,” said Peter Liao who completed his mandatory four months of military service in July and then joined the 2.2 million-strong reserve.
The 22-year-old said he did not think he had learned enough to survive a war.
Liao said new conscripts underwent five weeks of basic training at a cadet centre before being assigned to a military base for 11 weeks of further training.
He said the basic training was carried out in a rush and conscripts were not given time to understand the things they were being taught.
“It was like a cram school as there were many things, various doctrines in particular, to learn,” he said. “But before I could fully digest anything, the instructors already started cramming us with new things.
“Take cleaning or disassembling a gun, for example. I learned that in the classroom, but if you asked me to do it again in a field operation, I suspect I couldn’t remember how to do it.”
Liao said after basic training, he was sent to an ammunition company where he was supposed to train in logistics supply and warehousing.
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“But in my 11 weeks of training and service, I rarely experienced any mock field operations as the supervisors were afraid that we would get hurt,” he said, adding that sweeping leaves and pulling weeds were part of the routine service in the camp.
“So if you asked me if I went to war would I be able to fight against the enemy? I can tell you definitely I wouldn’t be able to do so.”
Taiwan originally had two years of compulsory military service but this was halved in 2008. It was further cut to four months in 2017, a move that meant conscripts would not have to spend time in field units.
The move prompted both local and foreign experts to warn it was creating an army of “strawberry soldiers” who could not fight properly.
The criticism finally prompted the island’s defence ministry in September to reinstate the requirement that conscripts undergo training with field units after basic training.
Late last month, Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng also announced an overhaul of training for reserves, with more combat and shooting exercises.
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Under the new measures, some reservists will be required to spend 14 days a year on refresher training courses, up to from the present five to seven days.
The new programme will apply to about 13 per cent of the 110,000 reservists the ministry plans to train next year, and they will be called up under a lottery draw.
Reservists who are called up will be required to more than double the amount of bullets they fire in shooting drills while combat training will be extended from half a day to 56 hours.
Taiwan’s regular military is a volunteer force of about 169,200, according to the defence ministry. In the event of conflict, it would hope to be able to mobilise a total force of 445,000 troops – 185,000 regulars and 260,000 trained reservists.
But military experts said most of its 2.2 million reservists had never been called up for further training due to funding problems and those who had were not well-trained enough to provide effective support to the regulars.
“Even after the military increases the refresher training for the reservists, the 14 days are still not enough and the effect would be limited as these people have never received training as tough as the active forces,” said Chang Yen-ting, a retired air force lieutenant general and guest professor at National Tsing Hua University.
“Nor have they joined them in group training together, making it highly difficult for them to effectively work with the active forces in the event of war.”
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Chang also said the reservists suffered from low morale and were not enthusiastic about being called up, adding that they were also hampered by shortages of instructors and training equipment.
Chieh Chung, a security researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank for the main opposition party Kuomintang, echoed Chang’s views.
“While it might be helpful to increase refresher training, the military must address the issue that there are not enough qualified officers to train the reservists. Worst yet, reservists’ specialisations are not taken into consideration by the military during call-ups, meaning a reservist can be assigned to a post contrary to what he had learned when he was a conscript,” Chieh said.