Taiwan’s plan to extend mandatory military service to mitigate the effects of a low birth rate and inadequate training and boost preparedness for a potential invasion by mainland China has come under close scrutiny on the island. For the service to become effective, the island’s military must greatly improve the training of conscripts rather than just focusing on extension for extension’s sake, Taiwanese defence experts said. Talk of extending the conscription period has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. Officials and analysts in the United States – an informal ally and major arms supplier of Taiwan – have repeatedly called for the self-governed island to extend its existing four-month mandatory conscription to at least one year, saying the training conscripts currently receive would prove far from adequate in the event of conflict with Beijing. “I believe that Taiwan needs to lengthen and toughen its conscription,” former US defence secretary Mark Esper said during a visit to Taiwan in July. “That means to have young Taiwanese boys and girls serve at least one year if not longer in their nation’s military.” Such remarks have prompted the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to consider extending the service, especially after Beijing staged unprecedented live-fire drills around Taiwan in early August in response to a visit to Taipei by Nancy Pelosi , speaker of the US House of Representatives. Taiwan officials increase rhetoric against Beijing after end of party congress Beijing – which sees Taiwan as its territory, to be taken back by force if necessary – considered that visit to be a violation of its sovereignty and a breach of the US’ one-China policy. But because any extension would be highly unpopular among the island’s young people, the Tsai administration has yet to come up with a final plan, prompting lawmakers to accuse it of deliberately stalling the decision for fear of affecting the ruling party’s chances in next month’s local government elections. Faced with such criticism, the island’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, announced early this month that the Tsai government would make an announcement on extending mandatory military service by the end of this year. Taiwanese defence experts said extending the period would help improve conscripts’ combat skills and upgrade the reserve force after the draftees completed their service and became reservists. There are roughly 40,000 conscripts doing their mandatory training at any given time. China wants to ‘speed up’ its seizure of Taiwan, Blinken says “But in extending the service to one year or more, the military must first address issues like whether there are enough training resources, including locations, facilities, and instructors,” said Chieh Chung, a senior security researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the main opposition Kuomintang party. Before 1987, Taiwanese draftees were required to serve for three years. But that was cut to two years in 1990 and then reduced to one in 2008. Since the introduction of volunteer service in 2017, conscripts need only serve four months. The island’s active-duty military has shrunk to 165,000 personnel from 275,000 three years ago, compared with the 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army across the Taiwan Strait. Chieh said even though the training included practice in field units, the conscripts could not be expected to learn specialised combat skills. Chen Yueh-ting, a 22-year-old who works as an assistant in an accountant’s office, said he had already forgotten most of the things he was taught during his four months of service. “Actually, I was supposed to learn basic combat training in the first eight weeks and specialised training in the last eight weeks, but what I and my comrades were regularly doing was cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors or clearing away fallen leaves,” he said. Taiwan to increase soldiers’ pay as cross-strait military tensions grow Chen said he had fewer than 10 target-shooting sessions during those four months, and in grenade-throwing practice conscripts were told most of the time to hurl badminton shuttles or swing wet towels to mimic the action because there were not enough grenades available. “If such training remains the same, I doubt the conscripts would acquire better skills in their extended service,” he said. Andrew Yang, a former Taiwanese defence minister, said previous policies that reduced troop numbers and slashed mandatory military service to four months had seen the military axe a number of units and personnel, and shed itself of land and resources to fit in with a leaner force. “There is a need to redesign the entire training system, including rearranging the training for the conscripts and getting experienced instructors to train them,” he said. He said that in the face of growing military threats from Beijing and rising cross-strait tensions, Taiwan needed new thinking to ready its military, with more professional training in comprehensive combat skills. Taiwan braces for tougher PLA after Central Military Commission reshaped Wu Sz-huai, a Taiwanese legislator and a retired army lieutenant general, said there were also concerns about the island’s declining birth rate, which could pose a major challenge to its military recruitment capabilities. “The Tsai government must take note of the growing decline in the number of draftees because of the low birth rate,” he said. According to government statistics, the number of registered births in Taiwan dropped to 154,000 last year from 197,000 in 2011, meaning the conscript population – those over 18 years old – will decline significantly in the coming years.