Learning From Ukraine to Defend Taiwan

News AnalysisRussia’s disastrous war in Ukraine has held obvious lessons for China when contemplating an armed attack against Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan should be drawing important examples of a small state deterring, defending—and even defeating—a larger power. The answer lies in something called “asymmetric warfare,” and Taipei has been keen to adopt this concept to its unique situation. In Taiwan’s case, this means rejecting Taiwan’s traditional defense strategy of attrition warfare, which is based on the “American approach to warfare,” particularly the ability “to project power over great distances and to maximize mobility and networks to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming superiority,” according to Drew Thompson, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. This could be playing right into Beijing’s hands, however. According to Thompson, achieving “overwhelming superiority” against China would be next to impossible. Instead, Thompson argues that Taiwan should use “short-range and defensive systems” that can survive initial bombardment from China, which can be used in close-in operations. This is more or less what Ukraine has been doing with its Javelin and NLAW anti-tank weapons and its Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. To give Taiwan its due, it has acquired large numbers of anti-tank weapons (Javelin, as well as TOW, Hellfire, and AT-4) and air-defense missiles (both U.S.-built Stingers and homegrown Sky Swords). It also has highly capable Patriot missiles to defend against both air-breathing and ballistic missile threats. The trick is numbers: Ukraine has used up thousands of these small, man-portable weapons; it is easy to run out quickly. Taiwan will either have to maintain a huge inventory of such weapons in-country, or the United States will need to ensure that it can continue to supply Taiwan amid an armed conflict (which would probably require running a Chinese blockade of the island). That said, Taiwan has one great advantage over its adversary that Ukraine doesn’t have with Russia: a 62-mile maritime barrier between it and China. Amphibious operations across the Taiwan Strait are not just complicated; they are dangerous for the invader since this is where Chinese forces would be at their weakest. This “decisive battle in the littoral” means engaging and destroying, as much as possible, PLA forces while they are in the Taiwan Strait. The main weapons would be anti-ship cruise missiles, both on land and ships. Swarming and “shoot-and-scoot” tactics would be instrumental during this phase. In addition, the waters close to Taiwan’s shore would be heavily mined. Any Chinese forces that make it to Taiwan’s shores would subsequently be confronted by a “kill-zone” supported by land-based mobile anti-ship systems (including U.S.-made Harpoon missiles recently released for sale to Taiwan) and saturation artillery attacks (such as the U.S.-made HIMARS multiple-rocket system). The Taiwan air force would operate mainly over this zone to deny Chinese fighter jets, bombers, and drones the ability to operate effectively within Taiwanese airspace. U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers fire salvoes during the “African Lion” military exercise in the Grier Labouihi region in southeastern Morocco on June 9, 2021. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images) At the same time, Taiwan would likely launch counterstrikes on Chinese military installments on the mainland, including naval bases, radar stations, command centers, and missile sites. Augmenting Taiwan’s beach defenses is the topography of the island itself. Taiwan’s littoral has been described as “a defender’s dream come true.” It features a “complex infrastructure” of cliffs and sea walls, paddy fields, bridges, tunnels, overpasses, mountainous zones, and “urban jungles.” Its hills are “honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems,” and there are numerous places where mobile missile launchers can hide. Finally, Taiwan’s outer islands are bristling with missiles, rockets, and artillery. As Ukraine’s successful defense against the Russian invaders has shown, asymmetric operations depend heavily on speed, mobility, and swarming with large numbers of less-expensive weapons. This means fewer large platforms, like tanks, and more small, mobile forces. Above all, in the case of Taiwan, it means lots and lots of missiles of all types: anti-tank, anti-air, surface-to-surface, and anti-ship. Fortunately, Taiwan has one of the highest missile densities in the world. At the same time, Taipei’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has stated that it will “more than double” the annual production of domestic missile systems. In particular, the MND plans to hike the production of the Hsiung Sheng land-attack missile, a longer-range version of the Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missile. The Hsiung Shen has an estimated range of 600–1,200 miles, which would allow it to hit targets de

Learning From Ukraine to Defend Taiwan

News Analysis

Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine has held obvious lessons for China when contemplating an armed attack against Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan should be drawing important examples of a small state deterring, defending—and even defeating—a larger power.

The answer lies in something called “asymmetric warfare,” and Taipei has been keen to adopt this concept to its unique situation. In Taiwan’s case, this means rejecting Taiwan’s traditional defense strategy of attrition warfare, which is based on the “American approach to warfare,” particularly the ability “to project power over great distances and to maximize mobility and networks to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming superiority,” according to Drew Thompson, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

This could be playing right into Beijing’s hands, however. According to Thompson, achieving “overwhelming superiority” against China would be next to impossible.

Instead, Thompson argues that Taiwan should use “short-range and defensive systems” that can survive initial bombardment from China, which can be used in close-in operations. This is more or less what Ukraine has been doing with its Javelin and NLAW anti-tank weapons and its Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

To give Taiwan its due, it has acquired large numbers of anti-tank weapons (Javelin, as well as TOW, Hellfire, and AT-4) and air-defense missiles (both U.S.-built Stingers and homegrown Sky Swords). It also has highly capable Patriot missiles to defend against both air-breathing and ballistic missile threats.

The trick is numbers: Ukraine has used up thousands of these small, man-portable weapons; it is easy to run out quickly.

Taiwan will either have to maintain a huge inventory of such weapons in-country, or the United States will need to ensure that it can continue to supply Taiwan amid an armed conflict (which would probably require running a Chinese blockade of the island).

That said, Taiwan has one great advantage over its adversary that Ukraine doesn’t have with Russia: a 62-mile maritime barrier between it and China. Amphibious operations across the Taiwan Strait are not just complicated; they are dangerous for the invader since this is where Chinese forces would be at their weakest.

This “decisive battle in the littoral” means engaging and destroying, as much as possible, PLA forces while they are in the Taiwan Strait. The main weapons would be anti-ship cruise missiles, both on land and ships. Swarming and “shoot-and-scoot” tactics would be instrumental during this phase. In addition, the waters close to Taiwan’s shore would be heavily mined.

Any Chinese forces that make it to Taiwan’s shores would subsequently be confronted by a “kill-zone” supported by land-based mobile anti-ship systems (including U.S.-made Harpoon missiles recently released for sale to Taiwan) and saturation artillery attacks (such as the U.S.-made HIMARS multiple-rocket system).

The Taiwan air force would operate mainly over this zone to deny Chinese fighter jets, bombers, and drones the ability to operate effectively within Taiwanese airspace.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers fire salvoes during the “African Lion” military exercise in the Grier Labouihi region in southeastern Morocco on June 9, 2021. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

At the same time, Taiwan would likely launch counterstrikes on Chinese military installments on the mainland, including naval bases, radar stations, command centers, and missile sites.

Augmenting Taiwan’s beach defenses is the topography of the island itself. Taiwan’s littoral has been described as “a defender’s dream come true.” It features a “complex infrastructure” of cliffs and sea walls, paddy fields, bridges, tunnels, overpasses, mountainous zones, and “urban jungles.” Its hills are “honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems,” and there are numerous places where mobile missile launchers can hide. Finally, Taiwan’s outer islands are bristling with missiles, rockets, and artillery.

As Ukraine’s successful defense against the Russian invaders has shown, asymmetric operations depend heavily on speed, mobility, and swarming with large numbers of less-expensive weapons. This means fewer large platforms, like tanks, and more small, mobile forces. Above all, in the case of Taiwan, it means lots and lots of missiles of all types: anti-tank, anti-air, surface-to-surface, and anti-ship.

Fortunately, Taiwan has one of the highest missile densities in the world. At the same time, Taipei’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has stated that it will “more than double” the annual production of domestic missile systems. In particular, the MND plans to hike the production of the Hsiung Sheng land-attack missile, a longer-range version of the Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missile. The Hsiung Shen has an estimated range of 600–1,200 miles, which would allow it to hit targets deep into China’s interior.

Obviously, Taipei has more to do when it comes to implementing and mastering an asymmetric operational capacity. It has to keep up its number of game-changing weapons, particularly modern anti-ship missiles (to stymie amphibious assaults) and anti-armor and anti-personnel weapons (like the Javelin) to stop enemy forces should they make landfall.

Taiwan also needs to hone its defenses against Chinese special forces, particularly airborne assaults trying to capture air bases or assassinate political heads (two tactics also used by Russian armed forces in Ukraine, although these resulted in abject failure).

In addition to numbers and improved logistics, Taiwan must beef up its training. That probably means extending its conscription period from a measly four months, as well as encouraging a larger, professional army. Asymmetric warfare plays to Taiwan’s strengths and Chinese weaknesses, but Taiwan’s weaknesses must also be addressed.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.