The Taiwan army major traced his finger in a swooping arc across the map. “The extended distances that UAVs can now cover means that everything is now a target. How do we defend against this?” He then looked expectantly out at our delegation.
One of our delegation members stood up, with a smile that would have done credit to a shark. “A good question, but allow me to submit that first, your adversary can already target you without the use of UAVs. Second, UAVs are an asymmetric weapon. Your adversary is coming to you — make them worry about how to defend against your UAVs.”
That stirred up an audible reaction. During the break afterwards, the major sought me out. “Is that person a fire-eater, or what?” — with a nod and a smile, inviting me to agree. “No, she’s being realistic,” I replied. “Things are getting to the point where not being a ‘fire-eater’ is the risky option.” The major looked at me, bemused (and probably wondering if the entire U.S. delegation would be dining on flames for lunch).
However, the recently concluded Armenia-Azerbaijan War has been fairly conclusive proof about the advisability of my colleague’s recommendations. From the various after-action reports coming from the conflict, I identify three primary lessons for the Taiwan military.
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Play the Game of Drones
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In operational considerations of a Taiwan conflict, there is an overwhelming focus on air and sea control. Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept (ODC) emphasizes “decisive battle in the littoral zone and destruction of the enemy at the landing beach , ” while published writings from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reciprocate with a focus on the Joint Firepower Strike use of massed missiles to destroy Taiwan airpower and paralyze defensive capability.
However, the first and most obvious lesson of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war is that through massed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), it is possible for ground forces to cheaply replicate elements of a robust air force at a localized level.
As demonstration of this, the Azerbaijanis used loitering munitions (kamikaze drones), medium-strike UAS with guided munitions, and recon UAS in concert with artillery, to devastating effect. Against an entrenched opponent, the strikes decimated the fixed command posts, logistics centers, and assembly areas, badly weakening Armenian defenses. Reinforcing heavy armor received the same treatment, only worse; caught out in the open, with predictable lines of advance, some 240 tanks were destroyed or captured. The destruction of Armenian armor and mechanized forces was crucial in allowing light Azerbaijani special operation forces with artillery support to capture the mountainous defensive point of Shusha, which effectively ended the war.
In the case of a successful landing of the PLA on Taiwan, Taiwan would be on the strategic defensive. Given expected PLA Air Force air superiority, small radar-evading UAS may mean the difference between the Taiwan army being forced to remain in an operationally defensive role or having the ability to take the offensive during a period of high vulnerability for the PLA. The PLA, like the Armenians, would be fixed in place while desperately bringing up enough logistical capability to go on the offensive – which would then be on predictable lines of advance to Taipei. This would actually be a worse scenario than having the initial invasion armada destroyed at sea, because a partial but inadequate landing force would not be able to easily retreat, would continue to be a massive resource sink for the PLA, and would essentially be a marooned hostage if the U.S. Air Force and Navy destroyed resupply capability.
Unleash the Decoy Ducks
One of the greatest advantages the PLA holds over the Taiwan military is the ability to conduct precision missile saturation. The vast proliferation over the last decade of accurate land-attack cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles have made the PLA Rocket Force the “largest and most diverse missile force in the world,” now better integrated into PLA theater operations than ever.
Previously, the Second Artillery (now PLA Rocket Force, PLARF) development of short range ballistic missiles was meant as a counter to the expected qualitative advantage of Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) platforms and training; as late as the 1996-2000 time period, most analysts still predicted ROCAF air superiority over the PLAAF in an invasion scenario. However, in a demonstration of the rapid evolution and growth of PLA capabilities, the main focus of the PLARF is no longer on developing short-range missiles to counter Taiwan defense, but instead developing medium- to long-range hypersonics to counter and deter U.S. intervention.
Herein lies another opportunity demonstrated by the Armenia-Azerbaijan War. Azerbaijan used a significant number of “unmanned” AN-2 biplanes as decoys to locate Armenian air defense and artillery. These decoys were quite low-tech: the pilots simply aimed at the cheap biplanes at Armenian lines, strapped the controls with belts to maintain course, and bailed out. Paired with strike UAS, this proved to be an extremely cost-effective method of revealing and then targeting an enemy air defense.
Similarly, the Taiwan military could massively expand a cheap decoy fleet, with a main mission of complicating adversary targeting calculus and forcing missile expenditure. This could be a mix of UAS, biplanes, even aging fighters: Taiwan is in the process of phasing out its existing F-5s, which could instead be repurposed as missile bait. In the hands of a more technically sophisticated power than Azerbaijan, unmanned decoys could spoof attacks not just against an invasion force, but against targets in China – thus forcing ever-increasing PLA expenditures on base-hardening, missile/UAS defense, and raising the specter among Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership that the consequences of a Taiwan war cannot be isolated.
Don’t Fight Like They Expect You to Fight
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Prior to the development of the ODC, Taiwan strategy focused on creating a defense-in-depth system where each service fought its own war: the ROC Marine Corps would defend the outer-lying islands until overwhelmed; the ROC Navy would fight in the Taiwan Strait until overwhelmed; the ROC Army would conduct anti-landing operations; the ROC Air Force would seek to absorb the initial PLAAF and PLARF strikes in mountain bases such as Chiashan and then come out to fight. This plan was essentially static for over 40 years, and completely predictable – particularly after many of the operational details were stolen via Chinese intelligence operations.
The issue of predictability was not limited to operations. With the United States as Taiwan’s main equipment supplier, the Taiwan military also picked up many of the habits of the U.S. military – not just the way the U.S. fights, but also the service cultures and rivalries regarding funding and acquisitions that incentivized buying high-end platforms. While there has been a veritable plethora of articles recommending the Taiwan military shift from high-end platforms to asymmetric weaponry, there has been considerably less attention on the utility of thinking differently about fighting.
For the Armenians, this proved to be fatal. While there was some understanding prior to the outbreak of war that a static “trench defense” was precisely what the Azerbaijanis were prepared to fight against, the slow rate of change meant that Armenia ended up with a flood of volunteers trained by veterans of the 1994 war with wooden guns to execute trench defense. These forces were then correspondingly demoralized by a way of war that had nothing to do with the old Soviet firepower-attrition method that gave Armenia the victory in 1994. The Armenians were fixed and then destroyed – not just in position, but mentally as well.
In Taiwan’s case, this lesson calls for a military able to consider multiple ways of war past the U.S. model, which is expeditionary, air-centric, mobile – and backed up by a massive resource/manpower base. The U.S. model addresses problems that Taiwan does not need to worry about, with a base that Taiwan does not have. Moreover, not being fixated on one operating model means having greater mental flexibility to take lessons from multiple ways of war. For instance, Finland, Sweden, and Singapore all have some similarities to Taiwan’s defense situation, both in terms of equipment and threat; another model, particularly for Taiwan reserve units, would be to implement lessons learned from the U.S. experience of 20 years of counterinsurgency — specifically from the operating methods and skillsets of the insurgents.
An Arsenal of Ideas
A number of years ago, during one of the cyclical downturns in U.S.-China relations, Beijing reached to one of its standard ways of expressing displeasure: cutting off military-to-military relations with the U.S. I fielded a call from an irate war college professor, who wanted to confirm if it was true that the China regional studies trip he had been planning all year long was dead in the water.
I regretfully confirmed the facts of life, but tried to cheer him up: “Your class can learn quite a bit in Taiwan, you know.” There was a slight pause on the other end. “Yes, but… we’d just be seeing a lot of old 1980s U.S. equipment.” (I wanted to point out that any trip to China would have just involved seeing a lot of old 1980s PLA equipment, but I held back from the smart remark.)
I remembered this exchange in the present day when reading the after-action reports of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War. Azerbaijan used a mix of modern (but hardly cutting edge) and old systems in innovative ways, cleverly turning an assessed Armenian strength – fortified defenses – into a deadly weakness. More important than equipment is the thinking behind the use of the equipment.
It’s true that China is certainly no Armenia, but on the other hand, Taiwan is also significantly stronger economically than Azerbaijan: Taiwan’s GDP is some 14 times larger than that of Azerbaijan’s, and it is much more technologically sophisticated, to boot. Taiwan has recently demonstrated an impressive ability to wield organization and technology – a veritable Arsenal of Ideas – to defeat a wide range of adversaries, from COVID-19 to Beijing’s disinformation campaigns. The key to Taiwan’s survival will be to constantly experiment, using this Arsenal of Ideas to offset an adversary with far greater firepower. Therein lies the final lesson of Armenia-Azerbaijan War, encapsulated in the old British Special Air Service motto: “Who Dares, Wins.”
Eric Chan is a specialist in Chinese/Korean political and security affairs, working as a China/Korea advisor for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of his employer.