Last week, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. US President Donald Trump initially ordered an attack on Iranian radar sites and missile bases, but called it off at the eleventh hour, substituting the bomb raids with a casualty-free cyberattack.
This conflict is an example of the innovative/asymmetric model of modern warfare, and could serve as an important lesson as Taiwan prepares its defensive deployments and upgrades its military.
Corps Aerospace Commander Ali Hajizadeh has said that Iran could have shot down a crewed P-8A maritime reconnaissance aircraft, but instead targeted the drone as a warning to the US not to invade Iran’s airspace.
That Iran was able to accurately assess multiple targets flying close to its territorial airspace despite not having fighter jets monitoring or tailing the US aircraft suggests that it was relying on electronic intelligence.
Iran’s challenge to the US military’s close-in reconnaissance tactics flies in the face of “freedom of overflight” and “freedom of navigation” operations conducted by many countries in the past few years. These operations have included military planes and warships periodically passing through the crowded and narrow Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan’s military uses radar, early-warning aircraft, maritime patrol vessels, combat air patrols and visual identification by fishing vessels. This should be complemented by including open-source intelligence, such as flight data from the ADS-B Exchange and automatic identification systems, into a joint intelligence detection system to provide the most up-to-date possible picture of maritime and airspace movements.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is possibly modeling itself on US military tactics and employs electronic-warfare/jammer aircraft with Harbin BZK-005 high-altitude, long-range reconnaissance drones, which conduct encirclement “drills” around Taiwan. Harbin drones are stationed on the Zhoushan archipelago in the East China Sea and Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) in the South China Sea.
In April last year, one of them was intercepted by Japan’s Self Defense Force in the East China Sea. If a PLA drone enters Taiwanese airspace and uses its optic-electric sensor systems and electronic warfare pod to capture imagery and conduct electromagnetic spectrum analysis, that would enable the PLA to find dead spots within the Taiwanese military’s reconnaissance satellite system and test its electronic attack capability.
The US Cyber Command has been set up to function in coordination with Central Command, but this structure has the potential to cause bureaucratic inertia. The two commands should be separated, along the lines of the Iranian military’s rocket and missile launch system. This presents an information operations challenge where Taiwan’s military urgently needs to make a breakthrough. This technology was frequently mentioned in connection with North Korea’s multiple ballistic missile test launches in 2017, while China Central Television has reported that information operations forms an element of the PLA’s anti-ballistic missile training.
Whether through use of drones or a cyber “first strike” designed to paralyze an enemy nation’s missile systems, such tactics are the only meaningful way to conduct an innovative/asymmetric war. At a time when US-Taiwan military exchanges are at their best, Taipei should waste no time putting together a shopping list of electronic countermeasures and information operations equipment.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Edward Jones
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