On Monday, China’s navy issued a statement that the Liaoning aircraft carrier was conducting “routine” drills in the waters around Taiwan, saying that “similar exercises will be conducted regularly.”
The statement follows a well-worn playbook by China’s military to gradually normalize provocative and aggressive behavior.
At sea, Beijing is using a combination of its navy, quasi-military coast guard and fishing boat militia to conduct near-daily forays into Taiwanese territorial waters; in the air, fighter jets, heavy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft constantly nibble away at the margins of Taiwan’s airspace. The effect is akin to being slowly asphyxiated by a boa constrictor.
As evidence that China’s tactics are bearing fruit, Taiwan’s air force last month announced that it would no longer scramble fighter jets to intercept every incursion by Chinese aircraft and would instead primarily track intruders with ground-based missile systems. At first glance, China appears to have chalked up a clear victory. Leveraging its superior size, the Chinese military has fought a successful “gray zone” battle of attrition against Taiwan, wearing its aircraft and personnel into the ground, and forcing a change of tactics.
In fact, the change of tactics is an astute move that will conserve Taiwan’s limited number of aircraft while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of a mid-air incident that could easily escalate into full-blown conflict. The UK’s air war with Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, during World War II, later dubbed the Battle of Britain, provides an interesting historical parallel.
Like Taiwan, Britain was separated from German-occupied France by a large body of water — the English Channel — comparable in size to the Taiwan Strait.
German military commanders realized that it would be necessary to gain air superiority over Britain before they could launch an amphibious invasion.
Similar to the situation Taiwan faces today, the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) was facing an enemy with far superior numbers of aircraft and pilots. Like China today, Germany had been engaged in a covert military buildup of astronomical proportions.
At the start of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had more than 2,600 battle-ready aircraft; the RAF had just 640 available fighters. Today, China’s air force can field about 1,570 fighter and attack aircraft against about 280 Taiwanese fighters. The ratios are surprisingly similar: The RAF was then outnumbered four to one; Taiwan’s air force is today outnumbered five to one.
Air chief marshal Hugh Dowding, then commander-in-chief of the RAF Fighter Command, realized that to avoid defeat, conservation of his limited pilots and aircraft would be vital. During the first phase of the battle, the Luftwaffe dispatched packs of marauding fighter aircraft that would loiter in an area attempting to draw RAF fighters into engaging. On Dowding’s orders, they were ignored — he realized that the major battle was still to come.
In later phases of the battle, wave after wave of Luftwaffe aircraft attacked, day and night, but Dowding’s tactic was to be ruthlessly economical; sending up just enough aircraft to harass and break up enemy bomber squadrons before they reached their targets, and avoiding unnecessary entanglements with fighter squadrons. Strict force conservation was a key element in the RAF’s ability to eventually defeat the Luftwaffe.
As Beijing employs “gray zone” tactics to tighten its grip on Taiwan’s windpipe, the government and the military must continue to pursue a defense doctrine based on asymmetrical warfare and force conservation. The Battle of Britain demonstrated that superior tactics can win the day in the face of overwhelming odds. With the right tactics and a will to fight, Taiwan can achieve a similar victory against China.
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