As Russia’s illegal war to exterminate the nation of Ukraine slogs into its third devastating month, it has yielded many lessons China can apply to its future war against the nation of Taiwan — and that Taiwanese can exploit for their defense and survival.
For China, the most important lesson of Russia’s stark military failures is that like Russia, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) quest for hegemony rests on a brittle and fatal hubris.
Vladimir Putin envisioned his war to conquer Ukraine as a stepping stone to political-military hegemony in at least Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. But several key failures have turned his war into an existential risk to his own regime. These include: underestimating Ukrainian resolve and that of the democracies now assisting Ukraine while imposing political and economic isolation on Russia; and, the expectation of dividing NATO rather than to driving Sweden and Finland to join it.
The CCP’s fatal hubris is that it fails to recognize that Taiwan has long been coherent nation state with a highly-developed will to exist, and a network of democracies which will come to its assistance. A CCP war against Taiwan may well force the democracies into a robust military alliance — one which could last until the CCP regime fails and its leaders are tried for war crimes.
A corollary lesson is that Russia and China are pathologically committed to their visions for hegemony — such ambitions define, justify and propel both regimes. To alter such goals would be to risk regime legitimacy and suffer the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
To the degree that Putin viewed the United States as weak and deterred by his superior numbers of theater nuclear weapons, it followed that the U.S. and Europe had no chance of deterring or arguing Putin from his war. Similarly, Xi Jinping’s (習近平) current sprint to nuclear superiority against the United States means that he will not be deterred or dissuaded from his war against Taiwan.
Just as Putin’s confidence derived from having theater nuclear superiority, Xi Jinping’s confidence may derive from a very large number of theater nuclear weapons, largely concealed among the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force and PLA Air Force inventory of as many as 3,000 ballistic missile and cruise missile delivery systems.
Xi likely will not repeat Putin’s failure at the outset to use his new very low-yield nuclear weapons to devastate Ukrainian resistance.
At a minimum, Xi may start his campaign with tactical nuclear “demonstration” strikes to deter U.S. and Japanese military assistance, up to a tactical nuclear strike against U.S. bases on Guam; the CCP’s record of killing up to 70 million Chinese means it may not be deterred by limited U.S. nuclear retaliation.
Watching Russia’s year-long military buildup culminate in a “surgical” strategy that failed to capture Kyiv and “decapitate” the Ukrainian state, the PLA has learned that it must mobilize its strike against Taiwan within days, commit maximum missile, carpet bombing, and strategic airstrikes from the outset, and achieve a maximum synergy of amphibious and airborne mechanized assaults to capture the requisite number of decisive invasion bridgeheads.
In short, as Putin quickly shifted from a “surgical” war to one of “attrition” resulting in both brutal destruction of Ukrainian cities and heavy Russian losses, the CCP has seen that against Taiwan it must from the start commit to a war of annihilation, meaning the immediate and brutal destruction of Taiwanese cities.
It cannot allow Taiwanese conventional forces to survive an initial onslaught and become the main complement to mobile and intelligent platoons of military, reserve, or civilian trained units armed with modern highly-effective portable anti-tank/aircraft missiles, and cheap unmanned combat and surveillance/targeting systems.
This, in turn, requires complete PLA superiority in the air and on the seas around Taiwan, and that captured areas on Taiwan be exploited immediately for deployment of missile, unmanned aerial, and manned air systems. This will be necessary both to intensify its war in Taiwan, and to attack any U.S and allied forces coming to aid Taiwan.
Anything less means the PLA will be allowing the U.S. and its allies to undertake the resupply of Taiwanese forces, increasing the chance that China’s war will devolve to a quagmire counter-insurgency, Russia’s current fate in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s war also reminds of the critical importance for Taiwan to prepare fully to fight its own war against the PLA. However, the Ukraine war offers affirmation for competing Taiwanese strategies, those who insist Taiwan must be able to win conventional battles well beyond its shores, dominate conventional conflict on the islands, and wage unconventional/insurgent warfare against highly mechanized PLA forces.
The CCP seeks the total suppression and elimination of Taiwan’s democratic culture and can be expected to apply the same capacity for extermination or reeducation as it has employed against the Uighurs, Tibetans, and in Hong Kong.
Ukraine has also demonstrated the effectiveness and necessity of targeting Russian’s logistics. The PLA’s logistic support for a Taiwan invasion starts in Fujian Province, to include hundreds of invasion nodes to the north and south. There is no point in giving the CCP deference and time by holding back from attacking such nodes on the Mainland.
Ukraine, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gave Russia such deference, incurring a greater tragedy by allowing Russia to sustain its invasion from logistic support areas in Russia and Belarus. This also means that Taiwan requires large numbers of medium range ballistic and cruise missiles to hold such nodes at risk. Those favoring distant operations can be encouraged by Ukraine’s April 14 sinking — with only two Neptun anti-ship missiles — of the 12,000 ton Russian Navy cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet.
Russia’s cruiser is about the same size as the PLA Navy’s new Type 055 cruiser which would be conducting anti-ship, anti-submarine, air defense, missile defense and even anti-satellite missions to enforce a blockade around Taiwan.
It will also be much easier to sink the scores of very large roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferries and thousands of smaller RORO barges that will transport the vast bulk of PLA invasion forces.
However, there is now extreme urgency for Washington to deliver the 400 U.S. Harpoon anti-ship missiles, about the same size as the Neptun, which Taiwan ordered in 2020. This will affirm Taiwan’s requirement for the future anti-ship capable version of the 500+ kilometer range U.S. PrSM ballistic missiles.
Those who promote a kind-of “People’s War” or “Porcupine” strategy for Taiwan can be very encouraged by Ukraine’s success in devising an asymmetric strategy for distributed insurgent strike groups based on small infantry units armed with highly effective portable missiles, which also are networked with unmanned surveillance aircraft and artillery.
Russian lightweight mechanized airborne armor has been decimated by Ukrainian anti-tank missiles. As PLA mechanized airborne forces are based on the Russian model, they now must evolve to heavier armor or suffer the same fate from Taiwan’s anti-tank missiles.
But for an insurgent strategy to succeed, Taiwan requires vast reserves of man portable missiles, and new and more resilient internet like widespread access to Elon Musk’s Starlink mega-broadband satellite network.
Taiwan also requires a commitment to massive reserve forces, the relatively basic weapons to properly arm them, and a massive digital campaign to educate average citizens to survive PLA bombardment, perform combat medicine, and to use small arms and small missiles.
Another Ukraine war lesson must be resolved in Washington. America and NATO were and remain deterred from providing Ukraine direct military support, and from providing effective weapons like jet fighters, due to Russia’s superiority in nuclear weapons and the fear that Russia will expand its war by using them.
The Biden Administration’s new Nuclear Policy Review reportedly includes a decision to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to revive production of a nuclear-armed sea launched cruise missile (SLCM-N).
SLCM-N offers the quickest path to a secure tactical nuclear weapon of low yield, unhindered by host nation support controversies, and far more survivable than tactical nuclear bombs delivered by strike fighters.
Foregoing theater nuclear deterrence via SLCM-N is tantamount to an invitation for China to advance the timing of its invasion of Taiwan. It is in the interest of all U.S. allies to call for a reversal of this decision.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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