Implications of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict for the Chinese Military and the Impact on the Security of the Taiwan Strait
Implications of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict for the Chinese Military and the Impact on the Security of the Taiwan Strait
Originally written in Manndrain by Prof. MA, Cheng-kun and traslated in English by Erica Lee
The article was first published by 3/22 2022.
A、A Shift of War Paradigm
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the U.S. military paradigm established over the course of the anti-terrorism war since 9/11, triggering a new paradigm shift. In the past two decades, the three pillars of U.S. military operations: long-range, precision, and firepower, used to be the holy grail for militaries of various countries. However, the Ukrainian's impressive resistance against the Russian invasion has brought the world a new perspective. At the onset of the conflict, the Russian forces lashed down long-range precision strikes with heavy-weight firepower. The Ukrainian forces, however, managed to weather through the first round of assault and countered Russian troops on the battlefield with primitive close combat and anti-armor weapons. The Ukrainian army was able to evade the Russian forces in small and mobile defensive units, driving the Russian army into the battlefield mire.
Another alteration the conflict has brought to the existing paradigm was that Ukraine's allies and partners could provide crucial military supplies and real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine without physically engaging in the war. The Ukrainian army obtained an ample supply of combat materials from member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That is why Ukraine could remain fighting even after its reconnaissance system and logistics production capabilities were paralyzed. Western countries kept feeding real-time battlefield intelligence to the Ukrainian military through satellites, drones, and electromagnetic signals, enabling Ukrainian defenders to pinpoint Russian locations and launch effective counterattacks. Although Russia possessed an overwhelming advantage in combat power compared to Ukraine, the Ukrainians were able to offset this disadvantage with supreme intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and logistics support from NATO.
B、The Implications for the Chinese Military
In the past 30 years, The goal of Chinese military modernization has evolved from winning regional wars in a high-tech environment to winning information warfare. Those are derived from western countries' battlefield experiences. From high technology to information, China eagerly pursued the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat capabilities similar to the U.S. military's long-range projection precision strike. However, the Russian invasion of Ukrainian has overturned China's generation-long faith in the power of BVR strikes. It proved that long-range rockets and missiles might be able to paralyze the enemy's air defense, sea control, and battlefield C3ISR systems. However, they cannot annihilate the enemy's combat capabilities at close range.
Russia's frustration in Ukraine indicated that when faced with close-range, small-sized, high-mobility forces on the battlefield, large-scale combat platforms such as main battle tanks, combat ships, fighter jets, and armed helicopters have a slimmer chance of prevailing than expected. The flagship cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet, for example, was hit by anti-ship missiles of the Ukrainian army even though it had powerful air defense and anti-ship combat capabilities. The Su-35 fighter jet with partial stealth capacity also did not survive Ukrainian's optical aiming stinger missiles within visual range. Thousands of Russia's main battle tanks and armored vehicles were hit by anti-armor missiles within the visual range of the Ukrainian army. These failures of Russia are all wake-up calls for China that massive combat platforms cannot guarantee dominance on the battlefield.
Buffing up BVR combat capability and modernized triphibious battle platforms have been the primary pursuit of China in the past generation. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine unveiled the underlying pitfalls in the face of asymmetric military maneuvers. Whether it is fighters with advanced performance or battleships with mighty combat power, the most formidable threat is the asymmetric attack launched at close range. The Russian-Ukrainian War has provided important lessons for China's future military planning.
In addition, China is now aware of the deterrent effect of tactical nuclear signaling, an insight derived from Russia's apparent success in dissuading the United States and its allies from directly engaging in Ukraine. Although Russia is abreast with the United States as a nuclear superpower, their hands are tied because nuclear weapons could wreak havoc with second-strike capability. Having nuclear weapons serves only deterrence and symbolic purpose. Therefore, the balance of terror among nuclear superpowers can only stop conflicts in parts but not altogether avoid them.
Russia possesses enormous tactical nuclear weapons which can be used on actual battlefields. Their power of destruction may be areal, but far more destructive than traditional ammunition. It undoubtedly discouraged NATO countries from intervening with troops. In other words, rather than strategic nuclear bombs, Russia's most effective nuclear deterrence on NATO comes from the superiority of tactical nuclear weapons. Although China also has nukes, they are more of a strategic level instead of a tactical one.
Moreover, China has made it clear that it will not be the first to activate nuclear weapons and consequently surrendered the justification for developing tactical nuclear weapons. During the Ukraine conflict, however, Russia did not hesitate in conducting nuclear signaling that the deterrent effect on NATO was loud and clear. When China recaps the Russian-Ukrainian war, it will revisit the idea of developing tactical nuclear weapons and reconsider its stance on the no-first-use policy.
C、The impact on China's future attack on Taiwan
The Russian forces launched about 100 missiles within hours in the early phases of the invasion and about 400 missiles in the following week. Russia was hoping to paralyze the Ukrainian army by aiming at the Ukrainian air base and radar communication facilities but failed. The effectiveness of missile attacks might have been overestimated. In the Taiwan scenario, China's missile strikes are also the primary resort to decapitate Taiwan's military. However, only half of China's 2,000 short- and medium-range land-attacking ballistic missiles and patrol missiles will be used on Taiwan during wartime. Another half will be retained as a deterrence to the surrounding area and, when necessary, to strike the U.S. military's naval and air bases in the first island chain and Guam.
In the first stage of the Iraq War in 2003, it took the U.S. military over 2,000 missiles to paralyze the Iraqi army. In the defense operation scenario of the Taiwan military, the first stage is to preserve combat capacity, ensuring resistance against China's first round of bombardment. China will need more missiles to incapacitate Taiwan's army on the get-go effectively. Therefore, from lessons drawn from Russia's failure, China can be predicted to increase its stockpile of various short-range and medium-range land-attacking missiles over the years.
The Ukraine conflict alerted China of the effect of asymmetric combat and urban warfare on depleting military forces. China also learned the role reserve forces can play in defense operations. The effectiveness of long-range precision weapons can be compromised in restricted terrain in urban warfare, and heavy mechanized weapons will not have the space they need to exert their full potential. What is worse, they are prone to attacks by the enemy. The western sphere of Taiwan is highly urbanized and complex in its landscape. China will face a more challenging battlefield in Taiwan than Russia in Ukraine. Therefore, China needs a new strategy to counter asymmetric operations, and an expansion of special forces will be needed. Otherwise, China's military operations against Taiwan will be mired like the Russian in Ukraine, with no hope of any quick victory.
D、The impact on the security of the Taiwan Strait
Before launching the military assault against Ukraine, Putin miscalculated the anti-Russian situation in Ukraine and underrated the resilience and capability of the Ukrainians. He also underestimated the military assistance from NATO to Ukraine. Without sending troops to the war, NATO generously provided Ukraine the weapons, ammunition, military supplies, and logistics. Moreover, the United States and NATO utilized their satellites and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems to feed Ukraine real-time updates of the Russian army on the battlefield, allowing the Ukrainian forces to counter the invading Russian army effectively. On the contrary, the internal analysis from Russia's military high-ups was proven subpar after a series of Russian defeats on the battlefield. Out-of-touch intelligence directly led to Putin's misjudgment and poor decision-making.
That the Russian military high-ups feeding incorrect information to Putin is a norm under a dictatorship. For an autocracy, the main boost for rank climbing is less their military expertise than the favor they can court from the supervisor. The military's paramount mission is for a dictator to secure his power and stability. Hence it is allegiance rather than military expertise that decides who gets promotions in the army.
After Xi Jinping took office as the chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2012, he eradicated dissidents affiliated with the Chiang faction in the army in the name of anti-corruption. When naming new generals, allegiance to the party is valued over warfare capability. For Xi, sitting on a precarious throne in the party, securing his political power was far more significant than defending sovereignty. Therefore, the Russian military's poor performance in Ukraine naturally inspired Xi's reflection on his assumption of the army. Before the Chinese army can come up with an adjusted cross-strait combat doctrine and proves itself trustworthy, the Taiwan Strait will be able to enjoy its peace and stability for now. Previous assessments regarding Taiwan will invite re-evaluation.
In addition, the mistakes that hindered early Russian operations also made Xi second guess the military capability proclaimed by his army, including the effectiveness of long-range missile strikes, joint operation capabilities, and battlefield logistics readiness. After all, China has not faced real wars for a long time. The war against Taiwan and the logistical arrangements will only be more complex than that in Ukraine. Russian army's capability boasted by Russia prior to the war ended up being a slap in the face. Russia's failures will remind Xi not to take the military's proclaimed odds against Taiwan at face value.
Meanwhile, the high-ups in the Chinese military will spare no effort to prove to Xi that the PLA is a different kettle of fish. The army will most certainly tap into the Ukraine conflict as a reference to reflect and adjust its intelligence, operations, logistics, and equipment systems. In the long run, the Chinese will distill and act on lessons drawn from both sides in the Russian-Ukrainian war, formulate new strategic doctrines and military action programs, and set up pilot projects. The troops will test new doctrines and verify their operational feasibility through exercises and training. Finally, they will formulate new operational criteria based on the verification results of the pilot troops and promulgate them for implementation across the entire army. Based on China's experience, this process will take at least two years. The entire army will be familiar with the new battlefield action criteria and adjust combat mechanisms in the follow-up. Until the causes of Russia's mistakes are dissected and understood and adjustments made, the Taiwan Strait should be able to maintain its stability.
E、Takeaways for Taiwan's military
From Taiwan's perspective, the Ukraine conflict has proven its army's build-up in recent years to be in the correct direction, including asymmetric operations, urban warfare, strengthening of the reserve force and national defense, and preserving of basic combat capabilities. Besides continuing to solidify the implementation of military capacity building, the army must pay close attention to the changes made by China after it gleaned lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war and make immediate adjustments to counter China's evolving tactic against Taiwan. From the perspective of Chinese history in the past generation, the Chinese military has been capable of transforming and perfecting itself from the lesson learned from Russian-Ukrainian War. It is dangerous if Taiwan underestimates China's ability to adapt.
Taiwan's military must bear in mind that there is a price to pay for asymmetric warfare and urban warfare, especially when civilians' lives and property are at stake. Ukrainian cities and towns have been reduced to rubbles and ashes after Russia's attacks. Enormous civilians were brutally killed, and corps were scattered on the streets. Millions of refugees were displaced. Those are inevitable of urban warfare. If Taiwan decided to go down this road, civilians must be mentally prepared for the consequence. When the time comes, civilians' resolve and will to fight even in the face of the devastating loss of life and property is imperative to resist the enemy and support the national army's defense operations.
In terms of protracted warfare, the Taiwan Strait conflict will differ from the Russian-Ukrainian war. Countries supporting Taiwan's resistance to China's aggression will not have conduits to deliver weaponry directly to Taiwan as they did with the Ukrainian army through adjacent borderlands. Once the assault on Taiwan breaks out, China will try to seize command of the sea and the command of air around Taiwan, preventing Taiwan from eliciting foreign aid. Therefore, Taiwan must stockpile and increase the production of critical munitions to prevent ammunition exhaustion in wartime. During the Ukraine conflict, Russia launched frequent missile attacks upon major ammunition depots and factories in Ukraine, decapitating the storage and remanufacturing capabilities of Ukrainian weapons and ammunition. Taiwan's military ammunition is concentrated in a few North, Central, and South depots. In anticipating China's invasion, Taiwan must take preemptive moves to disperse ammunition storage to lower the risk of being wiped out by China's long-range precision strikes and losing long-term combat capability.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to China's more complicated international situation. When Russia's national power ebbs, China will fill the void as the primary competitor and military adversary of the United States. China will be more discreet in managing US-China relations and avoid treading in Russia's footsteps. It can be expected that China will refrain from hasting actions on international affairs and Taiwan affairs so as not to give the United States a reason to launch retaliatory sanctions against China and step up its support for Taiwan.
In China's current political agenda, a smooth convention of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and ensuring the extension of Xi's reign are priorities. Xi has not changed base tone of his Taiwan policy of promoting integration and pursuing peaceful reunification. The military means is still an auxiliary to promote peaceful reunification. Putin's launch of the invasion of Ukraine has put him in a mire. Xi is not expected to turn a blind eye to the lessons drown and put himself in political danger at home and abroad by hasting military force against Taiwan.
China's adaptation will take at least two more years. Until China dissects and acts on the lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and formulates modified combat doctrines and tactics, it is empty talk to make presumptions about China's moves. Taiwan's army should continue strengthening its asymmetric combat capabilities and enhance reserve combat capabilities. It should continue to pay attention to the changes in the Chinese military operations against Taiwan and make corresponding adjustments to these specific changes.