Pushing back a superpower in the 21st century


If the United States and China want a glimpse of what war on Taiwan might look like, they need look no further than Ukraine, where Russia’s conscripted military has more than done in the face of rambling, Western-armed Ukrainian freedom fighters.

There are significant differences between Europe’s second largest country – Ukraine, a recognized sovereign nation with friendly nations on its western border – and Taiwan, which has about half the population crammed into an island of a sixteenth in size while being democratically autonomous and lacking full international recognition.

But one thing that Russia’s ill-fated foray into Ukraine has shown is that with sufficient outside support, a highly motivated, highly trained and well-equipped indigenous force can repel an invading superpower’s army and make any victory a Pyrrhic victory. Pentagon planners often warn against “fighting the last war” – correcting past mistakes instead of realizing that all wars are different.

Nevertheless, some lessons learned from the battle between David and Goliath for control of Ukraine should give the United States and China pause.

Here are some of the lessons learned or relearned:

Willpower can be the deciding factor.

“Moral factors are the ultimate determinants of war,” said Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian general who fought Napoleon and whose posthumous treatise, On the waris required reading at American war colleges.

After the fall of Kabul last year, a sad Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, admitted that despite 20 years of training and billions invested in Afghanistan, “we couldn’t give them the will to win”.

But in Ukraine, the United States is finally backing an ally ready to fight.

“We’ve learned that with the right capabilities, a determined force can do a tremendous job in terms of defense,” Austin told Congress this month.

If China were to invade Taiwan, it would likely face the same fierce fighting spirit displayed by the Ukrainians. Taiwanese would also fight for their homes, their freedom and the defense of democracy.

And unlike Ukraine, which in many cases has to rely on obsolete Soviet-era weaponry, Taiwan received top-of-the-line American systems to shoot down Chinese planes and coastal defenses to sink Chinese ships.

In urban combat, the advantage goes to the defenders.

“We call urban terrain the great equalizer,” writing retired Colonel John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point. “They are superior in military technologies, they are superior in numbers, well, guess what? In urban terrain, it doesn’t matter.

Ukraine’s decimation of Russian ground units and destruction of hundreds of tanks testifies to the ability of city defenders to turn every street, alley and window into a death trap.

And Taiwan is one big urban battlefield.

“Taiwan is a very complex terrain, with lots of mountains, high density, urban areas and Taipei. There are a lot of things the Taiwanese can do,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in congressional testimony.

“So if your adversary is trying to overrun you, and every military-aged man or woman is armed, and they have a bit of practice, that can be a very effective use.”

Intelligence is the secret sauce.

The proactive release of US intelligence proved to be an extremely effective tool in undermining Russia’s propaganda campaign to carry out false flag attacks, creating a false narrative that Ukraine was the aggressor.

US intelligence agencies are generally reluctant to release information gleaned from SIGINT, or signals intelligence, for fear of compromising sources and methods.

But in just one instance, intercepted communications between Putin and his commanders on the ground allowed the United States to reveal the exact timing of the planned invasion, even though Russia repeatedly lied about it.

And there is another incalculable aspect of intelligence success: the ability of the United States to inform Ukrainian forces in real time of the precise location of Russian troops, where they were going and what they planned to do.

“I’m not going to hear publicly what intelligence we collected and how we did it,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee, “but this war was arguably the most successful intelligence operation in the United States. military history. And it’s really great, and one day this story will be told.

Wars are won and lost over logistics.

Kill a tank, and you eliminate a tank. Get out a few support tankers and an entire column of tanks can be stopped in their tracks.

“There aren’t a ton of war movies about logistics, but maybe there should be,” CNN’s Brianna Keilar joked afterward. to interview Retired Army Brig. General Steven Anderson, a logistics expert, on Russia’s inability to resupply its beleaguered troops on the ground.

Russia’s supply lines, which relied on control of roads and railroads, were cut early by effective Ukrainian tactics including ground attacks and drone strikes, leaving demoralized Russian soldiers frozen and helpless. sufficient food, fuel or ammunition.

Meanwhile, Russia failed to cut off resupply to Ukraine across the western border, allowing the United States and its allies to dump tens of thousands of munitions into the country.

Like Russia, China should take everything with it in any invasion of Taiwan. But unlike Russia, all Chinese military support would have to be loaded onto ships for the 100-mile journey through the Taiwan Strait, and while in transit the ships would be targeted by Taiwan’s strong coastal defenses – not just by anti-ships. missiles in Taiwan proper, but also in the heavily defended outer islands of Taiwan.

20th century weapons are increasingly vulnerable to 21st century technology.

After World War II, the Soviet Union had one of the largest tank armies in the world.

But in Ukraine, Russia’s old T-72 main battle tanks have proven to be heavy dinosaurs, big targets for American-made man-portable anti-tank missiles such as the now famous shoulder-fired Javelin and the least known NLAW, for the next generation. Light anti-tank weapon.

Unsuited to urban combat, tanks “probably won’t play a very significant role in a war against China in the 2030s,” Milley said.

Citing the changing nature of war, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger stripped the Corps of all its M1 tanks as it prepares for war with China.

“They are heavy or too difficult to sustain logistically, and in some cases vulnerable to attack from above due to a proliferation of very cheap missiles,” he said in a statement. Washington Post interview.

But what the anti-tank Javelin is to tanks, China’s new DF-21 “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile could be to the United States’ vaunted fleet of aircraft carriers.

The missiles, never deployed in combat, are designed to track large ships, hit them at hypersonic speeds and explode after penetration, destroying a ship with a single hit.

And they could pose a fatal threat to US super carriers.

Drones and robot systems can be a game changer.

Ukrainian forces have made effective use of drones to halt the advance of Russian forces, in particular the relatively inexpensive Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, armed with laser-guided light bombs.

While the Russian campaign plan for Ukraine seemed modeled on the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, albeit without any of the US military prowess, the Pentagon is planning an entirely different kind of warfare in the future – one with smaller ships, hypersonic weapons and robot systems on land, in and under the sea, in the air and in space, all powered by artificial intelligence.

“What will play a really big role will be space and cyber, but also air defense systems, long-range sniper, naval capabilities and air capabilities,” Milley said.

“In my opinion, artificial intelligence is…the mother of all technologies,” Milley added, “because what it will allow you to do is…go through the decision-making process at a far superior to that of your adversary… So on that side who masters artificial intelligence and applies it to military operations is going to have a… very, very significant advantage.

Forget defensive no-fly zones.

No matter how many times the Pentagon rejected the idea of ​​imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, calls for it continued, not only from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but also prominent U.S. lawmakers such as Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a pilot in the Air Force National Guard.

“Enforcing a no-fly zone actually means you’re in combat,” Austin said during a visit to Slovakia last month. “There is no no-fly-lite zone.”

No-fly zones just aren’t practical if you’re up against a “close peer competitor,” says Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone against a close competitor like Russia is far more complex… It would also put the women and men tasked with carrying out such missions in great danger and would almost certainly drag the United States and the all of NATO. alliance in a direct armed conflict with Russia,” Reed said. on the floor of the Senate.

A few final points

  • The threat of sanctions is generally not an effective deterrent, while the imposition of sanctions can be an effective punishment and bargaining chip.
  • Nuclear-weapon states can deter the largest superpower with even the smallest nuclear arsenal.
  • Conscript armies are generally not as well-trained or as combat-capable as military volunteers. (Israel may be an exception.)

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense”, is free and available by e-mail subscription at dailyondefense.com.


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