Analysis

6 Wrong Lessons for Taiwan From the War in Ukraine

A potential Asian war would look very different.

A person in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A person in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A person in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign in protest of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 26. Walid Berrazeg/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
By , a senior fellow for cyber power and future conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, there has been plenty of analysis of the conflict’s possible lessons for future wars, including implications for a potential military confrontation between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Military history, however, is filled with examples of armies drawing the wrong lessons from previous wars and applying them to disastrous effect in new ones. Because warfare is highly contingent and the character of the next war is inherently difficult to predict, any lessons distilled from the current conflict for the next one have a very high chance of being wrong. Instead, military planners and decision-makers are better served by focusing on the supposed lessons from Russia’s war that they should best avoid.

Here are six wrong lessons for Taiwan from the war in Ukraine.

A person in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A person in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

A demonstrator in Taipei, Taiwan, holds a sign protesting Russias invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 26. Walid Berrazeg/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, there has been plenty of analysis of the conflict’s possible lessons for future wars, including implications for a potential military confrontation between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Military history, however, is filled with examples of armies drawing the wrong lessons from previous wars and applying them to disastrous effect in new ones. Because warfare is highly contingent and the character of the next war is inherently difficult to predict, any lessons distilled from the current conflict for the next one have a very high chance of being wrong. Instead, military planners and decision-makers are better served by focusing on the supposed lessons from Russia’s war that they should best avoid.

Here are six wrong lessons for Taiwan from the war in Ukraine.


1. No, there are no game-changing weapons systems.

Since the beginning of the war, various weapons have been touted as game-changers with the potential to change the course of the entire war. U.S.-made Stinger and Javelin portable missiles allowed Ukrainian soldiers to destroy Russian aircraft and armored vehicles, respectively; Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been very successful against Russian targets; and most recently, U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (known as HIMARS) and similar European mobile launchers enabled Ukraine to strike deep in the Russians’ rear areas and severely disrupt their logistics. These launchers, especially, have been touted as part of a “global revolution in warfare” because of their ability to hit targets accurately at distances of up to 50 miles.

The danger of this supposed lesson is that it emphasizes the importance of new technologies over training, innovative operational concepts, and getting force structure right. Ukraine was able to turn the war around not because of some innate technological quality of any single weapon system but because of its ability to effectively integrate individual weapons into what are known as combined arms operations. These are coordinated actions by various units on the battlefield, likely facilitated by U.S. intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) support.

For example, the reason why some TB2 UAVs can still successfully operate over the battlefield is because HIMARS strikes destroyed Russian command-and-control nodes and radar systems. This created gaps in the Russians’ air and missile defense umbrellas that Ukrainian operators could exploit with TB2s. These and other Ukrainian successes have also been contingent on the Russians’ failures—in particular, their coordination problems. Russian forces do not have a capability problem in Ukraine, and their military technology works fine if deployed correctly.


A pair of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters take part in a drill to simulate a Chinese invasion in Taiwan.
A pair of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters take part in a drill to simulate a Chinese invasion in Taiwan.

A pair of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters take part in a drill simulating a Chinese invasion in Taichung, Taiwan, on June 7, 2018. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

2. It is too early to say that the defense will dominate in a future great-power war.

Russia’s failure in Ukraine has also helped feed the narrative that the battlefield in a future great-power war will be dominated by the defense—in other words, attacking the enemy’s front line will be disproportionally more difficult than defending it. A major reason for this line of thinking is the difficulty of achieving tactical and strategic surprise on a battlefield saturated with sensors that make undetected movement very difficult. There is much to recommend this argument, and I have made it myself, noting that defense will likely carry the advantage in ground warfare in the near and medium term under certain circumstances.

However, there are important qualifications. First, the ongoing offense-defense debate primarily pertains to the ground domain. Air and sea combat, for example, are more fluid. As the Ukrainians’ recent successful ground offensive around Kharkiv showed, an attacking force better trained in combined arms maneuvers than the defender can still achieve success and seize large chunks of territory. And as Russia’s failures illustrate, the ability to pick up the movement of enemy forces via sensors on the modern battlefield does not preclude tactical surprise. During Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive, Russian forces did not suffer from an intelligence failure—Ukrainian movements were detected and reported back—but Russian higher command failed to react in time to the intelligence coming in from front-line troops that the Ukrainians were preparing for an attack. Once again, technological determinism should be avoided.

The defense may very well dominate phases of a great-power war between the United States and China over Taiwan on the ground. But to win, ground forces will eventually need to go on the offense, and the side that is more capable of executing combined arms maneuvers will likely prevail during such operations.


A Starlink satellite-based broadband system set-up in Ukraine.
A Starlink satellite-based broadband system set-up in Ukraine.

A Starlink satellite-based broadband system is set up in a village near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 31.BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

3. Commercial off-the-shelf technology is unlikely to play an outsized role in a great-power war.

Various analysts have emphasized that the unprecedented availability and use of commercially available technologies—including off-the-shelf drones, Starlink satellite dishes, and satellite imagery supplied by private companies—gave Ukraine an important advantage over Russia. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network provided Ukrainian forces a crucial command-and-control capability in critical phases of the war following successful Russian cyberattacks against Viasat’s KA-SAT network, which Ukrainian forces had used for telecommunications. Amazon helped move critical Ukrainian government data from servers physically located in Ukraine into the cloud, facilitating the continuity of government services.

The outsized role that commercial actors play in this conflict, however, has only been made possible because they de facto operate in safe havens immune to enemy attacks. In other words, Ukraine has a relatively secure supply chain. Starlink works in Ukraine because of Starlink ground stations situated in Poland, Turkey, and Estonia that are needed for low-latency, high bandwidth internet access and to eliminate bottlenecks. Amazon can securely store Ukrainian data because its own servers are not in the war zone. In a great-power war involving NATO, China, and/or Russia, there may be no geographic safe havens, and these stationary targets would be fair game to long-range precision strikes by, for example, hypersonic missiles. The same applies to commercial satellite constellations and the production facilities of off-the-shelf drones.

Furthermore, recent events illustrate the acute operational vulnerability that states risk by depending on commercial solutions from major technology companies. The Ukrainian Armed Forces heavily rely on Starlink communication devices for ISTAR support. When Ukraine’s Starlink services were disrupted last month, the Ukrainian forces’ ability to hit Russian targets was severely impacted. In that sense, overreliance on the commercial sector to provide technical assistance in a future great-power war is likely the wrong takeaway from Ukraine.


4. We should not assume that cyber-operations will only play a small role.

The impact of Russian cyber-operations has so far been limited not only inside Ukraine but also against Western targets—notwithstanding reports of Russian attempts to jam and hack Starlink. To date, the most impactful attack revealed to the public has been the Russian hack of the Viasat KA-SAT network. As to why Russian cyber-operations have been relatively ineffective, there has been ample speculation. One explanation might be that they expected very little fighting when they launched their invasion and so did not plan a sophisticated cyber-campaign to disrupt Ukraine’s military and critical infrastructure.

Russians were perhaps also deterred from cyberattacks on Western targets for fear of retaliation. Yet another possible explanation is that they simply lack sophisticated offensive technological capabilities to disable Ukrainian weapon systems and only have a limited arsenal of tailor-made malware they are reserving for an actual hot war against NATO. What stands out, however, is that key actors providing cybersecurity assistance to Ukraine are relatively immune to Russian actions, including U.S. and British intelligence, cybersecurity, and other agencies as well as companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Cisco. This could lead to the wrong conclusions not only about the effectiveness of offensive cyber-operations in wartime but also the vulnerability of Western critical information infrastructure to enemy cyberattacks in the event of a great-power war.


Ukrainian tanks take part in military exercises near the village of Desna in northern Ukraine in 2018.
Ukrainian tanks take part in military exercises near the village of Desna in northern Ukraine in 2018.

Ukrainian tanks take part in a military exercise near the village of Desna in northern Ukraine on Dec. 19, 2018. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

5. Lighter, smaller, more mobile systems are unlikely to dominate the battle space in a future great-power war.

The war in Ukraine has set off a debate about whether heavy weaponry—including main battle tanks and manned aircraft—are still relevant on the modern battlefield. Some commentators argue about the diminishing power of these platforms in future combat and the need to emphasize lighter, smaller, and more mobile systems that can, in a few years’ time, largely operate autonomously. For example, semi-autonomous UAV swarms can be used to overcome air defense systems by overwhelming the system through saturation. Indeed, U.S. Air Force war games suggest that swarms of networked UAVs would be a decisive factor in a future Taiwan war scenario. In the war in Ukraine, a verdict about the utility of smaller UAVs capable of attrition use, such as the Switchblade 300’s loitering munition, is still out. Such simple systems can be defeated. Russian forces, for example, have successfully employed electronic warfare against loitering munitions.

The conflict continues to be dominated by ground-based artillery, with UAVs primarily used for reconnaissance and targeting. Analysts have also debunked the argument that tanks and other heavy weapons are obsolete. There is simply no substitute yet for the mobility, protection, and firepower provided by tanks. Furthermore, news that lightly armored Ukrainian forces were instrumental in the successful Kharkiv offensive needs to be contextualized. These lightly armed formations were a function of necessity and not preference. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have consistently asked for armor, artillery, protected mobility, and air defense—not lighter, more mobile systems. Initial breakthroughs and most of the heavy fighting still had to be done by armored formations, sometimes using previously captured Russian tanks. We can therefore discard the supposed lesson that a force structure should emphasize large quantities of smaller, lightly armed platforms. Rather, what is needed is a force structure that reflects an effective combination of existing heavy weaponry, including main battle tanks, with smaller, more expendable unmanned platforms.


Soldiers recuperate after an amphibious landing drill during a military exercise to simulate a China invasion of Taiwan.
Soldiers recuperate after an amphibious landing drill during a military exercise to simulate a China invasion of Taiwan.

Soldiers recuperate after an amphibious landing drill simulating Chinas Peoples Liberation Army invading Pingtung, Taiwan, on July 28.Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

6. No, Ukraine is not winning because it fights like “us.”

One popular narrative about the ongoing fight in Ukraine is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are winning because they adopted NATO standards during years of NATO training. This included building and empowering a professional corps of noncommissioned officers as well as adopting a decentralized Western command philosophy known as mission command. “Training is responsible for Ukraine’s greatest advantage over the Russian invaders,” the U.S. Defense Department said. “The Ukraine military ditched the old Soviet style of tactics and began emulating the West, and that included building a competent and empowered non-commissioned officer corps.” NATO training has especially been credited for giving Ukrainian soldiers an advantage during the first days of the war as they set up a decentralized, flexible defense that did not need rigid top-down commands from higher levels to act—unlike the Russian side.

This, however, is not borne out by the reality of the war. Ukraine continues to struggle to build a professional noncommissioned officer corps. There are ongoing issues with retention, professional development, and adequate pay. Furthermore, as other analysts have noted, after years of fighting the Russians in the Donbas, NATO trainers often learned more from Ukrainian soldiers than the other way around.

The use of a mission command philosophy across the Ukrainian Armed Forces could also not be verified from a recent research trip I took to Ukraine. Rather, there appears to be confusion between traditional Ukrainian bottom-up improvisation in the armed forces, often poorly coordinated with higher command, and the contours of a mission command-style philosophy. A talent for improvisation does not imply the adoption of NATO standards. What’s more, a key role in stemming the Russian advance in the first days of the war was played by volunteer units with no NATO training whatsoever—at enormous personal sacrifice.


So what are the implications of these debunked lessons for the United States and Taiwan?

First, the ability to conduct combined arms maneuvers will remain the litmus test for conventional combat power in the near and medium future. In addition to the right military hardware, this requires, above all, a regular and realistic schedule of military exercises where large formations train with one another.

Second, offensive capabilities, including counterstrike capabilities (for example, long-range missiles), will need to be maintained even for the defending side. Offensive power is necessary for counterattacks and to regain lost territory. Taiwan’s push for asymmetric capabilities is taking this into account, but more needs to be done.

Third, the private sector will not offer panaceas for missing military hardware by providing, for example, command-and-control capabilities that can work under degraded conditions. The role played by commercial companies in Ukraine is a unique case given these companies’ ability to operate from safe havens; looking to the private sector in war may invite a false sense of complacency. Also, great powers will not be dependent on commercial solutions from major tech providers they do not control nor that could be influenced by rivals. The United States isn’t going to let a capricious, Kremlin-channeling oligarch provide satellite communications in wartime. Consequently, efforts will need to be made to procure proper systems and platforms in advance of future hostilities.

Fourth, the impact of cyber power should be not dismissed outright only because its effects appear minimal in Ukraine. Any new operational concepts and doctrines—such as the U.S. Army’s new multi-domain operations doctrine—need to take into account their potential disruptive and destructive impact on military operations.

Fifth, the tank and other heavy weapon systems will be part of any future great-power war in the near and medium future—not least because the laws of physics limit how much military power can be projected with smaller and lighter systems. Power projection requires fuel and payload. Consequently, a premium should be put on creating a hybrid force structure that merges existing legacy systems with new military technological capabilities.

Sixth, the ongoing war in Ukraine does not prove the superiority of NATO training nor NATO command philosophy. Such an assumption is based on preconceived notions of the superiority of Western military thinking over potential future Russian or Chinese adversaries without adequate data to back up these claims. The danger here is intellectual complacency. Rather, Western military planners need to rigidly examine the true lessons of the ongoing fight in Ukraine as objectively and ruthlessly as possible.

Wars don’t repeat—but perhaps they rhyme, to paraphrase author Mark Twain. But even if they rhyme, we need to be careful in drawing the wrong conclusions from past or present wars about potential future conflict. A future great-power war over Taiwan would be markedly different from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Nonetheless, if the United States and Taiwan avoid learning at least some of the wrong lessons from the ongoing conflict in Europe, they could be in a better place to face a potential future military challenge in East Asia.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow for cyber power and future conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Twitter: @hoanssolo

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