That Kind of War
10 Lessons from Ukraine for Taiwan
“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”
-T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War
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There is no more sobering tale of modern war for the policy class than Fehrenbach’s history of the Korean War. I’ve recommended the book previously, and if you don’t have the time to read it in total, the first 73 pages or so will do. In reflecting upon a year of war in Ukraine, my mind wanders back often to This Kind of War. While we may be enablers of a resistance against Russian aggression, our own chapter for that kind of war will likely come on the beaches and streets of Taiwan and its surrounding waters. Whether our resistance to a PLA invasion of Taiwan looks more like the Ukrainian Army of 2022 or Task Force Smith of 1950 Korea depends largely upon what lessons we successfully draw and adapt from the war in Ukraine. Victory nor defeat is a forgone conclusion, and where technology and geography may change, the basic tenets of modern warfare remain timeless.
There’s a growing number of China hawks who’d love nothing more than to abandon Ukraine to prepare for war over Taiwan. But abandoning one friend for the sake of another has never treated anyone well, nor has overcommitting resources without consideration for the broader strategic picture. There’s a delicate balancing act for this kind of war: how to best bleed one enemy without becoming decisively engaged and vulnerable to another. Despite what some may tell you, there are indeed ways to fight this fight the right way, without abandoning anyone. Some of the lessons below explicitly demonstrate that. Any well-trained fighter will tell you there are ways to win when outnumbered, even when caught by surprise. With one year of war in Ukraine, I’d like to present ten observations of that war and how those experiences can be applied to the defense of Taiwan and broader Western Pacific operations. The more we learn from Ukraine, the more we recognize that these conflicts are interconnected, the better off we’ll be when we have to fight that kind of war ourselves.
1) There will be Blood
Public tolerance for casualties is higher when the threat is existential. But that tolerance comes at a price: the expectation of enemy bloodletting and counteroffensives. The reason WWI is remembered as destructively pointless and WWII as the “good war” despite both running high casualty counts is because one achieved results for a good cause and one fought for inches in the mud for little gain. Both the Russian and Ukrainian public seem to have a high tolerance for body count because both view this conflict as existential, albeit for different reasons. Casualty counts, even in the early days of a Taiwan conflict, would undoubtedly be much higher than what we saw during the Global War on Terror. Tolerance for body count is not a blank check for war, but a costly loan with promise of higher returns. It would do us well to remember both that the public won’t back out at the first body, but will expect answers if we weren’t prepared to shoot back. Many a foe has bet that Americans are too soft to fight back, and it never really turns out well for them. Given CCP propaganda, it’s a fair bet that Beijing also believes this about the US. And that is a very dangerous thing indeed. But just because they think that, doesn’t mean we should go around repeating those same talking points that never turn out to be true.
2) Attrition Comes for Everyone
Maneuver and attrition are as guaranteed as day and night in any conflict, only short wars are won solely by maneuver and all long wars require hefty attritional campaigns. I’ve said before that a war for Taiwan could only be won by the US through a lengthy attrition campaign and I know I’m not alone. If deterrence fails, those who expect a quick rout of the PLAN at sea or in the Strait are sorely mistaken. Attriting a large, committed force, especially one backed by a powerful nationalist narrative takes a lot of time even for the best militaries. The early obliteration of Russian conscripts and elite formations by Ukraine captured our attention, but also cast a long shadow over the following months of slow attrition along the eastern front and mounting casualty counts on both sides. There’s a reason Ukraine keeps asking for billions more in gear: there’s a lot more Russians and they’re burning through a lot of kit! Anyone planning for a Taiwan campaign should expect a 12-round bout at best, a swift knockout is not in our favor and we must plan accordingly.
3) Your pre-war stockpile is never enough
To the point of attrition, we need a lot more than even our best estimates for a Pacific campaign. Whatever you think you need for war, double it and double it again. The bare minimum is a recipe for disaster. Our present maximum capacity is hardly fit for the long fight and can barely support Ukrainian operations at this rate. Something always breaks, sabotage happens, and the innovation and morale of the enemy will always last longer than you want it to last. In recent years, we’ve made efforts through the NDAA and executive action to build out stockpiles, but those are still taking years to develop. We may not have that sort of time for this kind of war. You go to war with the military you’ve got, and we simply don’t got enough ammo, kit, or ships to take the fight to the PLA for a prolonged period of time. Rather than forgoing Ukraine to build out our stockpile, we should be using Ukraine to justify a further expansion of defense production lines. In this political climate, it would have been even harder without Ukraine to justify ordering the levels of equipment needed for the China fight.
4) Sanctions Are Slow
Recent reports indicate that sanctions against Russia are still not crippling their economy with the severity and speed that the White House promised. Sanctions are only another tool in the national security toolbox, not a wonder weapon. They’re not economic nukes, but just another form of sabotage campaign. If we think our allies in Europe and in the developing world were slow to cut off their critical economic ties with Russia, they’ll surely be slower when China invades Taiwan. China’s economy is vastly bigger and more tied into the developing world and Europe than Russia. Moreover, the continued pain felt by Europe over energy prices and supply chain shock remains a pressure point applied by isolationists and pro-Russian politicians across the continent. Writing sanctions well ahead of time and having them prepped for action can be a component of a larger deterrent, but it’s surely only a delaying action as Beijing continues to reduce their exposure to sanctions shock in the event of conflict. During war, sanctions are only another component of attrition, chipping away at the edges of Beijing’s war machine. And just like body count, they come at a cost of expected results. The longer sanctions take to take effect, the more pressure the sanctioning government will feel from third parties who suffer the costs. In other words, it’s not enough to prepare sanctions against Beijing in the event of war, we have to actively untangle connections between our allies and Beijing prior to conflict. The more we invest in our allies, the less invested they are in doing business with Beijing.
5) Unity is Fleeting
You should never assume that the enemy’s morale will collapse at first sight of trouble, particularly when the populace is under heavy surveillance and nationalist propaganda manipulation. Nor should you assume that Americans will always support your war. While we should certainly develop ways to rollback the CCP’s Great Firewall, we can’t ignore our own vulnerability to foreign influence. We live in a democracy, so countering disinformation and anti-war propaganda isn’t as easy as shutting people up and shutting down servers when it’s our neighbors spouting disinformation. We have to combat disinformation in the open, and the best way to combat it is with success on the battlefield (and a few memes). Ukraine’s propaganda machine has been excellent, no doubt enabled by Western marketing and PR agencies, but it will only hold out for so long. Fighting disinformation and defeatism is a lot like fighting disease, you may have to reup the vaccine every now and then during a particularly nasty surge as the narrative evolves.
Outside the US and Europe, our counter-disinformation efforts have not been as successful. There are multiple accounts of Russian and Chinese anti-Ukraine disinformation having greater sway in the developing world. A war with China over Taiwan would be such a gargantuan lift, far greater a challenge than our aid to Ukraine, that discounting this influence in the developing world would be a serious error on our part. We need a better plan for influencing our developing nation partners and disinterested third party countries than US embassy tweets or English-language media if we don’t want the world’s raw materials and agricultural supply chain to collapse or fall under the sway of the CCP. In this case, I suggest regional branding: tailoring media and information campaigns through regional experts and voices rather than a single coordination information office in DC. Every region and subregion should be running its own influence operations just like a corporation runs regional marketing campaigns. This requires a much greater level of cooperation with non-government regional experts, linguists, and academics than what we currently have and would undoubtedly be a challenge given academic opposition to most US foreign policy even in times of war.
6) Escalation and Deterrence Aren’t Dictated by Mathematical Formulas
Welcome to game theory, where the numbers are made up and points don’t matter. Whereas game theory demands rational actors, reality demands we understand that people are prone to hysteria, paranoia, and ill-informed decision-making. Putin’s nuclear threats, the accompanying isolationist fearmongering, and our own foggy understanding of post-cold war nuclear posturing all complicated about ability to aid Ukraine. But even as nuclear tensions ramped up from rhetoric, the actions of the Russians never matched Putin’s promises of global thermonuclear war. The Russians have ways of operating in the nuclear arena, and while Putin may pull a Crazy Ivan every now and then, they largely stick to their playbook. Moreover, escalation doesn’t go one way. The nukes didn’t go flying when we gave the Ukrainians long-range fires, and the Russians didn’t detonate a dirty bomb in Kyiv as a false flag. And when the Russians finally figured out that we weren’t going to blink at every threat, they mostly backed off. Our nukes are just as effective at deterrence as theirs. There are always to mitigate broader escalation without sacrificing the security of our allies and partners. The Biden administration has largely successfully threaded this needle, but it requires a firm hand and a lot of managing more panicky clients. And quite simply, sometimes you just have to roll the dice because the risk is worth it.
The problem in dealing with Beijing’s nuclear rhetoric and operations is that as they grow, modernize, and diversify their nuclear arsenal, the playbook is not yet written. Truthfully, we don’t entirely know how Beijing intends to manage escalation during a Taiwan conflict, and our best guess is that they’re still figuring it out. They don’t really trust us when we point to Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence as our nuclear scripture, in other words the nuke nerds might have to write a new testament for their bible in the coming years. This is not to say that the CCP is inherently different than every other nuclear actor, they’re still human, but it may take some time for us to understand how they want to climb up and down the escalation ladder. So while you shouldn’t buy into every CCP propaganda line about unleashing fire upon the American public, and that there’s a lot of room to maneuver between conventional conflict and Armageddon in a war for Taiwan, you should also understand that the CCP is a bit like a teenager with their first car as they grow their arsenal in an ultranationalist atmosphere.
7) Offensives Aren’t Linear
Judging a war by who’s currently conducting an offensive is a bit like calling the victor of a football game by which team’s quarterback is on the field (apologies to my international readers, Google it). Moreover, an offensive in one theater isn’t necessarily indicative of conditions in another theater of war. But Ukraine has once again reminded us that offensives can quickly collapse, plateau, or be complete distractions for other operations. During the outbreak of war over Taiwan, you’ll undoubtedly hear numerous commentators calling the war for the PLA just as some did for Russia (and still do). First-mover advantage matters, but it isn’t all-powerful. More importantly, it’s your job as a national security or defense person to be able to distinguish appearances from facts on the ground and present them appropriately to your boss. If there’s one thing I remember in the early dark days of the Ukraine War, it was that first click of “something’s not right” as the Russians drove into Ukraine. I think it was the first reports from Hostomel Airport. Let your intuition, intelligence, and analysis, not shaded colors on a map and talking heads on TV, tell you how the war is going. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “the enemy is on the move so all is lost” just as easy as it is to fall into nationalist rhetoric about “the greatest military in the world.”
8) Defense Requires Depth
Ukraine’s defensive plan required it to rely on the vast size of its countryside to compound Russian logistics. Luring Russian forces deeper into the country, past their supply lines, to be attacked by partisans, artillery, and AT rockets along muddy roads without appropriate air cover. The Ukrainians had to make the age-old trade of territory for time. The small island of Taiwan does not have that defensive advantage. Its defense cannot begin and end on the Western beaches. In order to create defense-in-depth for the defense of Taiwan, the US and its allies must be able to punch forward and complicate PLA operations in the Taiwan Strait and in mainland ports and airfields. That is not without its challenges, as multiple public wargames have noted. Maintaining the optempo and firepower necessary to disrupt those rear operations for the PLA will be incredibly difficult under the PLA’s own defense-in-depth (forward) plan of what we Americans call Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD). Those scary missile rings are meant to do to our operations in the Western Pacific what we need to do to the PLA along its own coast. This is our equivalent of striking Russian airfields and factories within their own territory. Once again, this can’t be done overnight, and will not win the war by itself. Defense-in-depth and attrition go hand in hand.
9) Ingenuity is Tactical
Humans love shiny objects, and we love showing off those shiny objects to our friends and enemies. Innovation is sold in DC as the key to victory, but innovation only goes as far as the operational ability to successfully deploy and seize upon the advantage any given innovation provides. In that sense, innovation does not win wars. The technology we have provided to the Ukrainians has wreaked havoc upon the Russian lines and their rear, but that only kept the Russians at bay. And undoubtedly the Russians have adapted to the threats of American weaponry by dispersing and disrupting targeting. Innovation is only as good as the window in which the enemy is caught off guard. If the enemy is allowed to survive long enough to either adapt or out innovate your technology and tactics, then the cycle begins anew. In other words, don’t buy into promises of singular technologies winning wars or ensuring defeat. Neither JADC2 or Chinese FOBS are going to tilt the balance to one side or another. Victory, as always, will fall to the ability of the men and women on the ground to exploit opportunity and endure whatever the enemy throws their way.
10) More than Meets the Eye
Deception: it’s not just for Transformers and Michael Bay. Ukraine was the first major war that was livestreamed by the whole world from the start. Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh offered analysts videos via services like LiveLeak, but Ukraine is an OSINTers wet dream. Unfortunately, the visibility of the conflict has created a sense of transparency to conflict and operations that simply isn’t based in reality. OSINT doesn’t see everything, and whatever narrative you’re being sold can always hide the truth. Spies and operators still have a few tricks in this digital world. Additionally, it would behoove you to be careful of how what OSINT you’re consuming, and whether that’s your only source of information.
Beyond countering disinformation, maintaining deception and accepting that there are likely some things you as an analyst just won’t know is a critical gut check in how you approach your policy recommendations. You’re probably not going to know who’s running sleeper cells deep in enemy territory or which zero day exploits we have stockpiled for the big war. The compartmentalization of those programs is critical to the operations they support, but they’re also not magic beans for victory. Just as you shouldn’t assume you know everything that’s going on, doesn’t mean you should accept assurances of “the SAPs will win the war” either. That’s not how any of this works. Like I said before, sabotage and other tools of national power beyond military might tear away at the edges of the enemy’s armor, but they don’t deal the fatal blow.
There’s this growing assumption that we’ll know when and how the PLA is going to go to war, and to an extent that’s true: you can’t hide an army that big. But deception and obscuration goes beyond what you see on a satellite that may or may not still be there when the shooting starts. We may very well find ourselves in the dark, Taiwan certainly will, during the early hours and days of a war with China. Don’t make the mistake that so many did more than one year ago: convince yourself that bad guys won’t invade just because you can see them. The PLA and CCP can be quite brazen when they want to, and as that stupid balloon reminded us, we don’t see everything.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. It uses fictional vignettes and narrative to talk about many of the issues I cover in Breaking Beijing. Recently nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel, it’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
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