From the Black Sea to the Taiwan Strait: Lessons in Resilience

Taiwan is taking strategic cues from Ukraine, recalibrating its defense strategies in the shadow of a looming giant.

Russia’s war in Ukraine represents the most significant military confrontation in Europe since the Second World War, setting precedents for future understandings of warfare. In many ways, Taiwan finds itself in a similar situation as Ukraine before the war, caught in the gravitational pull of an authoritarian power asserting historical and cultural claims over its sovereignty.

Yet the strategic calculus between the two differs significantly. While Ukraine is a landlocked country, Taiwan proper is an island surrounded by sea, calling for entirely different tactics and weaponry. Nevertheless, there are several lessons Taiwan could draw from Ukraine’s experience.

The first such lesson is that Ukraine’s successes in opposing Russia’s advances prove the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare, which is also a core component of Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept (ODC) introduced in 2017. Asymmetric warfare, used when one side in a conflict cannot match the other’s strength in conventional warfare. Similarly, the ODC emphasizes the importance of surviving long enough for third-party intervention. It envisions employing large numbers of small, cost-effective mobile arms and other equipment to overcome a more powerful aggressor.

Before 2017, Taiwan’s defense strategy aimed to engage in combat across the entire Taiwan Strait, defeating an invader through attrition. In contrast, the ODC concentrates efforts on a decisive battle in the littoral zone, targeting the moment when forces come close enough to be vulnerable. This approach includes deploying sea mines and medium-range weapons such as Taiwan’s Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) missiles mounted on trucks, which can be dispersed and concealed in cities or forests.

“The Ukraine war gave us a big lesson that even if you are the smaller one or the weaker one, you still have a chance to survive and resist successfully,” says retired Admiral Lee Hsi-min, former chief of the general staff at the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and architect of the ODC. Lee is now an adjunct professor at National Chengchi University’s College of Social Sciences.

“You have to conduct your fighting in an asymmetrical way,” he says. “Weaponry needs to be low cost, high volume, high survivability, high lethality.”

As an example, Lee points to April 2022 when Ukraine sank the Russian warship Moskva – the biggest warship by tonnage to sink during conflict since the Second World War – using just two indigenous Neptune missiles. The shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have also become symbols of the war in Ukraine.

Drew Thompson, former director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, concurs that Ukraine has demonstrated the feasibility of defending one’s territory “without enormous platforms” by utilizing weapons like air defense missiles and land-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.

Taiwan’s asymmetric approach – also known as the porcupine strategy – is now being embraced with various degrees of enthusiasm by the Biden administration, Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC), the MND, and U.S. defense equipment suppliers.

Analysts say that the Biden administration has been increasingly encouraging Taiwan to adopt an asymmetric approach since 2022. The United States has consequently turned down some of Taiwan’s requests for large, advanced weaponry platforms, deeming these items unaligned with the island’s actual needs. Instead, it has preferred to concentrate on providing various types of missiles and other ammunition.

Sheu Jyh-shyang, an assistant research fellow with the MND-affiliated Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), notes that the United States two years ago rejected a request by Taiwan to buy 12 MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters made by Lockheed Martin. (According to Reuters, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng in May 2022 publicly blamed the change in plans on the order’s high price tag.)

Wang Ting-yu, a Democratic Progressive Party legislator and defense expert, notes that focusing on ammunition brings a new set of problems for Taiwan. In the Russia-Ukraine war, the consumption of enormous amounts of “shells and traditional ammunition is scary,” Wang says.

The government is already facing challenges in providing sufficient storage facilities, and industry sources stress the importance of increasing Taiwan’s stockpiling capacity. Ukraine has been struggling to meet a similar challenge, even though it shares land borders with several friendly countries. As an island, Taiwan is at greater risk of having resupply efforts hampered by a blockade.

Taiwan’s NSC is more enthusiastic about asymmetric warfare than the MND, says Sheu. Analysts cite various reasons for the MND’s occasional preference for large, pricey weaponry platforms, pointing to bureaucratic resistance to change and interdepartmental politics. One of the more persuasive arguments for larger platforms like fighter jets is that they are needed to stare down China’s continuous “gray-zone” operations in the Strait.

The Tsai administration’s December 2024 defense budget comes to NT$606.8 billion (US$19.1 billion), equal to approximately 2.5% of Taiwan’s GDP. Given that burden and pressures to increase expenditures in other areas, the Taiwan government finds it necessary to carefully consider how to use that budget each year.

Taiwan has “chosen to invest the majority of weapons in large systems, not asymmetric ones optimized for homeland defense,” Thompson says. He notes that showy weaponry like F-16s and frigates could get annihilated in the first days of a conflict.

By email, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, notes that Taiwan’s fighter jet fleet needs to be large enough to deal with China’s efforts to degrade Taiwan’s air force through overuse. Taiwanese jets must frequently scramble to monitor Chinese warplanes intruding into nearby airspace. At the same time, some industry sources question whether Taiwan would be able to operate a larger platform with a steadily shrinking military force.

Sheu of the INDSR cautions that Taiwan cannot afford to radically shift all its defense efforts toward asymmetric warfare capabilities, observing that “it’s very dangerous to put your eggs in one basket.”

American arms sales emphasizing asymmetric warfare might also convey an unintended message to Beijing, he adds. China could perceive Taiwan’s weaponry as minor and underestimate its effectiveness, potentially interpreting it as a lack of full commitment from the United States to defend Taiwan. Such a perception could embolden Xi Jinping and also be used by Chinese propagandists to sway public opinion in Taiwan.

While Sheu says the MND regards asymmetric warfare as important, Lee and Thompson both argue that the ministry has not gone far enough in embracing the strategy, despite the important lesson to be learned from the Ukraine war.

According to Lee, the MND abandoned the ODC when he retired in 2019, although the ministry has not publicly admitted this. (The ministry declined requests for an interview for this article.) “So far, we don’t see systematic ways and means to implement asymmetric abilities,” Lee says.

Thompson posits that the United States’ biggest consideration is the survivability and effectiveness of Taiwan’s military during a blockade or invasion. A significant American worry, he says, is the potential that a conflict involving Taiwan would escalate, compelling the United States to intervene and triggering a large-scale conflict.

The role of drones

A crucial revelation from the war in Ukraine is that all-seeing sensors on satellites and fleets of cheap drones are making modern battlefields transparent. These sensors can detect the tiniest movements and signals, such as a call placed on a soldier’s smartphone – information that can be relayed by satellites to aim artillery and rockets with unprecedented precision and range.

According to a detailed report in The New York Times, Ukraine has succeeded in using drones to combat a vastly superior Russian naval force in the Black Sea. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently announced the establishment of a new branch of the military – the Unmanned Systems Forces – with the stated goal of replicating on land what Ukraine has achieved in the Black Sea.

Hammond-Chambers notes that the Taiwan government is taking a variety of approaches to accelerate its access to different types of drones. Through American Foreign Military Sales, Taiwan has procured four MQ-9 Reaper drones made by General Atomics with a reported cost of NT$21.7 billion. The drones, which are expected to be delivered in 2025, are large, similar to traditional warplanes, and can carry missiles and other weaponry.

In addition, Hammond-Chamber’s Council is promoting the idea of joint ventures between American and Taiwanese companies to provide drone solutions. In one example, Taiwan’s Thunder Tiger, which makes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is working on manufacturing drones with U.S. radar system developer IMSAR, which is working with several drone companies in Taiwan.

Still, the Taiwan government is concentrating most of its efforts on helping Taiwanese companies manufacture their own drones, notes Sheu. “Taiwan is a computer kingdom,” he says. “The private sector has enough capabilities to create IT things. Why not strengthen the industry?”

In December, President Tsai Ing-wen attended a groundbreaking ceremony for an aerospace and drone industrial park in Chiayi County, organized by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology and the Chiayi County government. Tsai vowed to make Chiayi County one of the most strategically important drone sites in Asia, according to government-run media Focus Taiwan.

Taiwanese drone manufacturers such as Thunder Tiger could play a crucial part in Taiwan’s asymmetric defense efforts.

The site will eventually cover 20 hectares and house both private companies and government-invested operations. Former Defense Minister Andrew Yang says Taiwan’s drones wouldn’t focus on Chinese targets but rather “provide effective early-warning reconnaissance on sea and air and be effectively integrated into defense systems to provide more time for a war response.”

Building a robust drone sector will also require initiatives to develop relevant talent. As part of its efforts to prepare citizens for national resistance, Ukraine has for years worked to set up various tech and science-related training centers, some with the help of NGOs and industry players. For example, Korean multinational Samsung has equipped several Kyiv universities with modern labs to implement joint research projects. Samsung Electronics Ukraine is also carrying out numerous projects aimed at enhancing computer literacy at Ukrainian educational institutions.

“Preparing civilians for emergency is not only about first aid and how to build or hide in shelters, but also about how to operate drones,” says Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific section at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kyiv.

Poita notes that the more than 200 companies operating within Ukraine’s drone ecosystem are now facing a talent deficit. “There is a huge demand for people who can operate these drones properly,” he says. “And not only to operate them, but to assemble them. It’s better to prepare in advance.”

INDSR’s Sheu says that while drone warfare is important, Taiwan has an even more urgent need to focus on anti-drone warfare involving specialized sensors. He describes China as a “drone hegemon.” While the United States and other Western countries enjoy high-performance drones designed purely for military use, “China has a lot of systems [and] lots of models,” he notes.

Securing communications

The role of low-orbit satellite constellations came into play after Russia sought to take Ukraine offline following the invasion. The United States and several allies accused Russian state hackers of remotely disabling satellite modems belonging to Ukrainian telecommunications company Viasat, depriving thousands of Ukrainians of internet access and disrupting communications.

Ukrainian officials turned to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, asking him to allow Ukraine to utilize the company’s satellite internet constellation Starlink. Within 12 hours, Musk responded that Starlink was active in Ukraine and more terminals were on the way. It was a game-changer.

Taiwan faced additional pressure to explore satellite options after two subsea internet cables near the offshore island group of Matsu were severed in February last year by vessels flying Chinese flags. About 14,000 Matsu residents spent more than 50 days with cripplingly slow internet before Taiwan was able to repair the cables. At the moment, all that stands between Taiwan and a near-total internet blackout are 14 undersea cables.

Starlink was an obvious potential partner for Taiwan, and the government initiated exploratory talks with SpaceX in 2019. However, in early 2022 SpaceX began urging the Taiwanese government to change a law requiring any telecommunications venture to have local majority ownership of at least 50%. In other markets, SpaceX has maintained full ownership.

“Our communication laws in Taiwan state that these kinds of services should be conducted by a joint venture in Taiwan,” says Sheu. “The Taiwan government should own at least 50% to prevent an emergency, but SpaceX wants 100%.” The two sides ultimately failed to reach an agreement.

Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang is now leading a government push to find other low-orbit satellite systems. This effort is part of her Program for the Digital Resilience Validation of Emerging Technologies for Contingency or Wartime Applications.

According to a September statement from the Ministry of Digital Affairs, the program calls for the deployment of 700 satellite receivers across Taiwan by the end of 2024 and the use of multiple satellite providers to avoid a single point of failure. Sheu says Taiwan wants to involve foreign and domestic commercial enterprises in its efforts. “The more layers you have, the more resilience you have,” he adds.

Last June, Minister Tang led a delegation to the UK to visit British satellite service provider OneWeb. According to the Taipei Times, OneWeb is already providing some services to northern Taiwan and will cover the whole island by the end of the year. Sheu adds that Taiwan is also interested in working with Project Kuiper, Amazon’s satellite enterprise, and integrating it into the system if possible. The Taiwan Space Agency also plans to launch its own first self-made low-earth orbit communication satellite constellation, but the details of this venture are confidential, Sheu says. Former Defense Minister Yang says it’s still too early to tell whether Taiwan is capable of making satellites on a par with Starlink’s.