Defending Taiwan: Lessons from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War

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https://www.aei.org-Global Taiwan Institute –Michael Mazza

Nearly the whole of the Asian continent—more than 4,000 miles—sits between Taiwan and Nagorno-Karabakh. They inhabit vastly different geographies, ongoing conflicts as to the ultimate fate of each have emerged from different historical contexts, and political realities on the ground bear little in common. Even so, Taiwan’s defense thinkers should be closely studying the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. The use of both modern military capabilities and legacy systems and their interactions on the battlefield provide insights into how wars will be fought during the next two decades. Taiwan would do well to consider lessons learned as it works to better prepare itself for the ever-present possibility of Chinese military action.

Lessons Learned

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh has only recently come to an end, but early analyses largely share some key findings. None is particularly surprising, but confirmation of expectations in real-world observations is valuable nonetheless.

Tanks Are Vulnerable

Drone footage of aerial attacks on tanks has provided some of the defining imagery of the war. Armor, of course, has long been vulnerable to attacks from the sky, but the role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in enabling and carrying out such strikes is relatively new. Writing for War on the Rocks two weeks into the conflict, Michael Kofman and Leonid Nersisyan described Azerbaijani success against Armenian tank formations in the war’s opening days:

The largest counteroffensive on the Armenian side took place on the fourth day. As Armenian armored vehicles and artillery maneuvered into the open, they found themselves relatively exposed to the use of combat aerial vehicles, loitering munitions, and drones marking targets for artillery. These Armenian units were left largely unprotected by the old air defense systems that they had available, and suffered considerable losses as a result. The loss of a total of 84 tanks thus far by Armenia, along with numerous multiple launch rocket systems and artillery systems, compared to a total of 13 to 15 air defense systems, suggests a fairly low availability of air defense relative to the size of the armored force fielded.

As described, the aerial threat to armor on the ground was multifaceted, as it would likely be in a Chinese invasion scenario. And while it may be true that Taiwan’s terrain offers more opportunity for concealment than the terrain in Nagorno-Karabakh, tanks on the move will remain vulnerable. Taiwan’s tank drivers can take some comfort in the knowledge that Taiwan’s air defenses are far more advanced than Armenia’s, but those air defenses must also grapple with a far more potent threat than Azerbaijan’s.

Taiwan is currently in the process of purchasing 108 new M1A2T Abrams tanks from the United States. Taiwan’s defense planners expect that those tanks will play a role in denying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a beachhead and in countering PLA tanks that do come ashore and attempt to drive inland. But those new Abrams, along with Taiwan’s extant M48 Pattons (set for eventual retirement) and M60A3 Pattons (due for upgrades), will face both fighter aircraft and UAVs armed with ground-attack munitions, UAVs equipped with sensors used to cue long-range precision fires from more distant platforms, and loitering munitions, which Al Jazeera describes as “essentially a Kamikaze or suicide UAV.” (Of note: China’s first loitering munition was the IAI Harpy (or Harop), acquired from Israel in the 1990s to American consternation and used by Azerbaijani forces in recent weeks. China now indigenously produces two loitering munitions of its own.) Those various airborne platforms will fly at different speeds and different altitudes, all with different radar signatures operating in crowded airspace. Add attack helicopters to the mix—along with incoming cruise and ballistic missiles—and this presumably would make air defense particularly complex for Taiwan.

Even so, it is crucial that Taiwan deny China air supremacy, if not air superiority—not only so its ground platforms (tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and rocket artillery, ground-launched cruise missiles, etc.) can continue to contribute to the fight, but also so that its own aerial systems can pose a reciprocal challenge to Chinese naval and ground forces. As it studies the latest Nagorno-Karabakh war, Taiwan should seek both to avoid Armenia’s fate and to emulate Azerbaijan’s successes—a feat that should be within reach.

UAVs and Setting the Narrative

Although UAVs played a central role in allowing Azerbaijan’s owned armored forces to take and hold territory, they were also crucial in enabling Baku to shape the media narrative surrounding the conflict. Al Jazeera explains:

Drones have one more important effect. Their cameras, filming the destruction of a target in clear, unwavering high-definition video, allow a country to dominate the propaganda narrative. Media outlets were saturated with images of Armenian armour and artillery being effortlessly destroyed, not the other way round. Despite Azerbaijani losses, the Armenian armed forces, for the most part, did not have cameras trained on their intended target. These images have enhanced Azerbaijan’s sense of success on the battlefield, presenting an image of near-total Azerbaijani victory.

Similarly unbalanced imagery availability in a Taiwan Strait conflict could be detrimental to Taiwan’s chances of success, even if it is in actuality performing well on the battlefield. If China were to flood the media landscape with footage of battlefield successes, it would likely have five distinct audiences. Domestically, China could use imagery to boost morale within the PLA and among the civilian population. In Taiwan, China would seek the opposite effect, hoping to convince members of Taiwan’s military and the civilian population alike that resistance will ultimately prove futile. China will similarly aim to convince international observers that Taiwan is not putting up much of a fight and that its defeat is a forgone conclusion, thereby discouraging international intervention—military or otherwise.

Taiwan, then, will need to be prepared to compete for narrative dominance. Doing so will require that Taiwan gather and disseminate large amounts of footage from across the battlespace. Taiwan should, moreover, consider allowing journalists from local and international press outlets to embed with front line troops, much as the United States did during the Iraq War. While that may make the narrative more difficult to control, it will ensure that foreigners hear Taiwan’s story. Finally, Taiwan and the United States should be planning together now for how they will compete with China in shaping narratives about a potential conflict. Washington has a far bigger megaphone than does Taipei and should be prepared to use it on Taiwan’s behalf.

The Importance of Electronic Warfare Capabilities

Both challenges highlight the need for Taiwan to invest in robust electronic warfare capabilities. Shooting fighter jets and drones out of the sky is only one piece of the air defense puzzle. The ability to jam, blind, and otherwise interfere with the operation of UAVs and other airborne platforms—while defending against PLA efforts to interfere with Taiwan’s own systems—could be a difference-maker.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has recognized the importance of fighting effectively in the electromagnetic spectrum. In its 2019 National Defense Report, MND highlighted Chinese advances in electronic warfare capabilities as posing a growing threat to Taiwan and described electronic warfare (often paired with cyber warfare) as a priority. In 2017, MND established the Information and Electronic Warfare Command in order to “integrate and coordinate” duties of relevant units already existing across the military services, to guide research and development, and to “foster talent.” Whether Taiwan’s armed forces are keeping pace with PLA advancements, however, is unclear.

Conclusion

The Taiwan Strait and Nagorno-Karabakh are seemingly worlds apart. A war in the Strait would involve a massive amphibious invasion, numerous naval engagements, and a fight that would largely take place on, over, or near the water. Such a conflict would look very different from the recent war in the South Caucasus. Even so, technologies employed in Nagorno-Karabakh would likewise be employed by China and Taiwan, making the war of interest to both parties. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Hal Brands has argued, “it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the fighting,” in part because “small wars have historically served as dress rehearsals for bigger ones, because they offer a testing ground for emerging concepts and capabilities.” Such may well be the case with this year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war. Taiwan’s defense planners ignore it at their peril.

The main point: Taiwan would do well to consider potential lessons learned from the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war as it works to better prepare itself for Chinese military action in the years to come.

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