Lessons for Taiwan from the Russia-Ukraine War, Part 2: The Importance of Airpower and Initiative

Lessons for Taiwan from the Russia-Ukraine War, Part 2: The Importance of Airpower and Initiative

Lessons for Taiwan from the Russia-Ukraine War, Part 2: The Importance of Airpower and Initiative

In Part 1 of this article series, I discussed how the early days of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war have demonstrated the importance of rapid mobilization and logistical stockpiling—both for deterring conflict, as well as maximizing defender advantages should war break out. 

At the time of this writing on April 15, the tenor of the Russia-Ukraine War has changed significantly from the opening two weeks. Russia’s initial operational plan, a “shock-and-awe” campaign to seize the Ukrainian political leadership and cow the populace into accepting a puppet government, comprehensively failed. Initial strikes were too small to paralyze the Ukrainian military, while the populace, instead of being shocked and awed, rallied to the defense of their nation.

The second Russian plan to surround the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and to capture major cities like Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa has failed as well. Russian casualties and equipment attrition have been severe. An already-weak Russian logistics chain under constant Ukrainian attack has contributed to frequent operational pauses, which have allowed the Ukrainians to outmaneuver their adversary and counterattack. Strategically, sanctions are beginning to have severe effects on both the Russian economy as well as the military’s ability to reconstitute forces. This is at least in part due to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台積電) cutting off Russian access to chips, thereby disrupting the country’s ability to produce military systems like tanks.  

The third Russian plan is now underway, consisting of a much more limited objective of taking eastern Ukraine via an envelopment or direct attack on Ukrainian forces defending the “Joint Forces Operation” (JFO) area. The Russians have retreated from most other areas of combat to consolidate their forces, while settling into firepower strikes to break the will of the Ukrainian people. However, even these more limited efforts have been set back by the inability of the Russians to fix in place the nimbler Ukrainian defenders, and to secure air dominance over Ukraine. This has multiple implications for Taiwan military planners: first, the importance of mission command methodology in the high likelihood that command and control is cut off; second, the vast difference between air dominance and air superiority, and the importance of airpower on the defense even when the other side has a modicum of superiority. 

Mission Command 

Just prior to the beginning of the war on February 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeatedly pushed back against Western intelligence assessments that the Russian military was ready to invade Ukraine. Zelenskyy had good reason to do so: he was concerned that war fears would lead to societal panic and economic disruption, both of which would have played into an ongoing Russian gray zone warfare campaign. However, this meant the Ukrainian military was exposed to severe risk: units were caught out of position at the time of attack; mobilization had not occurred; and there was insufficient defensive infrastructure in place, such as mines, anti-tank barriers, and trenches. In fact, the lack of Ukrainian preparation probably contributed to the Russians developing their initial, highly optimistic operational plan. 

The Ukrainian military’s practice of mission command, however, proved to be a saving grace. Mission command can be defined as subordinates being able to independently execute the commander’s intent. This requires significant training—and most importantly, trust. The adjustment for Ukrainian forces from the Soviet model of centralized decision-making to the Western model of mission command has proven to be one of the most impactful effects of US and NATO training. The effects of mission command, too, are magnified on the defensive. For instance, the initial Russian southern offensive caught the Ukrainian Army’s 59th Brigade off-guard, with units only half-assembled. The brigade was outnumbered five to one, cut off from lines of communication, and fighting against an enemy with air superiority. However, by relying on mission command training, the 59th Brigade was not only able to break contact from numerically superior forces attempting to outflank them, but also destroyed Russian airborne assault units that had been dropped in their rear to envelop the brigade. Afterwards, the brigade rallied territorial defense and other regular army units to stop the Russian advance to Mykolaiv, thereby saving the crucial Ukrainian port city of Odessa. The effectiveness of the 59th Brigade was in part due to their adversary’s belief that knocking out the Ukrainian lines of communication would paralyze them; instead, the Ukrainian defenders used their initiative and superior knowledge of the local terrain to repeatedly bait advancing Russian troops into accurate artillery fire. 

Finally, it is worth noting that the war has demonstrated the value of tank units when combined with mission command. The 59th Brigade mentioned above was able to repeatedly outmaneuver the enemy as a motorized infantry brigade, even in the face of enemy air superiority. Similarly, Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade was able to do the same in the north at Chernihiv, halting the advance of the far larger Russian 41st Combined Arms Army. Even more importantly, the 1st Tank Brigade was then able to transition to the counter-offensive; this would be far harder to do with the territorial defense forces who have so captured the imagination of the public. On a broader level, one of the most important lessons here is that platforms traditionally seen as “symmetric” can be imaginatively used in asymmetrical ways

Use of Airpower Under Enemy Air Superiority    

The other major Ukrainian demonstration of that precept has been in the use of airpower. On the first day of the war, the Russian Air Force attempted to blind/destroy the Ukrainian Air Force through a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles, targeting land-based radar installations, runways, and air defense batteries. This effort was unsuccessful, in part due to targeting errors, insufficient use of munitions, and poor intelligence. The end result is that the Russian Air Force has only been able to achieve limited air superiority. The difference between this type of limited air superiority versus air dominance has been startling for Western observers. The Russian Air Force can use its air superiority to conduct sorties—but only for limited periods and in certain areas. A lack of precision munitions has meant that the Russians have been forced to undertake low-altitude “dumb bomb” drops, leaving them vulnerable to anti-air systems ranging from air defense vehicles to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Without both precise targeting data and munitions, this makes the Russian strikes largely predictable and ineffective. 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Air Force continues to operate a limited number of sorties. While the Ukrainians cannot sortie as often as the Russians, Ukrainian training has made the strikes more tactically effective and survivable for the Ukrainian pilots. Operationally, this has had ripple effects for ground force operations: without air dominance, the Russians have not been able to gain an observational advantage over the battlefield. This, in turn, has allowed Ukraine to better mask its ground movements, as well as enabling the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) like the famed Bayraktar TB-2, which would not be survivable under Russian air dominance. As both this war and the previous Armenia-Azerbaijan War have shown, these UCAVs allow for the cheap replication of elements of a larger, more sophisticated air force, such as ground attack and artillery targeting. The survival of Ukrainian Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters and their ability to continually bait Russian aircraft into air defense traps have been key to limiting the use of Russian airpower and allowing the operationally more lethal–but more vulnerable–TB-2s and other UCAVs to continue strikes or direct artillery fire against Russian ground forces. 

Thus, the ability of Taiwan’s air force to survive the initial onslaught of cruise/ballistic missiles would have an outsized effect on the battlefield. Even if Taiwan’s manned aircraft by themselves cannot win air superiority, by working in concert with a sophisticated Taiwanese integrated air defense system, they could prevent the PLA Air Force from being able to achieve air dominance, again by complicating enemy targeting. By forcing the adversary to expend outsized attention and resources on suppression, this would give more space for Taiwanese UCAVs and loitering munitions to operate.  


In thinking through lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War for the Taiwan military, it is also important to consider and adjust for the lessons that the PRC will take from the conflict as well. The PLA will likely prioritize striking even harder at Taiwanese command, control, and communications, with the goal of preventing both Taiwan’s strategic communications with the outside world and paralyzing Taiwanese military coordination. The PLA will likely fixate on ensuring a better logistics chain, with a focus on ensuring corruption doesn’t eat away at this vital aspect of military operations like it did with the Russians. Similarly, the PLA will also note the importance of the huge flood of Western military aid in increasing Ukrainian combat power and seek to target any US/allied attempt to resupply Taiwanese forces. 

Thus, simply seeking to blindly replicate Ukrainian successes in a Taiwan scenario will not work. Taiwan and the United States cannot assume that the PLA will repeatedly blunder under the national-led political constraints of a “special military operation” versus a war. Taiwan does not have the geographical depth of Ukraine, nor the easy rail-links to Europe.

By practicing rapid mobilization and improving reserve combat capability, Taiwan can both gain the strategic high ground of showing the world the resiliency of the Taiwanese people in defending their democracy, as well as the operational benefits of having a deep, local knowledge of terrain. 

By stockpiling en masse, Taiwan can demonstrate the capability to both wage high-intensity war and resist a blockade, reducing the effects of PLA strikes on Taiwanese logistics. 

By practicing effective mission command, Taiwan can demonstrate resistance to decapitation/paralysis-style strikes; and enhance its own ability to strike at PLA logistics in the littoral or on the beach, where they are hideously vulnerable. 

By practicing agile maneuver and coordination with an integrated air defense system, Taiwan’s air force can badly complicate adversary targeting and ensure that the PLAAF cannot achieve air dominance over the skies of Taiwan. 

The Russia-Ukraine war has taught, and in many cases re-taught, many lessons. Chief among them is Napoleon’s dictum: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” Ukraine’s military has cleverly leveraged its own strengths against Russian weaknesses, exponentially degrading Russian morale and operations. Taiwan must be prepared to do the same against its adversary.   

The main point: The Russia-Ukraine War has provided many lessons on how a smaller power can offset and outlast a stronger power. These methods include the use of mission command and the role of airpower under conditions of enemy air superiority.