Image Courtesy: European Council on Foreign Relations
Article Courtesy: Defense Research and Studies
Lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh and Taiwan Overall Defense Concept (ODC) are simlar. Both followed the military strategy, ‘A large number of small things’.
Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC) stands across the Taiwan Strait, preparing as it is, for the invasion from mainland China for over seventy years now. As they say, much water has flown down the strait (bridge!) with America playing eternal ally to the Island nation. Theoretically speaking, neither the South China Sea nor Taiwan would have become global concerns had China remained China of the early 1980s. Till then, mired in its own internal issues, even China did not have the luxury of upping the ante over Taiwan but for the economic and military eminence that it has apparently gained in the international arena in subsequent times. With Xi Jinping in the helm, had China not ventured to revive the Silk Route, perhaps the world also would have relapsed into a fait accompli Uni-Polar World Order.
Nagorno-Karabakh, some 5000 kilometres away from China, again, would not have caught the imagination of the world but for the involvement of Russia in mediating the affairs in Central Asia. With an estimated 1000 casualties on both sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the world may have remained more concerned with COVID19 that has caused millions of deaths.
Neither Taiwan nor Nagorno-Karabakh has anything in common. However, the small flash in the western corner of Central Asia appears to have a theoretical connection. More specifically, the methods and means of conflict adopted by Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to have been the testing ground for a new defence paradigm that Taiwan drafted for itself in 2017. This article probes the essential connection that belies their geographical separation and attempts to draw lessons for strategic communities across the world.
Paradigm Shift in Taiwan
In 2017, Taiwan’s venerable former Chief of General Staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, presented the Overall Defense Concept (ODC) that represented a paradigm shift in Taiwan’s strategy to prevent the invasion of the island nation by PLA. The ODC postulated the means and methods of this objective through a cryptic SWOT analysis, in the words of Lee Hsi-min and Eric Lee (Hsi-min & Eric, 2020):
Taiwan must abandon notions of a traditional war of attrition with the PLA. Facing a stronger adversary, embracing an effective asymmetric defence posture, and incorporating tactical asymmetric capabilities could compensate for Taiwan’s disadvantage on paper and prevent the PLA from getting boots on the ground. In the face of a growing cross-strait resource imbalance and domestic budgetary constraints, Taiwan must allocate and manage its resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Among the three facets of the ODC, incorporating tactical asymmetric capabilities specifically talked about asymmetric weapon systems. His-Min and Eric ( (Hsi-min & Eric, 2020) synthesized it as Asymmetric weapon systems, on the other hand, are less visible during peacetime but essential during the war. They provide non-conventional warfighting capabilities that are aimed at exploiting natural advantages and the enemy’s vulnerabilities while delivering maximum tactical impact with minimal effort. Taiwan’s asymmetric systems must be small, mobile, lethal and numerous for strategic dispersion. They must be cost-effective and easy to develop and maintain, yet also resilient and sustainable. They must complicate enemy operations by being difficult to target and counter. The essence of Taiwan’s asymmetric capabilities is a large number of small things.
Drew Thompson, former Director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2018, published an insightful discourse on ODC on 02 October 2018 titled HOPE ON THE HORIZON: TAIWAN’S RADICAL NEW DEFENSE CONCEPT. Thompson (Thompson, 2018) went specific by stating:
“The challenge for Taiwan is ensuring that there is adequate defence funding for these large, prestige-enhancing platforms (that are the darlings of their service chiefs), as well as the small, manoeuvrable, and survivable asymmetric systems that are critical to Taiwan’s survival”.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
On 27 September, Armenia and Azerbaijan forces clashed over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The age-old dispute between the erstwhile USSR enclaves drew the attention of the world, since a new power in Central Asia, ably assisted by Russia, was seen as emerging – Turkey. Supporting Azerbaijan openly, Turkey provided military and other assistance. The clashes ended on 10 November after Armenia apparently concede to terms that are view with disenchantment by Armenians. Russia stepped in by deploying 3000 troops to keep the peace while the terms of the agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are implemented. The US, though a long-term benefactor of Turkey, appeared to have lost the diplomatic initiative and therefore ceding ‘political mileage’ to Russia in Central Asian affairs.
There are two important lessons that are emerging in the conduct of a Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that is of special interest to the strategic community. First, the extensive use of drones provided by Turkey to Azerbaijan. Second, the use of cyberspace for war. Both these figures prominently in the discourses on Taiwan’s ODC discussed earlier. We will look at these two elements briefly.
Drones: Azerbaijan’s highly effective use of drones and sensors indicated a “new, more affordable type of airpower” (Economist, 2020). Azerbaijani forces used the Turkish drones, especially Bayraktar TB2, to carry out reconnaissance for relaying the coordinates of targets to Azerbaijani artillery they also used Harpy or the Israeli Harop, which has the potential to loiter over TBA, search for potential targets like tanks and artillery, and strike with a precision of fewer than 10 meters. Commentators like Alex Gatopoulos noted that the use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh illustrated how they enabled small countries to conduct effective air campaigns, potentially making low-level conflicts much more deadly (Gatopoulos, 2020). He also reported that Close Air Support (CAS) were conducted using specialized suicide drones such as IAI Harop, rendering tanks vulnerable and suggesting changes are required to armoured warfare doctrine.
Turkish origin STM Kargu-2 was also deployed in possibly ‘flocks’, as reported in Turkish social media. The media account of “Divan-i Harp”, reported that KARGU Kamikaze UAV was used by the Azerbaijan Army. At least 27 KARGU Kamikaze UAVs are seen in the shared images. The displayed quantities revealed the possibility that KARGU-2s could be in operational use in flocks (Mehmet, n.d).
Cyberwarfare and Propaganda: Both Armenia and Azerbaijan reportedly used cyberspace social media to conduct blitzing campaigns against each other and wreak havoc into each other’s popular psyche. Mansur Mirovalev, reporting for Aljazeera (Mirovalev, 2020), pointed to how Armenian sentiments were fired up when a post showing Armenian cello player Sevak Avanesyan playing in the snow-white and debris-covered Holy Savior Cathedral in the town of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in Azerbaijan dominated by ethnic Armenians since the early 1990s. The fires of centuries-old enmity were fed with timbers through such portrayals.
Robin Forestier-Walker of Aljazeera (Forestier-Walker, 2020) reported that digital billboards in Baku have broadcast high-resolution imagery of missiles striking Armenian tanks and other military hardware, as well as groups of soldiers caught in the open. Forester-Walker also reported Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev as having told Turkish television that Turkish drones owned by Azerbaijan had “shrunk” the number of Azeri casualties. “These drones show Turkey’s strength. It also empowers us,” he is cited to have said. While President Aliyev was referring to Bayraktar TB2, the effect of the conflict through ‘BillBoard offensive’ fed the popular imagination of the public and media.
Both the countries also reportedly used their own and hired cyber mercenaries from Greece, Turkey, and Russia to deface government websites. Artsakh News (Artsakh, 2020), for example, reported that over 80 government websites were attacked and many of them just under two hours! Misinformation, propaganda, and fake news fed the public imagination for good as well as for worse.
Large Number of Small Things
When we read the Taiwanese ODC and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict together, it is not difficult to fathom the meaning of “A large number of small things” that could obtain two primary objectives: Reduce human capital in a war and reduce the enemy’s will to fight. That precisely is what the Taiwanese ODC attempted to do by adopting its new paradigm. It appears that Nagorno-Karabakh validated that theory. In the light of this test case war in Central Asia, it is not surprising that Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to have given the go-ahead to PLA for testing and deploying MAM-L Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). The ANKA developed MAM-L have reportedly destroyed 100 Russian-made T-72 tanks in Turkey’s direct and indirect wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Azerbaijan (Karabakh) (News Center, 2020). The South China Morning Post (Zheng, 2020) also reported that the PLA is training with UAVs and using them for delivering ammunition, hot food, and other supports in Ladakh where Sino-India talks have made little impact for disengagement on the ground after the Galwan skirmish. Apart from land-based drones, China has also reportedly deployed a dozen or more ‘Sea Wing’ underwater drones, though allegedly for research purposes in the sea near Sri Lanka (Pandit, 2020).
From the Korean War of 1950-53 to the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, a consistent trend that was visible to analysts was the phenomenal casualties that the Chinese suffered in war. In the Korean War for example, while the USA suffered 33686 deaths and 2830 non-battle deaths, China suffered 114,000 battle deaths, 34,000 non-battle deaths, 340,000 wounded, and 7,600 missing during the war. 7,110 Chinese POWs were repatriated to China. In the Vietnamese conflict, China that lasted precisely thirty days, it was reported that Chinese casualties numbered over 9000 while the Vietnamese statistics were never made public.
In the Sino-Indian war of 1962, it is public knowledge that the Chinese attacked Indian positions using ‘wave’ tactic. Many accounts of the war reveal columns after columns of Chinese attacking Indian positions in which the second wave onwards, the Chinese are said to have been without arms. When the first wave collapsed, the second wave swept forward picking up the weapons of the dead for their attack. Short of weapons and replenishments, Indian positions fell to such attacks is highlighted across available literature on the war.
The use of UAVs as evidenced in Nagorno-Karabakh could as well change the equation of human casualties incurred in conventional conflicts. Apart from suffering huge casualties, the defender nation’s morale will be adversely affected if cyberspace and propaganda are effectively directed from the safe environs of their originator country.
Lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh
The Taiwanese ODC and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hold portent lessons for strategic communities across the world. These lessons could be summarized as below:
The texture of conventional war has changed. Economical, technology-assisted platforms like UAVs or drones have come to stay. Investing in them therefore is as important as training the troops to utilize them.
Cyberspace and propaganda are no more perceived threats. With the internet and accessibility to the net reaching even far corners of the globe, punitive impact on troop and public morale could be produced. Even nations not so well developed technologically have the luxury of hiring mercenaries on this front too. Greece and Turkey, who otherwise have disputes among their territorial issues, have had no control over Greek Cyber Mercenaries being hired by either party to the conflict.
Conventional game-changers like heavy tanks and sophisticated artillery are highly vulnerable to cheap aerial weapons that are difficult to detect and worse, difficult to counter.
Weapon exporters have no ideological barriers. The example of Israeli Kamikaze UAV in the service of Turkey and Azerbaijan proves the point. Political alliances (read US-Israeli bonhomie) do not come in the way of weapon exports.
Nations need to re-think the human cost of war. A country like China, with a demonstrated disregard for human cost in war, is re-drawing its game plan perhaps and ironically drawing lessons from the Taiwanese thought process! Countries like the USA that attach great value to human costs have a lot to worry about.
Military strategy is considered to be the domain of generals and therefore largely left out of discourse by polity. The most important lesson that emerges from Taiwan and Nagorno-Karabakh is the public discourse on strategy. When we discourse what we intend to do, it is not just the international academic community that is listening. Adversaries across the board, as well as vested interests too, listen in. The theories and formulations that we debate become the fodder for experimentation the results of which may impact us too. Years before a Hollywood movie rocked the shows – Sense and Sensibility based on a novel by Jane Austen by the same title. Transplanting the title to strategic discourse should not be a strain on the imagination. It is as well to recall what Sun Tzu, the grandmaster of strategy said:
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
(Dr R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and the Managing Editor of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies (www.ejsss.net.in) He can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)
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