In the last few months as the Western Pacific has heated up and fighting in Ukraine continues, a number of prominent Western geopolitical and defense analysts, along with an equal number of their less-than-prominent OSINT counterparts have attempted to take a number of lessons learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and transfer them to the deteriorating situation in the Western Pacific. More precisely, onto China’s rise and recent shift to aggressive posturing as well as onto a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict in the near future.
Geopolitically speaking, China in the Western Pacific and Russia/Ukraine are two completely different animals that share few similar parts. This is clear from the first comparison and has been discussed to death here, in academic IR journals and in government reports from around the world. There’s no point beating a dead horse, so to speak. However, there are other geopolitical aspects where the similarities and difference between the Western Pacific and Ukraine are not as clear, leaving them open to interpretation and theory from professionals and amateurs alike. This is the area that the geopolitical crowd has identified as best suited to take Russia/Ukraine lessons and transfer them to China/WestPac. A practice that’s become akin to fitting a round peg in a square hole.
On the military side of the equation the game is similar. Analysts and OSINT ‘experts’ are trying desperately to evaluate the lessons being learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and break them down to fit a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict or China-US Great Power conflict taking place at some point in the next twelve months. In this area the differences between amateur and professional is unequivocal. On one hand, the professionals have a dearth of knowledge as well as experience to draw from when putting together a plausible model to support their theories. The amateurs (OSINT) are starved for experience and formal education of military matters. Most of these folks are veterans and knowledgeable in their respective fields, such as infantry or cyberwarfare. Their inability or reluctance to contextualize tactical lessons and apply their value to the strategic picture ends up being their undoing in many instances.
In spite of the disparities between professional defense analysts and their OSINT counterparts, they share a common quirk. A startling number of people from each group have found themselves caught up in the moment, so to speak, and issuing bold prognostications about the future of warfare with conclusions reliant almost entirely upon the latest news releases from the Ukrainian battlefield. Irresponsible behavior at best, simple laziness at worst. Especially when one remembers that in the first months of the war, Western media outlets were receiving their information directly from the Ukrainian government and military and often reporting it word for word. The kill numbers being reported, in both men and material, were significantly inflated, as initial numbers usually are. Fog of war and all of that.
I intend to delve into some of the geopolitical and military lessons from Ukraine that are being translated both properly and improperly for use in the Western Pacific in the coming month. I’d give a more accurate timeline for when these posts will be published, but as many readers are aware, this act usually backfires on me. This time I’ll play it safe 😊 Besides, with the unstable and uncertain world we’re dealing with at present it’s probably best not to commit to a firm schedule. Lord only knows what crisis will pop up next, or where.
Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.
Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.
Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.
Russia wasted little time in responding to Ukraine’s “terrorist attack” against the Kerch Strait Bridge. Early this morning Russian forces executed a well-coordinated and massive missile strike against targets across Ukraine. “This morning, a massive high-precision strike was conducted on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, military command, and communications,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a video address to his security advisors. “In case Ukrainian terrorist attacks continue on Russian territory, our response will be tough and proportional.” Infrastructure and military targets were struck from Kiev (Kyiv) to Lvov. Over fifteen Ukrainian cities were struck this morning.
Despite Putin’s claims that the targets were military and infrastructure, the Ukrainian government says otherwise. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy said in a video posted to social media that the Russians are “Choosing targets to harm as many people as possible.”
There could be some truth to this. However, Zelenskiy has a well-known penchant for exaggeration. Civilian infrastructure and communications nodes are legitimate targets of war. Ukraine’s own attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge took place at a moment when there appeared to be civilian traffic going across the span. This did not make the bridge any less of a legitimate target.
The attacks, mostly carried out by cruise missiles, have resulted in large-scale power and communications outages around Ukraine. Air raid warnings went off through the day, sending Ukrainian citizens to basements and bomb shelters in scenes reminiscent of the war’s first days. It is not clear if today’s strikes will be followed up by further attacks in the coming days and hours. Putin promises proportionate responses to future attacks on Russian soil, so at first look these missile attacks look to be a one-day affair. Yet if Russia senses real success building as a result of today’s action, expect to see similar strikes in the near future.
Last week’s launching of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier attracted world attention. The ship, named Fujian, is China’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, rivaling US aircraft carriers in size. Capabilities, however, might be another matter altogether. I mean let’s be frank. The US Navy has decades of carrier operating experience under its belt. That has created an expertise which plays a critical role in the development of new carriers and technologies. China’s weapons and electronics, on the other hand, may look nice and comparable to US systems but likely does not measure up operationally. Then there’s the matter of training a cadre of first-rate naval aviators. It could take the Chinese some time to develop enough pilots to successfully operate an air wing from the deck of Fujian.
This carrier is just the latest milestone in China’s journey to develop a navy able to challenge the power of the US Navy. Under Xi Jinping the PLAN has undergone a massive modernization and expansion. Shipbuilding numbers have risen considerably over the last decade in every major warship class. To put it simply, China is turning out ships like hotcakes. Whether the technologies are comparable to the US Navy remains to be seen. In the end it could come down to a matter of quality (US) versus quantity (China).
China’s goal is to field six carrier battlegroups by 2035. This will give China the naval power and capabilities of a first-class blue water navy. China will be able to to project power and support it anywhere in the world. Alongside the shipbuilding surge, China has been improving its naval infrastructure by modernizing port facilities and securing berthing rights in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The US Navy has to focus its shipbuilding plan and warfighting doctrine on defeating a peer-level blue water navy at some point in the coming decade. At present, the US Navy is essentially steaming rudderless into a precarious future.
After four months of heavy fighting, the Ukrainian military is facing shortages of ammunition for many of its Soviet-era weapons systems. With the war now focused in the eastern Ukraine and the fighting having become an artillery-driven war of attrition, the shortages are becoming more pronounced. The timing for this could not be worse. The flow of ammunition from Western nations has failed to keep up with demand and replenish Ukraine’s dwindling ammunition stockpiles. The United States and European nations are also shipping more accurate and mobile self-propelled artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine. However, it is taking a significant amount of time to deploy the weapons and train Ukrainian soldiers to employ them effective. In the meantime, Ukraine’s army relies on its older artillery, even as the ammunition for these guns diminishes to critical levels.
Russia is gaining an advantage on the battlefield because of the ammunition woes. Russian artillery batteries are firing at least three to four times as many rounds as their Ukrainian counterparts. To be fair, Russia has more artillery batteries than Ukraine, but the disparity in rounds fired has more to do with Ukrainian ammunition issues than anything else. Gunners are having to conserve shells more and more as the days pass.
It is a common problem in war and hardly one exclusive to the war in Ukraine. Pre-war calculations and estimates are no longer accurate once the balloon goes up. Rates of fire and use of ammunition dwarfs the pre-war figures. Logistics takes precedence as the race to resupply can often determine what side wins a war. We’re seeing this now in Eastern Ukraine. Some of the gains Russia has made on the battlefield in the last 36-48 hours were possible largely because Russia has far more artillery batteries and ammunition available.