The most important thing is that you have to establish an effective partnership and build up that deterrent effect—or, if necessary, war winning capability—ahead of time: RADM (Retd) Mark Montgomery.
The question is, will China/Taiwan follow Russia/Ukraine? In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we ask RADM (Ret) Mark Montgomery what lessons we’ve learned already that could shape an upcoming conflict.
Montgomery served for over three decades in the US Navy. His assignments included director of operations US Pacific Command, commander Carrier Strike Group 5, deputy director for plans, policy and strategy at European Command and director of transnational threats at the National Security Council. He also served as policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, coordinating policy efforts on national security strategy, capabilities and requirements, and cyber policy.
He is now senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, and directs CSC 2.0, an initiative that works to implement the recommendations of the congressionally mandated Cyberspace Solarium Commission, where he served as executive director.
Q: What are some of the lessons learned from Russia/Ukraine?
A: The big lesson learned for militaries around the world is that the strength of your non-commissioned officers and your empowerment of them to make battlefield decisions is critical. The Russians are continuing to operate under traditional Soviet doctrine where they had a high level of conscripts and a low level of empowerment of their non-commissioned officers, and they have struggled to make battlefield decisions.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, had come off six solid years of unit level training with the US Army and National Guard soldiers. Almost every unit in their military has been through multiple training sessions—over 1,000 training events between the US and the Ukrainians over the past six years. And, in that time, the Ukrainians have built an empowered non-commissioned officer element. And that was extremely important.
The other big lesson learned—and the one that really limited Russia’s ability to operate as a large-scale manoeuvre army—was logistics. When the United States thinks about logistics, we think about the “final mile”, like how do I get a tank round to an M1A1 tank?
It turns out, the Russians weren’t able to survive the “first mile”. And by that, I mean, wherever they’ve been sitting for the last three weeks or three months, as they broke away from home base, three, four hours later, they’re having water, fuel, ammo, food, communications issues—and they could not fight away from their home base.
So all the militaries around the world have to take a look at those two elements. Are we empowering our non-commissioned officers? Do we have that squad level leadership that’s critical in a fluid combat environment? And at the more operational or strategic level, do we have the appropriate skill sets and logisticians to fight away from our home base?
Q: Why did they have those problems with logistics?
A: I think that their “away games”, their fights in Syria, were fought broadly by a mercenary group called the Wagner Group, and by ballistic and cruise missiles. They did not have to demonstrate large scale manoeuvre logistics.
I will say this about the Russians—their ballistic and cruise missile attacks have been effective. The Ukrainians do a good job of only showing you the hits on an apartment building or the mistargeting of an auto dealership. But what they’re not showing you is the 70% of ballistic and cruise missiles that are impacting targets—military targets—in Ukraine. Ammo dumps, military vehicle stowage areas, airfields. They’re doing significant damage.
And so one of the lessons learned for all of us as we deal with Russia or China is that a heavy dose of ballistic and cruise missiles is going to come. And we have to ensure that our integrated air missile defence systems are up to the challenge.
Q: How is this relevant for China/Taiwan?
A: The most important thing is that you have to establish an effective partnership and build up that deterrent effect—or, if necessary, war winning capability—ahead of time.
You can see the impact of that now as we struggle to aggressively push in every piece of anti-armour or stinger missile in the western inventory into Ukraine at the last minute. It’s only working because the Russian large-scale manoeuvre did not work as they planned. If the Russians had been effective this flow of arms from the West would not be relevant.
The big lesson learned for the US and Taiwan, as we think about an aggressive China with “first mover” advantage—in other words, the ability to decide when combat starts and to take the first move—is that you have to make your investments in the period three-to-five years ahead of the crisis. And for Taiwan, that means continuing to buy counter-intervention gear such as anti-ship cruise missiles and naval mines right now. It’s great that the Neptune missile hit the Moskva, but that’s a developmental missile of which they only have a handful. They need to have hundreds. And Taiwan needs to have hundreds of Harpoons or an equivalent naval strike missile of some type. They need to have short-range land attack cruise missiles to reach across the Taiwan Strait into equipment loading areas on mainland China. They need to have anti-armour gear. They need to have manned portable air defence systems. And all those things need to flow in ahead of time.
And the other important lesson—and this applies to the United States and any of its allies or partners—you can’t build military cohesion on the fly. Whatever level of integration you have with your ally, or partner at the start of the conflict, is what you’re saddled with.
So if you’re at a low level of partnership and familiarity you will fight “deconflicted”, staying away from each other’s forces on the battlefield—you do this, I’ll do that—that’s where we are with Taiwan right now. We need to build the partnership into a coordinated or, even better, an integrated capability—particularly between our naval and air forces—through planning and exercising, which are things we’re not doing now. But if we do those over the next three-to-five years, we will be able to build Taiwan and US forces into “two plus two equals five”. Currently, Taiwan and US forces are “two plus two equals three”. You can change that dynamic through exercising. And you can apply that same philosophy to any ally or partner in east or south Asia.
Q: What has been the role of cyber?
A: One of the interesting things coming out of the Russia/Ukraine war is the apparent lack of effectiveness of Russian cyberattacks. There could be a number of reasons for this. It could be Russia took it easy, with the idea that they were going to very quickly occupy the country and didn’t want to do too much damage. I don’t ascribe to that because I think cyber effects are easily reversed. I think it’s probably that Ukraine invested—and the United States and Europe invested—a lot in Ukraine’s cyber defence.
A bit of background. There was a bit of Russian cyber warfare as part of the 2014 Crimea campaign—not a lot, mostly denial of service actions. But then the Russians did aggressive attacks against Ukraine in both the winter of 2015 and the winter of 2016. In both cases taking down portions of the Ukrainian electrical power grid. And then, in 2017, they famously did the NotPetya attack against Ukrainian financial services and government sites that accidentally spread into Western Europe.
But, after that, the United States and Europe both agreed that we needed to provide cyber capacity building to the Ukrainians. And the United States, for example, through USAID, had a four-year $40 million program to get cyber protection tools in, and work with our Ukrainian partners. And there’s evidence that Cyber Command also had a program in there, although there are no specifics. And I know the Europeans did some of the same.
That, along with Ukrainian investments in their own cyber protection teams, has meant that the Ukrainians have done a much more aggressive job at identifying and mitigating Russian attacks on their infrastructure. And then, if something goes down, they are rapidly restoring it. And that has been critical.
So that’s a good lesson learned for the rest of us. Many Asian countries, and definitely the United States, have much more vulnerable cyber environments than Ukraine. We have a much more integrated, networked society. Therefore, a lot more attack surface for malicious cyber activity. So we should be even more committed and invested into building cyber protection, cyber resilience, ahead of any future conflict with Russia or China.
Q: What does that mean for Taiwan?
A: We are definitely going to have to work with Taiwan to help them in the same way. Taiwan has good cyber skills. The question is, do we know things about Chinese tactics, techniques, procedures, or threat signatures that they don’t? We don’t share these things broadly, you have to find the right groups. So we have to build those relationships with Taiwan. I would put this as one more element of building an integrated military effort. It’s another form of exercising. I would recommend we do a process called “hunt forward”, where we use Cyber Command to send “hunt forward” teams into Taiwan to work with their Taiwan counterparts to identify malware in their systems, and to help build more effective and resilient defensive programs.