- Russia’s attack on Ukraine has raised fears that China will attack Taiwan.
- China has the military superiority by most measures, but Taiwan has the defense advantage.
- As Russia’s struggles in Ukraine show, capturing major urban areas is a challenge for any army.
China has promised for decades to absorb Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing considers a breakaway province.
Beijing has said it will pursue unification by force if necessary, and the Taiwanese military has increased its budget and stepped up training to improve its ability to fight off such an onslaught.
China has also modernized its military, adding dozens of fighter jets and dozens of warships. If he were to invade Taiwan, however, he would likely face a scenario where high-end weapons would have little benefit: urban warfare.
Taiwan is home to around 23 million people, most of whom live in several major cities where a war for the island would be won. The Chinese army has superiority at almost all levels, but Taiwan has the advantage in defense, which its army is betting on.
“The battle plans of the Chinese Communist troops will be to invade and land first from the coastal cities. Then the fighting will progress into more populated residential and commercial areas and finally expand into the mountainous villages. Any future battle to protect Taiwan will be an urban war,” he added. Lt. Col. Kiwi Yang, a military instructor at the Taiwan Army Infantry School, told AFP news agency.
Urban warfare is one of the most difficult military operations. City streets and alleys are easy to barricade and inhibit maneuver warfare. To capture a city, an army must sacrifice agility for brute force.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how difficult and costly urban warfare is. For weeks, Russian forces attempted to seize the port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, but they were thwarted by determined defenders armed with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
The Chinese military is surely taking notes on Russian operations in Ukraine to inform its own plans for a potential invasion of Taiwan, but urban combat will remain costly even for the most technologically advanced military.
“Just like water, urban warfare is an equalizer. You put a bunch of city blocks in the equation and all of a sudden you and the opposition are on a more equal scale. You see any technological advantage that you have devalued[d]“, a US Army special forces officer, who is on active duty and requested anonymity, told Insider.
The inherent advantages of defense are heightened in an urban environment, the officer said, citing the events in Mariupol as an example.
The Ukrainians “have been locked in against the Russians for weeks now. The Russians have the full advantage of sea, air and long-range fire, although they lack our precision strike capabilities”, which could explain why they resort to indiscriminate shelling, the officer told Insider. “Despite their advantages, they are still struggling to take the city.”
Defenders have more freedom of movement in the city. They can engage attackers at times and places of their choosing and inflict heavy casualties.
Success in such an environment requires proficiency in small unit tactics and close quarters combat, and regular infantry are generally not as proficient in these skills as high-level special operations forces. “There would be no hostages to rescue in a building, and a grenade could solve a lot of problems in such scenarios,” the special forces officer said.
Taiwanese forces could probably “hold out for a long time”, the officer added. “They have a competent army with many advanced weapon systems. They are well prepared and they know where the enemy will come from.”
If China invaded Taiwan, it would have to ensure that it could defeat the defenders within days or blockade Taiwan to prevent outside intervention for an extended period.
“Yes, the Chinese might win in the end because of their numbers, but it won’t be easy and it will cost them dearly. What we see unfolding in Ukraine right now is the best deterrent Taiwan could ask for,” the officer told Insider.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.