Drills at Taiwan’s largest airport showed why Russia lost so many special forces soldiers when it airlifted hundreds of them to Ukraine’s Hostomel Airport in the opening days of its invasion
As Typhoon Doksuri buffeted the south of Taiwan this week, Taiwan’s military went ahead with a slightly curtailed version of its annual five-day “Han Kuang” live-fire drills. As usual, the drills saw soldiers scrambling to defensive bunkers and dugouts while tanks and artillery crews quickly got in position to fire at off-shore targets. A more unusual drill was staged yesterday at Taiwan’s largest airport, the Taoyuan International Airport outside Taipei.
The drill required the busy airport to be closed off for 40 minutes, during which “Chinese” troop-carrying helicopters sporting large red markings swooped down on the airport’s sprawling taxiways to disgorge “Chinese” special forces. As the troop carriers landed, they were supported by Taiwanese attack helicopters with red markings painted on their sides. These invaders were quickly met by airport police units in marked SUVs and regular troops stationed nearby. As expected, the display ended happily for the defending team, leaving the tarmac covered with the bodies of dead invaders.
This kind of drill previously happened at training grounds far away from the real thing, so it is significant that Taiwan’s military decided to do it on the actual “possible future” battleground this time around. By doing it on the actual airport, military planners and the soldiers themselves could get a more realistic idea of how long it would take for defenders to fan out over the complex, and what tactics would work best.
Understandably, the islandwide exercise could not test classified actions like large numbers of Taiwan’s anti-air and anti-ship missiles launching from their secret installations. It could also not show specialized trucks carrying such missiles racing out on Taiwan’s roads to secret coordinates to fire their own salvos at ships and air targets. Another aspect that could not be simulated was the effectiveness of the enemy’s ballistic and cruise missiles hitting key targets — or the effectiveness of anti-air missiles shooting up to intercept such missiles.
Another issue that would be hard to predict, let alone practice, is whether U.S. long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles would be joining Taiwan’s missiles in the air over the Taiwan Strait. There also remains the question whether Japan would be adding its own missiles to this end. And then there’s the possibility that Australian submarines might be joining Taiwanese, Japanese and U.S. submarines in launching anti-ship missiles and smart torpedoes from beneath the ocean’s surface. If enough of these weapons can make it to the seas around Taiwan, and if they work as advertised, the effect on China’s fleet would be devastating.
A senior military analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Research (INDSR) Liang-chih Evans Chen (陳亮智), told Domino Theory that it would be extremely important for Taiwan to make sure that as many as possible of its defensive systems — mostly anti-air and anti-ship missiles — survive the PLA’s initial missile barrages, in order for these systems to target, track and destroy incoming missiles, aircraft and ships. “The more of our systems survive intact, the more ships we can sink, the more likely it is that we can repel the invading force,” Chen said.
Taiwan’s airport drill also assumed that Chinese helicopters would be able to survive the flight to Taiwan. However, Taiwan is in the process of buying large numbers of long-range anti-air missiles as well as short-range shoulder-fired missiles like the Stinger. MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems) like the U.S.’s Stinger and the U.K.’s Starstreak are designed to shoot down low-flying jets and have proven to be highly effective at taking helicopters out of the air in battlegrounds like Ukraine and Afghanistan.
The battle of Hostomel Airport in Ukraine has shown how important it is to preposition MANPADS teams around airports to shoot down invading helicopters, but it has also shown how hard it is for special forces to hold an airport long enough for reinforcements to land on its runways. This battle started on the first day of the invasion — 24 February 2022 — when Russia sent a large number of attack helicopters and troop-carrying helicopters to the airport, just 10 kilometers from the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The idea was to seize the airport and then land a large number of cargo and troop-carrying airplanes on its runways, which would then disgorge the troops and materials needed to move on Kyiv itself.
Ukraine’s airport defenders did not have enough MANPADS teams in position, so most of the helicopters got through, disgorging hundreds of Russia’s elite VDV airborne troops who managed to take control of the airport within a few hours. However, Ukrainian resistance was much fiercer than the Russians planned for, and the VDV troops soon became stuck in and around the airport. Russian armored reinforcement units that entered Ukraine from the nearby Belarus border, were met with deadly ambushes by Ukrainians fielding RPK and Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, forcing them to abandon the reinforcement mission. At the same time, Ukrainian forces around Hostomel airport used drones to scout for artillery units that rained shells accurately on the airport invaders.
Due to the fact that the VDV troops could not create a wide defensive perimeter around the airport, the large airplanes could not descend to land, as they could be shot down by Ukrainian MANPADS teams patrolling around the airport battleground. The fact that Ukrainian artillery units were still in range of the runways also added to the risk. In the end, the VDV troops had to break out of the airport to retreat back to safety, leaving many dead and allowing the Ukrainians to take control of the airport again.
The Hostomel Airport battle was a disaster for the invaders that could easily be repeated if China invades Taiwan. Taiwan’s defenders also have the advantage of defending an island that forces the invader to depend on ships surviving an incredibly dangerous body of water just to reach a small number of beaches that are very well defended. In addition, Taiwan has the advantage of having practiced for this very predictable assault since the late 1940s. The most surprising thing that China could do if it invades, is to use submarine craft to deliver a large number of special-forces troops at night in an attempt to surprise and overwhelm beach defenders before hostilities are announced. But this kind of assault is to be expected, and therefore it is only logical that the defenders would be looking for signs of it happening.
When it comes to helicopter assaults against Taiwan’s airports and other strategic positions, Chen said that Taiwan has the option to disperse MANPADS and Javelin teams into its landscape of dense apartment blocks and even denser forests. It would be very hard for the PLA to target even a small percentage of such teams with missile strikes. “This means these lethal systems are highly survivable, so they will be available to strike accurately at incoming aircraft and landing craft, no matter how massive the aerial bombardment would be,” Chen said.
Thus, if Taiwan could place enough MANPADS teams between its airports and an invading helicopter force, Taiwan’s own “Battle of Hostomel Airport” could be over before it had begun. But perhaps the most important lesson from what happened in Ukraine is that the defending team can win back an airport even if it did lose it, by regrouping quickly and fighting hard. In Ukraine, Russian planners assumed that the defenders would collapse into chaos after experiencing overwhelming force. The fact that the Ukrainians regrouped and fought fiercely for a few days, completely destroyed the plan to land reinforcements — thereby causing a military disaster for the invaders.