Taiwan's wartime communications network under magnifying lens

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: Ministry of National Defense

Communications technology has long been integral to warfare, and the wartime resilience of telecommunications infrastructure is especially critical as it underpins military Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. For instance, the US Department of Defense believes that the joint force has to be commanded across all warfighting domains and throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, and a Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) was laid out to guide and implement this vision.

As the Taiwan Strait gains increasing attention worldwide as a potential flashpoint, focuses are often placed on the military imbalance and the efforts to "de-risk" the global high-tech supply chain from the island. In comparison, few seek to thoroughly examine the readiness of Taiwan's telecom infrastructure in the event of military conflict. A recent Tabletop Exercise (TTX) held by the Taiwan Center for Security Studies exactly sought to answer the question, reviewing the wartime resilience of Taiwanese infrastructure including energy, semiconductor, and telecommunication.

Dr. Wendell Lee, general manager of FiberLogic Communications and an expert on Taiwan's telecom infrastructure, pointed out various vulnerabilities during the exercise and recommended the Taiwanese government and military to leverage mobile nodes to implement a nationwide, grid-based fiber-optic network. Since communication networks are precious and limited resources during wartime, he also recommended the government categorize and classify information flow based on the level of criticalness.

As pointed out by Dr. Lee, the Strategic Support Force of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is tasked to conduct warfare in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, in addition to cognitive warfare. There are, however, limited countermeasures at Taiwan's disposal.

When it comes to the island's fiber-optic networks, Lee pointed out that they come in three categories. Apart from the fiber-optic network operated by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense, the state-owned Taiwan Power Company also operates one, followed by telcos and cable TV operators. Though land-based fiber-optic networks are easy to repair, Lee pointed out that the nodes themselves are highly difficult to restore. To remedy the issue, Lee suggested integrating all these networks into one highly resilient grid-based network, while adopting small and mobile nodes that are solar-powered.

Regarding submarine cables, Lee recommended the adoption of so-called eight vertical and eight horizontal (8+8) grid formation pioneered by China to enhance resilience. The PLA, he added, currently deploys its underwater sonar networks together with its submarine cables in the South China Sea, with Huawei supplying the equipment.

In terms of ground-based microwave communication, Lee pointed out that apart from the military and the telco-operated cellular networks, Taiwan's police department, fire department, and Taiwan Power Company also operate their ground-based microwave networks. Nevertheless, they all consist of fixed nodes, and in fact share 80% of the fixed nodes, rendering them susceptible to China's first-wave strikes.

Since communication networks are precious and limited resources during wartime, Lee recommends the classification of information flow based on different bandwidth needs under such circumstances, with the communication between government and armed forces prioritized. In addition to ground-based communication, the role of satellite is emphasized, including those on geosynchronous orbit and low-Earth orbit (LEO).

As pointed out by Lee, Taiwan's leading military research institute National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) already developed a satellite communication system for tactical communications at and above brigade-level. The system connects to the geostationary satellite ST-2, co-owned by owned by Singapore Telecom and Taiwan's Chunghwa Telecom. However, according to Lee, the satellite is vulnerable to interference owing to its commercial-grade.

Meanwhile, even though Taiwan has the ambition to build its own LEO satellite communication system, the roadmap is relatively slow. The country's first self-made Beyond 5G (B5G) satellite will only be launched in 2026, followed by a second one in 2028.