|Taiwan plans to rule the
By James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara
The Republic of China Navy (ROCN), or Taiwan Navy, has an
ambitious vision for its future strategy. According to the "ROC Navy
Vision", which is available on the navy's website, "Based on the
guidance of 'command and control automation, three-dimensional
mobile strike capabilities and missile-oriented weapon system', and
through measures such as enhancing intelligence reconnaissance and
surveillance, extending strike zone depth, expanding combat radius,
accelerating response and contingency protection, the navy aims to
construct an effective deterring and three-dimensional mobile strike
force that is elite, highly efficient, rapidly deployable and
capable of performing long range strikes."
In other words,
this "ROC Navy Vision" statement means that the Taiwanese navy
intends to field surface, subsurface and aerial forces that share a
common operating picture of the waters and skies around the island,
fight together cohesively and can strike at targets far distant, at
sea or ashore, with ship-launched missiles. Can the ROCN follow through on such an
Naval operations fall into several categories, including
sea control, sea denial, power projection ashore, attacks on or
defense of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and naval
diplomacy. Of these, the first - sea control - is most relevant to a
cross-strait contingency, the driving factor in Taipei's defense strategy. For the sake of
economy, the authors set aside the other functions and assess the
ROCN's capacity for sea control.
Taiwan Navy advertises its chief
missions as breaking blockades and providing for SLOC security. Winning control of the seas
and skies adjoining the island is a prerequisite for both of these
missions. Indeed, this is the stiffest challenge the ROCN faces. Sea
control connotes the ability to operate "with a high degree of
freedom in a sea or ocean area ... for a limited period of time,"
writes Milan Vego.
For Taiwan, this means the liberty to
operate in the waters around the island in the face of a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), whose margin of
superiority is steadily widening, giving the mainland an advantage
not only in numbers but in the quality of ships, aircraft and armaments. Unless the ROCN is equipped
to contend for temporary dominance of vital sea and air expanses, it
will be unable to take to the seas to fend off a Chinese invasion
force or protect shipping bound to or from Taiwanese seaports.
The outlook for ROCN sea control is worsening by the day.
For one thing, in the event of an imminent conflict, Taipei must
contend with the likelihood of a preemptive attack from China's
growing force of short-range ballistic missiles, which can strike at
targets like ports and airfields.
With the ROCN fleet
concentrated in a few ports like Tsoying, Suao and Keelung, this
constitutes a critical vulnerability in the island's defenses. In a
much-discussed 2008 article, William Murray of the US Naval War
College opined that China "has shifted its anti-Taiwan military
strategy away from coercion by punishment toward denying Taiwan the
use of its air force and navy". Neither the ROCN nor the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF),
says Murray, "is likely to survive such an attack".
another, Taiwanese air superiority is in bad shape, and sea-control
operations can hardly proceed without it. Until recent years, the
standard wisdom held that the ROCAF would gain air superiority if
not air supremacy - in other words undisputed control - of the skies
over the Taiwan Strait in the opening hours of a China-Taiwan war.
Such assumptions now appear fanciful.
have denied repeated requests from Taipei to purchase 66 F-16 C/D
Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft to replenish a force made up of
earlier variants of the F-16, elderly fighters like the F-5 Tiger,
and maintenance-intensive aircraft like the French-built Mirage
2000. (Technically speaking, Washington has not rejected Taipei's
entreaty but has taken it "under consideration", meaning that it
remains in indefinite bureaucratic limbo).
The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
recently sounded the alarm about the readiness of Taiwanese
warplanes. While the air force possesses some 400 fighters, reports
DIA, "far fewer of these are operationally capable", owing to age
and maintenance problems. Taiwan's fleet of tactical aircraft is
stagnating, then, even as the People's Liberation Army Air Force
upgrades and modernizes its own combat planes.
Nor is the
Taiwanese fleet configured particularly well for sea control. The
ROCN submarine "fleet" barely merits the name. Two Dutch-built
Zwaardvis-class diesel-electric boats, along with two World War II-era Guppy-class boats no longer
suitable for combat comprise the navy's undersea force.
Factoring in the cycle of maintenance and crew training,
only one Zwaardvis boat will normally be ready for sea at any given
time. The most modern surface combatants in the Taiwan Navy
inventory are six French-built Lafayette-class frigates, known in
Taiwan as the Kang Ding class. The Kang Ding can carry eight
vertically launched Hsiung Feng II surface-to-surface missiles and
four vertically launched short-range Sea Chaparral surface-to-air
Advertised as comparable to the US Harpoon
anti-ship missile, the Hsiung Feng II has a maximum range of 160km,
or just over 99 miles. The Sea Chaparral has a range of 9km, or
under six miles - too small a buffer to allow much response time
against evasive supersonic missiles. The Kang Ding is equipped with
hull-mounted and towed-array sonar, with torpedoes for
anti-submarine warfare (ASW). From a technological standpoint, the
stealthy Kang Dings are impressive vessels, but they carry too few
rounds to slug it out for long against numerically superior PLAN
surface and undersea units operating from bases scattered along the
Most of the ROCN's anti-air warfare (AAW)
capability resides in four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers
(DDGs), renamed the Keelung class upon being transferred to the
ROCN. Built for the shah of Iran, the Kidd class represented the
state-of-the-art in US Navy AAW in the early 1980s, just before the
advent of the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers.
carries medium-range Standard Missiles for AAW and 8 Harpoon
anti-ship missiles for battling enemy surface fleets. (With no
towed-array sonar to listen passively for undersea contacts - the
best way to find enemy submarines without broadcasting one's own
position - the Keelung's ASW capability rates as so-so at best).
These DDGs remain potent as AAW platforms, but at nearly 30 years
old, their "New Threat Upgrade" combat-systems suite is falling
behind the new technologies being developed and fielded across the
The rest of the ROCN surface fleet is comprised of
modest vessels like guided missile frigates (FFGs) modeled on the US
Perry-class frigates. Designed for low-intensity threat
environments, FFGs are outfitted with limited defensive and
offensive weaponry. Finally, the ROCN's Knox-class frigates are
capable yet aging ASW vessels dating from the early 1970s.
None of these warships are optimal for fleet operations on a
difficult maritime terrain like the Taiwan Strait, where reaction
time against air or missile strikes is compressed and submarines can
lurk undetected in shallow water before conducting torpedo or
anti-ship missile attacks. With Taiwanese air power on the decline
and the navy's ASW capacity in doubt - US submariners insist the
best ASW platform is another submarine - the ROCN's prospects for
wresting sea control from the PLAN in wartime appear slight. With
few new acquisitions or upgrades in the works, the ROCN stands
little chance of significantly enhancing the survivability, combat
punch or combat reach of its sea-control fleet - that is to say, of
fulfilling the goals set forth in the ROCN Vision.
Disparaging views in China
Chinese observers by
and large agree that, for a variety of reasons, the Taiwan Navy is
not up to par regarding the sea-control functions outlined in the
ROCN Vision. Condescension pervades Chinese analyses of the ROCN.
Writing in Modern Navy, Yang Peng notes that Taiwan's surface fleet
is acutely vulnerable to guided missile-strikes. The fleet's AAW
pickets are particularly susceptible to saturation missile attacks
(baohe daodan gongji) and rely excessively on the protective
umbrella hoisted by tactical air power.
Yang forecasts that
Taiwanese ships will hesitate to venture beyond the range of
land-based air cover. This
reticence severely constricts the Taiwanese Navy's tactical radius.
Wu Letian not only questions the Taiwan Navy's ability to prosecute
anti-submarine and minesweeping operations, but also deprecates its
capacity to fight at sea for very long.
Chinese analysts voice dismissive attitudes toward Taiwan's main
surface combatants. For instance, they appear not to take the
Kidd-class destroyers, the island's capital ships, very seriously.
Sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan famously defined capital
ships as "the backbone and real power of any navy", meaning "the
vessels which, by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers,
are capable of taking and giving hard knocks". By this standard, the
ROCN falls woefully short - as Chinese thinkers rightly observe.
Tian Ying, for example, doubts that the Kidds would survive
in the complex threat environment of the Taiwan Strait. Dated
hardware is one shortcoming. Tian predicts that DDGs would find
themselves hard-pressed to cope with multidirectional, saturation
missile attacks launched from Chinese fighter aircraft, surface
ships and submarines. Notably, the author expresses confidence that
sea-skimming missiles fired from fighters flying at very low
altitude would remain undetected until it was too late for the Kidds
to take effective defensive measures.
More mundane reasons
also help explain this low regard. The ROCN is chronically short on
spare parts for the Kidds' combat systems. The US Navy no longer
stocks spares for New Threat Upgrade ships, all of which it retired
long ago, and cannibalizing decommissioned vessels only goes so far.
Indeed, logistical shortfalls prompted one commentator to prophesy
that DDGs may amount to "a pile of scrap metal" in serious fleet
Hai Dun questions whether the Taiwan Navy can
maximize the ASW suite on board the Knox-class frigates. Hai reminds
readers that the Knox was designed to search for Soviet nuclear
submarines in the open ocean. The ship's blue-water ASW suite is a
wasted asset for the relatively shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait.
This explains the ROCN's seemingly mysterious decision to
base the Knox at Suao Naval Base, along the island's eastern
seaboard, facing the deep waters of the Pacific. Since Taiwan's
major ports and urban centers dot the western coast, and since the
main threat axis emanates from China to the west, the Knox is poised
to protect the least vulnerable, least critical Taiwanese frontier.
The Knox is a platform in search of a mission, and may remain so
until the PLAN undersea fleet develops the capacity to patrol off
Taiwan's east coast, creating demand for the ROCN to perform
Nor, to Chinese eyes, will reorganizing the
ROCN fleet for forward defense fully offset these tactical and
hardware shortcomings. Yue Kaifeng and Tian Shuangxi argue that
Taipei's decision to create mobile flotillas centered on the Kidd-
and Lafayette-class vessels entails major strategic risk for Taiwan.
In theory, surface action groups (SAGs) would expand the strategic
depth around the island.
However, these Chinese analysts
estimate that the ROCN cannot afford both a sea-control fleet
organized into SAGs and forces designed for close-in defense.
Siphoning off resources from coastal defense to sea-control missions
thus imperils the ROCN's readiness to fight off an amphibious
invasion force close in along Taiwanese shorelines. Perversely,
Taipei might forego its last line of defense for the sake of forward
defenses that stand little chance of surviving a Chinese onslaught.
This would denude Taiwan of its most effective defense against
Taipei's vision of offensive sea
control, then, appears less and less tenable, and Beijing knows it.
Chinese naval thinkers have shrewdly and accurately taken the Taiwan
Navy's measure. Whether the ROCN will candidly evaluate its own
shortcomings - and adapt its strategy, doctrine and forces to
compensate - remains to be seen.
James Holmes is
an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and
co-author of Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The
Turn to Mahan. The views expressed here are his own. Toshi
Yoshihara is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War
College and co-author of Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st
Century: The Turn to Mahan. The views expressed here are his
(This article first appeared in The
Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)