Written by Andrew Maxey.
Last month, the Ministry of National Defence tapped CSBC Corp, who previously produced the 12-vessel Ching Chiang-class of fast attack missile craft, to produce two amphibious warships, to enter service in 2021. They are slated to be the first program in the Tsai administration’s effort to create a more effective indigenous shipbuilding industry.
Facing increasing Chinese naval power and, at times, unpredictable and ad-hoc defence acquisitions from the United States, President Tsai’s administration is hedging its bets on the creation of an indigenous shipbuilding program to face threats in the littoral areas of the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Following the promises of then president-elect Tsai to revive the shipbuilding industry in 2016, the ROC Navy announced in June of that year a series of “12 new shipbuilding and force modernization programs covering a 23-year period at roughly $14.7 billion.”
But as of May 2018, the only new vessel to enter service in the interim has been a single Tuo Chiang-class missile corvette. Comparatively, China has in the meantime continued a robust shipbuilding program, launching four type 052D destroyers, two of the new type 055 destroyers, multiple frigates and corvettes, and, most importantly, its first domestically produced aircraft carrier. With such an obvious gap in naval production capability, what does this mean for Taiwan’s long-term ability to ensure the security of other offshore territories, such as Taiping Island?
It may seem at first to be a futile effort that is coming too late to be able to counterbalance Chinese power in the area, as ships are expensive and time-consuming to produce—even more so without a well-established shipbuilding industry— and programs regularly face delays and cancellations. However, in a hypothetical conflict, Taiwan would be on the defence in mostly shallow, littoral areas, and therefore would not need to match China’s numbers one-for-one with large guided missile destroyers. An asymmetrical strategy to fight a conflict of this type does not require as much industry backing it, and the ability to create such an industry and see it mature is very much within the Taiwanese government’s reach.
To get an idea of what production targets should be reached by the Tsai administration’s shipbuilding resolution, it is first necessary to take a look at what strategy would be employed in a conflict as part of the Sustainable Governance and Enduring Peace in the South China Sea doctrine.
Due to the large power imbalance between naval forces of both countries, Taiwan lacks the ability to exert sea control and must resort to sea denial: disruption of enemy fleet movements through deterrence and/or small-scale attacks so as to prevent enemy sea control and the landing of ground forces on ROC-held territory. A well-regarded 2009 study by the RAND corporation paints a good picture of this kind of conflict, a “quick victory invasion” scenario, where China attains air superiority and Taiwan resorts to using large numbers of land-based missiles to strike back at Chinese airfields and sink amphibious forces coming to land on the islands.
The ROC Navy has decided that it can supplement this land-based missile strategy with naval platforms, and the vessels most indicative of this position are the aforementioned Tuo Chiang-class missile corvettes. With one currently in active service and eleven more planned for construction, the class is designed with stealth features and a shallow draft allowing it to hug coastlines and evade detection, while using its large complement of sixteen anti-ship missiles to eliminate naval threats. When the first ship of the class was delivered, SCMP reported that the ROC Navy was also considering a larger frigate design if the class performs well, which would represent an expansion to the missile based sea denial strategy. The use of such a large number of missiles-per-platform coupled with efforts like stealth to increase survivability means the Navy will only need a relatively small number of vessels to destroy an amphibious assault force bearing down on the islands.
The successful completion of the Tuo Chiang has proved a good starting point for Taiwanese shipbuilders and the resumption of production with the remaining ships of the class will provide a valuable retention of capacity over the coming years while new projects are put into action. While the building of these corvettes does prove a certain baseline and a great starting point for the Tsai administration’s indigenous shipbuilding program, the upcoming Hung Yun Project amphibious ships will be a true milestone and important test for the program.
At a little more than seventeen-and-a-half times the displacement of the Tuo Chiang, each of these ships will weigh more than the entire missile corvette class. Coordinating the building of the ships will take much more skill and effort, so for observers the progress of their construction will be a watermark of success. For the Tsai administration, it will be valuable proof that Taiwan can create a sustainable indigenous naval procurement pipeline and meet the goals of providing the ROC Navy with a small and efficient fighting force to face asymmetric threats around the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea areas.
The Hung Yun Project ships are expected to enter service in 2021. In the defence realm, they are a chance to prove that Taiwan can stand more independently, something that confidence about has ebbed and flowed in the face of rising tensions across the Strait. Come 2021, we’ll have a clear picture of how able Taiwan will be to support itself in what could be a critical fight.
Andrew Maxey is a recent graduate of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working as a Market Research Analysis Team Leader for Blackstone Texas. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.
Does it make sense to defend Taiping Island in the South China Sea, risking to get drawn into a wider conflict involving the main island of Taiwan? What is the value of Taiping Island?
And for the islands just off the shore of the mainland, would it be feasible at all to defend them, even assuming the most favourable circumstances, if attacked by Chinese military forces?
What advantages for the defence of Taiwan could a Navy offer that land based missiles and air planes could not?
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The value of Taiping Island is purely political because it is so far away from Taiwan. Making an effort to hold this island, along with all the other islands still under ROC control, is primarily a show of strength that PRC advances will be resisted.
As for the offshore islands, it has been speculated that in the event of an invasion, the PRC would seize various offshore islands and place missiles on them, in order to facilitate a blockade around the island and cut off any relief forces from other countries while PLA forces seize Taiwan. Some of the islands are large enough that anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries could be relocated to them, creating a denial zone of sorts around Taiwan. It would therefore be valuable to defend these islands even if as a delaying action because those missiles would pose a threat to, say, a US Navy relief task force, if they can be deployed early enough.
Vis-a-vis land based missiles, ship based ones offer positional and mobility benefits. Ships can be easily redeployed to whichever island needs them the most, and will be closer to targets, reducing the reaction time to defend against their missiles (compared to firing missiles from the island of Taiwan, whose missile batteries would be the only ones likely to survive a significant amount of time if a conflict breaks out.)
The current problem with Taiwanese planes is that they are old and not very survivable compared with China’s superior technology. If newer models, like the F-35, were to be procured, the problem faced would then be the inevitable Chinese efforts to bomb airfields at the outbreak of a conflict. Once all the runways are cratered by bombs, most of Taiwan’s air force would be grounded and ineffective.
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I should also add that while it’s officially stated that there’s a “weather station” on Taiping Island, I would assume that there’s also intelligence collection activities going on there as well. The island’s location deep in the South China Sea puts it in a good spot to monitor Chinese fleet movements in the SCS and learn about their tactics, etc. by monitoring positional and communication information. The only problem with the island is that it is so far outside of the zone that Taiwan even has a chance of defending, so it could be very easily seized. If it were seized, it would likely spark unpredictable tensions, if not outright conflict; most of the equipment on the island would probably be destroyed by the garrison before they are killed/captured and it would be written off. I think a more appropriate response to that would be sanctions by the international community and drawing a line over Chinese island seizures, because it wouldn’t be a wise move to start a shooting war over the loss of a remote listening post. Again, holding the island would be more of a political concern than a military one.
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