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The Republic of China, or Taiwanese Navy is very much a defensive maritime force, which is quite evident in its composition. It is tasked with defending the nation’s maritime territories, maintaining maritime lines of communication, and interdicting or preventing an amphibious invasion by Chinese forces. This is a daunting task considering both the antiquated equipment available, and the ever growing material and numerical superiority of the PLA Navy.
Taiwan’s navy numbers approximately 40,000 personnel. Its naval command headquarters commands five surface warfare fleets, one amphibious fleet and one submarine squadron. Half of these assets are based in the port city of Kaohsiung, in the southwestern part of the island. The ROC Marine Corps consists of approximately 10,000 men serving in three brigades and associated support units.
Taiwan operates only two types of diesel electric submarines. Manufactured in the Netherlands for Taiwan, the Hai Lung is a modified version of the Dutch Navy’s Zwaardvis class, which in turn is based on the US Barbel class. The design was altered to include the placement of noise-reducing machinery on a false deck with spring suspension for silent running. Taiwan operates two such submarines and they were constructed between 1982 and 1986. Both SSKs were commissioned in 1987 and are still in active duty.
Taiwan also has two Hai Shih class submarines in service, which are both former US Tench-class submarines. The Hai Shih SS-791 was formerly the USS Cutlass, while the Hai Po SS-792 was formerly the USS Tusk. The submarines were commissioned in 1945 and are officially the world’s oldest active military submarines. They were transferred to Taiwan from the U.S. in 1973. The submarines received a retrofit in 2017 and are still reportedly capable of combat missions, yet their combat value is likely minimal, and are most likely being used for training.
The main power of the ROCN resides in its force of U.S. legacy surface warfare ships. The largest of these are the Kee Lung class destroyers. Based on the US Kidd class warship, 4 were produced for the Imperial Iranian Navy, but the contract was cancelled in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution began. The ships were then delivered to the US Navy. The lead ship of the class, Kee Lung is the former USS Scott, which was decommissioned by the US Navy in 1998 and was sold to Taiwan along with its other 3 sister ships in 2001. Kee Lung is the only one of the four ships to be equipped with the LAMPS III system and a strengthened flight deck. This enables Kee Lung to carry up to two Sikorsky S-70(M)-1/2 Seahawk helicopters for anti-submarine warfare.
The most numerous class of large surface combatant in navy are frigates. The Cheng Kung guided-missile frigates were built by China Shipbuilding Corporation in Kaohsiung, Taiwan under license throughout the 1990s as parts of the “Kuang Hua One” patrol frigate project. Based on the U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry class, the first frigate of the class Cheng Kung PFG-1101 was commissioned in 1993. The last vessel in class was the Tian Dan PFG2-1110, which was commissioned in 2004. Two US Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates were also delivered to the R.O.C. Navy and commissioned in November of 2018. Taiwan operates 8 Cheng Kung frigates.
The Chi Yang class frigates are based on the USS Knox class frigate. The 46 ships of the Knox class were the largest, last and most numerous of the US Navy’s second-generation Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) escorts. The original ships were all commissioned between 1969 and 1974. The U.S. Navy decommissioned all vessels in class between 1991 and 1994. Taiwan received 8 of these vessels in the early 1990s. By 2005, the ROCN had removed several systems from their retired Gearing class upgraded World War II era destroyers and transferred them to seven of the Chi Yang class frigates. There is some speculation that these ships will most likely be upgraded with Hsiung Feng III missiles. There are 6 of these vessels currently in service.
The Kang Ding class are La Fayette class frigates built for the Taiwanese Navy by the French naval ship builder DCNS. Similar renditions of this frigate are in use in the French, Singapore and Royal Saudi Navies. In 1992, the Taiwanese government contracted with a third party contractor Thales arranging for the construction of six vessels. The Kang Ding class’ anti-submarine capability has been considerably enhanced since construction, and additional guns have also been fitted. The ship is designed to carry one Sikorsky S-70C(M)1 ASW helicopter. There are 6 ships in the class and all of them are on active status.
A significant component of Taiwan’s naval defense, is a small and aging amphibious warfare component. Comprised solely of WWII and Vietnam era U.S. vessels, the amphibious arm of the navy is in urgent need of modernization. The Xuhai class landing ship was the former US Navy’s Anchorage class landing ship dock (LSD). There is only 1 ship in this class in service, the Hsu Hai LSD-193. It was commissioned into the ROCN in June of 2000. It was originally commissioned in the US Navy in 1971, as the USS Pensacola.
The Anchorage class of dock landing ships were designed and constructed in the 1960s to replace the WWII era LSDs of the Ashland and Casa Grande classes. Larger than the Thomaston class LSDs constructed in the preceding decade, they were intended to carry additional landing craft to supplement those carried by the Amphibious transport docks (LPD) in use in the US Navy at the time, while the LPDs dedicated more space to accommodating marines. The Hsu Hai is one of only three large amphibious warfare vessels currently in service in the ROC Navy.
The Newport class tank landing ship (LST) was designed and constructed for the US Navy in the 1960s and early 70s, and twenty such vessels were commissioned. Two former Newport class LSTs were refitted and sold to Taiwan. These vessels are the Chung Ho LST-232 and Chung Ping LST-233. The Chung Ho was the USS Manitowoc, originally commissioned into the US Navy in 1970, decommissioned in 1993, and delivered to Taiwan in 2000. The Chung Ping was the USS Sumter, which was also delivered to the ROCN under the Security Assistance Program (SAP) in 2000. The vessels were refitted, upgraded and put into service in 2002.
The Newport class was notable for its large, heavy capacity bow ramp that was lowered into position by derricks from the forward weather deck. Traditional LSTs make use of bow doors which are opened to allow for a bow ramp to be lowered at a much shallower angle. The Newport made use of a stern ramp for loading, as is the case with most LSTs currently in service in other navies.
Taiwan operates a small force of mine countermeasures vessels, comprised of older U.S. designed minesweepers and minehunters. The Yung Jin class minehunter is the former US Navy Osprey class. There are two vessels of the Osprey class that were sold to the ROCN and both were commissioned on August 10th, 2012. The two ships are the Yung An MHC-1311 and the Yung Jin MHC-1310, formerly the the USS Falcon and the USS Oriole. Both vessels were decommissioned by the US Navy in 2006.These minehunters make use of sonar and video systems, cable cutters and a mine detonating device that can be released and detonated by remote control.
The Yung Yang class ocean minesweeper (MSO) is the former US Agile class. Taiwan’s navy still operates 4 of these ships, and they were initially commissioned by the US Navy between 1954 and 1956. All 4 of the vessels were decommissioned by the US Navy in 1994 and were transferred to Taiwan’s navy later that same year. The Agile class were a class of minesweepers constructed entirely of nonmagnetic materials, with the first vessel conducting shakedown training in California waters during the mid-1954.
Tawain also operates 4 Yeong Feng class minehunters. Built in Germany by Abeking and Rasmussen, between 1990 and 1991, they are based on the MMW-50 class minehunter.
The Taiwanese Navy operates 42 fast attack missile patrol boats of two different classes. The Ching Chiang class fast attack craft was developed by China Shipbuilding Corp, now known as CSBC Corp, in the 1990s. A total of 12 of the 500-ton coastal patrol vessels entered service with the navy in 1999 and 2000. They carry 4 launch tubes for the locally manufactured Hsiung-feng III anti-ship guided missile.
The contract to produce 30 Kuang Hua VI missile boats was awarded to CSBC Corporation, Taiwan (formerly China Ship Building Corporation, CSBC) in 2003. The prototype, FACG-60(Fast Attack Craft, Guided missile), was commissioned on October 1st, 2003. The contract was then frozen until 2007. The 30 additional missile boats were then constructed and commissioned between 2009 and 2014. All 31 KH-6 missile boats are part of the Hai Chiao (Sea Dragon) PGMG Guided Missile Boat/Craft Group.
The newest and most technologically advanced small combatant in the ROCN inventory is the Tuo Chiang class multi-mission corvette. The Tuo Chiang incorporates various hull and superstructure design features to have a lower cross-section and avoid radar detection. It uses a swath or catamaran hull which reduces both bow wave and hull wake. Developed under the Hsun Hai program, one example was completed and was commissioned in 2014. Twelve of these small corvettes are planned in total.
It was developed by the Naval Shipbuilding Center in Kaohsiung. The Tuo Chiang class was developed to address the most common weaknesses of traditional small warships such as patrol craft and corvettes, namely poor sea-keeping, a significant handicap for warships expected to sortie for extended periods of time in rough seas around Taiwan, and limited usefulness under high-intensity conflict scenarios. The catamaran hull not only aids in lower radar detection, but provides a stable firing platform for the twin 8-tube ASM launchers and 76mm deck gun carried on the diminutive craft.
The Taiwanese Navy follows a defensive doctrine and limited range and endurance based upon the level of underway replenishment and support assets available. The navy has only one replenishment oiler, the Wu Yi. The Wu Yi was largely based on the US Navy Henry J. Kaiser class replenishment oiler. The Wu Yi was completed in 1990. The vessel experienced a number of development challenges that surfaced during sea trials, and during its service with the ROCN. Only one vessel was constructed, Wu Yi AOE-530.
Representing a major milestone in indigenous naval shipbuilding, the Panshih fast combat support ship was built by National Taiwan Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC), launched in 2013 and commissioned in 2015. The vessel is designed to supply deployed combat fleets at sea with fuel, ammunition and provisions. It can also act as a logistics support vessel for island garrisons. A large aft hangar can accommodate three medium helicopters. The vessel also has a state-of the-art hospital. All of these inherent features make the vessel a capable platform for humanitarian and disaster relief operations (HADR).
The vessel has an LOA of 196 meters, a beam of 25.2 meters and a draft of 8.6 meters. It has a full loaded displacement of almost 21,000 tons It boasts a range of 8,000 nautical miles, and a maximum cruising speed of 22 knots.
The ROC has been heavily reliant on U.S. arms sales since the ROC was established on the island of Taiwan (Formosa) after it was soundly defeated after WWII by the PLA. When the Nixon administration decided to normalize political ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it realized that it had to provide for Taiwan’s defense, yet in such a way that also accepted the “One China Policy” demanded by the PRC. Although ascribing to the “One China Policy”, it was in the U.S. interest to maintain a significant counter-balance to a strong, communist China.
The U.S.- R.O.C. Mutual Defense Treaty was terminated by the Carter administration in 1979, and ceased to be by 1980; however, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S. – Taiwan Relations Act that same year. The treaty states that the United States will only allow the future status of Taiwan to be determined by peaceful means, and stipulates that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
For decades, the U.S. provided military hardware that was seen as qualitatively superior to Chinese armaments; however, the past twenty years has witnessed a massive qualitative and quantitative expansion of Chinese military capability, especially in the realm of naval warfare. The ROC Navy is now outclassed by its old adversary in all categories, from surface warfare, to submarine warfare, and most importantly amphibious warfare. If China decides to use military force to conquer Taiwan, it will require a massive amphibious effort in conjunction with a targeted ballistic missile and air campaign.
In order to interdict an amphibious force defended by powerful capital ships and even an aircraft carrier strike force in the future, the Taiwanese Navy will have to fight somewhat asymmetrically. Key priorities in the desperately needed modernization effort are the establishment of an effective attack submarine force, increased numbers of powerful and stealthy anti-ship guided missile carrying corvettes and patrol boats, and the modernization of key large displacement surface warfare ships already in service.
Taiwan decided to seek an outside defense contractor to help the nation design and construct a diesel-powered attack submarine (SSK) that would be built indigenously. Coined the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS), the new submarines are slated to take advantage of the most advanced propulsion and noise reducing technologies currently in use in a number of European SSK designs. It is surmised that the chief contenders to design and help construct the new submarine are either French warship builder Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), or the German corporation Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW). In addition, the U.S. Department of State approved the sale of advanced submarine technologies to Taiwan in April of last year. If the program is advancing as planned, construction of the first vessel is to begin in 2020, with sea trials sometime in 2024. Eight vessels in class are planned, yet the first vessel is not planned to be operational until 2026.
In the interim, the Ministry of Defense has invested $12.35 million in upgrading and modernizing its aging two Hai Lung SSKs. The program will be carried out by Dutch submarine builder RH Marine beginning in 2020. China has reacted to the numerous defense projects and their foreign involvement in a predicable fashion.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs opposed foreign countries supporting Taiwan’s IDS project. On January 14th, 2019, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that China,
“…firmly opposes arms sales to Taiwan by any country and military links in any form between any country and Taiwan.We urge the US and other relevant countries to keep in mind the sensitivity and graveness of this issue, earnestly abide by the one-China principle, not to permit relevant enterprises from participating in Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program in any form, stop having any military links with Taiwan, and prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues so as to avoid severely undermining their bilateral relations with China and peace and stability across the Straits.”
Taiwan plans to upgrade the electronics system on its Kee Lung-class destroyers. At least $64 million would be spent on upgrading the destroyers’ AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare system, and is expected to be completed by 2023. Seen as another stop-gap measure until new, indigenously designed and constructed “Taiwan Aegis” destroyers can be fielded, along with other vessels in an ambitious $14.7 billion indigenous shipbuilding program meant to wean Taiwan’s Navy away from dependence on foreign providers of hardware for the nation’s defense. Taiwan had purchased 2 Mark 41 VLS from the U.S., but had a great deal of difficulty integrating the launching system into future warship designs. It is expected that an indigenous VLS will be designed using insight gained from the Mk 41.
Funding to expand the fleet of Tuo Chiang stealth corvettes was included in the indigenous shipbuilding program from 1 vessel to 12. On May 14th, 2018, Taiwanese Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa said that there was a plan to acquire 8 more Tuo Chiang-class corvettes and to have them commissioned and in service by 2025. The corvettes will be built in three “flights”, with added modernization and corresponding capability incorporated in progressive flights as the design matures over the 23 year span from 2017 through 2040. Analysts believe that anti-ship missiles of increased capability will be used by the flight I design.
The primary armament of the Tuo Chiang corvette is comprised of two launchers for 16 x Hsiung Feng II or III anti-ship guided missiles (ASGM). In addition, the Tuo Chiangs have a 76mm rapid-fire gun in a turret on the bow and a Phalanx close-in weapon system toward the stern, as well as launchers for infrared decoys and chaff canisters. The Taiwanese Navy plans to eventually replace the Phalanx with the domestically designed and still-in-development Sea Oryx, which is similar visually and in concept to the U.S. Navy’s RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile close-in defense system.
Taiwan awarded a contract to for its first indigenous landing platform dock (LPD) vessel in April 2018. The vessel is the first in a planned class of four ships, with the first two vessels in class planned to be completed and to enter service sometime in 2021. It will have a length overall of 153 m, beam of 23 m, and a design draft of only 6 meters. Planned maximum cruising speed is 21.5 knots, with a range of 12,500 n miles at the economical cruising speed of 13 kt. The LPD will be armed with a 76 mm naval gun in on the forward deck, at least one close-in weapon system (CIWS) turret and multiple 12.7 mm machine gun positions in the forward superstructure.
“In terms of design, we have taken references from the San Antonio class,” said the representative of Taiwan’s Navy, pointing to the vessel’s superstructure. “We will evaluate the performance of the first ship after it is commissioned and use this experience to decide on changes for the next three ships.” Artist conceptual renditions of the LPD definitely show similarities to the U.S. San Antonio class LPD.
The ROCN’s National Defense Posture
A cursory review of Taiwan’s naval warfare posture would reveal a force at a crossroads, and in a major period of flux. The ROCN is largely comprised of legacy surface warfare vessels once used by the US Navy to project power and presence during the Cold War. It’s amphibious warfare assets were first fielded by the US Navy in the 1950s and 1960s. While the ROCN presented a major deterrent to China’s Navy throughout the 1990s, the current reality is quite different.
While the legacy destroyers and frigates of Taiwan’s Navy could have once fought a long enough battle of attrition against the PLAN to allow time for U.S. intervention, such a scenario today seems quite detached from reality. The naval and amphibious forces of mainland China dwarf that of Taiwan in every conceivable metric. The ROCN must undergo a significant transformation in over the next decade, or it will become irrevocably irrelevant.
Perhaps the most influential development is that the Taiwanese political leadership has embarked on a new direction to attain defense independence by exerting both the political and economic energy toward developing a viable indigenous defense industry. Taiwan desperately needs to attain the means to provide for its own defense, as China has increasingly gained political, economic and military power over the past fifty years. The geopolitical realities of East Asia have changed, and Taiwan must adapt quickly to maintain its independent standing in the region.
Although the Trump administration has proven more supportive of the island nation than any U.S. president since Clinton sent two carrier strike groups to the region during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995, China is exponentially more powerful today than it was 24 years ago. It’s Navy and Air Force are indeed, unrecognizable today from what they were just two decades ago. If China were decide to take the island by force, could the Taiwanese Navy present a significant obstacle to allow time for U.S. intervention? More importantly, is the cost of U.S. intervention in a China-Taiwan conflict a cost that the U.S. military and political leadership willing to bear?
In January of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that Taiwan must be unified with the mainland and urged Taipei to embrace the 1992 Consensus. It states that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan belongs to it, yet remains somewhat ambiguous as to the which side is the legitimate governing entity. China “will not rule out the use of force” against foreign intervention, Xi said.
Taiwan’s Navy is very likely ready and willing to fight for the nation’s continued defacto independence, and its current leadership has obviously grasped the reality that it must develop an indigenous defense industry that can provide the high-tech weaponry needed to ensure its security. In the end, it may likely be the actions of both China and the United States that determine the destiny of this small island nation, a nation in an increasingly precarious position in a region of the world that is rapidly spiraling toward conflict.