Apart from that, several other attention-grabbers leap out of Cole’s story about the Hsun Hai. One hopes the number of vessels mentioned in the story represents only an initial production run, not the final tally. Factoring in training and maintenance cycles, it’s usually safe to assume that one-third of a fleet is laid up in shipyards for overhaul at any given moment, and thus unavailable for action. If the total number of Hsun Hais ends up at seven, that means as few as four boats may be ready to venture out to the defense of Taiwan. That’s woefully inadequate. It would render the ROCN sea-denial fleet little more than a nuisance for PLAN commanders. It would rule out wolf pack tactics. And it would leave zero reserve capacity for the ROCN fast-attack fleet to absorb the combat losses it will surely take. Many times the number of ships floated by the ROCN are necessary for Taiwan to prevail. The budget figure cited in the Taipei Times – under $1 billion for the program – is therefore worrisome. Fleets are not built and operated on the cheap. Beijing, which has filled the China seas with scores of Type 022 Houbei stealth catamarans – its counterparts to the Hsun Hai – is worth emulating in this regard.
And third, nurturing the human factor is paramount. The finest, most technologically sophisticated man-of-war in the world is inert without skilled, enterprising mariners to handle it at sea. As the fleet takes delivery of its new craft, the naval establishment must liberate Hsun Hai captains from centralized command-and-control. Rigid control inhibits creativity. In the past, the Taiwan Navy considered small craft auxiliaries to the main fleet, or assets to be directed from land. To be effective, the ROCN staff must school its skippers in doctrine, tactics, and seamanship. Then it must turn them loose to create havoc among adversary fleets. Innovation and derring-do should be the watchwords of ROCN operations.
Certain naval platforms – fighter aircraft and submarines in particular – take on the personality of their commanders. That’s because they operate largely free of direct external supervision. There’s an old joke among U.S. naval officers. Surface warfare officers and nuclear submariners take actions written in the operating manual. For aviators the rule is, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission!”
That’s a feature, not a bug. By putting venturesome officers in charge of such craft, a navy can create an agile, flexible force. The U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force was one such force. The submarine force put to sea while the battle fleet remained afire at Pearl Harbor. Fleet commanders demanded only that skippers show results, measured in Japanese merchantmen and warships sunk. Those who failed to produce were summarily relieved in favor of more daring officers. In the end, U.S. submariners sent over 1,100 ships to the bottom, throttling the Japanese war effort. Lieutenant Commander “Mush” Morton, whose USS Wahoo was ordered to reconnoiter the New Guinea seaport of Wewak, instead went into Wewak submerged and torpedoed every Japanese ship in sight (and barely escaped an irate Japanese destroyer). Such traits make a worthy standard. Taiwan can use some Mush Mortons to oversee its Hsun Hais.
Also worth studying is the U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s motor-torpedo-boat squadron in the Philippines, immortalized in the book They Were Expendable and the John Wayne film of the same name. (The few survivors recounted their experiences to the book’s author at the former Melville Patrol Torpedo Boat Training Center, which I pass on my way to work each morning.) American boats gave the Japanese landing force and its escorts fits until they exhausted their supplies, then evacuated Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff from the archipelago. That set the stage for MacArthur’s famous “return” in 1944. Small ships can accomplish great things when commanded by officers with the right stuff.
One hopes Taipei will supply enough high quality hardware for Hsun Hai crews to make a difference – and that leaders will make the conscious choice to instill a devil-may-care ethos within the force.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Defending the Strait: Taiwan’s Naval Strategy in the 21st Century. The views voiced here are his alone.