Huzzah! The Taipei Times’ J. Michael Cole broke the story this weekend that Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan has levied funds to field a squadron of between seven and eleven stealthy Hsun Hai (Swift Sea) fast patrol boats by 2014. Computer generated images depict a sleek catamaran that resembles a smaller sibling of USS Independence, a variant of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship. Each new craft will reportedly displace around 500 tons while sporting eight domestically manufactured Hsiung Feng-II and -III antiship cruise missiles. To all appearances, the Hsun Hai constitutes a marked improvement over the ungainly Kuang Hua VI fast attack craft currently serving in the Republic of China Navy (ROCN). It packs twice the wallop of the Kuang Hua VI. It appears more stealthy, with fewer sharp angles and protuberances to attract unwanted attention from Chinese radars. And with its catamaran hull and low profile, the new man-of-war should be able to handle rough seas in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere rather than bobbing around like a top. The plan for a Hsun Hai squadron looks like a good start.
The operating environment constitutes both challenge and opportunity for ROCN mariners. Think about Joseph Conrad’s description of the turbulent waters adjoining the island: “The China seas north and south…are seas full of everyday, eloquent facts, such as islands, sand-banks, reefs, swift and changeable currents – tangled facts that nevertheless speak to a seaman in clear and definite language.” The language of the Formosa Strait spoke to Capt. MacWhirr, the stolid protagonist of Conrad’s Typhoon, “so forcibly that he had given up his state-room below and practically lived all his days on the bridge of his ship, often having his meals sent up, and sleeping at night in the chart-room.” Employed deftly, swarms of elusive Hsun Hais could give any cross-strait invasion force a very bad day despite – indeed, because of – the harsh setting Conrad describes.
This is a topic I and my wingman (or am I his wingman?) Toshi Yoshihara have tracked closely over the past two years. (See here, here, and here.) The ROCN has long predicated its strategy on sending the surface fleet out to duel China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on the high seas. Denuded of its covering fleet, no PLAN amphibious force could land forces along the island’s craggy seacoast. Unprotected transports make easy prey. The only trouble is that an island populated by 23 million inhabitants boasts too few resources to keep up with China’s helter-skelter naval buildup of recent years. Its surface fleet is an assemblage of aging, and aged, destroyers and frigates. Nor is any foreign government prepared to incur Beijing’s wrath by equipping the ROCN surface fleet with weaponry lethal enough to withstand a PLAN onslaught. The Aegis combat-systems suite found in America’s premier surface warships comes to mind. Accordingly, Taipei has floated a plan to acquire Oliver Hazard Perry guided-missile frigates retired by the U.S. Navy. But these low-end combatants will do little to right the cross-strait imbalance. Taiwan can no longer command the sea.
What it can do is disperse large numbers of small combatants to hardened sites – caves, shelters, fishing ports – around the island’s rough coast. Such vessels could sortie to conduct independent operations against enemy shipping. Or, they could mass their firepower in concerted “wolf pack” attacks on major PLAN formations. While Taiwan is no longer mistress of the waters lapping against its shores, “sea denial” lies within its modest means.
However welcome the news that Taipei is pursuing advanced fast attack craft, let’s not crack open the champagne just yet. First, it remains to be seen whether the Hsun Hsai program heralds a decisive turn to sea denial. According to the Taiwan Navy website: “The main mission for the ROC. Navy is to ensure the safety of our maritime space and secure our international shipping line unobstructed…In the war time, we can easily deal with our enemy’s blockade and interception operations to maintain Taiwan’s international shipping line unimpeded, and ensure Taiwan’s safety.” Preserving free navigation and resupplying outlying islands aren’t sea-denial functions, while territorial defense of the island – the core of sea denial – is strikingly absent from the ROCN’s vision and mission statements. This should give navy-watchers, the Taiwanese electorate, and political leaders pause. It takes constant, vigilant leadership to impel military institutions to reinvent themselves for new purposes. It’s far from clear that ROCN commanders have embraced the new strategy or set out to remake the navy’s culture. They may need a shove.
Second, the material dimension is worth monitoring. The obvious question is: will the craft perform as advertised? Recent shipbuilding programs such as the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and San Antonio-class amphibious transports tell a cautionary tale. Revolutionary new technologies may not live up to their billing, even for the world’s leading navy. Proclaiming that a ship will do this or that under high-stress combat conditions is different from its actually doing so. Holding the Hsun Hai program to high standards is critical. Furthermore, the Hsun Hai is a ship in search of a builder. Several shipyards have bid on the contract, but the government evidently has not yet finalized the technical requirements for the program. Its announced goal of having hulls in the water and ready for action within two years appears fanciful in the extreme.