Taiwan's New Stealth Corvettes: Just What the Doctor Ordered?

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Word has it the Taiwan Navy has taken delivery of Tuo Jiang, its first stealth corvette under the Hsun Hai, or Swift Sea, program. The news warrants a cheery huzzah! here at year’s end. These 500-ton craft pack some serious heat in the form of eight indigenously built anti-ship cruise missiles per hull. The Swift Sea marks the ROCN’s evolution from a force intent on ruling the waves to one that accepts that keeping China from ruling the waves is sufficient to Taipei’s purposes. This constitutes welcome change, years in the making.

Or so it seems. Changing a culture involves more than fielding new widgets, no matter how formidable. How a navy uses its fighting ships is at least as important as the technical capabilities manifest in those ships. The U.S. Navy, in effect the Taiwan Navy’s parent service, bequeathed habits of mind — not just platforms and warmaking methods — to ROCN mariners. Commanders and government officials reared on the American-inspired idea that navies’ purpose is to sweep their enemies from vital waters, wresting away untrammeled control for themselves, may find demotion to spoiler status hard to stomach.

And indeed, the guerrilla-like outlook characteristic of sea-denial navies is foreign to sea-control navies like America’s and Taiwan’s. It takes time, often compounded by some trauma, to compel an organization to reinvent itself. Defeat constitutes a particularly powerful stimulus. That being the case, let’s reserve the remaining two huzzahs until the Hsun Hai program matures. Only then will it be possible to evaluate the ROCN’s cultural revolution — and, in turn, to estimate the efficacy of sea warfare, Taiwanese style.

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Until more data appear, here are some benchmarks to appraise Taiwan’s increasingly hybrid maritime strategy. First and foremost, mass could pose a problem for the sea-denial fleet. Central to any fleet’s battle effectiveness is fielding enough units to absorb combat losses and fight on. Taipei only plans to field a dozen of the new corvettes, complementing its existing, far less capable flotilla of Kuang Hua VI fast patrol craft.

The ROCN could take its cue from China’s PLA Navy, which clearly grasps that quantity has a quality all its own. As Beijing’s sea-denial fleet squares off against the U.S. Navy, it’s putting to sea up to one hundred Type 022 Houbei catamarans, its counterparts to Taiwan’s new vessels. These light craft can fan out across the Western Pacific, sniping at oncoming U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements. With such numbers, the Houbei contingent ought to be able to take a punch and keep punching. Taipei needs a comparable margin of adequacy. The precise number is worth debating lest battle reveal a shortfall.

Yes, the ROCN inhabits a cramped theater compared to the vasty Western Pacific, where China covets supremacy. You can get away with fewer assets to defend less waterspace, right? Yes and no. Look at the map. Geography is inescapable, and largely unfriendly, for Taiwan. The Asian mainland envelops the island to the west. China’s military can flood the zone from seaports and land-based airfields, pelting the island and its navy along many axes.

In all likelihood, accordingly, attrition will enfeeble the ROCN. The sea-denial fleet needs plentiful assets to cope with this battlespace, which is far more compact than the Western Pacific yet equally inhospitable. Are a dozen boats, working in concert with fellow naval assets and ground-based air and missile forces, enough to cope with such a hothouse setting? That’s a question worth asking, and reasking as the tactical and operational surroundings change.

Second, how will the ROCN use such corvettes as the taxpayers fund? What  captains do while prowling offshore waters — and, just as important, what higher-ups in the naval command permit them to do — will furnish insight into the sea-denial fleet’s prowess. People’s war at sea puts a premium on skippers’ individual derring-do. Improvisation and opportunism are the watchwords of this mode of combat. And commanders on scene — not those remote from scenes of action — are best positioned to improvise.

Fostering enterprise among corvette sailors, then, means liberating them from the battle fleet, and from rigid control from ashore. Fast patrol craft should not be attached to the fleet as auxiliaries. Deploying them as appendages of a surface action group would subject them to orders from the task-force commander, impairing their flexibility. Similarly, dispatching them for ostensibly independent operations while keeping them under tight control from land would nullify their effectiveness. Free-range small craft fight best. It’s up to senior commanders to let go.

And third, is the naval establishment thinking beyond hardware and tactics? Even if service potentates procure the best hardware while instilling best practices, do they have the right goals in mind for the sea-denial fleet? One wonders. Observers have repeatedly billed these new streetfighters as “carrier-killers“. Doing so may represent good salesmanship vis-à-vis the island’s populace. Carriers, after all, are big and fearsome. They’re newsmakers without peer.

But this bit of branding bespeaks an unhealthy obsession with a warship that constitutes only a minor part of the airborne threat to Taiwan. In all likelihood the early generation of Chinese flattops will boast very modest air wings, whereas shore airfields can send forth tactical aircraft in large numbers. The mainland — not Liaoning or her successors — is the aircraft carrier over which Taiwanese seafarers should fret.

A broader view of sea-denial missions is in order, then. Slaying aircraft carriers is more an ancillary function than a mission in itself. What are the Taiwan Navy’s missions? Stopping a cross-strait invasion is one. That means keeping amphibious transports from landing troops on Taiwanese beaches. Balk the amphibs and PLA Navy aircraft carriers accomplish little. Breaking blockades is another mission. That means going after blockade squadrons. Such task forces could include carriers and their coteries of escorts. But counter-blockade duty could also mean engaging surface action groups, or even lone cruisers, destroyers, frigates, or corvettes. ROCN corvette crews, consequently, must train against all important ship types — not just the glitziest.

Mass, institutional culture, tactical and operational vision. Those are my yardsticks for measuring Taipei’s progress in offshore hybrid warfare. What others are worth factoring in?

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