No, Stealth Missile Corvettes Won’t Help Taiwan
Image Credit: Republic of China Navy

No, Stealth Missile Corvettes Won’t Help Taiwan

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The Taiwanese navy, officially the Republic of China Navy (ROCN), recently received its first Tuo Jiang-class missile corvette. However, this project may do little to shore up Taiwan’s deteriorating defense situation. Of course, the twin-hull structure, stealth appearance, and formidable firepower of 16 anti-ship missiles demonstrate the capability of Taiwan’s shipbuilding and defense industries, and provide some deterrence against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s surface fleets. However, insufficient air defense capability, a highly exposed tactical environment, and the unlikely scenario of amphibious invasion may limit the strategic value of these new vessels.

First, with a 500 ton displacement, the Tuo Jiang class is not built to be equipped with extensive air defense capability, only a 76 mm gun and a Phalanx 20 mm close-in weapon system, which have limited capacity to engage approaching anti-ship missiles or aircraft, and they would need to be covered by other weapons systems, such as larger frigates and destroyers, fighters, and air defense systems onshore. However, Taiwan’s other systems may not be able to provide sufficient cover during wartime. The ROCN’s Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates and Kidd Class destroyers can technically provide an air defense umbrella of their respective Standard I and II surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). But in the face of China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) strategy, comprising an array of maritime sensors such as satellites, and increasing numbers and ranges of PLAN anti-ship missiles with their platforms, the ROCN’s major surface combatants will have a more difficult job surviving saturated attacks, or may be forced to withdraw to relatively safe areas which are too distant to enable them to cover the corvettes.

Taiwan’s fighters and land-based SAMs such as the Patriot and the Tien-Kung (Sky Bow) systems may form an air defense network covering coastal areas. However, its aging fighter fleets are gradually falling behind their Chinese counterparts in quality and quantity. Moreover, almost all airbases in Taiwan are exposed to China’s ballistic and cruise missiles as well as sabotage by special forces. Without vulnerable runways and other facilities, Taiwan’s SAM systems may be a more reliable option for providing an air defense umbrella but it is still possible for them to be partially neutralized by China’s improving ground attack capabilities and subversive attacks. As a result, the ROCN’s corvettes may lose their air defense cover from other weapon systems, and have to hide in coastal terrain in order to wait a proper opportunity to launch attacks. As such, the exposed tactical environment would be another disadvantage.

Since 2011 June, Chinese tourists have been individually free to travel anywhere in Taiwan, a convenient means for gathering intelligence. As most coastal areas in Taiwan are not restricted, Chinese agents in the guise of tourists can easily and legally observe, investigate, and then analyze potential hiding places for the corvettes. Given the limited territory, most locations for corvettes to hide in Taiwan would be examined and continuously monitored by satellites or other means. As a result, when the ROCN’s corvettes lose their air defense cover during wartime and try and hide in coastal areas, they could soon be targeted and attacked.

The limited strike range would constrain the corvettes’ mission mainly to anti-landing, but for China this means of invasion is gradually becoming unnecessary. Conventionally, a landing would be attempted when Beijing had run out of other options and concluded that it needs a heavy troop presence on the island to achieve its political goals. However, Taipei’s resolve to defend its territory seems to have weakened in recent years, given the low percentage of GDP it is spending on defense, its plan to cancel conscription, the absence of any kind military build-up, and the downsizing of its armed forces. Increasingly, then, Beijing has the option to coerce Taipei, without violence.

If Taipei does find the resolve to defend its interests, then the large Chinese “fifth column” in Taiwan represents a serious threat. In the first ten months in 2014, the total number of Chinese visitors, including tourists, professionals, and business people, was more than three million. Undercover PLA soldiers can thus readily penetrate Taiwan. Moreover, the upcoming Free Economic Pilot Zones (FEPZ) in Taiwan in 2015 will open the door to more people, goods and capital from the Mainland. This makes it conceivable that China could deploy hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers and even some equipment to Taiwan during peace time. Taiwan’s army, police, and other forces could be overwhelmed by massive internal attacks, and its command chain subsequently paralyzed. In addition, with its domestic aerospace industry and rapidly expanding civilian passenger lines, China’s increasing airlift could quickly bring more troops to Taiwan, assuming those already there could neutralize the air defense system. In short, Beijing has several unconventional military options that can bypass difficult amphibious operations, and the ROCN’s corvettes would be rendered large ineffective in such scenarios.

Meanwhile, given the linear travel of electromagnetic waves and the curve of the earth’s surface, surface vessels have limitations in their ability to detect targets beyond the horizon. Thus, although the ranges of the Hsinug Feng II and III anti-ship missiles are more than 100 km, the corvettes alone are unable to detect that far and have to rely on long-range surveillance means, such as radar located on high mountains, maritime aircraft, or other platforms. If long-range surveillance is unavailable, whether due to attack or disconnection, the corvettes could not engage PLAN vessels remotely from Taiwan’s coastlines. Thus, the vessels would either be ineffective at countering a remote blockade or other operations at a long distance from Taiwan, or would have to take inordinate risks to do so. The main reason for the PLAN to send its ships into close proximity to Taiwan would be amphibious operations, but again, this scenario seems less likely in recent years.

Despite technological progression, the ROCN’s corvettes will not significantly alter Taiwan’s increasingly weak position in the military balance across the Strait, at least until better air defense tactics and border control are available.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow in the Military Studies Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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