East Asia’s Gunslingers

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East Asia’s Gunslingers

Taiwan’s military claims it has developed a new naval stealth coating. If so, a clash with China may look like the Wild West.

According to Michael Cole of the Taipei Times, the Taiwan military recently announced that it has developed a radar-absorbent ‘stealth’ coating for naval weaponry and has already conducted successful operational tests. Let’s hope so. The Taiwan Navy (ROCN) sorely needs to improve its capacity for ‘sea denial’ as China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) welds high-end surface combatants, sea-denial assets like missile-armed submarines and fast patrol boats, and shore-based tactical aircraft and missiles into a powerful implement for dominating the seas and skies around the island. A genuinely stealthy fleet of ROCN patrol boats packing large numbers of anti-ship cruise missiles would give Taipei its best chance of withstanding a cross-strait amphibious assault. Design defects hamper the stealth of current Taiwanese boats. Radar-absorbent materials could help the navy overcome these deficiencies.

Colour me sceptical about Taipei's reports for now. Seldom does new military technology burst into life full-grown, vaulting from the complete secrecy of the laboratory into real-world operational use. New capabilities live up to their hype only after undergoing realistic testing under high-stress combat conditions. Nor can their users tap the full potential of new armaments absent rigorous schooling in doctrine and technical characteristics. Above all, mariners must practice. They can hone their craft in classrooms, simulators, and other venues out of public view – to a point. But these canned environments mimic the real thing only imperfectly. To succeed, in battle or even in routine peacetime endeavours, seafarers must take their ships to sea regularly for extended cruises. In the process, outsiders can glimpse their proficiency and élan. Even the PLA Navy’s mettle remains largely unproven by this standard. Chinese fleets spend too little time at sea.

Set aside these quibbles for the sake of discussion. Suppose the Taiwan Navy has indeed introduced a substance that renders its ships nearly invisible to radar. As Cole recounts it, the navy coated two of its elderly Seagull-class fast patrol boats with this material. So efficiently did it reduce the Seagulls’ radar cross-sections that the ‘red team,’ or simulated enemy force, detected their approach on its radar scopes only about the same time lookouts spotted them by eyeball. The vessels reportedly evaded radar view beyond 10 kilometres.

The ability to approach within scant miles of their targets without prompting a response would grant ROCN captains an enormous tactical advantage. This is extremely short range for high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles. Sea-denial tactics would compress defenders’ detect-to-engage time to near zero. By the time they detected incoming Taiwanese ‘birds,’ that is, they would have little time to take defensive measures, firing close-in Gatling guns or surface-to-air missiles. Furthermore, multiple engagements are the key to effective shipboard self-defence. Taiwanese stealth would deny Chinese warships this luxury. PLA defenders would get off few rounds before the attacking missiles struck home. The chances of a lethal or debilitating hit would rise commensurately.

Effective sea denial, then, would help the Taiwan Navy bolster Taipei's chances of deterring Chinese military action. It could drive up the prospective costs so high that no PLA commander would risk such a venture. Failing that, Taiwanese skippers might well prevail in combat, making adjacent waters a no-man’s land for PLA surface ships.

If all Asian fleets field effective stealth technology, naval warfare could come to resemble America’s Wild West, where gunslingers duelled at close range. Sometimes they drew their pistols in face-to-face contests for speed, accuracy, and nerve. Think Clint Eastwood facing off against Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef in the classic spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Whoever proved fastest and most accurate – or, depending on circumstances, the most devious or unorthodox – emerged the victor. Or sometimes cowboys sniped at one another from buildings or topographical features, exploiting the manmade and natural terrain for concealment and defensive purposes.

Rarely did gunmen enjoy much strategic depth, meaning the ability to find or defeat enemies at standoff distances. Nor did they have time to deliberate in battle. Quick reflexes were at a premium. If the Taiwan Navy has developed technology for closing within short range of Chinese warships, skippers should practice exploiting this technology in concert with Taiwan’s rugged, mountainous geography. Crews expert at using the terrain, proficient in handling their vessels at close range, and possessed of the derring-do of an Eastwood could get the drop on the PLA in a cross-strait gunfight. If so, townsfolk on the island can ride out an attack from the guys in the black – or is it red? – hats.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of the Jamestown FoundationOccasional Paper ‘Defending the Taiwan Strait: Taiwan's Naval Strategy in the 21st Century,’ due out this month. The views voiced here are his alone.