Features | Security | East Asia

Taiwan’s Navy Gets Stealthy

News that Taiwan is set to get some stealthy fast patrol boats is welcome. But without some daring personnel, it might come to nothing.

James R. Holmes

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.

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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.

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.