James Holmes

“Taipei must admit defeat in the arms race…”

Why a strategy of “sea-denial” maybe Taiwan’s best bet as China’s military strengthens.

A coda to the apparent emergence of China’s Type 052D guided-missile destroyer: every new Chinese hull reinforces the case for remaking Taiwan’s naval strategy.

With sixteen frontline DDGs, the PLA Navy will command overwhelming superiority in numbers over the ROC Navy’s four elderly Kidd-class DDGs, which are hand-me-downs from the Cold War U.S. Navy. In all likelihood, quality has also come to favor China’s navy. The Kidd stood at the forefront of fleet air defense for its day. That day, however, dawned in the late 1970s, when the ships were built for sale to the shah’s Iran. They remained credible platforms throughout their service with the U.S. Navy. But they were eclipsed by Aegis-equipped combatants by the early 1980s, when the good ship USS Ticonderoga — “my” ship for Baltic Sea operations in 1989 — took to the briny ocean for the first time.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the PLA Navy’s latest progeny probably excel the Taiwan Navy’s premier warships in terms of technological sophistication and hitting power. That’s still more true of the lesser ships that fill out the island’s battle line. One need not accept Beijing’s hype about staging a technological leap to “China Aegis” status to believe its new destroyers outclass thirty-year-old, pre-Aegis DDGs. Both quality and sheer weight of numbers, then, are on China’s side in the cross-strait naval competition. An economically outmatched Taiwan that cannot manufacture or import state-of-the-art warships stands little chance of reversing the momentum.

What to do? Taipei must admit defeat in the arms race — and then work around it.

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This demands a change of mindset. DDGs are “sea-control” ships meant to clear the seas of enemy fleets before exploiting maritime command. The ROC Navy has always regarded itself as a sea-control force, the stronger party to the naval competition. But the weaker navy still has options — if its commanders and their political masters can bring themselves to admit they are the weaker competitor and devise strategy accordingly. The weak sometimes prevail if they set limited goals and align their meager means to those goals.

What does this mean in concrete terms? Well, relatively inexpensive “sea-denial” assets like missile-toting patrol craft or submarines pack a wallop, even against technologically and numerically preponderant foes. China itself fields an imposing array of sea-denial ships, aircraft, and missiles as part of its anti-access, a.k.a. “counter-intervention,” strategy vis-a-vis the U.S. Navy and its allies. The logic of sea denial is compelling for forces protecting their home turf.

Taipei took some baby steps toward a potent sea-denial capability with its Kuang Hua VI fast patrol boats and is reportedly developing a stealth corvette that looks like a truly impressive warfighting implement. Thus equipped, the Taiwan Navy could turn the logic of sea denial against the mainland, excluding the sea denier from vital waters or driving up the costs of entry to unbearable heights. With swarms of sea-denial assets, the island’s defenders would stand a good chance of giving any cross-strait invasion force nightmares — or, better yet, of deterring the attempt altogether. Taiwan’s chances of defying coercion would brighten commensurately.