War of the Flea

Taiwan’s Navy aims at blocking amphibious assault with smaller, faster craft

The prototype of the Kuang Hua VI-class of missile boats, the FACG-60 (Fast Attack Craft, Guided missile), was commissioned on October 1, 2003.
The days when the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) could engage in a boat-for-boat competition with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are long gone. This reality—one with which Taipei appears to have reconciled itself—has forced military planners to reassess how Taiwan can best secure its littoral waters.

Over the past two decades, the PLAN has embarked on a massive program to modernize and expand its naval assets. Momentum for such an investment came both from the need to rejuvenate a service that had long been ignored, and from a decision within the Central Military Commission to give a larger role to services other than the Army, which from the days of Mao Zedong had remained the central pillar of the Chinese armed forces.

This, in turn, means that the required investment in the navy went well beyond merely replacing aging ships: it led to a rapid expansion along quantitative and qualitative lines. As the PLAN came to play a more prominent role in PLA force projection, Beijing began to diversify naval assets to meet a number of contingencies over an increasingly large area of operations. No longer regarded as a mere force to secure China’s coastal waters, the PLAN began to acquire capabilities that were increasingly offensive in nature. In addition to destroyers and frigates, the PLAN began to equip itself with low-signature fast-attack missile boats like the Type 022 (with about 80 now in service), and the new Type 056 corvettes, while shipyards began churning out large-displacement amphibious transport docks, such as the Yuzhao-class Type 071, and appeared to have plans to develop landing helicopter docks—presumably the Type 081. During that period, China increased its submarine fleet, and its first aircraft carrier, recently named the Liaoning, underwent refurbishing and could enter service by the end of this year. Greater attention has been paid to naval aviation, while in summer 2012, images emerged which seemed to indicate that the PLAN was testing a shipbased version of the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile (LACM), which would thus complete China’s cruise missile triad and provide its navy with the ability to attack ground targets from a variety of vectors at sea.

While those capabilities are not all solely directed at Taiwan, there is little doubt that the great majority of them could be used against the island should a shift occur in the current détente. As Beijing has never abandoned the military option to bring forth unification with Taiwan or prevent de jure independence, the ROC military has had to prepare for such an eventuality and to adapt its defense strategy to face a challenge from the PLA that has become both formidable and more multifaceted. Given the role the ROCN would play in defending Taiwan from Chinese attack, two related axes require greater attention: survivability and asymmetry.

Naval survivability

A Chinese Su-27 Flanker fighter. Designed in Russia, it was intended as a direct competitor for the large United States fourth-generation fighters.
The ROCN’s survivability is not unlike that faced by the ROC Air Force, in that its forces are limited by Taiwan’s constraining geography and small number of force concentrations. As such, naval bases, like airbases, will become priority targets in the opening phase of a Chinese attack on the island to disable its ability to control airspace and sea areas around Taiwan. The lack of dispersal, and, in the ROCN’s case, the surface action groups centered around its Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, make them attractive targets for the Second Artillery Corps’ shortand medium-range missiles and cruise missiles. The options for ensuring that the ROCN could survive an initial volley goes beyond hardening, dissimulation, decoys and air-defense systems. Dispersal, as well as the reorganization of surface combatants through a greater focus on larger groups of small, fast, and mobile attack ships, would increase the likelihood that ROCN ships would survive an initial attack and be able to fight back. Taiwan already appears to have moved in that direction, with the entry into service of thirty-one 170-tonne Kuang Hua VI (KH-6) fast-attack boats, equipped with Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles, and split into three squadrons, since 2010, as well as the development of a 450-tonne missile corvette—which will reportedly pack eight HF-2 and HF-3 “carrier killer” launchers—under the Hsun Hai program. Other surface combatants, such as the 500-tonne Ching Chiang-class patrol boats, are also being outfitted with the supersonic, ramjet-powered HF-3, while work is being carried out in Kaohsiung to equip the Navy’s two combat-capable submarines with Harpoon missile launchers. Taiwan’s situational sea awareness will also be increased with the induction starting in 2013 of twelve refurbished P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft acquired from the United States, as well as the launch, after years of delays, of the US$800 million long-range early-warning radar on Leshan Mountain, in Hsinchu County, which will provide sea-tracking capability. The shift toward a greater number of smaller ships therefore appears to be underway. While the acquisition or development of small craft may not attract as much news coverage as large surface combatants, their low cost allows for the deployment of larger numbers, which in turn ensures greater survivability. By forsaking highly expensive, big-ticket items like the Kidd-class destroyers, the ROCN can diversify its forces and better customize itself to meet current and future contingencies. Their limited range, meanwhile, will also force the ROCN to reorient its forces toward littoral defense rather than for high-seas engagements in which its fleet is unlikely to prevail.

Credible deterrent

Beyond what has already been done, the ROCN can do more to present a credible deterrent to a Chinese-invasion. For one, naval experts are of the view that the KH-6s, which have replaced the now-decommissioned Hai Ou-class missile boats, are a “transition” ship, with better and more advanced models to come. Whatever form those take, requirements call for qualitative and quantitative improvements, and sufficient numbers of ships will need to be deployed to ensure survivability and the ability to strike back. As well as ship-based capabilities, the Taiwanese armed forces should do more in terms of landbased anti-ship capabilities by producing and fielding more HF-2 and HF-3 launchers along the coasts, such as those currently deployed at Hetianshan in Hualien, and using Taiwan’s geography (for example, its mountain ranges) to protect them. As the PLAN has increased its ability to launch encircling naval attacks against Taiwan, land-based launchers will have to be oriented so that they can target objects at sea to the east, west, north, and south of Taiwan, and not just in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s heavy investment in Hsiung Feng cruisemissile technology—one of the key, and most successful, programs of the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology—as well as the decision by the Ma Ying-jeou administration to begin mass-production despite opposition from the United States, is indicative of a shift from big-ticket procurements toward self-reliance and asymmetry.

Precision strikes

Formerly French La Fayette-class frigates, the Kang-Ding-class PFG2s are the primary combatants of the 124th Flotilla tasked with AAW and ASW missions.
While the move appears to be a step in the right direction, Taiwan’s ability to launch over-the-horizon precision strikes against Chinese targets remains dependent upon off-board sensors. At present, most of those sensors are part of Taiwan’s shore-based longrange radar network and tactical datalink systems. Ensuring the survivability of those systems through redundancy (more radar sites, for example) or mobile sensors, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, will ensure that Taiwan’s surface combatants are not blind at sea and unable to acquire targets. Ideally, a future ROCN would include a greater number of submarines, but plans to either acquire them from abroad or to develop them domestically remain controversial, with few encouraging signs of progress. Unless Taipei can secure a provider willing to risk alienating Beijing over such a sale, a domestic program will take several years before a viable prototype can be produced, and will arguably require large injections of capital that could be put to better use in projects that are likelier to yield results. Taiwan’s littoral defense strategy would also benefit if it included a counterforce component, especially the ability to target harbors along the Chinese coast facing Taiwan. Sea- or air-launched Harpoon missiles with coastal suppression kits would be a worthwhile investment, as would the deployment, as mentioned earlier, of larger numbers of Hsiung Feng missiles capable of reaching such targets. The realistic aim of the ROCN is not to defeat the PLAN. Rather, in line with the Ministry of National Defense white paper of 2011, “victory” is now defined as the ability to prevent a successful amphibious assault while buying Taipei enough time for its principal ally, the United States, to intervene. To that end, the ROCN may also want to increase focus on its ability to open a corridor in the West Pacific through which the United States could safely send reinforcements. Taiwan’s goal is not to sink the PLAN, but to present Beijing with enough capabilities to ensure that any adventurism would come at a high price. A “war of the flea” in Taiwan’s surrounding waters, rather than a clash of the titans, is the only option.

Reprinted in full from Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security published by Center for Security Studies at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Michael Cole

Source: Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security