It’s time for some good news from the military
A number of positive developments within the Taiwanese Navy (ROCN) were unfortunately overshadowed by recent events. The bad news first. First on the list was the introduction of the M503 commercial flight route by China on March 29, which was followed by the Taiwanese government’s controversial decision to apply to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member on March 30. Then, on the same time, the military had to deal with “Apache-gate,” a crisis that we can be certain it would have wished to avoid. But there is some good news as well. Amid all this, a recent ship commissioning ceremony was held on March 31. And while, given the circumstances, it failed to make headlines, it nevertheless underlined some important developments that could affect the maritime domain of Taiwan’s defense.
During the commissioning ceremony, two very different ships were introduced into service — the Tuo Jiang missile corvette and fast combat support ship Panshih (AOE-532). The difference in their appearance could hardly be starker. The Tuo Jiang is a 500-ton displacement corvette equipped with the latest in Taiwan’s indigenous missile program. It is fast, agile, and “stealthy.” The Panshih, on the other hand, is the largest vessel ever squired by the ROCN. Along with the Tuo Jiang and Panshih, the ROCN also presented a submarine propeller as evidence of Taiwan’s intention to develop submarines domestically. The first two ships are testimony to the prowess of Taiwan’s indigenous shipbuilding; the plans for the submarines are an expression of the nation’s ambition to take this ability to a whole new level.
Granted, neither of these developments is exactly breaking news. The Tuo Jiang joined the Navy in December last year, while the Panshih did so in January. And both have underwent sea trials since then. For its part, the submarine program’s development is a part of a never-ending story in Taiwan’s efforts to acquire submarines via the U.S. or through another foreign seller that go as back as 2001 — or the early 1990s if one counts the refusal of the Dutch government to follow-up on a sale of two submarines in the mid-1980s. Frustrated with these fruitless efforts, Taipei finally decided it would procure submarines through indigenous development with foreign assistance.
Let’s take a closer look at the three projects.
Tuo Jiang missile corvette
The Tuo Jiang (沱江) is the first of 12 ordered ships as part of the Hsun Hai (迅海) program dating back to 2009. With its 500-tonne displacement and speed reaching 40 knots, the Tuo Jiang is among the smallest yet fastest ships in the ROCN. With 16 anti-ship missiles (ASM) — eight subsonic Hsiung Feng 2 and eight supersonic Hsiung Feng 3 — on board, it packs a punch on par with larger vessels. For example, the largest combat vessels of the ROCN are its Keelung-class (ex-USS Kidd-class) destroyers with displacement of around 10,000 tonnes. And while the latter have formidable air defense capabilities, their anti-ship component consists of only eight ASM missiles. The main combat role of the Tuo Jiang and her sisters is quite simple: Hide in the shadows, strike hard at enemy surface vessels, then use its speed to get away. That separates them from the larger vessels in the navy that can fulfill multiple missions, as the new corvettes are purpose-built for a mission in which they are meant to excel. The Tuo Jiang has been already been the subject of criticism for lacking air defense capabilities. However, that is not a fully justified critique. First, there is only so much armament that can be placed on a ship of Tuo Jiang’s size without compromising its performance (e.g. ability to fire its missiles under high speed conditions). Second, along with the Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) that is designed to engage incoming missiles, the corvette also has a 76mm multi-purpose cannon that can be also used as an anti-aircraft/anti-missile weapon. Considering that missiles would present the most imminent threat to the Tuo Jiang class, its existing armament seeks to addresses this challenge as efficiently as possible.
The Tuo Jiang has been introduced to the public as a “carrier killer” (the same nickname is used for the HF-3 ASM), but that is somewhat misleading and more an effort to popularize the new acquisition than a reflection of what its actual mission will be. The Tuo Jiang is primarily an offshore defense vessel that would perform best close to coastlines in the Taiwan Strait, where a potential deployment of a Chinese aircraft carrier does not make much sense. “Carrier killer” label notwithstanding, 16 ASMs is a significant number by comparison with any competitor in and out if its class. Together with smaller missile boats like the Kuang-Hua VI-class (光華六號), the Two Jiang will form the backbone of future Taiwan’s sea-denial fleet. The Sea-denial doctrine is a choice for a smaller navy facing a stronger opponent. As the term suggests, the goal is not to have absolute control over the contested sea area but rather to deny its use to a superior foe. But to possess a truly sea-denying force that is capable of deterring the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), quality needs to be matched by quantity. Unless the Tuo Jiang experiences serious setbacks during service, the initial order should exceed the 12 boats originally planned.
The Panshih (磐石) belongs to a class of ships that never gets the fame it deserves. Despite their low profile, combat support ships are absolutely vital for keeping the “big gun” ships at sea for an extended period of time without needing to return to home ports for replenishment. The AOE 532 Panshih is a 196 meters-long ship with full load displacement of 20,800 tonnes and range of 8,000 nautical miles. Considering its size and purpose, it can reach an impressive maximum speed of 22 knots. The Panshih can replenish two ships at the same time. In a war scenario, the Panshih, together with the rest of Taiwan’s replenishment fleet, would play a critical role in keeping the ROCN operational.
However, its real value for Taiwan may materialize during peacetime. The Panshih was not only built to store fuel and other vital supplies; it is also very well equipped to support humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. For that purpose, the Panshih can offer medical facilities, including an operating room, three regular rooms for treatment, and one isolation ward. Moreover, its deck can accommodate three helicopters that would carry vital supplies ashore, and be able to carry victims of natural disasters in need of medical help back to the vessel. Having a capability to provide speedy assistance in a region where natural disasters are a common occurrence is a winning proposition in an effort to boost Taiwan’s soft power.
If there is a weak spot in the current ROCN force structure, then it is definitely its submarine force. While the two Dutch-built Hai-Lung/Zwaardvis-class diesel submarines are still decent platforms, (especially after they underwent an upgrade allowing them to fire Harpoon anti-ship missiles), the remaining World War II-era Guppy-class submarines are a historical curiosity rather than elements of a 21st century navy. Taiwan has been searching for additional submarines for decades. In the early 1990s, the Dutch government refused to sell an additional four ships. In 2003, as part of the larger arms package, the U.S. said it would consider selling eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan. However, the problem was that the U.S. has not produced diesel submarines since the end of the 1950s, when it shifted to an exclusively nuclear fleet. In October 2014, after a decade of frustrated efforts, Taiwan finally decided to try to build submarines domestically.
The decision to proceed with the domestic acquisition is just the beginning of the beginning. There are several factors at play. What will be the level of U.S. (necessary in one way or another) assistance? How capable is the domestic shipbuilding industry to build submarines with displacement between 1,200 and 3,000 tonnes? And where will Taiwan “acquire” much of the needed foreign expertise? While the answer to the first two questions is not readily available, options regarding the third one are multiple. One way is to “borrow” foreign experts/engineers who would retire from their current positions and lend their expertise to Taiwan. Germany, Sweden and Japan are among the countries where such candidates could be found.
On the negative side, a submarine program promises to be expensive, demanding, with risk of cost overruns and delays, and thus very controversial. But submarines are an excellent defense platform and thus, without downplaying the validity of the criticism, their inclusion would benefit Taiwan’s sea denial efforts by distributing its deterrent force across multiple platforms and domains. However, Taiwanese defense planners should learn the lessons from Australia’s efforts to build an indigenous submarine capability. The Collins class program in the 1990s has accrued considerable cost overruns and the boats’ service record after their significantly delayed delivery has been far from satisfactory (there are also favorable views of the program).
A submarine program faces one common denominator alongside other weapon programs in that Taiwan’s taxpayers will have to shoulder the full costs because the global arms market is for all intents and purposes closed to Taiwanese companies. Thus, investments in R&D and production costs cannot be offset by exports that would in turn push down the prices resulting from limited domestic production. As a result, Taiwanese taxpayers inevitably pay the maximum price for their defense equipment.
There is one component that any defense-related project desperately needs: public support. If Taiwan is to compensate for the (recently) unreliable arms sales from the U.S. by launching ambitious domestic programs, it needs serious investment in R&D — and that includes human resources first and foremost. The best and the brightest often not only chose career paths outside the military, they increasingly consider careers in China. While the former is a problem elsewhere, the latter is particularly problematic in a Taiwanese context. Keeping talent at home means providing incentives. All of that will cost money. If the money is well spent, then perhaps the public can be persuaded about the utility of such spending.
It would be naïve to think that all problems in civil-military relations will disappear overnight. But precisely because it will take time and serious debate, the process needs to start immediately. Naturally, this does not mean that the public should agree to acquire or develop new capabilities needed for Taiwan’s defense whatever the cost. The budget is and will be limited, and cost overruns jeopardize not only the projects concerned but the very ability to defend Taiwan from external military threats.
Unfortunately, the military is not helping much, as the Apache affair has demonstrated. The officers involved in the scandal should have know better than to let a group of “special privilege” visitors roam around the base near advanced weaponry. Perhaps the case should serve to teach a lesson in the opposite direction: Let the bases be open more often, and work closely with local communities. Surely, an arrangement can be made that would not disrupt normal functions.
In the meantime, the two new ships should be greeted as a positive step forward. One makes a significant contribution to a strong deterrence, while the other has great potential to be an ambassador of Taiwan’s goodwill in times of need.