COLUMN | Taiwan boosting maritime forces to counter possible attack from the PRC [Naval Gazing]

The Republic of China Navy Tuo Chiang-class catamaran corvette RoCS Ta Chiang during its delivery ceremony on September 9, 2021 (Photo: Office of the President, Republic of China)

War in Ukraine continues to be the focus of much media attention, with coverage frequently including speculation as to whether the Russian invasion might prove to be a catalyst for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to launch an attack on what Beijing refers to as the “renegade province” of Taiwan.

The most likely PRC strategies would be maritime in nature, namely invasion or, perhaps more likely, blockade, probably carried out in parallel with cyber warfare.

Taipei has for some time been pursuing a programme to boost its maritime defence capabilities to counter any such prospective moves by the PRC, and early this year, Taipei allocated an additional US$8.6 billion to its defence budget.

A significant proportion of this extra money is devoted to boosting Taiwan’s production of indigenously developed guided missiles. This programme includes Hsiung Feng II and III anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM) and Sky Sword II ship-mounted air defence missiles, as well as the Wan Chien air-to-surface missile, which, when launched from Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force warplanes, has maritime strike capability.

Meanwhile, this month, Washington approved the supply of 300 shore-launched versions of the Harpoon ASCM to strengthen Taiwan’s coastal defences. The award of this contract to Lockheed Martin coincided with the visit to Taipei by a high-level US delegation to discuss the offshore republic’s future defence needs.

Newbuilding and fleet upgrade programs underway

At the CSBC Corporation shipyard in Kaoshiung, work has been accelerated on the first of a proposed eight diesel-electric attack submarines that are indigenously designed with discreet help from a number of foreign entities. Pressure hull blocks are due to be completed by June of this year, and the lead boat is now set to be launched in September 2023. The US reportedly recently made an urgent delivery of a number of advanced combat systems to be installed in the boat.

The reportedly ultra-stealthy subs will be a vital component of Taiwan’s defences against attack from the sea.

Also in build at CSBC is a submarine rescue and support ship. The vessel, which will be fitted with a dynamic positioning system and bow and stern thrusters, will provide back-up for the Republic of China Navy’s (RoCN) new submarine flotilla. It will replace a pair of nearly 80-year-old ex-US Navy ships.

There is still little news of the project to build a class of 4,500-tonne frigates to be fitted with the US Aegis combat control system. However, upgrading is underway on the six Kang Ding-class frigates, which, together with indigenous variants of the US Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships, make up the core of the RoCN offshore combatant inventory. Modifications will include replacement of the existing Sea Chaparral air defence missiles with Sky Sword II missiles to be fired from the indigenous Huayang 32-cell vertical launch system. The Xunian command and control system, also locally designed and manufactured, will be installed.

The Kang Ding-class is based on the French Navy’s La Fayette-class frigates, and the upgrade will be supervised by the Naval Group of France.

Following the increase in the defence budget, Taiwan has placed an urgent request with Washington for 12 advanced MH-60R helicopters, to be deployed from frigates, to help counter the PLA Navy’s proliferating submarine fleet. Political wrangling, however, is currently hampering the project.

There are plans for the construction of a further ten examples of the Tuo Chiang-class catamaran corvettes, the second of which, ROCS Ta Chiang, recently took part in high profile exercises off Keelung.

These ships, constructed by Lung Teh Shipbuilding, are heavily armed for their size, featuring Hsiung Feng II and III missiles, as well as a 76-milimetre gun and torpedo tubes. They are also equipped with sophisticated surveillance and fire control systems. They will gradually replace the Ching Chiang-class corvettes, which have recently been upgraded with 76-millimetre guns and Hsiung Feng III missiles.

Also featured in the exercise was a Min Jiang-class fast minelayer. The final pair of this four-strong class, also manufactured by Lung Teh Shipbuilding, entered service early this year. Equipped with an automatic minelaying system, the intended role of these 41-metre vessels is to respond to the approach of a PLA ship seeding the approaches to Taiwan with both conventional and influence mines.

Coast guard developments and improved defensive systems for outlying territory

A particular concern for defence planners in Taipei is the possibility that Beijing might launch an early strike on Taiwan’s two remotest territories, namely Taiping Island and Pratas Reef. The RoCN would respond to intelligence reports that such action was planned by moving a rapid response force made up of marines and special forces of the Amphibious Reconnaissance Unit.

Republic of China President Tsai Ing-wen (second from left) attends the launching ceremony of the future RoCN landing platform dock RoCS Yushan at CSBC Corporation’s shipyard, April 13, 2021. (Photo: Office of the President, Republic of China)

Modern ships are required to fulfil this commitment. At an advanced state of construction at CSBC is the 10,000-tonne landing ship Yushan, which, unusually for this type of warship, features a hefty armament of guns and air defence missiles and surface-to-surface missiles. Taiwan intends to build three more of the class to replace aging ex-US Navy vessels.

The Taiwan Coast Guard Administration (TCGA) also has a role to play in safeguarding against attack from the PRC, namely sea surveillance and defending against hostile small craft operating near the coast of Taiwan, and the service’s combat capabilities are being enhanced. The latest TCGA vessels, the Chiayi-class patrol ships and the Anping-class high-speed catamarans, have an armament fit that includes remotely-fired 20-millimetre cannons, and have space and weight reserved for the fitting of missile launchers, while older ships have been retrofitted with 40-millimetre quick-firing guns.

Furthermore, funding has been allocated this year for the enhancement of automated TCGA radar and optronic-equipped surveillance installations along the coast of Taiwan and its outlying islands.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.