COLUMN | Taiwan’s navy being upgraded to respond to possible attack by China [Naval Gazing]

Photo: Republic of China Navy

“Reunification” with what Beijing terms “the breakaway province” of Taiwan has long been a major plank of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign and defence policy. An invasion by amphibious forces is widely presumed to be the most likely scenario, particularly as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) continues to build up its force of Type 071 landing platform docks and Type 075 landing helicopter docks.

Amphibious invasion: a major challenge for Beijing

Many analysts believe, however, that a seaborne invasion would fail. It is virtually certain that the mustering of an invasion force along the Chinese coast would rapidly be detected by both civilian and military satellite surveillance, thereby ensuring not only the preparation of a military response possibly even including pre-emptive strikes by Washington and Taipei, but also constant real-time worldwide media coverage.

Alternative tactics such as cyber-attacks, blockades, and prolonged missile bombardment from land, sea, and air are more likely. All these options, though, would also require major maritime engagement.

New warships and upgrades

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)

The most important aspect of Taiwan’s long-term defence is its alliance with the United States, but Washington demands that the self-governing island itself maintains strong armed forces. The order of battle of Taipei’s Republic of China Navy (RoCN) includes four destroyers, 22 frigates, 11 corvettes, more than 30 fast attack craft (with additional units under construction), and four diesel-electric attack submarines. Recent additions of interest include four coastal minelayers and a heavily-armed, indigenously-built fast amphibious assault ship. The latter vessel is intended to enable a rapid, special forces-based response to an attack on Taiwan’s remote offshore territories.

The RoCN Air Command operates S-70C and MD500 anti-submarine helicopters and is backed up by E-2K Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and P-3C Orion long-range maritime patrol planes of the Republic of China Air Force.

A major upgrade of the ultra-long range surveillance radar on Mount Lu Chang, which is another important component of Taiwan’s defences against attack from air and sea, is being carried out by Raytheon, while Washington is also providing up to 600 shore-based Harpoon anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM).

Following the Taiwanese Parliament’s approval of a substantial increase in defence expenditure, a major naval modernisation programme is underway. The RoCN’s French-built Kang Ding-class frigates are to be upgraded with their current fit of Sea Chaparral air defence missiles to be replaced by the Hai Jian vertically-launched system.

Meanwhile, the green light has finally been given to the construction of the first two of up to 12 new 2,600-tonne frigates with Jong Shyn Shipbuilding Company contracted to build the initial pair. The new warships will initially replace the old, marginally operational Chi Yang-class, and later versions will probably replace the current workhorses of the RoCN, the Cheung Kung-class frigates.

It is intended that the class will be divided into two specialised types. The armament of the anti-air warfare version will include two eight-cell vertical launch systems for TC-2W air defence missiles, as well as a 32-cell vertical launcher for Hsiung Feng II and Hsiung Feng III ASCMs. The anti-submarine version will feature towed array sonar and torpedo tubes. Both versions will be fitted with BAE Systems Artisan multi-role radar.

Indigenous submarine project emerges from the shadows

Scale model of Taiwan’s Indigenous Defence Submarine prototype, photographed during the submarine’s keel-laying on November 16, 2021 (Photo: Republic of China Navy)

Details of Taiwan’s highly secretive diesel-electric attack submarine program continue to seep out. According to a number of reports, the project is headed up by a former senior UK Royal Navy officer. Nations seem no longer to be cowed by Beijing’s threats of retribution for the supply of military equipment to Taiwan, and submarine specialists from Australia, South Korea, India, Spain, and Canada are known to be working on the project, which is being co-ordinated through Gavron, an obscure Gibraltar-based consultancy.

Washington, for its part, is providing advanced sensors, torpedoes and command and control systems. The boats, up to 12 of which are due to be manufactured, are likely to be of about 2,500 tonnes displacement. They are also designed to be very stealthy so as to be able to maintain constant, discreet, offshore surveillance and to attack PLA-N surface and sub-surface assets in time of conflict. The first boat is due to be launched in September of this year.

Washington’s support considered vital in the event of an attack

Taiwan is increasingly well-equipped to respond to any attack by the PRC, but there is little doubt that its long-term survival would depend heavily upon US support.

There is frequent speculation over the extent to which the US would respond militarily to an attack by the PRC upon Taiwan. In addition to enabling large-scale supply of armaments to the self-governing island, the US Congress’ Taiwan Relations Act authorises a military response to attacks upon the main island of Taiwan (Formosa) and the adjacent, strategically important Penghu (Pescadores) Islands. However, some analysts assess that Congress could well choose to construe any moves against Taipei’s offshore territories of Matsu, Kinmen, Taiping, and Pratas Reef as being a precursor to an attack on Taiwan or Penghu, and would accordingly authorise an immediate response.

Commentators make much of the potency of the US Navy’s carrier strike groups, but the greatest threat to PLA-N warships operating around Taiwan in time of conflict would probably be posed by America’s nuclear-powered attack submarine flotilla.

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.