COLUMN | Upgrades for Taiwan’s maritime forces [Naval Gazing]

Design of future frigate for Republic of China Navy (Photo: CSBC Corporation)

People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping has vowed to take back the “renegade province” of Taiwan during his time in office, and Beijing’s rhetoric and actions grow ever more assertive.

Recent months have seen record numbers of incursions by PRC warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), and increased activity around Taiwan by PLA Navy warships, including a foray by China’s latest aircraft carrier, Shandong.

Chinese warship and warplane activity has also intensified around the Taiwan-held offshore territory of Pratas Reef.  Long-standing ally Washington has responded by deploying US Air Force EC-135 V/W electronic intelligence gathering aircraft and US Navy P-8A Poseidon long-range maritime patrol planes in and around the ADIZ, and by dispatching the Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike groups to carry out co-ordinated operations in the South China Sea.

Much depends on the effectiveness of Taiwan’s own defence forces, though, so it is not surprising that Taipei is seeking to radically boost its maritime capabilities.

Arguably the most strategically and politically significant upgrade is the programme for the indigenous build of a planned eight diesel-electric attack submarines. Work on this project, which Beijing has long vehemently opposed, finally got underway in November 2020 at CSBC Corporation’s new submarine building facility in Kaohsiung.

Photo: Ministry of National Defence, Republic of China

According to some reports, Taiwan has covertly acquired submarine designs from Norway and Germany – via Argentina – and has employed Japanese engineers with extensive submarine construction experience. Gavron, a consultancy based in the British territory of Gibraltar, is also reportedly deeply involved in the project, and is using the services of a number of UK submarine experts.

Electric power for the submarines will be provided by a new type of Taiwanese-designed and manufactured lithium battery, and they will feature an X-form rudder. The submarines’ weapons outfit will include US-supplied Sub Harpoon underwater-launched anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM), and Mark 48 Mod 6 torpedoes.

Recently commissioned into Taiwan’s Republic of China Navy (RoCN) was Ta Chiang, the first production version of the 45-knot, 567-tonne Tuo Chiang-class catamaran fast attack craft. Twelve of these vessels are planned, all to be built by Lung Teh Shipbuilding. An impressive planned weapons outfit includes Hsiung Feng II and III ASCMs, and the Sky Bow III air defence missile system, which is intended to intercept ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan from the PRC.

Another innovative vessel which has recently joined the RoCN order of battle is the first of four Lung Teh-built, rapid-response coastal minelayers. These compact craft are intended to lay computer-calculated fields of influence mines in the path of an incoming PRC sea invasion by using advanced, highly automated minelaying gear.

Taiwan’s frigate and destroyer inventories are aging, and there are plans for the construction of replacements, namely four 10,000-tonne air defence destroyers and fifteen 4,500-tonne frigates. The first of the new frigates, the design of which was revealed by prospective builders CSBC in December 2020, is due to be completed by 2026. They will be fitted with Hsiung Feng ASCMs, and probably a US-supplied, 24-cell vertically launched air defence missile system, as well as a medium calibre gun. An American-built MH-60R helicopter will be carried.

An advanced radar and weapon control system based on the American Aegis system will be fitted on the frigates as well.

Also in the pipeline are two new 10,600-tonne landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious warfare ships, the first of which has already been laid down by CSBC, as well as mine warfare vessels, an ocean survey ship, and a submarine rescue vessel.

It is not only the RoCN that is being upgraded, though, as there are plans to supply the paramilitary Taiwan Coast Guard Administration (TCGA) – already a substantial force of some 200 craft – with 141 new vessels of various types over the next decade.

Anping (Photo: Office of the President, Republic of China)

Two potent recently-launched assets will soon be augmenting the TCGA inventory, namely Chiayi, the first of a planned four 4,000-tonne patrol ships, and the 600-tonne catamaran fast patrol craft Anping, the first of a planned 12 vessels of the type, which is a derivative of the RoCN’s Tuo Chiang-class. Chiayi has a flight deck and hangar to support operations by RoCN helicopters. Both ships are armed with unguided rockets and 20-millimetre cannon, and have space and weight reserved for the installation of heavier weaponry.

In response to the appearance of new, more heavily armed China Coast Guard patrol ships in Asia’s seaways, the TCGA is bolstering the armament of its vessels, with eight of its larger ships so far having been retrofitted with turreted 40-millimetre cannon.

Other significant developments are plans to form a TCGA air arm, to integrate TCGA operations more closely with those of the RoCN, and to add “Taiwan” to the “R.O.C. Coast Guard” marking on the hulls of TCGA ships.

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.