The Republic of China Navy (ROCN) needs to reinvent itself as a “sea-denial” force rather than waste its increasingly outmatched fleet of major combatants — destroyers, frigates — in fruitless combat against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Handled with skill and panache, swarms of small, stealthy, missile-armed craft could give a PLAN force coming across the Taiwan Strait a very bad day, delaying a cross-strait offensive long enough for outsiders to intervene.
This appears to resonate among political leaders in Taipei. Deputy Minister of Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) spoke in favor of sea denial in a talk last year at Harvard University. This year, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) attended the commissioning ceremony for two Kuang Hua VI fast attack craft. Seldom do chief executives grace unglamorous sea-denial ships with such personal attention. It seems prospects are looking up for Taiwan’s naval strategy.
However, fundamental change comes hard for any bureaucratic institution, and navies are more conservative than most. Elected officials must keep up the pressure lest the navy establishment mount a rearguard action against this transformation of the navy’s strategy, materiel and culture.
Even if the transformation process advances, this leaves the question of how the navy should use its existing fleet of major surface ships. These platforms cannot be phased out overnight. Warships are not simply discarded. However, if the fleet can no longer fight for command of the sea with any real prospect of victory, what should it do?
The navy’s answer has been to organize surface action groups (SAG) around four retired Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) obtained from the US Navy. Renamed the Keelung-class, these vessels represented the state of the art in US Navy air defense in the early 1980s, before cruisers and destroyers equipped with the ultra-high-tech Aegis combat-systems suite — a combined radar, computer and fire-control system — started entering service.
Kidd DDGs made effective escorts for aircraft carriers and other “high-value units” like amphibious transports. They could also perform an assortment of functions in a relatively “permissive,” low-threat environment. For example, the Kidd made a combat cruise during the first Gulf War 20 years ago. Among its duties were interdicting shipping bound to or from then-president Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, finding sea mines and using its helicopters for surface surveillance.
The Kidds were never meant to shoulder the main brunt of fighting against enemy fleets. Yet that’s seemingly how the Taiwanese navy envisions using them.
The US Navy developed the surface-action-group concept during the 1980s. The idea was to surround a high-value unit — oftentimes a World War II-era Iowa-class battleship — with a modest screen of escorts. Under this arrangement, frigates, destroyers and cruisers provided dense, overlapping defenses against surface, submarine and aerial attack. Nevertheless, SAGs were intended for fairly benign threat environments, not to wage high-intensity battle.
ROCN practices precisely invert the SAG concept. In US Navy groups, highly capable picket ships protected a major combatant that lacked defenses of its own. Iowa-class dreadnoughts could mete out frightful punishment with their main guns, but possessed few defenses against air or subsurface attack. Amphibious ships pack a wallop of their own in the form of embarked Marines, but they too are outfitted with little defensive armament.
By contrast, Taiwanese groups place the strongest ship at the center of the formation and surround it with a screen of weak escorts, such as elderly US-built Knox-class and Perry-class frigates and French-built Lafayette frigates. In effect, the navy expects the high-value unit — the ship being protected — to protect its own escorts. This reduces the PLAN’s tactical problem to overcoming four Keelung-class DDGs in battle.
One suspects this problem is readily soluble for Chinese naval commanders.
Two recommendations. One, ROCN commanders should rediscover the virtues of a concentrated fleet. And two, they should deploy this fleet largely out of harm’s way. Creating a larger formation featuring two or more Kidds would tighten up the fleet’s defenses, augment its offensive combat punch and complicate the tactical picture for the PLAN. In short, an amped-up ROCN surface flotilla would boast the same advantages as a US Navy SAG.
Taipei should deploy the fleet well east of Taiwan in wartime. Opening a corridor into the western Pacific would represent an enormous service to the US Pacific Fleet — lowering the costs to the US and easing a US president’s decision to order US forces into the theater. If Taiwan must survive a PLAN onslaught long enough to matter, the ROCN can advance that goal — even with “legacy” warships.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
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