On April 28, two US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — the USS Stethem and the USS William P. Lawrence — sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Halfway through the strait, the Stethem turned on its automatic identification system (AIS), which has sparked debate. For the Taiwanese military, the discussion has highlighted needs in addition to arms purchases, which is something that top national security leaders should pay attention to.
This is not the first time that US warships have passed through the Taiwan Strait with their AIS switched on. There have been seven US Navy navigation operations near Taiwanese waters since July last year. Among them, replenishment oiler the USNS Pecos under the Military Sealift Command and the USS Stockdale destroyer activated their systems off the eastern coast of the Chinese city of Fuzhou during a southbound transit on Nov. 28 last year. The systems were not switched off until both ships had passed into waters west of Pingtung County’s Siaoliouciou Island (小琉球).
It would be ridiculous to consider an AIS essential to a warship’s self-defense and security. In fact, the systems are mandated by the International Maritime Organization to be installed on all ships with displacements of at least 300 tonnes in accordance with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to safeguard maritime safety and for navigational management. Due to varying mission requirements, military and law enforcement vessels can turn the system off.
Hard lessons were learned from collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain destroyers on on June 17, 2017, and Aug. 21, 2017, respectively and another involving the Royal Norwegian Navy’s HNoMS Helge Ingstad frigate on Nov. 8 last year. Even though an AIS is useful to a vessel’s watch officer to determine whether there is risk of a collision, the system is not a guarantee for navigational safety. It does not allow a vessel to demand that others give way.
Moreover, military vessels do not have an absolute right of way. When they overtake or are overtaken by other ships, or sail along an intersecting or collision course, they have to abide by the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
The Republic of China (ROC) Navy does not have to rely on AIS to gain a concrete grasp of US warships’ activities near Taiwanese waters. Destroyers equipped with the Aegis Combat System use the SPY-1D radar in the S-Band (NATO E/F-band). With an average power use of 58 kilowatts, SPY-1D-equipped vessels have an effective search, tracking and chain transmission radius of 450km. Theoretically, the radar waves can be intercepted within 600km by the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare system’s (V)2 variant on the navy’s Cheng Kung-class and Knox-class frigates, and its Keelung-class destroyers. Moreover, intercepting radar waves and determining bearings are basic combat capabilities for electronic warfare units and part of training at combat information centers.
Radar transmission detection is neither an electronic attack nor an electronic protection measure. It is one of the most fundamental electronic support measures for receiving electromagnetic signals and part of a navy’s basic skills in conducting joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.
There were news reports last month about an ROC Navy captain, who, serving as the head of the Joint Fleet Operation Center, was transferred after miscalculating the number of US vessels when the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS McCampbell and fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Jan. 24.
The reports said that the operation platform at the time was providing accurate information, which the captain did not accept.
The importance of having the operation platform accurately detecting and intercepting radar transmissions can never be emphasized enough.
Discussions among top-level officials and experts about the passage of US vessels through the Taiwan Strait underline a lack of understanding of AIS functions, joint ISR operations and combat capabilities with regard to monitoring electromagnetic signals. Apparently, the nation’s armed forces lack experience conducting joint military drills with the US and Japan. Relying on the small number of military officials sent to the US for training is unlikely to create a ripple effect that will improve combat capabilities. In the end, Taiwan is working on its own.
Given the nation’s unfamiliarity with the armed forces of the US, it will be impossible to build a common operating picture due to the lack of identification methods and communication channels even if the US were to come to Taiwan’s aid in a time of war. If Taiwan is unable to perform combat operations alongside the US, there will be no synergy.
In speeches and at meetings, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) often speaks about Taiwan as contributing to regional security and stability, with the nation’s army standing on the frontline protecting regional security. Given this situation, the government should make the best use of the circumstances. As the US is friendly toward Taiwan and there are constant arms sales, Taiwan should take the next step and ask the US to hold joint military exercises with Taiwan, so the nation’s military can enhance its combat capabilities, gain experience and learn military strategies. Then it would be more capable of bearing the heavy responsibility of standing on the frontline.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the ROC Naval Academy and former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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