The Taiwanese navy needs to start building small, cheap, missile-armed attack boats, and fast. It’s the only way Taipei can hope to hold off a Chinese invasion force long enough for the United States to intervene on the island country’s behalf.
That’s the urgent advice from U.S. Naval War College professor James Holmes. “Fast patrol craft could range around Taiwan’s rugged periphery, using geography for concealment,” Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy.
“They could make small fishing harbors their bases, daring China to distinguish them from fishing vessels or pleasure craft berthed there,” Holmes continued. “Small craft would be Taiwan’s great equalizer.”
There was a time, not long ago, when Taiwan with its roughly 20 million people was richer and militarily more powerful than China with its billion people. Taiwan also enjoyed a reliable military alliance with the United States, which as recently as 1996 sailed aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait in order to deter authoritarian China from moving against the democratic island neighbor that it considers a breakaway province.
But China’s economic expansion has altered the balance of power. “U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have been stingier and stingier with arms sales over the years, even as China opened itself to the world economically, made itself rich, and sluiced some of its wealth into new weaponry for [People’s Liberation Army] naval, air and missile forces,” Holmes wrote.
“Both assumptions—U.S. support and mainland backwardness—are now suspect,” he continued.
Today, Taiwan’s defenders remain outnumbered, as always, but they can no longer count on technology and human excellence to make up for relatively sparse numbers of ships, planes, and tanks.
The PLA is good and getting better, while its advantage in sheer mass will last into the indefinite future. The geopolitical advantage goes to the well-armed continental power overshadowing the winsome island lying just offshore.
By the early 2000s, the Taiwanese navy with its 26 major surface warships and two aged submarines “could no longer win command of the sea,” according to Holmes. Not when the Chinese fleet possesses several times as many warships as Taiwan does. “Seeking maritime command through big battles is what the strong do. It no longer fit Taiwan’s circumstances.”
What the Taiwanese navy could do was deny the PLA Navy command of seaways adjoining the island. Such sea denial is a classic strategy of the weak who entertain limited aims. No maritime command for China, no amphibious assault.
A mortal threat would remain at bay, either because Beijing concluded such an assault offered sparse prospects of success and foreswore the attempt, or because the Taiwanese navy, fighting in concert with ... forces ashore, delayed the onslaught long enough for U.S. forces to arrive on station to help repulse the assailants.
Small, inexpensive missile boats should be the main element of Taiwan’s new naval strategy, Holmes advised. “They perform that function for Nordic countries blessed with rugged geography—and, reportedly, early tests and maneuvers have yielded results satisfactory to Taiwan’s naval leaders, as well.”
A new class of impressive-seeming stealthy corvettes is currently under construction—the offshore counterpart to Red Army guerrillas and light forces—while the indigenously built missiles that evidently constitute the corvettes’ armament appear hard-hitting.
But apparently only a dozen of these fleet-of-foot streetfighters will be constructed. That’s hardly a swarm capable of deterring or delaying a Chinese onslaught for long. The [Taiwanese] navy needs many more hulls.
But transforming the Taiwanese navy first requires a cultural change within the fleet’s ranks. That might come too late, it comes at all. “It took Pearl Harbor to break the U.S. Navy’s culture of battleship operations, showing that aircraft carriers were now the premier weapon for war at sea,” Holmes pointed out.
Taiwan doesn’t have the option of suffering a major defeat as a learning experience. It must buck the trend, amending its naval culture before a cross-strait war—a war potentially fatal to national existence—breaks out.
Embarking on a new course is a matter of urgency. An island populated by 23 million people has only so much to spend on national defense. It cannot afford to waste resources on expensive legacy capabilities while procuring new capabilities in bulk.
Leaders in Taipei, accordingly, may be better off redirecting scarce budgetary resources toward porcupine or sea denial platforms and away from pricey and glitzy purchases such as F-16 fighters or domestically-built submarines—to name two traditional programs that command substantial support on the island.
Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities. The same can be said of designing and forging the implements used to execute strategy. If Taipei goes all in on the weapons of the weak, that’s where it should direct resources—lest it try to procure every bit of hardware to carry out every possible military mission and end up ill-equipped to conduct any of them.