Securing Taiwan Starts With Overhauling Its Navy
Tsai Ing-wen must make maritime-strategic affairs a priority as president.
Torrents of “advice for a new president” buffet newly elected chief executives. Op-eds, learned journal articles and think-tank briefs galore hold forth on matters great and small. Here’s another thimbleful of counsel for the surge gushing Tsai Ing-wen’s way. When it comes to Taiwan’s maritime defense, President-elect Tsai must accentuate the positive things incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou has done. And she must play up the positive while eliminating the negative.
Tsai is in a strong position to do so. The Taiwanese electorate awarded her Democratic Progressive Party control of not just the Presidential Office but the Legislative Yuan, the island’s lawmaking body. Electoral triumph thus equips the incoming president to put her imprint on Taiwan’s maritime strategy. If she makes the effort. Contrary to civics classes, even presidents don’t get their way just by issuing edicts to governmental bodies.
That’s because institutions are stubborn things. They exhibit distinct preferences and pursue their own interests. Indeed, bureacracies like the Taiwan Navy (a.k.a. the Republic of China Navy, or ROCN) are machinelike institutions designed to perform the same routine tasks, over and over again. Efficiency is their virtue. It’s also their fatal flaw. Machines don’t handle atypical situations well. The people who comprise bureaucracries have their own culture, drummed into them through hiring practices, promotions and awards, and sheer daily repetition of procedures.
Culture oftentimes works against change. That’s why Franklin Roosevelt got exasperated at the U.S. Navy: “To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.” If elected officials want to retool bureaucratic machinery for new tasks, escaping from FDR’s conundrum, they may have to instigate a cultural revolution—breaking old attitudes and molding new ones for new realities.
That’s no easy feat for any official. Accordingly, presidents must set a few high-priority goals and invest their highly finite personal time and energy to achieve them. Tsai must make maritime-strategic affairs a priority and impose her vision on the naval establishment. Otherwise the ROCN will do what big, largely successful institutions do. It will revert to time-honored habits and methods—methods that are increasingly, and dangerously, out of step with the times.
Taiwan’s security against seaborne attack will suffer for it. So the problem confronting Tsai is largely cultural, although it manifests itself in strategy, doctrine and hardware ill-adapted to today’s dangers. Get the culture right and the rest will follow. Since its founding the Taiwan Navy has seen itself as a U.S. Navy in miniature, a force destined to win decisive sea fights and rule the waves. Despite its self-image, though, the ROCN is a modest-sized, modestly capable force on the wrong end of an increasingly lopsided arms race against its deadly foe, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The ROCN’s outlook gave rise to a fleet centered around major surface combatants like guided-missile destroyers, frigates and amphibious transports. Perfectly reasonable in China’s age of marine backwardness, the idea that the Taiwan Navy can command the sea amounts to whimsy these days.
Why? Just look at the map, or flip open the CIA World Factbook. China boasts economic and military resources that dwarf Taiwan’s. The mainland overshadows the island, menacing it along many axes. To make matters even worse, the ROCN will square off not just against the PLA Navy but against major segments of China’s army and air force, which deploy an imposing battery of tactical aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles. China’s fleet can cruise under cover of shore-based missiles and aircraft—amplifying its striking power in any sea battle.
Even if the rival battle fleets were evenly matched in numbers and battle capability, land-based sea power would constitute a difference-maker for China. Indeed, it’s doubtful in the extreme that major ROCN warships could ride out a combined assault from sea, air and shore, let alone prevail in high-seas combat.
And yet President Ma’s administration has announced plans to—in effect—reproduce the existing, big-ship-centric fleet through indigenous shipbuilding as old hulls and armaments wear out. Now, the indigenous part of the administration’s shipbuilding scheme merits cheers. Governments around the world quail at exporting arms to Taiwan for fear of Beijing’s ire.
And even Taiwan’s lone close friend, the United States, has shown itself an untrustworthy supplier. Eight diesel submarines the Bush administration offered Taipei in 2001 have yet to materialize, and they probably never will. No American shipyard has constructed diesel boats in decades. More recently, the Obama administration refused Taipei the late-model F-16 fighter jets for which it clamored. Nor is there much reason to expect Washington to prove more steadfast as Beijing’s diplomatic influence mounts.
Dependency is discomfiting for any sovereign leadership. The more self-sufficient Taiwan’s defense industry, the better. It’s what Ma’s government wants to build that’s the troublesome part. In 2014, Defense News columnist Wendell Minnick reported that the ROCN intends to spend the next twenty years designing and building four 10,000-ton destroyers, ten-to-fifteen 3,000-ton frigates, replacements for elevent amphibious ships, and four-to-eight diesel-electric submarines. Retired Australian admiral James Goldrick confirmed the destroyer purchase in these pixels last summer.
That looks suspiously like an improved version of the current battle fleet. (For comparison’s sake, U.S. Navy Aegis cruisers and destroyers—state-of-the-art warships—displace about 10,000 tons, the figure Minnick quotes.) To be sure, the plan isn’t entirely objectionable. For instance, building submarines is a worthy cause. The ROCN submarine fleet is small and antiquated—two of four boats are of World War II vintage—while subs are the coastal-defense weapon par excellence. Refreshing the silent service is nonetheless a longer-term prospect for Taiwan’s navy—mainly because designing and constructing undersea craft constitutes a new frontier for the island’s shipwrights.
But Tsai and her advisers should rethink the rest of the package. Look at raw numbers. How much staying power is a fleet of around twenty ROCN capital ships likely to display in a slugfest against the PLA Navy—a force that musters ninety-six roughly comparable ships backed by missile-armed subs, fast patrol craft, and tactical aircraft along with shore-based anti-ship missiles? Those are long odds, and getting longer by the day as China bulks up its naval inventory.
To offset such overpowering odds, Taipei could redirect some of the resources programmed for major surface combatants into a more lethal, more resilient fleet. Some of the news is good. The Ma Ying-jeou years have witnessed some promising ventures. Tsai Ing-wen’s navy should double down on them.
Specifically, the ROCN should disperse firepower among many stealthy combatants rather than concentrate it in a few large, easy-to-target hulls. By waging war asymmetrically, ROCN mariners can threaten to impose frightful costs on the PLA Navy in wartime. They can give Beijing pause. Taiwan’s navy can deter in peacetime, inflict those costs in wartime, and in the process either repulse a cross-strait invasion altogether or delay it long enough for U.S. reinforcements to fight their way into the combat theater.
And time and outside help are what the island needs to survive a Chinese onslaught. Taiwan’s navy, in short, no longer commands the sea or sky. But it may not need to if it can deny China command of the waters the PLA Navy must command to mount amphibious landings along the island’s coasts. By fielding swarms of small, inexpensive, stealthy, fleet-of-foot warships that pack a wallop, naval commanders can bolster the ROCN’s capacity to dish out punishment while eluding or absorbing enemy counterpunches.
In short, Taiwan’s defenders must distribute firepower in the waters around the island’s rugged periphery. Missile-toting fast patrol craft can prowl offshore waters, alone or in wolfpacks. They can fight in concert with land-based weaponry—mobile anti-ship missile batteries, long-range gunnery, and the like—that can strike out to sea. The Taiwanese military, in other words, can harness the logic of access denial—giving the PLA Navy a grim day should Beijing ordain a cross-strait attack.
Making the island into Fortress Taiwan—not sallying forth for a gallant but futile action on the high seas—represents Taipei’s best hope to deter or win. The ROCN must not relegate the sea-denial fleet to an afterthought.
Fortunately, the Ma administration did lay the foundation for a guerrilla strategy at sea, however halfheartedly it pursued the endeavor. In 2010, President Ma appeared to have heeded some, ahem, sage counsel on behalf of an asymmetric maritime strategy. Around that time, moreover, Taiwanese defense manufacturers secretly designed and started building a dozen stealthy, 500-ton fast patrol craft armed with indigenously built, supersonic anti-ship missiles that could make the Taiwan Strait no-go territory for Chinese surface vessels.
Ma himself presided over the commissioning of the first Hsun Hai patrol ship, attesting to the importance he places on light combatants. The problem is numbers. Quantity has a quality all its own—particularly when you’re trying to mount saturation attacks. Twelve ships does not a swarm make. Nor, in fact, does a twelve-ship flotilla give commanders twelve deployable ships. It gives them a fraction of that. The rhythm of training, overhaul and sea service keeps any navy from sortieing the whole fleet at any one time.