Taiwan’s Navy: Able to Deny Command of the Sea?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 8

Taiwan Navy test-fired missile during Hankuang exercises in 2007

The first installment of this series on the Republic of China Navy (ROCN), or Taiwan Navy, presented a skeptical assessment of the ROCN’s ability to fulfill the expansive requirements set forth in its “ROC Navy Vision” (Xin shiji haijun), which in essence directs the navy to network its operations, extend its reach and amplify its combat punch in order to take control of offshore waters [1]. Yet the Taiwan Navy submarine fleet barely rates the name, the surface fleet is ill-suited for sea control, and even according to a recent Taiwanese Defense Ministry assessment, the tactical air power on which its surface operations depend is also in serious decline (Defense News, March  8).

That does not mean, however, that the Taiwan Navy is without options for defending Taiwanese shores. Reconfiguring the fleet and devising inventive tactics could let the ROCN take advantage of the island’s geography. As a result, Taiwan’s chances of withstanding a Chinese invasion, as well as the air and missile blitzkrieg that would likely precede it, would increase commensurately. Denying the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) use of the waters around Taiwan would be nearly as effective from the standpoint of homeland defense as fighting for outright sea control.
A navy prosecuting a sea-denial strategy has little need to control the seas itself; it merely wants to keep a superior foe from using critical expanses. Observes Admiral Stansfield Turner, putting a Maoist spin on the concept, sea denial is “essentially guerrilla warfare at sea.” It is a mode of combat in which a lesser navy—measured by numbers, capability, or both—“hits and runs” at a time of its own choosing, wearing down a stronger foe [2]. This way of thinking has a long pedigree in China, which until the 1980s developed the PLAN as a force for waging “people’s war at sea,” largely because of its operational focus on inshore waters, its lack of oceangoing warships, and the dominance of leaders with an Army background [3]. In spite of China’s growing naval prowess, the PLAN still invests heavily in near-seas platforms (e.g. fast patrol boats) [4]. These vessels, operating in conjunction with the submarine fleet, combat jets, land-based antiship missiles and minelayers, can convert offshore waters into a virtual no-go zone for a potential adversary like the U.S. Pacific Fleet or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force—despite those navies’ overall superiority to the PLAN.

Taiwan’s Current Sea-Denial Capability

Across the strait, by contrast, the ROCN exhibits a peculiar disregard for naval tactics of the disadvantaged. The Taiwan Navy sea-denial fleet consists largely of antiquated Hai Ou (Seagull) class boats that carry only two first-generation antiship missiles apiece and, at only 47 tons, have little sea keeping ability in heavy weather. This affords larger Chinese warships like destroyers or amphibious landing ships a significant advantage, namely the ability to attack when the seas are too rough for the Hai Ous to leave port to oppose them. The successors to the Hai Ou, the 154-ton Kuang Hua VI (Glorious Chinese) boats, look promising on paper. Currently under construction, the boats feature stealthy superstructures that reduce their radar cross-section, helping them evade detection. Moreover, these vessels punch above their weight, carrying four Hsiung Feng-II antiship missiles each [5].

Thirty Kuang Huas are scheduled to be in service by 2015 [6]. Yet the Kuang Hua program has been troubled since its inception in 1996. Poor design, slipshod construction and political controversies over the bidding process delayed serial production for years. It was not until 2007, four years after the prototype entered service, that batches of Kuang Hua boats started being delivered—albeit slowly—to the ROCN. In 2008, the prototype lost power during a typhoon and ran aground, giving rise to doubts about its seaworthiness in choppy Taiwan Strait waters.

Recent disclosures that Taiwan plans to fund a 1,000-ton missile corvette seem to confirm that the naval leadership is losing confidence in the Kuang Hua as an implement of sea denial (United Daily News [Taiwan], September 7, 2009). Reports about the new corvette remain sketchy. Indeed, the top-secret vessel’s existence was only disclosed by accident when its funding line mistakenly appeared in unclassified legislation. It will reportedly be equipped with the indigenously built Hsiung Feng III antiship cruise missile, a bird intended to counter the Russian-built SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles carried by PLAN Sovremennyy-class destroyers. With its 300-km range, the Hsiung Feng III could be lethal in combat against PLAN carrier task forces, the mission for which it was designed [7].

The island’s spotty track record at fielding major weaponry, however, is cause for skepticism about the missile’s prospects. Nor is it clear that the Taiwan Navy could use the Hsiung Feng III to full effect, even if the launch platform performs as advertised. Employing long-range weaponry depends on the capacity to detect, identify, acquire and target enemy platforms at long range. Absent that capacity, naval forces find themselves compelled to hold their fire, to close the range, or to fire blind in hopes of hitting an enemy vessel. A weapon’s effective firing range, then, can be much shorter than its design range. A ship that cuts loose beyond its effective range risks missing its target entirely or hitting commercial shipping—with all the diplomatic blowback such a blunder would entail. Indeed, US Navy warships stopped using the antiship variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile years ago for that very reason, realizing that the fleet’s reach exceeded its grasp. While the new ROCN corvette seemingly holds considerable promise, consequently, a wait-and-see attitude is most proper for the time being [8].

These embarrassments have not gone unnoticed in China, where analysts have unearthed several major flaws in the Kuang Hua. Observers opine that the tall superstructure from which antiship missile canisters protrude will reflect radar, as will the small-caliber guns and other items cluttering the deck. This exposes the craft to detection and targeting, defeating the purpose of its stealthy design (Xiandai Jianchuan 11, November 2007; Xiandai Jianchuan 4, April 2004). Some mainland analysts consider the Kuang Hua’s stealth features both costly and entirely superfluous. They point out that its radar cross-section is virtually indistinguishable from that of Taiwan’s many fishing vessels, letting the boat hide amid traffic in the strait while awaiting its chance to strike (Dangdai Haijun 2, February 2004). Worse, this needless attention to concealment degrades combat performance. The stealth superstructure renders the craft top-heavy, detracting from stability and hindering maneuverability at high speeds—particularly in bad weather (Jianchuan Zhishi 292, January 2004). Still other Chinese analysts point out that the Kuang Hua lacks an on-board command-and-control suite. If PLA missile salvoes incapacitated shore-based ROCN sensors and fire-control systems, the sea-denial fleet would find itself instantly blinded, unable to find let alone target enemy ships (Dangdai Haijun 1, January 2005).

Such critical assessments from mainland analysts are troubling. Yet, the amounts of attention Chinese analysts devote to the Kuang Hua shows how seriously they take the littoral threat. Indeed, they track foreign sea-denial strategies closely, particularly those of Scandinavian navies. This is unsurprising in light of China’s history of people’s war at sea. Nordic fleets pioneered swarming tactics. Missile-armed fast patrol boats exploit the complex maritime geography of the Baltic and North Atlantic seacoasts through speed, stealth and deceptive measures. Handled deftly, small craft can strike a heavy blow against a superior navy closing in on Scandinavian shores—a tactical setting not that different from the Taiwan Strait.

While they deprecate the ROCN, Chinese experts single out the Royal Swedish Navy as a model of sea-denial prowess. Captain Li Jie, a well-known researcher at the Beijing Naval Research Center, lavishes praise on the Visby corvette, depicting this small combatant as a product of Swedish strategic insight and technical virtuosity (Bingqi Zhishi 3, March 2002) [9]. Such in-depth discussions indicate that Beijing genuinely appreciates the value of a capable coastal fleet—and they show how seriously PLAN strategists take the danger should the ROCN turn such a fleet against them. Nor is this mere hype. Chinese threat perceptions offer a good benchmark for future Taiwanese fleet tactics.

How Would ROCN Sea Denial Work?

Despite the Taiwan Navy’s general neglect of its lower-end capabilities, imaginative tactics and operational concepts—some of which enjoy support from Taiwanese strategists—could offset the material shortcomings detailed above. For example, the ROCN could disperse its sea-denial fleet around the island’s maritime perimeter, positioning vessels and support infrastructure in concealed locations like caves or hardened manmade shelters along the seacoast. From there a dispersed fleet could strike at Chinese assets from the near and far sides of the island, remaining mobile and unpredictable. Wolfpacks of fast attack boats prowling along Taiwan’s east coast would enjoy protective cover from the central mountain range, severely complicating PLA detection, tracking, and targeting efforts. Or, flotillas could operate behind the Penghu Islands, using landmasses to screen their movements while awaiting the right moment to launch surprise swarm attacks.

Some Taiwanese strategists are already thinking in such terms. Retired Lieutenant General Li Kui-fa of the ROC Air Force urges the navy to hide its small craft in civilian harbors, letting them blend in with the large Taiwanese fishing fleet (Chien-tuan Ko-chi, April 2009). Even more ambitiously, Captain Li Li-te of the ROCN advocates the combined use of warships and armed fishing vessels to launch saturation missile attacks against Chinese surface vessels (Hai-chun Hsueh-shu Shuang-yueh-kan, October 1, 2008). Such irregular-warfare tactics pose precisely the types of challenges that so impress Chinese analysts about the Nordic navies.

More importantly, deliberately mingling civil and military shipping would force China to make an unpalatable choice. If the PLA chose to strike at the ROCN fleet preemptively, regardless of the fleet’s location, it would have to target nonmilitary sites. Such a move would undoubtedly inflict casualties among Taiwanese fishermen and other noncombatants. This would paint China as the aggressor—hardening the Taiwanese will to fight, increasing the likelihood of U.S. intervention, and bringing international opprobrium down on Beijing. Yet if the PLA refrained from horizontally expanding the war to harbors where ROCN units were stationed, it would concede the Taiwan Navy a sea-denial option. Either way, Taipei would obtain a sorely needed advantage in a deteriorating strategic environment.

More of the Same Is Most Likely

This all sounds simple, but as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observes, “the simplest thing is difficult” in strategic affairs. This is especially true when remaking military services for new realities. In his study of the U.S. military in Vietnam, former counterinsurgency chief Robert Komer recounts how commanders applied a rigid “bureaucratic repertoire” premised on conventional warfare to counterinsurgent warfare—regardless of whether conventional operations fit the circumstances in Indochina [10]. The U.S. Army sought to fit the surroundings to its operational preferences.

Strong, relentless pressure from political or military leaders can result in peacetime reform, but this is the exception. It often takes wartime defeat to clear the mind. Absent some shock to the system, services naturally tend to keep doing what worked before—or have not been proved not to work. Scholar William Murray met stiff yet predictable Taiwanese resistance to a 2008 Naval War College Review article in which he implored Taipei to rethink its military strategy, shifting from an offensive to a defensive stance [11]. Conceding military superiority to the PLA evidently represents a bridge too far for many Taiwanese officials.

Any challenge to ROCN strategy and forces is apt to encounter similar pushback. If anything, navies are more prone to cultural myopia than most institutions. Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, joked that a “peculiar psychology” pervaded the U.S. Navy establishment. In this quasi-religious outlook, “Neptune was God,” the navy “the only true Church” [12]. Dogma worked against innovation. Oftentimes smaller allies mimic their patrons’ strategic and operational preferences. U.S. Navy influence may have contributed to ROCN mariners’ lingering fascination with capital ships.

Reorienting the ROCN toward sea denial would mean playing down its tradition of fleet-on-fleet engagements and letting go of prized assets. Ships comprise much of a navy’s institutional identity. Naval leaders can seldom resist the temptation to argue on behalf of particular ships, aircraft or armaments as a substitute for formulating strategy and operational concepts. They also favor big platforms with multiple missions—meaning that basing ROCN strategy on fast attack boats with one mission, and engaging enemy surface forces, is a toxic thought for many officers. Abandoning missions may be as unbearable for the Taiwan Navy as parting with major combatants or dispersing forces.

Having lobbied tirelessly for Kidd-class destroyers and other big-ticket items, the ROCN command would find it next to impossible to abandon the sunk costs of this weaponry, truly embracing guerrilla warfare at sea. Nor would reinventing the ROCN as a sea-denial force stop with hardware. The navy would have to develop new doctrine to put its fast attack craft to good use; the officer corps would have to steep itself in small-unit tactics predicated on isolating and annihilating individual PLAN units or small formations remote from mutual support.

A sea-denial culture, then, would place a premium on small-unit cohesion and individual initiative. This would involve a radical shift away from centralized command-and-control, both to enhance tactical effectiveness and to reduce the navy’s vulnerability to preemptive PLA strikes against command-and-control nodes on the island. In institutional, equipment, and personnel terms, sea denial would spell fundamental change to how the ROCN conducts operations. Whether there exist any constituencies in Taipei that are strong, determined and knowledgeable enough to impose change on a Taiwan Navy obsessed with sea control appears doubtful. In all likelihood, the navy will keep trying to do everything at once, comporting itself like a U.S. Navy in miniature. If so, it will keep underperforming in both sea control and sea denial.


1. “ROC Navy Vision,” Republic of China Navy Website, https://navy.mnd.gov.tw/english/Publish.aspx?cnid=834&Level=1.
2. Stansfield Turner, in Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 153.
3. David G. Muller Jr., China as a Maritime Power (Boulder: Westview, 1983).
4. Ting Yu, “A Discussion of the Place and Role of China’s Type-022 Stealth Guided Missile Boat,” Modern Weaponry 9 (2008): pp. 35-43. See also John Patch, “A Thoroughbred Ship-Killer,” Naval Institute Proceedings 136, no. 4 (April 2010): pp. 48-53.
5. “Kuang Hua VI Fast Attack Missile Craft,” GlobalSecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/taiwan/kuang-hua-fac.htm.
6. Ibid.
7. “Hsiung Feng III,” GlobalSecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/taiwan/hf-3.htm.
8. “Taiwan Developing ‘Carrier Killer,’” Straits Times, April 12, 2010, https://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Asia/Story/STIStory_513564.html.
9.  “Visby Class Corvettes, Sweden,” naval-technology.com, https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/visby/.
10. Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder: Westview, 1986).
11. William S. Murray, “Rethinking Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” Naval War College Review 61, no. 3 (summer 2008): pp. 13-38.
12. “Armed Forces: A Dim Religious World,” Time, February 9, 1948, https://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,855981,00.html.