Taiwan’s Navy: Still in Command of the Sea?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 6

Taiwan Navy's Website

The Republic of China Navy (ROCN), or Taiwan Navy, has an ambitious vision for its future strategy. According to the “ROC Navy Vision,” which is available on the Navy’s website, “Based on the guidance of ‘Command and control automation, Three-dimensional mobile strike capabilities and Missile-oriented weapon system,’ and through measures such as enhancing intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance, extending strike zone depth, expanding combat radius, accelerating response and contingency protection, the Navy aims to construct an effective deterring and three-dimensional mobile strike force that is elite, highly efficient, rapidly deployable, and capable of performing long range strikes” [1]. In other words, this “ROC Navy Vision” statement means that the Taiwanese navy intends to field surface, subsurface and aerial forces that share a common operating picture of the waters and skies around the island, fight together cohesively, and can strike at targets far distant, at sea or ashore, with ship-launched missiles. Can the ROCN follow through on such an ambitious vision? Naval operations fall into several categories, including sea control, sea denial, power projection ashore, attacks on or defense of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and naval diplomacy. Of these, the first—sea control—is most relevant to a cross-Strait contingency, the driving factor in Taipei’s defense strategy. For the sake of economy, the authors set aside the other functions and assess the ROCN’s capacity for sea control.

Sea Control

The Taiwan Navy advertises its chief missions as breaking blockades and providing for SLOC security (GlobalSecurity.org). Winning control of the seas and skies adjoining the island is a prerequisite for both of these missions. Indeed, this is the stiffest challenge the ROCN faces. Writes Milan Vego, sea control connotes the ability to operate “with a high degree of freedom in a sea or ocean area … for a limited period of time” [2]. For Taiwan, this means the liberty to operate in the waters around the island in the face of a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), whose margin of superiority is steadily widening, giving the mainland an advantage not only in numbers but in the quality of ships, aircraft, and armaments. Unless the ROCN is equipped to contend for temporary dominance of vital sea and air expanses, it will be unable to take to the seas to fend off a Chinese invasion force or protect shipping bound to or from Taiwanese seaports.

The outlook for ROCN sea control is worsening by the day. For one thing, in the event of an imminent conflict, Taipei must contend with the likelihood of a preemptive attack from China’s growing force of short-range ballistic missiles, which can strike at targets like ports and airfields [3]. With the ROCN fleet concentrated in a few ports like Tsoying, Suao and Keelung, this constitutes a critical vulnerability in the island’s defenses (GlobalSecurity.org). In a much-discussed 2008 article, William Murray of U.S. Naval War College opines that China “has shifted its anti-Taiwan military strategy away from coercion by punishment toward denying Taiwan the use of its air force and navy.” Neither the ROCN nor the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), says Murray, “is likely to survive such an attack” [4].

For another, Taiwanese air superiority is in bad shape, and sea-control operations can hardly proceed without it. Until recent years, the standard wisdom held that the ROCAF would gain air superiority if not air supremacy—in other words undisputed control—of the skies over the Taiwan Strait in the opening hours of a China-Taiwan war. Such assumptions now appear fanciful. U.S. administrations have denied repeated requests from Taipei to purchase 66 F-16 C/D Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft to replenish a force made up of earlier variants of the F-16, elderly fighters like the F-5 Tiger, and maintenance-intensive aircraft like the French-built Mirage 2000 (GlobalSecurity.org) (Technically speaking, Washington has not rejected Taipei’s entreaty but has taken it “under consideration,” meaning that it remains in indefinite bureaucratic limbo). The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently sounded the alarm about the readiness of Taiwanese warplanes. While the air force possesses some 400 fighters, reports DIA, “far fewer of these are operationally capable”, owing to age and maintenance problems [5]. Taiwan’s fleet of tactical aircraft is stagnating, then, even as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force upgrades and modernizes its own combat planes.

Nor is the Taiwanese fleet configured particularly well for sea control. The ROCN submarine “fleet” barely merits the name. Two Dutch-built Zwaardvis-class diesel-electric boats, along with two World War II-era Guppy-class boats no longer suitable for combat comprise the navy’s undersea force [6]. Factoring in the cycle of maintenance and crew training, only one Zwaardvis boat will normally be ready for sea at any given time. The most modern surface combatants in the Taiwan Navy inventory are six French-built Lafayette-class frigates, known in Taiwan as the Kang Ding class. The Kang Ding can carry eight vertically launched Hsiung Feng II surface-to-surface missiles and four vertically launched short-range Sea Chaparral surface-to-air missiles. Advertised as comparable to the U.S. Harpoon anti-ship missile, the Hsiung Feng II has a maximum range of 160 km, or just over 99 miles. The Sea Chaparral has a range of 9 km, or under 6 miles—too small a buffer to allow much response time against evasive supersonic missiles. The Kang Ding is equipped with hull-mounted and towed-array sonar, with torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) [7]. From a technological standpoint, the stealthy Kang Dings are impressive vessels, but they carry too few rounds to slug it out for long against numerically superior PLAN surface and undersea units operating from bases scattered along the mainland coast.

Most of the ROCN’s anti-air warfare (AAW) capability resides in four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), renamed the Keelung class upon being transferred to the ROCN. Built for the shah of Iran, the Kidd class represented the state-of-the-art in U.S. Navy AAW in the early 1980s, just before the advent of the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers. The Keelung carries medium-range Standard Missiles for AAW and 8 Harpoon anti-ship missiles for battling enemy surface fleets. (With no towed-array sonar to listen passively for undersea contacts—the best way to find enemy submarines without broadcasting one’s own position—the Keelung’s ASW capability rates as so-so at best). These DDGs remain potent as AAW platforms, but at nearly 30 years old, their “New Threat Upgrade” combat-systems suite is falling behind the new technologies being developed and fielded across the Strait. The rest of the ROCN surface fleet is comprised of modest vessels like guided missile frigates (FFGs) modeled on the U.S. Perry-class frigates. Designed for low-intensity threat environments, FFGs are outfitted with limited defensive and offensive weaponry. Finally, the ROCN’s Knox¬-class frigates are capable yet aging ASW vessels dating from the early 1970s (GlobalSecurity.org).

None of these warships is optimal for fleet operations on a difficult maritime terrain like the Taiwan Strait, where reaction time against air or missile strikes is compressed and submarines can lurk undetected in shallow water before conducting torpedo or anti-ship missile attacks. With Taiwanese air power on the decline and the navy’s ASW capacity in doubt—U.S. submariners insist the best ASW platform is another submarine—the ROCN’s prospects for wresting sea control from the PLAN in wartime appear slight. With few new acquisitions or upgrades in the works, the ROCN stands little chance of significantly enhancing the survivability, combat punch or combat reach of its sea-control fleet—that is to say, of fulfilling the goals set forth in the ROCN Vision.

Disparaging Views in China

Chinese observers by and large agree that, for a variety of reasons, the Taiwan Navy is not up to par regarding the sea-control functions outlined in the ROCN Vision. Condescension pervades Chinese analyses of the ROCN. Writing in Modern Navy, Yang Peng notes that Taiwan’s surface fleet is acutely vulnerable to guided missile-strikes. The fleet’s AAW pickets are particularly susceptible to saturation missile attacks (baohe daodan gongji) and rely excessively on the protective umbrella hoisted by tactical air power [8]. Yang forecasts that Taiwanese ships will hesitate to venture beyond the range of land-based air cover. This reticence severely constricts the Taiwanese Navy’s tactical radius. Wu Letian not only questions the Taiwan Navy’s ability to prosecute anti-submarine and minesweeping operations, but also deprecates its capacity to fight at sea for very long [9].

More specifically, Chinese analysts voice dismissive attitudes toward Taiwan’s main surface combatants. For instance, they appear not to take the Kidd-class destroyers, the island’s capital ships, very seriously. Sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan famously defined capital ships as “the backbone and real power of any navy,” meaning “the vessels which, by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers, are capable of taking and giving hard knocks” [10]. By this standard, the ROCN falls woefully short—as Chinese thinkers rightly observe.

Tian Ying, for example, doubts that the Kidds would survive in the complex threat environment of the Taiwan Strait. Dated hardware is one shortcoming. Tian predicts that DDGs would find themselves hard-pressed to cope with multidirectional, saturation missile attacks launched from Chinese fighter aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Notably, the author expresses confidence that sea-skimming missiles fired from fighters flying at very low altitude would remain undetected until it was too late for the Kidds to take effective defensive measures [11]. More mundane reasons also help explain this low regard. The ROCN is chronically short on spare parts for the Kidds’ combat systems. The U.S. Navy no longer stocks spares for New Threat Upgrade ships, all of which it retired long ago, and cannibalizing decommissioned vessels only goes so far. Indeed, logistical shortfalls prompted one commentator to prophesy that DDGs may amount to “a pile of scrap metal” in serious fleet combat [12].

Hai Dun questions whether the Taiwan Navy can maximize the ASW suite on board the Knox-class frigates. Hai reminds readers that the Knox was designed to search for Soviet nuclear submarines in the open ocean. The ship’s blue-water ASW suite is a wasted asset for the relatively shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait [13]. This explains the ROCN’s seemingly mysterious decision to base the Knox at Suao Naval Base, along the island’s eastern seaboard, facing the deep waters of the Pacific. Since Taiwan’s major ports and urban centers dot the western coast, and since the main threat axis emanates from China to the west, the Knox is poised to protect the least vulnerable, least critical Taiwanese frontier. The Knox is a platform in search of a mission, and may remain so until the PLAN undersea fleet develops the capacity to patrol off Taiwan’s east coast, creating demand for the ROCN to perform deep-water ASW.

Nor, to Chinese eyes, will reorganizing the ROCN fleet for forward defense fully offset these tactical and hardware shortcomings. Yue Kaifeng and Tian Shuangxi argue that Taipei’s decision to create mobile flotillas centered on the Kidd- and Lafayette-class vessels entails major strategic risk for Taiwan. In theory, surface action groups (SAGs) would expand the strategic depth around the island. However, these Chinese analysts estimate that the ROCN cannot afford both a sea-control fleet organized into SAGs and forces designed for close-in defense. Siphoning off resources from coastal defense to sea-control missions thus imperils the ROCN’s readiness to fight off an amphibious invasion force close in along Taiwanese shorelines [14]. Perversely, Taipei might forego its last line of defense for the sake of forward defenses that stand little chance of surviving a Chinese onslaught. This would denude Taiwan of its most effective defense against amphibious assault.

Taipei’s vision of offensive sea control, then, appears less and less tenable, and Beijing knows it. Chinese naval thinkers have shrewdly and accurately taken the Taiwan Navy’s measure. Whether the ROCN will candidly evaluate its own shortcomings—and adapt its strategy, doctrine and forces to compensate—remains to be seen.


1. “ROC Navy Vision,” Republic of China Navy Website, https://navy.mnd.gov.tw/english/Publish.aspx?cnid=834&Level=1.
2. Milan N. Vego, Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas, 2d ed., rev. (London: Frank Cass, 2003), p. 111.
3. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009, Department of Defense Website, pp. 41-42, https://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/China_Military_Power_Report_2009.pdf.
4. William S. Murray, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” Naval War College Review 61, no. 3 (summer 2008): pp. 14-15.
5. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Taiwan Air Defense Assessment, January 21, 2010, GlobalSecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2010/taiwan-air-defense_dia_100121.htm.
6.  “Submarine Proliferation: Taiwan Current Capabilities,” Nuclear Threat Initiative Website, January 2010, https://www.nti.org/db/submarines/taiwan/index.html.
7.  “Kang Ding Class Frigates, Taiwan,” naval-technology.com, https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/fayette/.
8. Yang Peng, “Taiwan’s Surface Fleet Anti-Ship Combat Methods and Analysis of Strengths and Weaknesses,” Modern Navy 12 (2004): p. 33.
9. Wu Letian, “Overview of Taiwan Navy,” Modern Navy 1 (2004): p. 49.
10. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897; reprint, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), p. 198.
11. Tian Ying, “Objectively Assessing the Kidd-class,” Shipborne Weapons 7 (2004): p. 78.
12. Yu Fu, “Taiwan Navy’s Kidd Ships May Become a Pile of Scrap Metal,” Modern Navy 1 (2009).
13. Hai Dun, “Knox Class and Taiwan’s Anti-Submarine Capabilities,” Shipborne Weapons 12 (2004): p. 80.
14. Yue Kaifeng and Tian Shuangxi, “The Mingling of Old and New Equipment in Taiwan’s Navy,” Xiandai Bingqi 3 (2004): p. 5.