Taiwan says it is accelerating production of nearly a dozen stealthy Tuo Chiang-class missile corvettes, the first of which will be focused on air-defense missions. The announcement is another part of the island’s attempts to keep pace with China’s People’s Liberation Army's development of increasingly advanced capabilities in the air and at sea and provide a credible defense during a crisis in the region.
On May 14, 2018, Taiwanese Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa said that under the new plan, eight additional Tuo Chiangs – a name that translates simply as Tou River, an upper tributary of the Yangtze on the mainland – would be in service by 2025, with the first three being in an anti-aircraft configuration. The other five will be primarily configured for anti-ship warfare. We do not know what configuration the final three vessels in the class will be in when they enter service, which is still expected to occur in 2039 as laid out in the original schedule. Taiwan's Defense Ministry said that timeline might get moved up, as well.
At present, the Taiwanese Navy has one effectively prototype Tou Chiang in service, which it took delivery of from Lung Teh Shipyard in 2014. The ships have been in development since 2011 and the full production examples were initially supposed to arrive in three batches, rather than two.
“The corvette is a crucial piece of the military’s asymmetric warfare,” Yen reportedly told the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in announcing the change in production plan, according to The Taipei Times. “Shortening its construction schedule would increase the nation’s combat capability.”
When Yen says “asymmetric,” what he most likely means is Taiwan hopes these ships will offer an important, but cost-effective boost in capabilities against the much larger Chinese military, despite their relatively small size. The primary goal of the class is to be able to help reduce the operational demands on larger, more capable ships during an actual conflict, as well as help protect those surface action groups.
The first-in-class Tou Chiang displaces less than 600 tons, but has a top speed of nearly 75 miles per hour. The catamaran-style ship also features a low-observable hullform. Together, this makes the ship larger, faster, and more survivable than Taiwan's existing Ching Chiang- and Kuang Hua VI-class missile boats.
The production ships are expected to have a displacement closer to 700 tons and an elongated hull. This is supposed to help accommodate their primary armament of a vertical launch system array with four cells. The plan would be to use quad-packed missiles to further expand the total number of weapons each one of the corvettes can carry at a time.
In the air defense configuration, the cells could contain 16 Tien Chien IIN, also known as the Sky Sword IIN, medium-range surface-to-air missiles. Taiwan first tested this missile, a navalized version of the existing Tien Chien/Sky Sword II air-to-air type, in 2014.
There have been reports that air defense-focused Tou Chiangs might eventually carry the Tien Kung III, or Sky Bow III, a longer-range surface-to-air missile that has a limited anti-ballistic missile capability. However, the corvettes do not have anything approaching the radar capabilities that would be necessary to track those incoming weapons and cue its missiles to intercept them. To make use of these weapons, the ships would have to rely entirely on networked sensors or other platforms for this mission.
The primary armament of the anti-ship types would be 16 Hsiung Feng II or III – translated as Brave Wind II and III – anti-ship missiles. Reports suggest that those vessels could carry a mix of the subsonic Hsiung Feng II and supersonic Hsiung Feng III to offer a cost-effective set of options to engage various types of naval targets.
All of the Tou Chiangs also have a 76mm rapid-fire gun in a turret on the bow and a Phalanx close-in weapon system toward the stern, as well as launchers for infrared decoys and chaff canisters. The Taiwanese Navy also wants to eventually replace the Phalanx with the domestically designed and still-in-development Sea Oryx, which is similar visually and in concept to the U.S. Navy’s RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile close-in defense system.
There first Tou Chiang has a variable depth sonar and two three-tube torpedo launchers that sit behind retractable external doors, giving the ship a secondary anti-submarine capability. It is unclear whether or not these systems will be a part of the final configuration, but it would make sense given China's large existing submarine fleet and efforts to further improve its undersea capabilities.
With their high speed and low-observable characteristics, the Tou Chiangs could offer important additional capabilities for Taiwan in any confrontation with China. Unlike fixed, land-based anti-air and anti-ship defenses, the ships would be able to better conceal themselves from Chinese forces, which is an especially important consideration given how small the island is and how close it is to the mainland.
It is possible that the two configurations might be able to work together, with the air-defense versions guarding the other ships carrying anti-ship missiles. Even with only a small number Tou Chiangs, this could allow for rapid, distributed attacks on Chinese surface forces from multiple directions, which could disrupt their plans and force them to divert resources to engage the smaller missile corvettes.
Local media in Taiwan has already dubbed the ships “carrier killers,” implying that they might offer an answer to China’s growing fleet of flattops. In April 2018, the People’s Liberation Army Navy staged their largest ever exercise in the Taiwan Strait, which included the aircraft carrier Liaoning and dozens of other surface ships and submarines. In October 2017, Chinese premier Xi Jinping had said he would not hesitate use any means necessary to "defeat" any Taiwanese attempt to declare independence.
Still, they would undoubtedly offer an important boost in capability in the constrained environment of the Taiwan Strait, which puts much of the island and its surrounding area within range of ground-based Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as its multi-role fighter and bomber aircraft. That’s not mentioning China’s growing naval capabilities, including Russian-made hovercrafts that could ferry troops and other equipment to the island straight from the mainland in less than two hours during amphibious operations.
With their high speed, the Tou Chiangs might be better suited to quickly respond to changing situations and new developments, especially air or sea attacks on the Pacific Ocean side of the island. This is increasingly becoming a new vector for potential threats, with the Chinese recently sending fighters and bombers on a training mission that effectively encircled Taiwan earlier in May 2018.
Equally important, the Tou Chiangs could offer a vital extension of the air defense net around Tawian’s larger surface combatants, including its Kee Lung-class destroyers, and Kang Ding-class and Cheng Kung-class frigates. The latter two are French-made Lafayette-class ships, which have their own stealthy features, and derivatives of the U.S. Navy’s now-retired
Oliver Hazard Perry-class, respectively.
These ships form the bulk of Taiwan’s naval combat capabilities, but there are less than 20 of them altogether to face a Chinese Navy that will eventually have nearly as many Type 052D destroyers alone. As such, the would almost certainly be major targets for Chinese forces during a conflict and would be in high demand to provide longer-range anti-air and anti-ship defenses around the island.
With Tou Chiangs providing additional local defense or conducting their own distributed attacks, these destroyer and frigate crews could be able to focus their attention on higher priority targets or other more demanding tasks. The Taiwan Strait could easily become a particularly target-dense environment during any actual skirmish, which would demand the smaller Taiwanese military to do its best to try and focus its limited resources on the most important missions.
The larger surface ships, with their more robust sensor suites and helicopters, might be able to quickly locate opponents and vector the smaller corvettes in to attack, too. Taiwan's Navy is also interested in increasing the networking capabilities on all of these ships, which might allow the Tou Chiangs to receive targeting information directly in the future.
But accelerating the production schedule might not be enough to necessarily get the Tou Chiangs into service faster and with their full combat capabilities. In 2016, Taiwan’s negotiations with Lockheed Martin to buy the necessary Mk 41 Vertical Launch Systems broke down and the island’s government said it would look into purchasing less capable Mk 48 launchers in the interim.
When the U.S. government announced it had approved more than $1 billion in potential arms sales to Taiwan in June 2017, the press releases did not mention either system. Without the missile systems, the corvettes would have extremely limited utility as air defense platforms in any high-end conflict. The anti-ship versions would still be able to operate, but would also not be able to rapidly shift roles if necessary.
There is no indication that Taiwan has the resources, or any interest, in attempting to develop a VLS system on its own, either. If it did decide to go that route, it would almost certainly require significant help from outside defense contractors, which would again require approval from foreign governments who often have to balance support for Taiwan against angering the government in Beijing.
The ships are also competing for limited financial resources and could see cost growth associated with speeding up the construction timetable. As of October 2017, Taiwan’s draft defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year was less than $11 billion.
The Tou Chiang cost less than $75 million, but it is unclear whether this included the full suite of weapons and other mission systems. The larger production types could be more expensive to begin with, though experience with the design may help drive down the unit price over time.
On top of that, there doesn’t appear to be any plans to expand the shipbuilding capacity at Lung Teh to try and keep up with Chinese developments. Even under the new schedule, the shipyard will be building around one of the diminutive ships every year on average.
In a seven-year span, China built more than 80 examples of the Type 22 Houbei-class, a stealthy catamaran fast-attack missile craft with a displacement of about a third of that of the Tuo Chiangs. The country is churning out larger, more advanced surface ships at a prodigious rate, as well.
The video below shows Chinese Type 22 missile boats.
When it comes to the island's air defense, the Tou Chiangs could find themselves competing for funding with projects to improve land-based air defenses and the desperate need to modernize the Taiwanese Air Force. At present, the big push there is to upgrade the country’s F-16A/B Viper fighter jets, but there have been reports that Taiwanese authorities might try and lease F-15C Eagle fighters or even buy stealthy F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. One way or another, the island’s authorities will have to address the aging fleet of older combat jets, which are increasingly dangerous to operate, if they are to maintain viable air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities in the near term.
This may not necessarily be an issue given the potential for increased support from the United States under President Donald Trump, who, since he was president-elect, has appeared very supportive of the island’s independent government. In March 2018, he signed a bill encouraging increased U.S. government engagement with their Taiwanese counterparts.
The Trump administration has separately pursued hardline policies targeting Chinese economic and business practices, as well, signaling a potential for the United States to take a less conciliatory stance toward Beijing’s interests. At the same time, though, Trump himself has publicly called for steps to insulate certain businesses in China – including telecommunications firms the U.S. government has decried as national security threats – from those restrictions, calling into question the true nature of these policies.
In the meantime, the Taiwanese government looks intent on having Lung Teh speed up production of the Tuo Chiangs, though it remains to be seen what exact configuration they end up in when they first enter service.
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