Taiwan’s new ‘Carrier Killer’ shows both strength and weakness

By Jackson Webster:

Taiwan's new Tuo Jiang class corvette 'carrier killer' (Photo: Wikipedia)
Taiwan’s new Tuo Jiang class corvette ‘carrier killer’ (Photo: Wikipedia)

This January, Taiwan’s navy received the first order of its newest vessel, the Tuo Jiang. The Taiwan Navy has dubbed this twin-hulled corvette a ‘carrier killer,’ and the Taiwanese Minister of National Defence, Yen Ming, has announced his government’s intention to field an entire fleet of the new domestically-developed ships. The ship’s construction is an entirely unsubtle reaction to the People’s Republic of China’s launch of the Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) refitted ex-Ukrainian aircraft carrier. Though it will remain inoperable for at least another 5 years, the Liaoning is regardless seen as a symbol of growing Chinese regional power and extra-regional ambition.

The Taiwanese have given the Tuo Jiang its nickname of ‘carrier killer’ due to its stealth, speed, and armament of domestically-produced guided anti-ship missiles such as the Hsiung Feng III. The tactical concept is that a large fleet of such vessels could sneak up on a carrier battle-group and swarm the enemy ships’ Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS) with so many anti-ship missiles that the defensive screen of anti-missile fire would prove inadequate. At a top speed of 44 knots (81 km/h) the new vessel is the fastest warship fielded by any Asian navy, and its composite material construction and angular surfaces – designed to deflect radar signals – make this corvette perhaps the most modern platform in the region. Additionally, the shallow draft of a twin-hulled ship is ideal for operating in the littoral coastal waters ofTaiwan, whose government-in-exile has, since 1949, claimed to be the true ‘Republic of China’ (RoC).

Whilst the vessel is an impressive show of domestic engineering, it could have been built in vain due to Taiwan’s inability to prepare for the modern battlespace. The problems facing a Republic of China Navy (RoCN) operation against the PLAN are threefold.

The first is in air power. The Strait of Taiwan is not a large stretch of water: it is only 180km wide at its longest stretch —plenty long enough for Chinese fighter-bombers to operate from bases on the mainland. Additionally, in 2004 the PLA purchased supersonic fourth generation strike fighters in the form of Russian-built Sukhoi 30 MKK2. This platform allows the People’s Liberation Army Navy to eliminate Taiwanese naval forces using an extensive arsenal of ‘access denial’ (A2/AD) anti-ship cruise missiles China has built domestically over the last three decades. These strike aircraft equally cannot be countered by Taiwan because Taipei’s air force possesses no high-altitude interceptors and consists entirely of outdated American-built F-16s and French-built Mirage IIIs, both of which would be outnumbered and outclassed by the PLA.

Secondly, due to the RoC’s lack of air superiority, Taiwanese surface vessels would not be able to exploit the 100km range of the Hsiung Feng guided anti-ship missiles, the primary armament of the Tuo Jiang. The Earth is round. Surface vessels can fire at targets over the horizon but they cannot use radar to locate these targets. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft are needed to acquire targets beyond the horizon. Taiwan only possesses 14 such aircraft, which they would be unable to use in any case due to Chinese air superiority. Above all, this air superiority would be provided by weapons platforms on mainland China, aircraft which do not need to be launched from an aircraft carrier because their operational range is twice the size of the Strait of Taiwan.

Thirdly, the Tuo Jiang itself is extremely vulnerable to air and missile attack. The corvette’s only defensive armament is a single 20mm Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS). To protect themselves from missile strikes, carrier strike groups will carry dozens of these weapons. There is a serious doubt as to whether the Tuo Jiang would be able to protect itself from a swarm of Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), even in large numbers. Taiwan’s Oliver Hazard Perry Class and Chi Yang destroyers, which possess the CIWS systems to defend against Chinese ASCMs, could be fielded in sufficient numbers to protect an anti-carrier strike force of corvettes —the RoCN operates about two-dozen such vessels— but these platforms have one serious weakness: they lack stealth capability. Whilst corvettes could avoid detection by Chinese land-based A2/AD anti-ship missiles, Taiwan’s destroyers would be unable to safely accompany the corvettes close enough to the Chinese coastline to provide sufficient cover. Taiwan could counter this by purchasing more “Frégates Légères Furtives” Lafayette from the French (the RoCN currently operates six), which have a reduced radar cross-section. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee this limited ‘stealth’ would prevent Chinese missiles from targeting the craft as it has never seen combat against advanced radar targeting systems.

Make no mistake, the Tuo Jiang is truly an impressive feat of engineering. It is fast, stealthy, and carries a mission-focused state-of-the-art weapons package. It shows technical prowess, but equally reveals a search for a silver bullet solution in the face of dwindling budgetary commitment to defence in the Taiwanese civilian polity. Taiwan may have acquired the capability to destroy a Chinese aircraft carrier, but this is not what Taiwan needs. The ‘Carrier Killer’ may be a wonderful public relations stunt for the Taiwanese defence establishment, but it is Chinese land-based aircraft, and the missiles these air platforms can deliver, which pose a real threat to Taiwanese surface forces, shipping, and national sovereignty.

Jackson Webster is a native of Manhattan Beach, California, and is currently reading International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

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