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Taiwans Interest in Aegis Warships: Would They Make

Operational Sense During Cross-Strait Hostilities?


Ben Wan Beng Ho and Shang-Su Wu
RUSI Defence Systems, 31 October 2016

Taiwan has unveiled a $15-billion indigenous naval shipbuilding plan that seeks to wean the
Republic of China Navy (RoCN) off foreign acquisitions and deliver twelve new platform
initiatives between 2017 and 2040. Particularly eye-catching amongst these programs is the
idea of an Aegis warship
The Taiwanese Aegis platform would be a 6,0008,000-ton destroyer equipped with the
vertical-launch system and radar suite which make up the Aegis system. While this plan is
not yet confirmed, it comes on the back of Taiwanese interest in acquiring Aegis which dates
back to the 1990s. Therefore, it is important to consider whether it makes operational sense
for the Republic of China Navy (RoCN) to acquire Aegis to counter the military of the
Peoples Republic of China during a conflict.
The Taiwanese naval establishment is currently committed to the notion of attaining sea
control during wartime, and powerful surface platforms such as an Aegis destroyer would
play a key role. The emphasis on large warships in the 2016 shipbuilding plan attests to this,
as does Taiwans naval doctrine for defending against an attack from mainland China, which
is divided into two stages.
The first phase involves the RoCN attempting to preserve its capital assets destroyers and
frigates by deploying them away from the main area of operations in the Taiwan Strait.
These ships would form surface action groups (SAGs) and be placed in littoral waters off
eastern Taiwan or further east into the Philippine Sea. The reason for this is that it would be
virtually suicidal for these large and valuable vessels to operate in the relatively congested
Taiwan Strait. Deployed east of the main area of operations, RoCN SAGs would act as a
fleet-in-being to complicate mainland Chinas military planning. The second phase in
Taiwans naval doctrine would see its major surface combatants engaging in a decisive
battle with Chinese forces to attain sea control of the Taiwan Strait. However, the
circumstances under which this would occur are unclear.
That being said, air superiority is the critical factor on which the SAG concept, and for that
matter the entire Taiwanese naval doctrine of sea control, depend in order to be practical.
However, achieving air superiority against the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
will be extremely difficult considering the growth of Chinese airpower in recent years and the
parallel atrophy of that of Taiwans.
Without control of the skies, Taiwans SAGs would struggle to survive, let alone conduct
offensive missions against a Chinese fleet. Indeed, even during the first phase of operations,
deployed to the east of Taiwan for protection, RoCN SAGs would still be within striking
range of the PLAAF. China has invested in long-range attack aircraft, such as the Su-30MK2

and JH-7, which are geared towards attacking American carrier strike groups farther out
within the Second Island Chain.
Moreover, while RoCN SAGs could operate under the cover of land-based airpower, this is
likely to be crippled during the opening day(s) of a war with China by debilitating missile
strikes against air bases. Indeed, a 2009 RAND study estimated that 60200 submunitionarmed short-range ballistic missiles would be sufficient to at least temporarily put most of
Taiwans fighter bases out of action.
Even if the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) manages to remain relatively intact after
initial Chinese missile attacks, it will find itself outnumbered and, to a lesser extent,
outclassed in aerial combat. The RoCAF has an advantage in terms of pilot training compared
with its mainland counterpart, but this disparity is reversed in terms of platforms. Taiwans
early model F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighters are already slightly outclassed by the PLAAFs
Su-35S and J-10B fighters, and this disparity will only increase with the entry of the lowobservable J-20As into large-scale service in coming years.
Without control of the skies, the threat posed by Chinese submarines to RoCN assets would
be accentuated due to Taiwans dependence on aerial assets for its anti-submarine warfare
(ASW) capabilities. While there are four diesel-electric submarines in the RoCN order of
battle, it bears consideration that two of them are early Cold War-era Guppys, while the
other two are of the Zwaardvis class built by the Dutch during the early 1980s. In other
words, Taiwans submarine fleet is too small and obsolete to counter the threat posed by
Chinese boats. In order to counter the PRCs increasing undersea-warfare capabilities,
Taipeis most effective ASW assets consist of P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and S-70C
Seahawk helicopters. However, helicopters and turboprop aircraft such as the Orion are
essentially defenceless in a non-permissive operating environment.
In other words the RoCN fleet, even with an Aegis destroyer as its centrepiece, faces multidimensional threats that will undoubtedly be amplified if air superiority cannot be attained.
This calls into question the sea-control focus in contemporary Taiwanese naval doctrine.
In a 2011 study, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara made a compelling case that large
warship-centric SAGs were not suited for the contested operating environment of a
confrontation against a peer competitor, of the sort which would occur in a Taiwan-versusChina scenario. The two US Naval War College academics asserted that Taipei would do
well to move away from a sea-control posture towards a sea-denial one in view of the
increasing capabilities of Chinas military. This view has subsequently been reinforced by a
number of other naval analysts.
The sea-denial philosophy argues that the resources to procure and operate large, costly
platforms such as Aegis destroyers could be better used by acquiring capabilities that address
Taipeis current and potential geostrategic realities. Submarines, by virtue of being hard to
detect, are arguably the ultimate sea-denial asset. However, few foreign countries, if any,
would want to sell modern attack submarines to Taiwan due to an inevitable backlash from
China. Moreover, Taiwan does not have any experience in indigenous submarine
construction, so the process of building its own boats would undoubtedly be an expensive and
protracted one.

The conventional wisdom is that small, fast and manoeuvrable missile-armed fast attack craft
(FAC) are more suited to fulfilling Taiwanese sea-denial requirements during a war.
Nevertheless, the operational advantages offered by this class of platform could be negated
by the geography of the Taiwan Strait. For one, the strait is relatively uncluttered by
landforms compared with other littoral bodies of water as the only land features located
within it are the Penghu Islands. This is important since small craft would normally hide
amongst islands and islets in order to launch surprise attack on large surface combatants.
With only the Penghu Islands to hide in, RoCN FACs operating in the Taiwan Strait, perhaps
even the newly acquired stealthy Tuo Chiang-class missile corvettes, would be susceptible to
detection by the Chinese.
In conclusion, it does not make operational sense for Taiwan to procure Aegis destroyers to
hedge against the threat from China. The flawed premise of the Taiwanese SAG concept
renders these sophisticated but expensive platforms of dubious utility in wartime. However,
the emphasis on big-ticket items in Taiwans recent naval shipbuilding plan shows clearly
that the proclivity for blue-water operations is entrenched in the RoCN. With current Aegis
systems as reference, a similar Taiwanese platform could cost anything from $600 million
(the unit cost of the first four Spanish lvaro de Bazn-class frigates) to well over $1 billion
(the price tag for the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer). Indeed, the funds for
procuring a notional Taiwanese Aegis destroyer costing a relatively low $600 million could
be better used to acquire at least eight Tuo Chiangs as part of a revised strategy focusing on
sea denial.
Therefore, while the sea-denial approach as espoused by several naval commentators seems
to be more viable for the RoCN, its effectiveness could be limited by various exogenous
factors as discussed above. Nonetheless, while this strategy is admittedly not a silver bullet to
the Chinese military threat, it could help to alleviate it.
Ben Wan Beng Ho
Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapores S Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS).
This author can be reached at iswbho@ntu.edu.sg
Shang-Su Wu
Research Fellow with the Military Studies Programme, RSIS.
This author can be reached at issswu@ntu.edu.sg