Volume 9 Issue 1
An Alternative for the Republic of China Navy after Coronavirus Disease 2019
By Jung-Ming Chang
It is reported that 36 sailors aboard the three ships of Taiwan’s Friendship Flotilla to the South Pacific were tested positive for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on April 18, 2020, which led to the quarantine of 744 personnel on board.  During the quarantine period, operations of the three ships were inevitably shut down. Although the infections did not create a spread inside the military barracks, there were concerns during the quarantine period whether the pandemic would have a negative impact on the Republic of China’s Navy (ROC) and whether ROCN personnel was physically sound to carry out missions as usual. As of May 18, 2020, the flotilla became combat ready after the infected sailors cured themselves of the disease and healthy ones received negative results for the tests. In the aftermath of this incident, it is perhaps appropriate to find out what implications we can learn from the ROCN perspective. The following sections proceed as follows: this paper outlines the worst-case scenario in the second section and present a partial solution in the third section. The fourth section traces the development of missile boats in Taiwan. The fifth section focuses on the advantages of automated missile boats. Finally, this paper makes a short conclusion in the sixth section.
The Worst-Case Scenario
The world remains uncertain of the origin of COVID-19 pandemic; it could have been synthesized artificially or may have evolved naturally. Supposing it is a deliberate attempt to reduce the war preparedness of adversaries, we should not underestimate the damage this malicious attempt might have caused. Even if the pandemic emerged naturally, contagious diseases are likely to spread among sailors given the limited space on ships. A pandemic that stems from either the natural environment or an artificial one renders sailors vulnerable to it.
ROC Minister of Defense Yen Teh-fa ROCN Friendship Flotilla on 18th May, 2020. (Source from Military News Agency, https://mna.gpwb.gov.tw/post.ph p?id=9&me ssage=98780)
COVID-19 infection is not severe among Taiwanese civilians or military personnel. Although the pandemic has infected at least 440 people and caused the loss of 7 lives in Taiwan as of May 30, 2020, the situation has been largely well controlled. Restated, the current situation in Taiwan could be termed the “best case scenario”; however, we must also consider the “worst case scenario,” in which a pandemic and foreign invasion occur concurrently. Considering Taiwan’s defensive posture, the focus of its national defense is on its capability to withstand attacks and counter-attack adversaries in the Taiwan Strait or the littoral area surrounding Taiwan Island. Locations beyond this scope may be important but are not critical. Specifically, the potential adversary of Taiwan is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), especially its Navy branch (PLAN), of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). A war across the Strait may have numerous forms, but eventually the PLAN must land on Taiwan Island to claim success. One means of preventing the PLAN from landing is immobilizing PLAN fleets in the Strait.
Mini Missile Assault Boat
In 2017, then Chief of General Staff Admiral Lee Shi-ming [ 李喜明] proposed the “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC) [整體防衛構想] as a new direction for Taiwan’s national defense.  The spirit of the ODC is to prevent an arms race with China, but to focus on asymmetrical warfare and preservation of military strength. One substantive idea is to build 60 stealth mini missile assault boats (MMABs) that could be stationed in fishing harbors in disguise but still fire surface-to-surface missiles to take out PLAN vessels. According to the proposal unveiled in 2019 regarding the MMABs, four boats will be constructed first as the prototype. Then, the ROCN will evaluate the protype and decide whether to continue building the remaining ones.
If we consider the impact of heavily contagious disease and the construction of MMABs, then automation of vehicles is necessary for the national defense of Taiwan and should be established in a speedy fashion. In this article, I focus on unmanned surface vessels (USVs). This is not to say that unmanned aerial and ground vehicles are unimportant. The reason to touch on only USVs is because there is an ongoing project evaluating the feasibility of MMABs. What I propose here is to add automated systems onto the MMABs to reduce casualty, keeping manpower at the same level. The rationale applies to other ROCN surface ships and underwater vehicles. Besides, the system could also extend to vehicles of ROC Air Force and Army as well. Consequently, one small step for the ROCN could mean a big step for the national defense of Taiwan.
A Lesson from the Past
History repeats itself, with actors switched their roles this time. Before touching on the current situation of the ROCN, let me mention a battle taking place 45 years ago in the Taiwan Strait. On August 6th, 1965, right before the execution of the Kuo Kuang Plan [國光計畫], a ROCN flotilla composed of two ships were ambushed, beleaguered, and sunk by the PLAN torpedo boats. The tragic loss was a fatal blow to then President Chiang Kai-shek and later led to the abolishment of the plan to recover mainland China through the use of force.
There were at least two lessons from this sea battle: First, micro-class boats could compose a devastating power when used in groups. The tactics were not invented by the PLAN, but by the German Navy during World War II and dubbed by the British as “wolf pack” tactics. Second, it is appropriate to deploy micro-level boats in the littoral zone. Although small boats are not designed to endure rough sea conditions in the first place, they could perform well from shore to littoral zone during good weathers. Seashores could also serve the functions of protection, maintenance, and supply.
Five decades have passed and the situation has reversed: the PLAN has honored big ship policy and has constructed vessels in a speed of “throwing raw dumplings into boiled water.” On the contrary, the ROCN has managed to decrease the number of its vessels. The sea battles in 1965 provide good examples for nowadays asymmetrical warfare. Asymmetrical warfare could be a new term, but the spirit has been adopted by the ROCN for at least four decades. After losing the sea battles on August 6, 1965, the ROCN did not immediately learn from its adversary. It was until 1979 that the ROCN finally started to deploy the Hai Ou [海鷗], or Dvora class, missile boats (See Table 1). Every boat was equipped with two indigenous surface-to-surface Hsiung Feng-I [雄風一型] missiles that could hit targets about 40 kilometers away.
In 2010, a newer type of missile boat, the Kuang Hua-VI [光華六號], was commissioned. Even though the quantity of the Kuang Hua-VI class is fewer than that of the Hai Ou class, both displacement and armaments are greater. A Kuang Hua-VI class is almost four times larger than a Hai Ou class and enjoys twice as much armaments. In addition, the Hsiung Feng-II [雄風二型] missiles deployed on the Kuang Hua-VI class have an operational range of 140 kilometers, which is three times farther than that of the Hsiung Feng-I.
Table 1: ROCN’s Missile Boats
2 x Hsiung Feng-I
Kuang Hua- VI missile boat
4 x Hsiung Feng-II
Mini missile assault boat*
2 x Hsiung Feng-II
*Mini missile assault boats are under evaluation and, hence, information herein is based on the original proposal (Source from Data collected by the author)
USVs’ Advantages for the ROCN
Taiwan Navy has begun the project of building MMABs since 2019. According to the schedule, 56 boats will be constructed after a prototype of four boats is proven to be qualified. Currently, the project remains at the evaluation stage. It is yet unknown the outcome of the evaluation, but building micro-size missile boats is the right course to take so as to deal with current and future warfare especially in the context of asymmetrical warfare.
It would, however, be appropriate to go one step further and transform micro-size missile boats that the ROCN is evaluating into USVs. Automated control of ships is nothing new but has been used for decades. Some minesweepers in Taiwan have been equipped with such facility for at least twenty years. Automated ships have at least two advantages:
First, USVs do not need sailors aboard and, thus, do not increase the demand of human power. Second, USVs can better endure rough sea and weather conditions.
Let me start from the first one. In its original design, a MMAB needs three sailors aboard for combat mission. If the evaluation of MMABs is passed and the ROCN really constructs 60 of them in total, the newly-increased shortage of manpower is 180. It could be a problem to transfer 180 sailors (officers and non-commissioned officers included) from other ROCN units since some of the units are already short-staffed. In addition to manpower, training might be another issue. It takes time to write users’ manual and make sailors acquaint with the new boats. If, however, automated systems are installed on the MCMABs that are currently under evaluation, no seamen are needed for handling and maneuvering. Therefore, automated MMABs do not create extra workloads for the ROCN and no transfer of personnel is necessary.
Since the MMABs are designed to be roughly 40 tons in weight, the good sea keeping performance is between level four and five of the sea state code of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The original design of the boat, however, could endure bad weather conditions up to the WMO level of seven. If automated systems are installed, not only would sea sick cease to exist, the MMABs can embark on rougher sea conditions as well.
After touching on some of the advantages of unmanned MMABs, let me also point out a few concerns for balance. To begin with, the MMABs are mini boats that could capsize during rough sea conditions, or WMO level above five to be exact. This is an innate problem that cannot be solved since the MMABs are designed to be tiny. A somewhat good news is that the PLAN is less unlikely to carry out amphibious or traditional warfare on the sea where WMO level reaches five and beyond. After all, the natural environment is neutral and does not choose sides. Even if the PLAN worries less about seasick of its seamen and insists on crossing the Taiwan Strait during bad weathers, the MMABs could still launch missiles from local fishing harbors where they are deployed in relatively calm waters.
In other words, the MMABs do not need to leave harbor during bad weathers and can still be lethal. One could also argue that unmanned MMABs are redundant since 18 wheelers could also fire surface-to- surface missiles on coastal highways. However, automated MMABS are flexible under different weather conditions. Weather permitting, these mini boats could leave port and push forward the first line of defense. In addition, they can escape PLA’s first wave of missile attacks and shelling, given their mobility.
The second concern is the capability for operations during wartime. Broadly speaking, the capability is closely associated with command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Unmanned MMABs need inputs of coordinates of adversarial ships to launch attack. Put differently, the MMABs are doomed to fail for combat missions without C4ISR, which is most likely to be at risk after the onset of war. Currently, there are no good solutions but the problem might be solved using satellites or sensors from other branches of services for transmission. Another way is to rely on the functions of active radar homing and automatic target recognition of Hsiung Feng-II missiles. By doing so, the missiles could still hit targets without knowing exact coordinates.
The third concern is that the MMABs are going backward and making no progress. There are in general two critiques. First, the displacement of a MMAB of 40 tons resembles that of a Hai Ou class. The only difference is that a MMAB will be equipped with missiles that have a longer range. Second, the ROCN already acquired a Tuo Chiang [沱江] class light frigate in 2014 that has much greater firepower than that of a MMAB, and it would be a waste to procure the MMABs that are obviously inferior. However, one feature of the MMABs is its stealth performance, while the other feature is its size. A MMAB is better than a Hai Ou missile boat in terms of the missiles installed. A stealth MMAB is also superior to a stealth Tuo Chiang light frigate for its small size that can be deployed at a fishing harbor without being noticed. Combining the two reasons, the MAABs are actually making progress and should have a higher survival rate during wartime.
Tuo Chiang class corvette. (Source from Youth Daily News. https://www.ydn.com.tw/News/359775)
The spread of COVID-19 pandemic provides the impetus to reconsider the shortage of manpower under all circumstances. This is especially the case for the ROCN since sailors on board the Friendship Flotilla were infected and led to the shutdown of routine operations for weeks. The ROCN may be lucky this time, but we cannot rely solely on fortune in the future.
The ROCN has begun the process of evaluating the proposal of building 60 MMABs as part of Taiwan’s new thinking for asymmetrical warfare against China. Given the advantages of automated systems, it is reasonable to consider installing them on the MMABs to reduce the demand for manpower and negative impact of highly-contagious disease to the minimal level. By doing so, the ROCN war preparedness would not be interrupted by highly contagious disease or even a worldwide pandemic. Therefore, it makes sense to consider deploying unmanned surface vehicles in the context of Taiwan’s preparation for asymmetrical warfare against China.
Jung-Ming Chang is a postdoctoral research fellow at Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), Taiwan. He holds a Ph.D. degree from University of Maryland at College Park. His research interests include U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, conflict resolution, and quantitative analysis.
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