All posts by Michal Thim

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a Contributing Analyst with the Wikistrat, and member of Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Michal tweets @michalthim.

New Ship Boosts Taiwan’s HADR Capabilities

By Michael Thim

What are the most important warships of the World nations’ respective navies? A single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the US Navy boasts greater firepower than most national air forces, and the combined strength of a carrier and other warships assigned to protect it present force to be reckoned with. China, too, has been acquiring modern combat vessels, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s latest generation of guided missile destroyers, the Type 052D. As for Republic of China Navy (ROCN) protecting Taiwan, the leading ships of the ROCN’s Surface Action Groups (SAG) are Keelung-class (ex-USS Kidd-class) destroyers, originally built for the pre-revolution Iranian Navy and transferred to Taiwan in 2005-2006. If not the Keelung-class destroyer then maybe the French-built Lafayette-class frigates would be considered the most important (or most modern) assets of the navy. Some would perhaps single out the new stealthy fast missile corvettes of the Tuo Jiang class that do not impress much in terms of total displacement, but pack a formidable punch with 16 anti-ship missiles on board.

However, what if we rephrase that question and ask instead what are the most indispensable warships— the most useful ones? There is not an easy answer to that question either, however, as it encourages a focus on more than impressive weaponry and sleek design. Perhaps, then, a whole different class of ships will catch our attention: combat support ships or replenishment ships, to put it in more general terms. Combat support ships (known by the acronym AOE used by the US Navy) along with other types of replenishment ships usually do not get the same amount of attention that major combat ships do. However, they are absolutely critical for keeping a fleet on the open sea, especially under combat conditions when replenishment in port may be restricted. This is why the US Navy keeps a large fleet of replenishment ships, and why China is expanding its own. Until January 2015, the ROCN had one such vessel in its inventory: the AOE 530 Wuyi. Since the beginning of this year, the ROCN’s ability for replenishment underway have greatly expanded.

The guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85), left, conducts a replenishment at sea with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force fast-combat support ship JS Hamana (AOE 424) during Pacific Bond 2012 June 7, 2012, in the East China Sea. Pacific Bond is a U.S. Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force maritime exercise designed to improve interoperability and further relations between the nations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Declan Barnes/Released)
The guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85), left, conducts a replenishment at sea with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force fast-combat support ship JS Hamana (AOE 424) during Pacific Bond 2012 June 7, 2012, in the East China Sea. Pacific Bond is a U.S. Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force maritime exercise designed to improve interoperability and further relations between the nations. (U.S. Navy /Wikimedia Commons)

The new, locally-built (by Kaohsiung-based CSBS Corporation) fast combat support ship the AOE 532 Panshih officially entered ROCN service for initial sea trials on January 23, 2015. The basic characteristics of the new vessel speak to its size and utility. The Panshih is 196 meters long with a full load displacement of 20,800 tons, and a light displacement of around 10,000 tons. For comparison, the ROCN’s biggest warships, the Keelung-class destroyers, are 172m long and have a full displacement of 9,783 tons. Considering the ship’s displacement and purpose, its maximum speed can reach an impressive 22 knots (40 kph). Perhaps more important is its range, which can reach 8,000 nautical miles (over 14,000 km). In executing its main duties, the Panshih is able to replenish two ships at the same time.

In terms of onboard weapons systems, the Panshih is indeed equipped modestly, mostly for defensive purposes. Based on various reports, it appears that Taiwan’s new AOE has two 40mm cannons, two 20mm Phalanx close-in weapon systems (CIWS) and, strangely enough, an antiquated short-range air-defense system Sea Chaparral (based on the AIM- 9 Sidewinder), whose efficiency in combat is questionable (the model of the Panshih suggested that the front deck would have a 76mm multi-purpose canon that can be used against incoming aircraft and missiles). In addition, Taiwan’s new combat support ship does not only carry vital supplies for ROCN warships but its hangar is also able to accommodate two SH-60 (S-70) Seahawk or CH-47D helicopters.

Now that the ROCN has its new combat support ship, what use could it possibly find for it? With two AOEs in its inventory, the ROCN can conduct missions far from its shores without significantly jeopardizing homeland defense. Such missions could include anti-piracy patrols around the Horn of Africa, in line with the broader international effort to weed out threats to commercial shipping—something that is a matter of crucial interest to Taiwan, with its export-oriented economy. Other options include support for friendly port visits or participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises. For example, the participation of the Panshih in the biannual RIMPAC exercise could be less controversial than sending destroyers or frigates.

During wartime, both AOEs would present crucial capabilities to sustain ROCN operations under conditions where replenishment in home bases would become impossible due to PLA missile strikes and blockade efforts. Keeping the ROCN surface fleet operational would in turn enable it to conduct anti-blockade operations, including providing escort for vital supplies. Granted, the ROCN would still have to operate in an extremely hostile environment, likely forcing the bulk of the fleet to operate east off Taiwan. The crucial question is where the AOEs themselves would replenish, once their own supplies run out.

An HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Black Knights of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 4 transfers pallets of supplies from the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10) during a replenishment at sea. Image Credit: CC by Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.
An HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Black Knights of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 4 transfers pallets of supplies from the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10) during a replenishment at sea. (Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr)

These are all important tasks for the new (as well as the old) AOE. Nevertheless, the versatility of the new vessel could materialize under conditions other than participation in broad international anti-piracy efforts (the politics that could prevent that is well-known) or wartime operations. Apart from the capability to sustain warship operations without need of resupply in home ports, the Panshih is also equipped with state-of-the-art medical facilities, including an operating room, an isolation ward, and three regular wards. That makes the Panshih well-equipped for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. This is an important capability considering how prone Taiwan’s immediate neighborhood is to various kinds of natural disasters: earthquakes and typhoons (and the resulting floods and landslides) being the most common.

Taiwan has not been a shy actor in offering and providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. For example, in January 2010 Taiwan sent rescue teams to Haiti, and its military C-130s conducted a record-breaking flight with much needed supplies on board. In March 2011, in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Taiwan again sent rescue teams and released significant financial aid to Japan. In November and December 2013, Taiwan again was among the first responders to typhoon-struck Philippines. Efforts at the governmental level dovetail well with private relief efforts, as time and again the will of the Taiwanese public to help people in need has been demonstrated. Taiwan’s already significant monetary and material contribution to Japan in 2011 was given a boost via various activities ranging from individual donations to organized efforts at the NGO level.

The Panshih has a great utility to enhance Taiwan’s government HADR efforts, which are greatly supported by the public’s own efforts and the activities of private aid groups like the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. After all, using military capabilities for HADR is already a well-established pattern globally. During relief operations in the Philippines following the disastrous typhoon Haiyan that caused massive landslides, the United States, Japan, and China were among the nations that sent elements of their naval power to provide assistance. US relief efforts were assisted by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group and a detachment of 12 MV-22 Ospreys along with US Marines. Japan, too, dispatched warships and troops to a disaster area, and Beijing ordered its hospital ship Peace Ark to be deployed to the Philippines.

MV-22 Ospreys assigned to the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, take on supplies to provide aid during "Operation Damayan." The George Washington Strike Group supports the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to assist the Philippine government in response to the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Republic of the Philippines. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Command/Flickr.
MV-22 Ospreys assigned to the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, take on supplies to provide aid during “Operation Damayan.” The George Washington Strike Group supports the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to assist the Philippine government in response to the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Republic of the Philippines. (U.S. Pacific Command/Flickr)

In contrast, Beijing did not do itself much service in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan when it was criticized for its sluggish response, initially releasing US$1.4 million worth of relief supplies, an amount that paled in comparison with donations from the United States (US$20 million), Japan (US$10 million, later increased via various assistance mechanisms), Australia (US$28 million) or even Taiwan (US$12 million). This is not to suggest that HADR activities should serve as part of some cynical calculation in pursuit of bettering one’s national image. Nevertheless, being an active supporter of HADR activities and strengthening the capacity to help with rapid response allowing for a physical presence in an affected area creates good will on all levels of relations, from the person-to-person to the governmental. After Taiwan was shown to have been the largest donor (government and private financial aid combined) to Japan in 2011, Japanese citizens have not missed a chance to express their gratitude, and Japan’s government later defied the expected angry reaction from Beijing when it invited Taiwan to be represented on an equal footing with other nations to a commemorative event in March 2013. Financial and material aid is well complemented by having the capability to put boots on the ground, and the Panshih is a great platform from which both search and-rescue teams and medical teams can operate independently in a disaster area.

Taiwan is an active and significant contributor to HADR efforts. By including the Panshih in its fleet, the ROCN has significantly boosted its capability to be an active element in rapid response in a region that is plagued by frequent emergence of typhoons and earthquakes. Granted, politics might always prevent Taiwan from fully utilizing its potential. A neighboring nation that just suffered a disastrous calamity may feel hesitant to accept assistance presented by ROCN warship deployment, succumbing to likely pressure from Beijing. However, it is as likely that politics will give way to immediate need, and Beijing would be hard-pressed not to openly oppose Taiwan’s participation. Unfortunately, recent events suggest this latter is not an unlikely scenario, as the disaster this April in Nepal illustrated, when when China allegedly pressured the government in Kathmandu to refuse entry to a Taiwanese rescue team after Nepal experienced an extraordinarily deadly and destructive earthquake.

Whatever way future events go, the Panshih’s presence in the fleet should not be judged only against its role as a support ship for combat operations during wartime. However important such missions are, the first deployment of the Panshih is more likely to be much more benign, and much more appreciated on the receiving end.

Michal Thim is a postgraduate research student in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of CIMSEC, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim. This piece was originally published in Strategic Vision vol. 4, no. 21 (June, 2015).

No Strait for Aircraft Carriers

Earlier this year, United States Naval Academy Museum hosted a debate on the future of aircraft carriers (with parallel debate on twitter under #carrierdebate). It is a timely debate as the utility of aircraft carriers is under review in the face of the proliferation of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) systems. Critics argue that current aircraft carriers are too vulnerable in highly contested environments and too crucial to lose. Indeed, ever more precise, maneuverable, and swift anti-ship missiles (ASM) and silent submarines make certain types of environments overly prohibitive for aircraft carriers. However, this is not an entirely new situation. In fact, sending aircraft carriers close to coastlines and into the littorals has always been dangerous and against their designed purpose.

Ever since the commissioning of the ex-Varyag into the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as the Liaoning (CV-16), speculations have taken place as to its tactical, operational, and strategic implications. With Taiwan classified as one of China’s “core interests”, and due to the protection (however ambiguous) offered by the US under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Taiwan remains a prime hotspots with the potential to escalate into an all-out great power war. Thus, various analysts have engaged in discussions on the Liaoning’s role in a potential crisis over Taiwan. However, in doing so, it is better not to fall for the allure of focusing on the hardware capability over doctrine, tactics and the nature of the specific theater.

Harpoon anti-ship missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.
Harpoon anti-ship missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise. Shilih is part of Japan-based Carrier Strike Group Five. Taiwan and Japan also posses Harpoon ASMs. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

An examination of tactical and operational situations encountered by Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) through the Taiwan Strait reveals that adding a hypothetical Chinese carrier group’s presence does not augment existing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s strategy. Instead PLAN doctrine relies on assets in the form of saturation missile attacks, submarines, fast missile boats and other Chinese A2AD elements. It is worth mentioning that these capabilities were already present in the the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-96 missile crisis. Being close to an enemy’s land-based assets poses a severe risk to the CSG’s survivability. Its combat effectiveness, is significantly diminished in the narrow waters of Taiwan Strait during high intensity combat conditions. In essence, the PLAN already had sufficient capabilities in place in 1996 such that sending a CSG into the Taiwan Strait would be a suicidal endeavor. The situation has only become more challenging for the US Navy in recent years not because the PLAN has acquired an aircraft carrier of its own, but rather due to the fact that China has greatly enhanced and modernized its existing A2AD capabilities.

The common reference to the 1996 deployment of aircraft carriers during the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis as an indication of what could happen should the situation between China and Taiwan escalate into a shooting war suggests that there are two common misconceptions about the 1995-96 crisis. In late December’s piece for The Diplomat, Vasilis Trigkas presented interesting argument on the presence of aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait. In particular, he notes: 

Memories from 1996 – when Chinese missile tests in the strait prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton to order two fully armed carrier battle groups to pass through the Taiwan Strait – have shaped the strategic operational codes of the Chinese military and the Central Politburo. While China might have had the military resources to sink U.S. naval forces in its close periphery (quantity has a quality of its own) the strategic escalation that an attack against a U.S. carrier would trigger led Beijing to de-escalate. Since the importance of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland remains an indispensible argument in the PRC’s rhetoric on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, China’s officials have long strategized about how to neutralize U.S. operational superiority in the event of a new strait crisis. The 2008 acquisition of an old Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine should be seen as an extension of this goal. This carrier is the missing piece in China’s strategic puzzle in its first island chain and adds new strategic variables to a Sino-U.S. clash over Taiwan.

First, contrary to popular belief, in March 1996 neither of the two deployed CSGs (Carrier Group Seven headed by CVN-68 Nimitz and Carrier Group Five centered around CV-62 Independence) entered Taiwan Strait (p. 110). Nimitz was deployed in the Philippine Sea ready to assist the Independence Battle Group deployed to the east of Taiwan. Indeed, earlier in December 1995 the Nimitz battle group did pass through the Taiwan Strait, but it was several months after Chinese first missile tests close to Taiwan in July 1995. Moreover, US officials back then believed that the passage went unnoticed by Beijing (p. 104).

Second, in 1995 and 1996, the issue at stake was Beijing displeasure with Taiwan’s effort to establish itself as a new democracy, demonstrated by then President Lee’s visit to Cornell University and the island’s first free presidential election in 1996. Beijing did not de-escalate because of the presence of the two CSGs but because it had made its point. However displeased the Chinese leadership was back then, no one has seriously contemplated further escalation. Moreover, China could very well have another motivation, testing the limits of US strategic ambiguity across the strait as they had tested the 1954 Taiwan-US defense alliance during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. In that sense, deployment of two CSGs gave Beijing the indication that the US would indeed intervene should the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decide to use deadly force against Taiwan.

Thus, the presence of the Nimitz and Independence CSGs in Taiwan’s proximity in 1996 should be understood as a symbolic gesture of the US commitment to the peaceful solution of cross-strait relations. It is doubtful that the acquisition of the Liaoning would deter Washington should it decide to demonstrate its resolve again. With the other assets that the PLA has been busy deploying in a meantime, now, that is all different story.

Trigkas argues that in 1996 the Chinese backed off because targeting US aircraft carriers would escalate the conflict out of proportion. Having an aircraft carrier and deploying it in advance of an intervening USN CSG would push the escalation ball to the US’ corner. Henceforth, it would be the US who would have to take the first shot because the Chinese CSG would block its way. Given that in 1996 the use of force was off the table and the crisis was all about making a political stance without intention to escalate, would a Chinese aircraft carrier prevent future US intervention by making itself too (politically) valuable to be attacked?

Not since World War II has the world seen any significant battle fought between rival carrier groups, and just as the carrier replaced the battleship through asymmetric means (the range of the onboard aircraft negated the firepower, speed and armor of a conventional battleship.), the effective counter to a CSG is unlikely another CSG, but instead a whole range of asymmetrical means such as strikes against its rear-echelon fast combat support ships (AOEs), land-based airpower or submarine warfare. Moreover, one need not send the aircraft carrier to the bottom, resulting in massive loss of lives of those on board, to neutralize the combat effectiveness of a CSG.

Tuo Jiang class missile corvette deployed by Taiwan could become major threat for PLAN's aircraft carriers. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Larry41028/Wikimedia Commons.
Tuo Jiang class missile corvette deployed by Taiwan could become major threat for PLAN’s aircraft carriers. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Larry41028/Wikimedia Commons.

Even if Chinese aircraft carriers were to become targets of the USN’s CSG, it would still be an unequal encounter for the PLAN, facing much more experienced USN CSGs with superior sortie rate and integrated defense. In such an encounter, the US Navy could inflict sufficient damage to incapacitate a Chinese aircraft carrier without actually sinking it. The best way to render an aircraft carrier useless is to limit the effectiveness of its air wing. Liaoning’s air wing is in this respect very modest totaling 30 J-15s fighter jets with compromised range, endurance and armament resulting from a lack of catapult launch systems. This number will most likely be higher for Liaoning’s successors, but the sortie generation rate accumulated through operational experience will take a lot longer to equalize. In comparison, Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers typically carry 70-80 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and their designs are much more flexible to accommodate various mission requirements.

Furthermore, the employment of a CSG in an open confrontation would run contrary to the tactics and culture consistently displayed by a sea-denial mindset influenced by the tradition of people’s war that informs so much of the CCP’s naval strategy (p. 37), prominently displayed during the Battle of Dongshan on 6 Aug 1965, where 11 PLAN torpedo boats and 4 patrol boats sunk 2 Taiwanese capital ships in 3 consecutive waves, resulting in 171 missing and 31 deaths, including the commander of the ROCN Second Fleet. The PLAN’s efforts towards becoming a Blue-Water Navy have undoubtedly changed its tactical mindset, but even then deployment of a Chinese aircraft carrier against Taiwan (and presumably against the USN) does not offer advantages that would outweigh the potential costs. If deployed outside of the A2AD protective cover, a Chinese CSG would be too weak to counter its US counterpart, and when deployed within A2AD cover, its capabilities are largely redundant.

Moreover, while the debate focuses on the political significance of sinking a US aircraft carrier, Beijing itself could ill-afford the political consequences of its CSG rendered impotent during combat in or close to the Taiwan Strait where potential adversaries such as Taiwan’s recently introduced Tuo Jiang class missile corvette could fully exploit its weaknesses. Indeed, should China deploy its CSG near Taiwan as a part of combat operations, USN would not need to fire a single shot and China’s capital ship could still end-up incapacitated or sunk. Taiwan’s sea and land-based anti-ship missiles represent a reverse A2AD significant challenge for China. 

Hence it is reasonable to conclude that the Chinese acquisition of the Liaoning and the further expansion of the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet, while significant, has very little direct impact on a potential crisis deployment in the Taiwan Strait. Instead one should look toward the prestige factor of presenting itself as a Blue Water Navy and a CSG’s value in prosecuting the territorial ambitions displayed by the Chinese government in recent times, e.g. in the South China Sea or the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, where Chinese land-based airpower does not enjoy the same advantage as in the case of Taiwan-related contingency.

In a potential crisis across the Taiwan Strait, the PLAN’s goal would be better served through a deterrence formed by a combination of guided missiles destroyer-led surface action groups, land-based airpower utilizing supersonic ASMs coupled with over the horizon (OTH) targeting, and high-end attack submarines rivaling the low noise level of even US Seawolf-class SSNs. All of this could successfully prevent US reinforcements from accessing littoral regions of the theater (A2) and impede their movement along the First Island Chain (AD).

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), center-right, leads the George Washington Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in tactical maneuver training during Annual Exercise (AnnualEx) 13. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), center-right, leads the George Washington Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in tactical maneuver training during Annual Exercise (AnnualEx) 13. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

Aircraft carriers will maintain its role as a blue water force projector in the foreseeable future. Indeed, they are indispensable for a global sea-control navy tasked with missions to protect sea lines of communication. But the carrier battle groups were never meant to physically present itself in an environment similar to the Taiwan Strait. Granted, ASMs and submarines are problem on the open seas too but any potential opponents would be limited by the storage capacity of their onboard ordnance, with PLAN having limited ability of underway replenishment. In other words, open sea offers no advantage of a compressed engagement battlespace that littoral contestant such as China possesses against the limited range of present day CSG, bearing in mind that as China’s A2AD capabilities make it difficult for US Navy CSGs, PLAN’s own aircraft carrier faces the very same risk from the its neighbors, Taiwan included. 

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of The Center for International Maritime Security, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.

Liao Yen-Fan is Taipei-based defense analyst specializing in airpower and Taiwanese military. He can be reached for comment at charlie_1701@msn.com.