The Taiwanese navy hasn’t bought a new large warship in, well, a long time. Taipei is determined to change that. But it’s not going well.
The Republic of China fleet operates a mix of license-built and second-hand French and American frigates and destroyers in addition to a large flotilla of locally-made corvettes.
But none of the existing frigates and destroyers are what you might call “new.” The ROC navy possesses six 1970s-vintage Knox-class frigates, 10 Perry-class frigates and four Kidd-class destroyers from the 1980s and six ‘90s-vintage La Fayette frigates.
In wartime, these 26 large warships would escort amphibious ships carrying marines to reinforce Taiwan’s outlying islands, hunt down Chinese submarines and contest the waters around the island country in order to slow a Chinese invasion.
But the Taiwanese ships are outnumbered. The Chinese navy has, or is building, no fewer than 100 modern cruisers, destroyers and frigates. Not only is the ROC fleet small in comparison, Taiwan’s bigger ships also possess limited radar and missile capabilities compared to the Chinese vessels.
To be clear, it’s debatable whether Taiwan actually needs large surface combatants in order to defend itself. Some analysts have argued for Taipei to acquire many small, inexpensive missile-armed corvettes that could swarm and overwhelm a Chinese invasion fleet.
The Taiwanese government however has split the difference. It’s buying a sizable number of corvettes, but it’s still investing in large warships, too. The former effort is going more smoothly than the latter is.
In the early 2000s, Taipei planned to acquire two new classes of large warship—three or four destroyers with powerful Aegis combat systems and matching radars plus 15 smaller frigates with less sophisticated systems.
The Aegis destroyer initiative went nowhere, doomed from the start by the type’s size, complexity and cost—and reluctance on the part of the Americans to export Aegis and risk upsetting the Chinese.
So Taipei focused its attention on the $3.6-billion frigate project. Today a design for the new Zhenhai-class frigate exists. The class could be in service as early as 2026. But it’s missing a key component—a radar.
Zhenhai is conventional by the standards of modern frigates. Displacing around 4,500 tons, it boasts 32 vertical missile cells, a medium-caliber gun, a self-defense cannon, eight box launchers firing anti-ship missiles plus hangar space for at least one helicopter.
Taiwan has bought, or developed on its own, most of the systems it needs to assemble the frigates. It has imported Mk. 41 vertical launchers from the United States and plans in the next couple of years to acquire MH-60R helicopters. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has developed a new-generation, Aegis-like combat system it calls “Xunlian.”
The Taiwanese military already possesses an effective anti-ship missile, the Hsiung Feng 3—and a naval surface-to-air missile, the Sea Sword 2.
That leaves the radar. Here, there are problems. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has developed an active-phased-array radar, but at 20 tons it reportedly is too heavy and bulky for the Zhenhai hull.
Taipei reportedly has invited French firm Thales and U.S. company Raytheon to pitch their own, smaller APA radars, but there’s little chance of a tender occurring before the first Zhenhai leaves the shipyard. Nor is it clear that Thales or Raytheon even would be willing to sell an advanced radar to Taiwan.
So the Taiwanese navy is in a bind. It’s about to build frigates without radars.