Murphy's Law: Taiwan And The Little Giants

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March 26, 2019: Taiwan has approved production of Hsiung Feng 2B anti-ship missiles. Only 36 of this new version are being produced and that will take until 2023. Hsiung Feng 2B has greater range (250 kilometers compared to 160 in earlier versions) and is better able to resist jamming and other countermeasures. The 685 kg (1,507 pound) Hsiung Feng 2 surface to surface version is stored in a firing container. The missile is 4.8 meters (14.9 feet) long and 400mm in diameter and has a 180 kg (400 pound) warhead. The Hsiung Feng 2 first appeared in the 1990s and has undergone several upgrades since then. These improvements concentrate on extending the range and improving the guidance system. Current versions of Hsiung Feng 2 use GPS/INS to reach the general vicinity of the target then employ pattern recognition (via an onboard electronic database) to select a specific (or one of several worth hitting) target and go after that ship. For its final approach, Hsiung Feng 2 speeds up to near supersonic (250 meters a second) speed.

China’s rapidly growing fleet has many newer ships with defensive weapons designed to deal with sub-sonic anti-ship missiles like Hsiung Feng 2 but even with that chance is still a factor, especially if the Chinese ship can be attacked when it does not expect it. That is not the most likely use of Hsiung Feng 2 as these are built to defend the 180 kilometers wide Taiwan Straits that separate China and island nation of Taiwan. There is a belief that American support will be sufficient to deter or defeat a Chinese attack. Everyone expects any such war to be short. Thus less than a thousand (possibly only a few hundred) Hsiung Feng 2s have been produced. Taiwan releases few details of upgrades or production and usually only does so when such information has become difficult to hide. Details of upgrading older missiles are easier to conceal while that is less expensive than building new ones and easier to get past the usually parsimonious parliament. The extreme secrecy forces China to spend more time, effort and money on espionage efforts in Taiwan. Since Taiwan develops its own electronics and has plenty of qualified people to do it China has to be wary of some new development they don’t know about and won’t discover until it starts sinking their ships.

With that in mind, Hsiung Feng 2 appears to have been built in larger (than a few hundred) numbers and upgraded regularly. Hsiung Feng 2 is mainly used as a surface-to-surface weapon from both ships and land-based launchers. Some, the exact number is not public, Hsiung Feng 2 launchers are hidden around the island, disguised as other structures on hillsides overlooking coastal waters. There is also an air-launched version.

Since 2000 Taiwan has been attempting to upgrade its military with new weapons and better training to deal with the rapidly growing quality of Chinese weapons and training standards for military personnel (especially pilots and sailors). Yet Taiwan has made little progress in either area. Purchase of new weapons is often quietly delayed and training reforms put off.

While making the military stronger is popular with Taiwanese in general, for a long time government officials seemed more concerned with not upsetting China. Despite that China has vigorously opposed any efforts to help build a stronger Taiwanese military. This growing military weakness versus China has become more of an issue in Taiwan and there was growing pressure to improve training and reduce corruption within the military before it was too late. Yet many Taiwanese prefer to believe that the United States will protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression. That is no longer a sure thing either and since 2010 Taiwan has become more serious about preparing for the worse.

In response, the Taiwanese Navy has been building more heavily armed (with Hsiung Feng 2) Tuo Chiang class missile corvettes. For example, in late 2014, four years after issuing the contract (to design and build the first of twelve 600 ton stealthy twin-hulled missile boats) Taiwan commissioned (put into service) the first of them. Construction took about two years and the first ship cost $72 million. These are actually large missile boats designated as corvettes. Each carries 16 anti-ship missiles (eight Hsiung Feng 2 and eight Hsiung Feng 3 supersonic/range 130 kilometers), a 76mm gun, a 20mm Phalanx autocannon (for missile defense), two 12.7mm machine-gun and six torpedo tubes plus a large array of electronics, including electronic countermeasures. The stealth and defensive electronics are meant to keep these ships afloat long enough to use most of their missiles against their more numerous Chinese counterparts. This includes the new Chinese aircraft carriers. These corvettes have a crew of 41, a top speed of 71 kilometers an hour and a helicopter pad. Tuo Chiang class ships carry sufficient fuel, water and food to stay at sea up to a week at a time. They are basically coastal defense ships. These new corvettes are the continuation of a trend in the Taiwanese Navy, which sees small ships carrying lots of anti-ship missiles as the key to success against the Chinese navy. But in typical fashion orders for more Tuo Chiang class ships were slow in coming and only recently did construction begin on more of them.

In 2010 the first of 31 smaller Kuang Hua (KH-6) class guided missile patrol boats entered service. These 34.2 meter (106 foot) long, seven meter (22 foot) wide, 170 ton ships have a crew of 19. They were armed with four Hsiung Feng-2 anti-ship missiles, a 20mm autocannon, two 7.62mm machine-guns, and two decoy (for incoming missiles) launchers. Top speed is 55 kilometers an hour. At cruising speed of 22 kilometers an hour, the ships can stay at sea for about two days at a time. All 31 KH-6s are now in service. The KH-6s replace thirty older and smaller (57 ton) Hai Ou class boats. These patrol boats guard the coast, and especially the Taiwan Straits that separate China and Taiwan. Construction on these boats proceeded according to schedule.

The one major weakness of these Kuang Hua missile boats is that they have no real air defenses and depend on the Taiwanese maintaining air superiority whenever and wherever these small craft are operating. Without that air cover, these small ships would be target practice for Chinese warplanes. That appears to be one reason for the new program to build locally what could not be obtained overseas (because of Chinese diplomacy and threats).

There’s nothing unusual about tiny Taiwan developing and building world-class weapons. Israel, Norway and Sweden all do that and have the large export sales to show for it. Taiwan is blocked from most export opportunities by the relentless pressure from China to block such independent activity but that does not prevent Taiwanese firms from doing a good job.

 


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