The Taiwanese Navy has revealed its plans for a proposed helicopter-carrying, amphibious landing helicopter dock (LHD) warship that aligns with the indigenous defense industry buildup approach being pursued by the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.
President Tsai has emphasized bolstering Taiwan’s local defense industry as a means of self‑sustainment in the areas of aerospace (both manned and unmanned platforms), shipbuilding (including submarines), and cyber defense and awareness. The reluctance of foreign suppliers to provide the island state with defense hardware and vital technology has slowly eroded Taiwan’s qualitative military technology edge vis-à-vis its principal strategic threat – mainland China.
Replacement of obsolete military equipment sits atop President Tsai’s administrative agenda, which includes a TWD470 billion ($15.1 billion), 12-project domestic naval shipbuilding plan – projected to run from 2017-2040 – to build or upgrade large capital vessels.
One such project, referred to as Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS), involves building an eight-unit class of 1,200-3,000-ton diesel-electric submarines over a 25-year period. When coupled with an upgrade of the Republic of China (ROC) Navy’s two Dutch-built Hai Lung class submarines, it will provide a 10-submarine naval arm.
Other projects include four 6,000-8,000-ton destroyers outfitted with a locally designed and built Combat Decision Center system similar in capability to the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS system (the New Generation Combatant Program) and 15 2,000-3,000-ton frigates (Future Frigate Program, or FFP). Plans for new minelayers and minesweepers, rescue ships, four multipurpose transport ships, 11 additional Tuo Jiang class fast missile corvette catamarans (part of Taiwan’s “carrier killer” program), and a 16,000-ton landing platform dock (LPD) are also in the pipeline.
But the centerpiece of the remodeled ROC Navy appears to be the so-called Amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock Ship that is expected to somewhat resemble the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I built by Navantia.
Specifications for the proposed LHD reveal a ship with a displacement of 22,000 tons, a top speed of 30 knots, a length of 220 meters, and a top deck able to carry a minimum of six large helicopters at any given time.
Perhaps even more interesting are rumors that the large helicopter deck might have the capacity to accommodate vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) combat aircraft such as the F-35B Lightning II or older Harriers.
The latter appears a shoot-for-the-stars proposition, as the U.S. would be unlikely to sell the F-35B – or even the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey – to Taiwan for risk of eliciting a harsh response from China. Even more to the point, Taiwan’s defense investment allocations are unlikely to keep pace with its Navy’s broad ambitions.
With a 2017 defense budget outline totaling TWD321.7 billion ($10.4 billion), Taiwan is no slouch in terms of military expenditure. But the Navy’s broad ambitions come as the Ministry of National Defense has steadily been increasing the ratio of allocations toward the personnel side in hopes of enticing quality new recruits. Doing so has the knock-on effect of shrinking the portion of the fiscal pie left over for capitalization (i.e., equipment procurement and maintenance), thus leaving a professional armed force without the advanced hardware touted as justification for fielding a smaller active-service military.
Due to their indigenous bent, the Navy’s shipbuilding plans appear to have the support of the current administration. But how many of these projects can be sourced and built locally within the expected timeframe – and prove affordable – may well decide whether or not the Amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock Ship sets sail bearing an ROC Navy ensign.