Stealthy Catamarans To Prowl Taiwan Strait
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Taiwan plans to begin building its first prototype of a stealthy 500-ton catamaran corvette in 2012 under the Hsun Hai (Swift Sea) program, Deputy Defense Minister Lin Yu-pao told legislators in April 18 testimony.
A Taiwan defense source said there are initial plans to build 10 Swift Seas armed with anti-ship missiles. “We have already finished the research design and the contract design, and the bidding process will begin in 2012 with delivery in 2014,” he said. The vessels will be deployed in the Taiwan Strait to break a Chinese naval blockade or stop an invasion fleet, he said.
Guy Stitt, president of AMI International, Naval Analysts & Advisors, said Taiwan has a need to overcome large numbers of Chinese vessels, and one way to do that is to launch a large volume of anti-ship missiles to overwhelm China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. Though smaller, stealthy fast-attack vessels provide a much better chance of surviving long enough to launch their anti-ship missile payload, they would be somewhat disposable afterwards.
According to the Ministry of National Defense, the Swift Seas will carry eight Hsiung Feng-2 (HF-2) and HF-3 anti-ship missiles, a Phalanx Close-In Weapon System and a 76mm bow gun. The vessel will be 130 feet long with a crew of 45 and cruise at 30 knots. The ship will carry modules to allow it to handle other missions beyond anti-ship warfare, said the Taiwan defense source.
Local media reports have dubbed the Swift Sea vessel the “carrier-killer” in response to China’s planned deployment of its first aircraft carrier, the Ukrainian Varyag, expected to begin sea trials this summer. Beijing has not officially named the ship yet. Western guesses include Shi Lang, after the admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681, and Liu Huaqing, after the father of China’s modern navy.
However, the carrier will most likely be based in the South China Sea and not be deployed against Taiwan except off the east of the island during a conflict, said the Taiwan defense source.
Taiwan and China are separated by 220 kilometers at the strait’s widest point and 130 kilometers at its narrowest. This does not allow for much maneuverability for an aircraft carrier group, and Chinese air bases facing Taiwan can handle this mission.
Some local analysts have compared Swift Sea’s stealthy features and catamaran design with China’s 220-ton Houbei-class (Type 022) fast attack missile patrol boat armed with eight anti-ship missiles. The Taiwan defense source said the Houbei is in part the inspiration for the Swift Sea program.
AMI projects as many as 50 Houbei vessels might be built. So with 30 new stealthy 170-ton Hai Chiao (Sea Shark) guided-missile patrol boats armed with HF-2s, plus 20 to 30 Swift Sea vessels, rough parity could be reached, said Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International, based in Seattle. The Swift Sea vessels will work in combination with the Sea Shark, the Taiwan defense source said.
Developed under the Kuang Hua 6 program, Taiwan’s Navy commissioned the first of three squadrons of 10 Sea Sharks in May 2010. The vessels are armed with four HF-2 anti-ship missiles and a 20mm T75 anti-aircraft stern gun. Taiwan also has 12 680-ton Jin Chiangclass missile patrol vessels built during the 1990s, armed with the shorter-range HF-1.
“A small boat force in a cluttered environment takes significant effort to neutralize — combined air and sea operations that would, perhaps unacceptably for the Chinese navy, delay execution of other naval power projection missions,” Nugent said.
There has been an attraction to this type of smaller, lighter, faster strike craft going back to the U.S. Navy’s Patrol Torpedo boats of World War II, he said.