Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Military Deliveries Continue: minesweepers

Wow! Tough to get back into the mood to blog again, after spending four days on the east coast biking. I'll take a look at Ma's second inaugural speech tomorrow....

But this report is typical of the kinds of things that Taiwan needs if it is to resist Chinese aggression.... The Washington Times reports:
The two Osprey class vessels - the world’s second largest mine hunters - are expected to be delivered in the second half of this year, a navy spokesman said, declining to provide a more specific time frame.

The two vessels, which were decommissioned from the U.S. Navy in 2006, are being retrofitted and are scheduled to be handed over to Taiwan in July, the state Central News Agency said.


The sale of the two vessels is part of a $6.4 billion arms deal that includes Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and communications equipment for Taiwan’s F-16 fleet of fighter jets.
F-16s may be more glamorous, but support vessels like this are just as important, and no navy ever has enough of them. Two are hardly enough for Taiwan, except perhaps to serve as platforms for training and testing for the Taiwan navy. Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray -- all names you should know from reading this blog -- cover China's minelaying capabilities in this long and detailed essay. As they note in the opening pages, mines are an important component of Chinese naval thinking, and Taiwan's vulnerability to a mines makes a mine-based blockade a tempting strategy for the PRC to pursue.

Note that even if Taiwan manages to deny the PRC control of the skies over Taiwan, the ROC navy is hardly in a position to prevent the PRC from mining local waters. Mines don't actually have to sink any ships to be effective; they merely have to be present in enough numbers to convince shipping insurance firms to jack up rates high enough that no one can afford to ship to Taiwan. The number of mines that might cause insurance firms to balk at insuring ships bound for Taiwan is surely not very great....

Also apropo: Chinese counterfeit parts infest US military aircraft. And China to build two more aircraft carriers.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums! Delenda est, baby.


Readin said...

I have trouble seeing how these would be useful. If China decides it is willing to mine Taiwanese waters with all the international disapproval that will bring then it seems hard to believe they wouldn't also be willing to sink Taiwanese minesweepers. My uneducated guess is that Minesweepers are pretty vulnerable since I imagine their work would be slow (taking time to find the stuff), predictable (you know they have to be in the area you mined and they will likely follow a pattern to be sure they check every place), and potentially visible (if they trigger an explosion when they find a mine).

If China decides to mine areas around Taiwan and there is some hope that the Chinese don't want to go to a shooting war, then a more effective response would be for the US to have a lot of minesweepers in the region to remove the mines. A China perfectly willing to blow up Taiwanese ships still might not be willing to blow up US ships as they go about peaceful mine-removal operations.

Tom said...

Using mines to intentionally block commercial shipping would give any country that ships to Taiwan a casus belli. Those ships are also more than likely to be carrying PRC as well as ROC imports/exports, as most modern freighters try to run multi-destination routes.

For example, one such route involves Long Beach (grain) to Yokohama (precision machined parts) to Seoul (computers) to Kaohsiung (fruit) to Shanghai (consumer products) back to Long Beach.

Also, even assuming that China didn't care about sinking ships that are as likely to be carrying its cargo as well as Taiwan's, China then has to worry about inheriting an island whose primary assets--its convenient location astride global shipping lanes and plentiful harbors--are completely worthless due to its own naval mining efforts. The last time a major power used naval mining to starve an island (Operation Starvation vs Japan, 1945) it took nearly 8 months and all the minesweepers of the US Navy to clear the shipping lanes again. And on top of merely being inconvenienced for months, the Chinese government would have to deal with locals, who, on top of being angry at the end of the status quo, would also be out of work because of a crippled economy.

If China does use mines as part of its A2AD strategies, then they would have to be pursued for strictly military purposes, and on a very limited basis, such as laying mines that self-destruct after a set period of weeks in the path of designated naval bases.

What many in Taiwan fail to realize is that the island is worthless to the PRC if the population is actively rioting post-reunification or the harbors and all the U.S.-built radar and weapons systems are destroyed. That is the real reason you won't see an invasion or military force deployed against the island. I think some in the KMT understand that too, which can partially explain their behavior on certain weapons import packages.

Michael Turton said...

Perhaps Tom, I've often made that point myself -- the real problem isn't taking Taiwan but controlling it afterwards. But whatever happens, after some period of time control will be asserted, and while the period of unrest may be long, it is finite, whereas Taiwan will be the PRC's forever afterwards. Hence, PRC leaders may calculate things differently.

Let's hope the tourist hordes invading Taiwan can bring back some sense to China on the Taiwan issue.....


Anonymous said...

I think Taiwan would be better off focusing on retaliatory capabilities. Not saying that Taiwan shouldn't mines-sweep, but if Chinese mines are laid in Taiwanese harbors, then the damage is already done, because as mentioned, no one would be willing to ship into Taiwanese ports anymore.

HOWEVER.......If Taiwan also lays mines at prominent Chinese harbors such as Shanghai, Xiamen, etc., then China would also suffer severe shipping and trade losses as well.

Tom said...

@ Readin

Using US ships for minesweeping wouldn't really help, as the PLA/PLAN wouldn't need to bomb the minesweepers anyhow. Mine-laying, especially via aircraft, is a much quicker and less costly operation than minesweeping. In studies commissioned by then-captain Robert McNamara immediately following the surrender of Japan, he estimated that the mines dropped in a single set of sorties by a single squadron of B-29s could take a minesweeping boat nearly 8 weeks to clear. With modern naval mines being made out of non-ferric materials, and modern aircraft being capable of transonic flight to and from the target area (doubling the sortie rate), these numbers are even more tilted today.

Not even the total minesweeping assets of the 7th Fleet could outcompete the minelaying efforts of even 10% of the air-to-ground assets of the Nanjing Military Region. All they would have to do is just dump more mines in the area.


Also, with respect to the Chinese aircraft carrier--it's pretty clear that ACs would be fairly useless in a Taiwan scenario, as the extra sorties and air cover they could contribute would be outweighed by the air and naval assets they would suck up in protecting themselves from the Seventh Fleet. While the US might be reluctant to strike targets on the Chinese mainland, I doubt the US would have a similar reluctance when it came to Chinese naval assets.

But once the ROC gives the PRC basing rights on the eastern Formosa coast, then aircraft carriers become much more useful in asserting control over shipping lanes to Japan. In fact, aircraft carriers would extend the PRC reach all of Japan's Middle Eastern trade routes and all of her raw material imports from Australia. An aircraft carrier is a "post-Taiwan" weapon, not aimed at the US, but at dominating Japan.

Since this sort of initiative can't be PLAN-only (it's much bigger, than, say, starting up a production line of anti-shipping missiles or even buying submarines from Russia), it has to have backing from the folks in charge of China's grand strategy. This implies that they believe there's a good chance Taiwan will give such basing rights by the time the carriers launch, which should be around 2018/19.

Then, the grand bargain over Taiwan is probably not a long way off. What is really interesting here is how Washington would view such an arrangement. While it wouldn't be in US interests from a realist perspective, it would prove a useful bargaining chip in multi-issue negotiations including such things as Iran and Africa.

Tom said...

@ Michael

Also the period of unrest wouldn't necessarily be *finite*. The Poles had unrest versus Russia for over a century, then had unrest towards to USSR for another half century. Northern Ireland has had unrest towards England for over half a millenium. Scotland considers a referendum on independence every year, and it's been over 400 years since they got incorporated into the UK. I could go on, but the main point here is that acquiring political control over a new territory is very much overrated due to the responsibilities it entails. Far better to just have a certain amount of influence and acquisition of all the assets which are really needed, and just leave them alone for the rest.

Tom said...


If Taiwan focused on retaliation vis a vis China, then it "hardens" the risk calculation, in that it eliminates all the middle options between the status quo and a unilateral all-out surprise attack. That would actually be bad for Taiwan because a slow ratcheting of tensions is the only way the island could buy enough time to get the US Seventh Fleet involved before the PLA takes control.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought mining the harbors would be the PRC strategy.

Why? its cut off Taiwan's food and oil supply. I read somewhere a few years back that Taiwan only gets 2 shipments of wheat per month for the entire island. If true, then after about a week, bread, noodles,
suajou, animal food, etc. all disappear from the shelfs.

All other food prices go up due to increased delivery costs. Lots of other side effects.

Lastly, I would think mines would be laid using gps technology
now-a-days making mines much easier to find and defuse.

@Tom: great comments, you should re-compose and submit as an article to the Taipei Times.

Readin said...


With minesweepers able to do so little compared to mine layers, why is Taiwan buying them? My first statement was, "I have trouble seeing how these would be useful." Your input seems to support my skepticism.

Tom said...


Simply having the military capability to pursue an action does not necessarily mean a nation should necessarily do it. Russia could have overran all of Georgia with another 2 days of fighting, but it wouldn't have gotten them much. China can starve out Taiwan and knock out all her harbors with a sustained aerial and naval campaign, but it won't get much, either.

Cutting off Taiwan's food and water supply equals creating a humanitarian emergency, which gives a perfect reason for outside powers to intervene, AND making the post-conflict "reconciliation" job a whole lot harder. By limiting a campaign to strictly military targets and not using tactics that cause indiscriminate civilian suffering, it creates a better medium- and long-term outcome.