Taiwanese Navy Will Construct Two Light Frigate Variants Equipped with Vertical Launch Systems

The Taiwanese shipbuilding company, Jong Shyn CITIC Shipbuilding Group, announced that the first two prototypes of a revised Zhenhai-class light frigate will be built by October 2026. The two prototypes will consist of an anti-ship/surface variant and an anti-air variant. The anti-surface variant will be equipped with the Hsiung Feng III Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM). The anti-air variant will be equipped with the Sea Bow III and Sea Sword II Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM). However, the most significant points of the prototype’s design are the incorporation of an indigenous Vertical Launch System (VLS) and components of a Combat Management System (CMS) into both frigates.

Model of the “New Generation Missile Frigate” during 2017 Taipei International Aviation during the Taiji National Defense Industry Exhibition (Photo: UpMedia/Zhu Ming)

Taiwan’s Indigenous VLS Program

In 2019, Taiwan began development of an indigenous VLS system when Taiwan’s National Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) bought two Mk41 VLSs from the United States and Israel. The Mk41 also included various technology transfers related to the Mk41 and associated American and Israeli systems. The institute used both sets to conduct various tests to develop an indigenous VLS based on the design that will eventually be integrated with all current and future naval vessels. One Mk41 VLS was installed on the ROCN Kaohsiung, a Zhonghai-class amphibious command ship given to the institute by the Taiwanese Navy, to conduct various seaborne tests. The other VLS was used for tests conducted at the Taiwanese Air Force’s Jiupeng Air Base, located in southern Taiwan. The NCSIST also used both VLSs on the Kaohsiung and Jiupeng bases to conduct feasibility, integration, and verification tests with the Sea Bow III, Sea Sword II SAMs, and Hsiung Feng III ASCMs. However, the NCSIST also used the tests to acquire the necessary data for the development of the Huayang VLS.

Picture of the Sea Sword II anti-aircraft missile (Photo: Up Media/Zhu Ming)

The institute launched several Sea Bow III, Sea Sword II, and Hsiung Feng III missiles from the Mk41 VLS to determine how best to modify the missiles for use in the VLS. For example, the institute modified the Sea Sword II by shorting the tail’s volume that can be folded along with various structural changes. NCSIST also significantly modified the SAM’s transmitter size to make both launches and the initial flightpath from the VLS easier. Similar modifications were made to the Sea Bow III, shortening the missile’s length and making the wings fold so it could fit into both the Mk41 and Huayuan VLSs. They also tested the missile’s navigation and flight controls using both the Mk41 and the Huayang VLSs from 2020 onwards.

Picture of Sky Bow III Surface to Air Missile, the Sea Bow III anti-aircraft missile is based on the Sky Bow III (Photo: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

However, NCSIST ran into several problems with the Sea Sword II before integrating with the VLSs, compared to either the Sea Bow III or Hsiung Feng III systems. For example, one Sea Sword II verification test during the 2018 Han Kuang exercise failed because it received abnormal signals after ignition. The abnormal signals caused the missile to launch and fly erratically, which resulted in test personnel detonating the Sea Bow via its self-destruct function. The missile also failed a second verification test in December 2018 because of issues related to achieving target lock while ignoring the reflected signals from water clutter. Both the Sea Sword II and the Sea Bow III SAMs passed all the tests for use in the Huayang VLS in August 2023, after the issues were resolved.

Taiwan’s Indigenous Combat Management System

The Taiwanese Navy and the Chinese Academy of Sciences began the project in 2015 to create the Hsunlian CMS. The Taiwanese Navy required the Hsunlian CMS to have a domestically produced Actively Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, electronic countermeasures, and an integrated Huayuan VLS. A design team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences developed the Hsunlian CMS from the Wujin-3 Open Battle Management System, which is capable of using the navy’s Liancheng datalink system and accepting commands from the Joint Warfare Center. The Hsunlian CMS will also be called the Xunlian New Generation Joint Battle Command and Control System.

Picture of the management station of the Hsunlian combat management system (Photo: Up Media/Zhu Ming)

The Taiwanese Navy originally planned on integrating the CMS on the planned Zhenhai-class ‘Small Aegis frigates’ while installing components, such as the Huayuan VLS, on other vessels. In 2018, the Chinese Academy of Sciences recommended the Taiwanese Navy build a 6,200-ton frigate to incorporate the CMS; however, the navy decided to increase the frigate’s size to 5,500 tons. However, in 2022, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) revised the original plan by reducing the 4,500-ton missile frigate to two 2,000-ton light frigates, with one focusing on anti-air and the other on anti-surface. The MoD said the new plan would reduce the frigates’ size for ease of production.

ROCN Kaohsiung/LCC-1 sailing with the octagonal passive Phase Array Radar during maritime missile test platform

The revised frigate plan omitted the Hsunlian CMS because the size of the data processors and other components prevented them from being installed on the vessel. The CMS’s planned phased-array radar also could not be installed because the radar’s size is bigger than the original planned frigate’s foresuperstructure. For example, the radar’s size limits it to being installed on frigates weighing at least 5,800 tons, meaning the light frigate’s shipbuilder would have difficulties installing the CMS on the vessel. The difficulty in reducing the radar’s weight is due to the Passive Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar components and architecture’s reliance on American manufacturers, which limits the radar’s performance and size. The design team attempted to slim down the radar by separating the data and signal processors and placing them in separate areas of the ship, but they ran into signal distortion and instability issues. The PESA radar also encountered several performance issues that caused it to not meet the Taiwanese Navy’s requirements. The team also ran into issues related to the research and development of key technologies to adapt the AESA radar to ships.

Picture of the first fixed full-phase array radar developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Photo: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Analysis

The planned incorporation of the Huayang VLS into vessels that will accommodate the system will significantly increase the Taiwanese Navy’s anti-air and anti-surface capabilities. However, the issues that occurred during the development of both the CMS and associated radar mean the Taiwanese Navy can only incorporate parts of the management system. The planned Zhenhai-class light frigate will receive the Huayang VLS; other vessels, such as the Kang Ding-class frigates, will receive the VLS during their mid-life upgrades. However, one of the vessels, the Si Ning, will be used as a testbed to perform additional integration and performance tests with the VLS during the later stages of its upgrade.

Regardless, the VLS-equipped frigates will allow for increased targeting of Chinese aircraft and vessels with the expanded number of missiles they can carry. Furthermore, the VLS would allow the frigates to stay on the water for longer periods since they would have additional missiles to destroy targets. For example, the various frigate classes could interdict Chinese amphibious or repurposed civilian vessels moving across the strait to conduct an amphibious invasion.

The various issues that NCSIST encountered during the Hsunlian CMS and associated radar development mean that the navy will only incorporate parts of the management system into its naval vessels. The AESA radar’s size and weight do not meet the Taiwanese Navy’s requirements, which prevents its installation on the frigates. While the development of components to allow the AESA radars to meet the requirements for installation on vessels with a 4,500-ton displacement is ongoing, some of the CMS’s components will be installed on light frigates and other naval vessels.

For example, the Liancheng datalink will allow for greater integration between naval vessels due to their ability to share information to create a common battlefield picture. However, the frigates will require an AESA radar to fully utilize the Huayang VLS. In May 2023, the Taiwanese Navy selected the Advanced Radar Target Indication Situational Awareness and Navigation (ARTISAN) 3-D AESA radar in both the Kang Ding-class frigates and the Zhenhai-class light frigates to solve the radar issue. The radar will allow the frigates to develop a clearer and more defined battlefield picture more efficiently due to the radar’s more advanced characteristics combined with the CMS’s processing capabilities.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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