Taiwan’s navy unveils new-generation light frigates: a closer look at their role and capabilities

Taiwan’s naval modernization efforts have taken a significant leap forward with the unveiling of its new-generation light frigates, poised to become the cornerstone of its maritime defence strategy.

Taiwan’s navy is actively working on a program to construct state-of-the-art frigates capable of effectively monitoring and countering these submarines. Recognizing the urgent need for enhanced maritime security, the Republic of China (ROC) Navy has reevaluated its original blueprint and opted for a more agile approach. Rather than investing in a single larger frigate with a tonnage of 4,500 tons, they have decided to pursue the development of two smaller frigates, each weighing approximately 2,500 tons.

Although the government in Beijing has never governed Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China continues to assert its claim over the island, considering it part of its sovereign territory. The Republic of China (ROC) Navy’s upcoming light frigates will be divided into two distinct variants, each tailored to address specific strategic priorities. One variant will prioritize air defence capabilities, while the other will be dedicated to anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

This decision highlights the complex and multifaceted nature of the naval threats posed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. By developing frigates with specialized focuses on air defence and ASW, the ROC Navy is preparing to confront the diverse challenges presented by the PLA’s naval forces.

The construction of the inaugural vessel, designated as an anti-air warfare (AAW) variant, commenced in November 2023, marking a significant milestone in Taiwan’s naval modernization efforts. The ambitious project aims to deliver the first two prototype ships by 2026. Following the successful completion of the initial prototypes, the Taiwanese Navy intends to proceed with the construction of an additional 10 frigates, consolidating its fleet and enhancing its operational effectiveness. Moreover, the introduction of these advanced frigates signals a pivotal transition for Taiwan’s naval forces, as they pave the way for the eventual decommissioning of aging Knox-class frigates.

Among the advanced equipment slated for installation are the CMS-330 Combat Management System and the BAE ARTISAN radar, which will provide comprehensive situational awareness and command capabilities. Additionally, the vessels will be armed with potent offensive and defensive armaments, including 76mm cannons for surface engagement, TC-2N surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to counter aerial threats, and HF-3 anti-ship missiles for maritime strike capabilities.

To enhance close-in defence, the frigates will feature Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems, ensuring protection against incoming threats. Moreover, including S-70C anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters further enhances the frigates’ maritime surveillance and submarine detection capabilities, significantly augmenting Taiwan’s ability to counter underwater threats. While speculations have arisen regarding the potential integration of the Sea Oryx short-range air defence system, official confirmation of this addition remains pending.

The anti-air warfare (AAW) variant of the frigates will be equipped with vertical launch systems (VLS), enabling it to launch surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) with enhanced flexibility and rapid response capabilities. On the other hand, the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variant will utilize fixed-angle launchers for its SAMs, tailored to suit its specialized role in submarine detection and tracking. In addition to its surface-to-air capabilities, the ASW variant will be equipped with torpedo launchers, significantly augmenting its anti-submarine capabilities.

By tailoring the armament configurations of each variant to their respective roles, the Taiwanese Navy ensures that both the AAW and ASW variants of the frigates are optimized for their specific missions, maximizing their overall effectiveness in maritime operations. Furthermore, the ASW variant will be equipped with towed array sonar, a specialized sensor system towed behind the vessel, which enhances its capabilities for detecting and tracking submarines.

In a statement delivered to the Taiwanese parliament, ROC Navy Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Chiang Cheng-kuo revealed that the upcoming frigates would be equipped with sonar systems touted as among the most advanced globally. However, he refrained from disclosing the specific country of origin for these cutting-edge sonar systems, hinting at the sensitive nature of the international collaboration involved in the project.

According to a budget allocation in 2022, Taiwan intends to allocate NT$24.6 billion (equivalent to approximately U.S. $777.7 million) for the construction of two new-generation light frigates, deviating from its earlier plans to build heavy frigates.

Initially designated under the code name Project Zhenhai, the Taiwanese Navy had aimed to enhance its sea control capabilities by constructing a new-generation missile frigate. However, a shift in strategy led to the decision to pursue new-generation light frigates with smaller cargo. While Taiwan’s Defence Ministry has refrained from disclosing detailed specifications of the ships, local media reports suggest that these vessels are anticipated to displace nearly 3,000 tons and measure approximately 115 meters in length.