Thirteen years after the Bush Administration promised Taiwan eight diesel-electric submarines, and 11 years after the Taiwanese walked away from an opportunity to obtain used but top-notch Italian boats, cautious optimism is emerging that the island’s navy will in the coming decade command a submarine fleet that can deter both Chinese aggression and Vietnam from coming too close for comfort in the Taiwan-controlled parts of the South China Sea.
Military officials here recently said Taiwan will build its four of its own 1,500-tonne displacement diesel-electric attack submarines by 2025, with a budget of about NT$150 billion (US$4.9 billion). The design blueprint is expected to be completed by year’s end. Thus Taiwan appears eager to join the littoral nations of the South China Sea in an undersea competition for primacy. Malaysia has bought French subs, Indonesia subs from South Korea, Vietnam submarines from Russia. Defense spending as a whole across the region has skyrocketed as smaller countries seek to counter the growing hegemonism of China over the sea.
Although the design and construction of modern submarines counts among the trickiest of tasks for the defense industry, and countries that build diesel-electric boats generally do not sell arms to Taiwan, observers with a close eye on Taiwan military matters told Asia Sentinel that the story does have plausible elements.
“It doesn’t sound terribly realistic to have the blueprints ready in two months, but it is not impossible to come up with the local design of a submarine,” said Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms and Military Expenditure Program.
“Taiwan has a well-established and quite high-tech shipbuilding industry, and using experience of their two Dutch subs acquired in the 1980s they could probably come up with a design, as the general design of the two subs is still valid and could just be copied.”
He added that the US, which in the late 1950s stopped producing diesel-electric boats and now builds only nuclear ones, could help Taiwan with the design and supply most of the parts Taiwan doesn’t produce, such as sonar and combat systems; and help Taiwan with the integration, so that “in the end, after a decade or so, Taiwan may have new submarines that will probably work quite well.”
US Naval War College strategy professor James Holmes said it’s possible Taipei could make it happen “if it settles for something very basic and resists the urge to pile on every gadget shipwrights can conceive of.”
Recurring reports that Taiwan wants to build its own subs have emerged ever since it became doubtful that the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines the Bush Administration agreed to in April 2001 would materialize. Although Washington has basically promised them, it hasn’t agreed to any specifics partly because Taiwan didn’t make up its mind on submarines and the high price of them, and partly because the US did not have an actual design of conventional subs available for sale.
Except for the episode in 2003 when Taiwan turned down Italy’s decommissioned Sauro-Class boats, ideas to use European subs or designs sold via the US came to nothing, which is hardly surprising given that the European countries possessing conventional sub technology as well as Russia and Japan did not choose to profoundly mess up their lucrative business relations with China.
The solution that ostensibly suggested itself was that the Taiwanese build their own boats, so that during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) talk emerged of the Diving Dragon, a project that envisioned that Taiwan's China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC) would build boats in Taiwan using technology transfers. However, neither were the Taiwan Navy or the Ministry of National Defense (MND) convinced due to the projected high price, likely delays and problems with quality standards that could potentially result from local construction. The doubts were based on the inconvenient fact that China Shipbuilding has so far welded together container and bulk carriers that are basically big steel boxes, very much unlike modern submarines, which are highly compartmented and require sophisticated sensors and combat systems. It was also warned that CSBC will find it difficult to build on someone else’s design while trying to obtain all the subsystems from the original vendors.
Analysts believe the Diving Dragon will almost inevitably run into profound difficulties as soon as CSBC starts altering the original design, or having to find replacement vendors for subsystems.
Nonetheless, plans started taking shape shortly after President Ma Ying-jeou in April told the US’s Center for Strategic and International Studies of a new “consensus in Taiwan” to build the submarines domestically. In late May, the Navy Command Headquarters confirmed that the CSBC and the Ship and Ocean Industries Research and Development Center (SOIC) have been appointed to weld a new section of hull onto Taiwan’s two 70-year-old Guppy-class subs, a move reportedly meant as a practice session for Taiwan’s welders. Then officials began talking about the reverse-engineering of Taiwan’s other two boats, the Dutch-built Sea Dragon and the Sea Tiger. In mid-November the Sea Dragon successfully tested two submarine-launched Harpoon missiles Taiwan acquired from the US.
“The Taiwan Navy and the Ministry of National Defense have been analyzing Taiwan's potential to build submarines for a very long time and have clearly concluded that they have the ability to develop and build the ship,” said Rick Fisher, Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center. “The U.S. Department of Defense is now considering its policy response to Taiwan submarine program, but there a good chance it will decide to be supportive.”
Fisher added, however, that the DoD doesn’t make the final decision, the US President does, “whose key advisors’ views regarding the indigenous Taiwan sub program are not known.”
The Japan angle?
Meanwhile, John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a US-based think tank, agreed that that Taiwan’s “decent shipbuilding industry” could build someone else’s design.
“They have been talking about new submarines for a long time, but kept hitting dead ends,” he said. “The only thing that has changed recently is that Japan is now exporting weapons, and the Japanese have some jim-dandy submarines.”
Chen Ching Chang, a political scientist at Japan's Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, believes that Japan would consider selling “some of its mothballed subs if Sino-Japanese relations continued to deteriorate and if the [China-friendly] Kuomintang lost power to the [Japan-friendly] Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s 2016 Presidential Elections.”