Taiwan is feeling increased pressure for indigenous submarine designs, after years of being left hanging by the United States. As Chinese submarine fleets continue to grow, Taipei officials are realizing that their dated submarine fleet lacks modern ability to counter enemy fleets movements and attacks.
Defense News reports that Taipei has been waiting on the United States since 2001 to fulfill a promise made by George W. Bush on the sale of conventional submarines. With other nations unwilling to attract the ire of China, the U.S. has been viewed as Taipei’s only potential outlet for modern naval vessels.
Taiwan’s current submarine fleet consists of four ships, two Tench Class/Hai Shih submarines, first put into service by the U.S. against the Japanese in World War II, and two Hai Lung/Zwaardvis Class submarines, built by the Netherlands in the 1980s, but based heavily on the U.S. Navy’s Barbel Class submarines, America’s last conventional submarine design, decommissioned in 1990.
Taiwan’s submarine forces fall far short of the 60+ China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and are considered vastly inferior. The U.S.’s lack of experience in building conventional submarines since 1959 and the fears many nations possess in angering China by assisting Taiwan (Even the Dutch backed down from supplying Taiwan with 2 additional Hai Lung/Zwaardvis Class Subs), are forcing Taiwan to reevaluate their methods of submarine procurement.
On Thursday, Chao Shih-chang, a deputy defense minister, stated that the ministry was evaluating the possibility of China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC/台灣國際造船), Taiwan’s leading shipyard, constructing submarines for the Taiwanese navy, but hinted that Taiwan would still need help from abroad with material procurement and technical support. Kao Hua-chu, the Minister of National Defense, was less optimistic, referring to CSBC’s apparent ability to construct submarines was little more than “wishful thinking.”
The Taipei Times slammed Defense Minister Kao’s assessment of CSBC’s submarine construction ability, citing the Taiwanese Navy’s 1994-1997 Ministry of National Defense’s armed forces renewal drive. During these attempts to modernize the Taiwanese Navy, entire plans and cost estimates were devised that would have allowed Taiwan to work with foreign defense contractors on a “foreign blueprint, domestic construction (FB/DC)” model that would have initially delivered two submarines from abroad, with a further six in that design class to have been constructed domestically.
Unfortunately, the National Defense plans never got off the ground, though were considered viable nearly 20 years ago, lending credence to Chao Shih-chang’s belief in Taiwan’s current abilities for submarine production.
Finding nations willing to assist Taiwan to jump-start an indigenous submarine program will always be difficult, given China’s shadow eclipsing many potential deals. While Taipei has continually looked toward the U.S. and Europe for assistance, this author recommends their own backyard. South Korea successfully implemented an extremely similar program to Taiwan’s unused FB/DC plan and is now a major conventional submarine builder in the region, already exporting domestic designs that Seoul had originally procured from Germany under their own FB/DC program.
Taiwan should either dust off their old plan and seek regional assistance on their technological/production shortcomings, or begin dialogues with regional neighbors on buying submarines directly. Nearly anything is more advanced than what the Taiwanese Navy currently fields.
With Obama’s Asia Pivot, there’s a chance that the U.S. might be more amiable towards assisting Taiwan, but 50 years without producing conventional submarines, coupled with Taiwan’s current 10+ year wait on a U.S. promise, it would be silly to depend so heavily on the U.S.
As China continues to work on Anti-Access/Area Denial technologies to counter the United States, it will be exciting to see what Taiwan comes up with in countering China with A2/AD strategies of their own, and while this author is always keen on submarines, at Taiwan’s current imbalance, he’d probably recommend more investments into killing enemy submarines than building their own.
Of course, improved relationships with similarly-minded, regional neighbors can’t hurt, and it’d be sensible to advance beyond WWII-era technology.
Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch