21 March 2017
The president of Taiwan has announced the conclusion of the nation's disappointing, decades-long search for someone—anyone—to sell the country attack submarines for its defense: Nobody will, and so the island country will build its submarines. USNI News, citing the Japanese Kyodo News Agency, reports that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced the start of the submarine program today at a Republic of China (Taiwan) Navy base.
Lying just 120 miles from mainland China, Taiwan, or the Republic of China, has been under threat of invasion since splitting from Communist China in 1949. As China's military strength has grown in recent years, the threat of invasion has increased and Taiwan has sought to build a fleet of diesel electric submarines. Submarines are an ideal weapon of defense for Taiwan, capable of sinking invasion fleets and breaking any blockade China might impose on what it considers a "breakaway province".
In theory, Taiwan's plan shouldn't be a problem. There is a vibrant non-nuclear submarine industry worldwide, with Russia, Japan, France, and Germany all leaders in diesel electric attack submarine design. Unfortunately for Taiwan, as China's economic power has increased, Beijing has used that power to discourage other countries from selling submarines to Taiwan. Today, no one will sell the country submarines for fear of retaliatory economic action by China.
What about American shipyards? Some, such as the Connecticut-based General Dynamics Electric Boat, produce only nuclear-powered submarines. That is way too much submarine for Taiwan, which doesn't need large ships with the ability to circumnavigate the globe. The long range of nuclear subs would make them offensive weapons, and Washington is committed to selling Taiwan only defensive arms.
In 2001, the Bush Administration promised to build diesel-powered submarines for Taiwan, but that never happened, for a number of reasons. The move would have deteriorated U.S.-Chinese relations. Plus, the U.S. Navy does not want domestic shipyards to produce diesel-powered subs. The Navy prefers an all-nuclear force and is afraid that if local shipyards made the less desirable (but cheaper) alternative, Congress may actually force the American Navy to buy them.
In the meantime, Taiwan's navy has just four submarines. The two newest subs Hai Lung ("Sea Dragon") and Hai Hu ("Sea Tiger") were ordered from the Netherlands in 1980 and delivered by 1988. Even older are the Hai Shih (ex-USS Cutlass) and Hai Pao (ex-USS Tusk), which were built for the U.S. Navy during World War II. The submarines were transferred to Taiwan in the early 70s with their torpedo tubes welded shut. Each is more than 70 years old, making them the oldest submarines in service anywhere. The two geriatric attack boats are too old for frontline service and are instead used to train anti-submarine warfare forces.
This new effort to make homebuilt subs will be a joint project between the CSBC shipbuilding corporation, the Taiwanese government and navy, and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. Taiwan reportedly wants a submarine in the 1,200 to 3,000-ton class, which is a reasonable size considering the main mission of the sub fleet is to defend a relatively small island. The only submarine the U.S. currently builds, by comparison, is the 7,800-ton nuclear powered Virginia-class attack sub.
Taiwan will probably get guided torpedoes such as the Mark 48 ADCAP anti-ship/anti-submarine torpedo, from the United States. According to USNI News, Taiwan expects the process to take ten years to mature consisting of "four years (for design), four for construction and two additional years of testing."
Taiwan will basically start from square one in designing this submarine. The country is so bereft of submarine design experience that in 2015 it was reportedly ready to tear down one of the World War II-era subs to figure out how to build modern submarines. Taiwan will lean heavily on outside help. It was reported in 2015 that "more than twenty US and European companies" have expressed interest in working with Taiwanese companies on the submarine project.
If Taiwan's effort to build submarines is successful, then Beijing's pressure to halt sales from other countries could backfire. Taiwan could build submarines with features other countries might be reluctant to sell, such as vertical launch silos for long-range missiles that could hit the mainland, giving the island country a retaliatory strike capability that Beijing would prefer Taiwan didn't have.