A nuclear-powered submarine of the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet. Photo: AFP
A nuclear-powered submarine of the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet. Photo: AFP

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted a live-fire military exercise in the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday. Though relatively small in scale, the drill highlighted Beijing’s growing military activism across the area. This, coupled with the Asian giant’s rapid naval modernization, makes Taipei’s case for improving its defense capabilities all the more compelling.

Taiwan desperately needs new, modern submarines to bolster asymmetric deterrence against a possible invasion from the mainland. The Communist leadership in Beijing considers the island a rebel province, and has not ruled out using force to recapture it in the future.

The US State Department recently gave the green light to the sale of submarine technology to Taipei, in a move aimed at stepping up the island’s naval defenses. According to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, enacted after the United States had cut formal diplomatic ties with the Taiwanese government in favor of mainland China, Washington is bound to provide for the defense of the island.

US defense contractors will now be able to market submarine components and systems to Taiwan, but technical problems will force Taiwanese leaders to turn to European shipbuilders to complete the island’s domestic submarine program, which is now in the design phase.

Taipei aims to replace its four aging submarines with eight new conventional vessels. It has tried to acquire submarines or submarine technology by Washington and its European allies over the past two decades, but they have always glossed over such a request, fearing that the sale of these sensitive arms systems to the island would have angered China – besides making it easier for Beijing to steal American and European submarine know-how.

Taiwan lacks experience in the field of submarine development. It is assumed that it will seek to buy combat and sonar systems from US shipbuilders, in addition to modern periscopes. But the island also has the need to obtain an engine allowing its future submarines to be virtually silent when running underwater. Nuclear-powered submarines have this capacity, but also diesel-electric vessels can be equipped with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, which increases undersea autonomy of a conventional boat from a few days to weeks.

A sundry European submarine shop

Taipei is not focusing on nuclear vessels and related technology. They are too expensive and would likely get on Beijing’s nerves too much. In this respect, as US defense companies manufacture and market only nuclear submarines, the island will have to persuade European countries to sell their diesel-electric engines and AIP technology.

France can offer the propulsion system featured on the Shortfin Barracuda-class diesel-electric submarine, which French shipbuilder Naval Group is developing for the Royal Australian Navy. Naval Group can also showcase its Scorpene-class submarine, which has a variant with AIP technology. India’s six Scorpenes will be conventionally powered, but reports say an indigenous AIP system will be installed on them down the line.

Germany has its own set of diesel-electric submarines, the Type 212, Type 214 and Type 218SG. South Korea’s next-generation submarines program is based on German shipbuilder HDW’s Type 214 vessel. The four Type 218SGs that ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is constructing for Singapore are said to be as stealthy as a nuclear-powered sub.

The Netherlands can pitch the engine of its Walrus-class submarine, one of the most advanced diesel-electric attack vessels in the world. Taiwan acquired two Zwaardvis-class diesel-electric submarines from the Netherlands in the 1980s. The two boats are being retrofitted to extend their service life.

Sweden is yet another European country well versed in constructing submarines. Its Gotland-class diesel-electric submarine was the first conventional vessel to use a Stirling engine-based air-independent propulsion. Australia’s six Collins-class submarines were designed by Swedish shipyard Kockums, while Singapore purchased from Sweden four Sjöormen-class submarines in the 1990s, and two Västergötland-class vessels in 2005. Saab Kockums AB is currently developing the A26 attack submarine for the Swedish Navy. In the Nordic country’s naval tradition, this new boat is expected to have enhanced stealth capabilities.

Buying US combat systems and European engines

Even if Taiwan eventually managed to buy out US and European submarine technology, it would have problems integrating different systems, as well as assembling and testing imported components. This is one of the reasons that the acquisition of off-the-shelf submarines remains the best option for Taipei.

But European nations will not sell ready-made submarines to Taiwan. Should the US actually provide it with submarine combat and communications systems, setting a precedent for other countries’ shipbuilders, and China were to become far too aggressive across the Taiwan Strait, Europeans might then consider supplying the island with their first-rate diesel-electric propulsion technology.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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