Two Dutch-made submarines surface near southern Taiwan during an exercise in July 29, 2004. Taiwan has been having trouble updating its submarine fleet. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh
Two Dutch-made submarines surface near southern Taiwan during an exercise in July 29, 2004. Taiwan has been having trouble updating its submarine fleet. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

Taiwan is having trouble moving forward with its Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program, which is aimed at building a fleet of eight diesel-electric submarines to replace four aging vessels, local military sources admitted to Asia Times.

Taipei needs to improve its asymmetric deterrent to counter a possible invasion from mainland China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy routinely circles Taiwan, which Communist rulers in Beijing view as a rebel province. Just recently, two Chinese warships were spotted by the Taiwanese military southward off the island’s east coast.

“We are facing tough times in acquiring suitable and available components for submarines,” a senior Taiwanese defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A senior navy officer echoed his words, highlighting the fact that his country had tried to get supplies from shipbuilders in the United States and Europe in the past four to five years, since Admiral Richard Chen Yeong-kang, Taipei’s chief of naval operation from 2013 to 2015, put the IDS project on the table.

Mixing systems problematic

The US Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 calls for Washington to support the purchase by Taiwan of defense weapons for asymmetric warfare and undersea warfare. In accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which redefined US relations with Taipei after the administration of President Jimmy Carter had switched diplomatic recognition to Communist China, the US government must provide for the defense of the island.

The problem is that the US Navy uses only nuclear-powered submarines and the Pentagon does not support conventional platforms. As a result, Taiwan has had to focus on European and Japanese models. European navies can showcase a series of capable vessels such as Germany’s Type 214 and Type 218SG, France’s Barracuda-class and Scorpene-class, Sweden’s Gotland-class, Italy’s Todaro-class and the Netherlands’ Walrus-class. For its part, Japan can offer the advanced Soryu-class submarine.

Dutch contractor RH Marine recently agreed to help Taipei refit its two outdated Zwaardvis submarines, but it is a drop in the ocean. The matter is sensitive for European chanceries, which have so far refrained from supporting Taiwan’s defense programs because of fears it may damage relationships with China. Major shipbuilders and some component makers for submarines in Europe declined to comment on the issue.

The Taiwanese navy officer said Japan’s submarines were also a good option for the IDS project, as Tokyo’s arms-export policy “may give Taipei an opportunity to acquire design and ‘red-zone’ technology.” But he acknowledged the Japanese government would always take Beijing’s reaction into consideration, so “there will be no green light [from Tokyo] without the US government providing a stronger support.”

Aside from diesel-electric engines, Taiwan is also seeking air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology, which increases undersea autonomy of a conventional boat, and hull design to manufacture its new submarines. It was reported that Taipei could buy US combat systems for its future vessels. In April, the US State Department authorized the sale of submarine components to the island by American manufacturers.

According to Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College: “Taiwan does not have really good options on this front, as mixing complex systems from multiple countries is a recipe for disaster.” Furthermore, he thinks most European countries “will not want to be associated with the project.” The same goes for Japan and South Korea.

Island’s defense may not be feasible

Admiral Chen, who is now a board member of the island’s top defense research institute, told Taiwan’s Central News Agency in May that his country had a “window of opportunity” between 2020 and 2035 to ramp up its military capabilities before China’s defense forces would be fully modernized. But for Goldstein, “Taiwan is hopelessly far behind in the undersea warfare realm and such forces as it could eventually deploy would most likely be destroyed at the pier or easily overmatched.”

As well, building a submarine force from scratch entails enormous cost. To resist a naval attack from the mainland, “Taipei would likely spend the same money in a wiser manner by investing in defensive mine warfare or land-based and mobile anti-ship missile launchers,” the US scholar said. 

The Taiwanese defense official is confident that the country’s navy will do its best to make the IDS project succeed. Goldstein was skeptical that Taiwan’s defense was even feasible. “Submarines present a ‘sexy’ solution, but would hardly make a dent in the actual problem, even if developed successfully,” he emphasized.

“During the [1962] Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union came to see that it was just about impossible to defend a small island off the coast of an angry superpower, and the Kremlin was forced to back down. Now, Taiwan and the US confront the same strategic quandary.”

That’s why he believes Taipei would do well to pursue amicable relations with the mainland as it did between 2008 and 2016.

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