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

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to spend a lot more – NT$73.6 billion (US$2.4 billion), or more than one-fifth of the island’s defense budget next year – on the development of indigenous weapons.

The president made the announcement at a ceremony at the Navy Command Headquarters to kickstart a new homemade assault submarine program.

Next year’s defense budget will get a boost of NT$18.3 billion (US$597.5 million) and its share of the island’s GDP is set to break the 2% mark.

Taiwan now maintains a fleet of antiquated submarines made up of two Dutch-built Zwaardvisclass diesel models that have been in service since the 1980s. Difficulty in procuring more advanced models from abroad has forced the island to make its own.

Still, Washington has thrown a lifeline to the island’s ill-fated submarine program after the US Department of State in April started to authorize US firms to export core technologies to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s protests.

The granting of licenses will enable US contractors to cut out intermediaries and deal with the Taiwanese government directly for the transfer of submarine technology, in particular propulsion, noise-cancellation, stealth design and weapons bays, the official said.

Earlier reports also revealed that a deal had been reached with a Dutch firm to modernize the two aging Zwaardvisclass subs that form part of its maritime defenses against an invasion by China.

Rotterdam-based firm RH Marine, which supplies a range of maritime electrical and automation systems, will determine the feasibility of an upgrade and provide technical support for the subs, which were built some 30 years ago in the Netherlands.

The navy wants to equip the two old vessels with long-range heavy torpedoes from the US and upgrade their electronic warfare and combat systems as a stopgap measure while its more modern subs are being built, the Taipei-based Liberty Times reported, citing a defense official.

Taiwan’s Central News Agency also reported that the defense ministry had received submissions from six firms from the US, EU, Japan and India with offers of technical cooperation for the new submarine program, though the names of these firms and their quotes were “highly classified.”

As for its indigenous corvettes, a defense official said the cost of the 700-ton Tuo Jiang-class warships would increase to NT$16.1 billion each and they would be equipped with Taiwan’s homemade cruise and surface-to-air missiles.

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