Why Taiwan Needs Submarines

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Five years after the government of Taiwan requested permission to purchase 66 new F-16C jet fighters from the United States, it appears the deal is finally dead – a victim of the United States’ growing ties to China and the US administration’s unwillingness to proceed with a deal that could anger Beijing. 

The F-16C sale never really mattered to Taiwanese defence, despite the bluster of politicians on both sides of the Strait. However, a plan to buy submarines does matter. That deal has been on hold since 2001.

In place of the new F-16Cs Taipei wants, Washington has approved upgrades to Taiwan’s existing fleet of around 150 1990s-vintage F-16As. US Vice President Joe Biden will reportedly address Chinese concerns over the upgrade plan during his planned August visit to China.

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‘The US expects China to understand the actions of the United States,’ one Chinese news outlet posited. Washington is obliged by a 1979 law to provide for Taiwan's defence, but lately has been reluctant to sell high-tech arms to the island nation. The F-16 upgrades represent a compromise for Washington. 

Updates to the F-16s could include new radars and electronics and expanded weapons options.

However, it’s not clear that new or upgraded fighters are really what Taiwan needs to ensure its sovereignty. In the highly unlikely event of a Chinese invasion attempt, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is unlikely to seek a direct confrontation with Taiwan's fighters. Nor would an air battle even be necessary.

‘The PLA places primary emphasis on achieving air superiority by attacking the enemy on the ground and water: forces, equipment bases, and launch pads used for air raids,’ US think tank RAND wrote in a recent report.

In the opening hours of a conflict, China would probably target Taiwan’s air-defence system – radars, airfields, weapons and fuel supplies, fighters and personnel – with hundreds of ballistic missiles fired across the Taiwan Strait. ‘It is not feasible for Taiwan to acquire enough missile defence systems to protect it against the simultaneous arrival of the number of ballistic missile warheads China is likely to fire at Taiwan in a conflict,’ RAND noted.

It wouldn’t matter whether Taiwan possessed F-16As with or without upgrades, F-16Cs or any other fighter type – few would survive long enough to dogfight Chinese aircraft over the Strait.

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan's shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending. 

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island's ability to defend itself.

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