James Holmes

Why Taiwan Wants Submarines

There is good strategic logic to Taiwan’s decision to build diesel subs. Execution is a different story.

Why Taiwan Wants Submarines
Credit: flickr/ JillChen

So let’s have one, or maybe two, hearty huzzah!s for last week’s announcement that the United States will help Taiwan construct a fleet of diesel submarines. The Taiwan Navy can integrate these denizens of the shallows into a people’s-war-at-sea strategy that’s sure to give any invading force fits. Inventively deployed alongside shore-based anti-ship missiles and fleet-of-foot surface craft like the navy’s new Hsun Hai and Kuang Hua VI missile boats, subs can add that (mostly) missing undersea dimension to Taipei’s offshore defense. Up, down, and out! as U.S. Navy surface-ship mariners used to say. Gee … I wonder why no one thought of this before?

The concept, then, merits a cheer. Its execution, not so much. The reality is that putting the concept into effect will take a long time and demand a wrenching cultural change within the Taiwan Navy. The hour is late to get started with an enterprise of this scope and ambition.

Why the delay? Eight diesel boats comprised part of the weapons package the Bush administration offered Taipei all the way back in 2001. Yet Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (KMT) held up the sale in the legislature for no apparent reason except that President Chen Shui-bian wanted it. Narrow partisanship between KMT lawmakers and Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party thus needlessly retarded the Taiwan Navy’s efforts to reinvent itself for new realities. And guess what? Had the sale gone forward back then, Taiwanese submariners might be plying the seas girding the island by now. Instead, its defense lags. Thanks, folks!

Designing and building ROCN boats will consume time for pragmatic reasons as well. No one except Washington appears prepared to help in this endeavor, but no American shipyard has built diesel submarines since the 1950s. The last class of U.S. Navy diesel boats left service by 1990. That’s a long lapse in expertise to make up. And it takes a while to implement a weapons program even under ideal circumstances. Presumably shipbuilders will draw up designs, a competition will be held, contracts will be worked out, construction will proceed in fits and starts…. You know the routine by now. First-in-class vessels are just hard.

There could be an alliance dimension to this, however. One way to expedite the process would be for a European maker to transfer a design to Taiwan, or even sell the ROCN ready-made boats. The Germans, for instance, make nifty boats. China, needless to say, is quick to anger about such things, and our European friends balk at incurring its ire. But at the same time, Europeans are always wondering aloud how they can help the United States pivot to Asia. Well, here’s one way. Helping a small country defend itself from a predatory neighbor is something that should resonate in NATO capitals these days. It may be time for American diplomats to play some hardball with NATO allies – strong arming them into relaxing weapons export bans vis-à-vis Taiwan.

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It would do the Naval Diplomat’s heart some good to see some shiny German Type 214s bobbing around in the Taiwan Strait and Western Pacific, bearing that nifty Republic of China sunburst – or to know they’re prowling beneath the waves. That would help the Taiwanese – and their friends on this side of the Pacific Ocean – sleep better. Let’s help Taipei help itself.