Taiwan’s Submarine Saga

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Taiwan’s Submarine Saga

The Indigenous Defense Submarines program has had a long and convoluted history.

Taiwan’s Submarine Saga
Credit: Reuters Photographer

Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarines (IDS) program has attracted considerable attention in recent years. The diverse information disclosed either by officials or by the media has often been confusing or lacking in credibility. In response to the government’s caution, the media has tried to dig out whatever it can from the limited information that is in circulation, often leading to exaggeration. The authors attempt here to leave the speculation behind, and provide a broader, clearer perspective based on their own extended observation. The article analyzes documentation from credible open sources. (Any consistencies with classified information are purely coincidental).

Strategies of the MND and ROCN

Taiwan has wanted to build its own submarine fleet for almost six decades, with enthusiasm especially evident during the era of former President Chiang Ching-kuo. After purchasing two Dutch-made ZWAARDVIS-class submarines in the late 1980s, Taiwan had the option of acquiring more submarines from the Netherlands, Ukraine or Germany, but high prices and, more importantly, Taiwan’s lack of interest, prevented a deal.

Another opportunity for Taiwan to acquire new submarines emerged when former U.S. President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead in 2001 for the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines. Unfortunately, because of Taiwan’s insistence on the application of the Foreign Military Sale program rather than a commercial sale mechanism, and its refusal to accept a U.S. proposal involving the building of smaller tonnage (500-1000 tons) vessels, Taiwan once again missed a key opportunity. This outcome had much to do with the reluctance at that time of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the Navy (ROCN) to get involved in an indigenous submarine program.

In recent years, the situation has changed somewhat. The delays of the 2001 submarine sales program and the growing military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait have finally convinced the MND and ROCN to seriously consider the unfavorable political reality and the critical need for submarines in Taiwan’s defense scenario.

Taiwan finally became proactive about the IDS program when Admiral Chen Yeong-kang became ROCN Chief. Forces Structure and Planning Concepts for the Future ROCN, released by Navy Headquarters in January 10, 2014, explained the stages and procedures for executing the IDS program. The first stage involves a domestic shipbuilder refurbishing two obsolete GUPPY-class submarines to make them training capable. This plan will start with an in-depth overhaul, making steel plates and replacing the pressure hulls of these two old submarines. According to various sources, the ROCN will invest 450 million dollars in China Shipbuilding Corp (CSBC, Taiwan) and the Ship and Ocean Industry R&D Center (SOIC) in the next two years for this purpose.

The initial plan for constructing indigenous submarines revealed by MND and ROCN was in fact highly speculative. Although it was presented as a foundation for indigenous submarine manufacturing, it was really an attempt to satisfy legislators and domestic shipbuilders. Subsequent events have been revealing of the true intentions of MND and ROCN.

Admiral Chen Yeong-kang personally chaired an IDS symposium at the National Defense University in September 2013. In late November 2013, he hosted another conference at MND’s Officer Club that focused on the feasibility of the IDS program. A seminar focused on related know-how and the technologies/techniques needed to build indigenous submarines was held in June 2014. On September 10, MND’s spokesperson Major General Luo Shao-ho said that the IDS program was a firm MND policy, “which is not in conflict with FMS.”

On October 1, Defense Minister Yen Min testified in the Legislative Yuan: “The MND has informed the United States of our arms acquisition priority; the submarine is first and new generation fighters next.” Five days later, Deputy Defense Minister Chiu Guo-zheng solemnly stated at the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference: “Taiwan has waited for a U.S. commitment to help Taiwan acquire new submarines for years but we still have no positive response; therefore we must commence, and already have commenced, all preparatory work for the IDS program.”

In November 2014, a seminar on IDS project management was held by the Navy, bringing together experts, scholars, and high ranking officials from the U.S., Germany, France, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy and Australia. After the seminars, a site survey to evaluate submarine building capability was arranged. On December 10, MND, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) CSBC, and SOIC jointly presided over the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and Defense Affair Committee. Under Minister of Defense Vice Admiral Kao Tien-chung said in that hearing: “We have inquired privately about the possibility of introducing Japanese technology to build submarines….According to the revealed IDS program, the submarines sought will be 1,500 to 2,000 tons. The first indigenous submarine is scheduled to be completed in 2024. After a comprehensive evaluation, the best approach for this program is to build our submarines at home with technical support from the United States.” Several days after the hearing, Admiral Chen made an arranged visit toWashington D.C. The purpose of this trip was widely believed to be connected to the IDS program.

Intentions of the KMT and DPP

Legislator Lin Yu-fang’s long advocacy for the submarines procurement program clearly reflects the Kuomintang’s (KMT) stance. Lin submitted a joint proposal that was endorsed by 130 Legislative Yuan members, which said “the Executive Yuan should express its strong position and request the United States to help Taiwan build six of the eight submarines domestically through technology transfer. MND and the Navy will have the support of the Legislative Yuan as long as the  policy of building submarines domestically is fully implemented, otherwise the entire budget will be frozen.” There has been no significant policy change since this legislative proposal was approved on May 24, 2002. However, the program has stalled since Ma Ying-jeou became president in 2008, hamstrung by differing views over IDS.

Compared to the KMT, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is more proactive on the IDS program. In the DPP’s Fifth Defense Policy Blue Paper, China’s Military Threats against Taiwan in 2025, released in March 2014, then-Party Chairman Su Tseng-chang called for a concept of “two-stage indigenous production of submarines.” Six months later, the DPP published its Seventh Defense Policy Blue Paper, Bolstering Taiwan’s Core Defense Industries, which was endorsed by Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen. It offered a more detailed description of the concept. The DPP set out a number of viewpoints:

  1. The biggest obstacle to building submarines domestically is not in Kaohsiung; it is not in Washington D.C.; it is in Taiwan’s Presidential Office. Vague policies have further complicated an already complex and risky project of indigenously building submarines.
  2. DPP will firmly stay the course on the indigenous production of submarines, and places it as a top priority of all national defense flagship projects. When the DPP takes power in 2016, it should strengthen this course and immediately initiate the submarine project.
  3. DPP proposes a “two-stage indigenous production” concept for a long-term submarine R&D, key equipment acquisition, and testing and improvement cycle.
  4. Stage one of this project will use life extension and reverse engineering of the current ZWAARDVIS-class submarine to maintain Taiwan’s submarine force, and to increase the industry’s experience and confidence. Life extension and reverse engineering should be conducted simultaneously. The life extension of two vessels as well as the production of two additional vessels through reverse engineering should be completed six to eight years into the project. The extended ZWAARDVIS-class submarines will then replace the current GUPPY-class submarines as training vessels.
  5. The goal of stage two is to design and produce six or more submarines of 1500-ton surface displacement to form a fleet of eight and establish a sufficient submarine force, and to increase Taiwan’s submarine building capacity. Once the project is initiated (projected at 2017), production of a new submarine will start every three years. The first submarine will be completed approximately eight to ten years after the program launch (between 2025 and 2027), completing the production of six submarines in 23 to 25 years (between 2040 and 2042).
  6. The estimated cost for both stages is between NT$350 to $400 billion (US$11.5 to 13.1 billion). With the projected 23-years timeframe, an estimated NT$17.3 billion (US$567.6 million) will be required each year.

After years of struggle, MND and the Navy will very likely support DPP’s version of the IDS program.

The Changing Stance of the U.S.

During a discussion on the Asia-Pacific rebalance held by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) on September 8, 2014, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert acknowledged having a conversation with his Taiwan counterpart concerning Taiwan’s submarines program but said he could not reveal any details. Commenting on the same issue, Douglas Paal, vice president for the CEIP and a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan’s (AIT) Taipei office, said he personally supported the idea of Taiwan having more submarines. He also noted this would help Taiwan to better patrol its surrounding waters and seas to its south, jointly contributing to regional security, which is also in the U.S. national interest.

Lin Yu-fang of the ruling KMT, who led a delegation of Taiwanese legislators of the Taiwan-USA Inter-Parliamentary Amity Association to the United States, told a news conference on September 9, 2014 that his delegation has brought a message of Taiwan’s determination than ever and the United States has begun to treat seriously the request from Taiwan to build its own diesel electric submarines.”

At the International Conference on New Asian Dynamics and the Role of Taiwan, which was co-organized by the Project 2049 Institute and the Taiwan Brain Trust on December 6, 2014, Randall Schriver, Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said: “Washington should clearly signal to Taiwan and the U.S defense industry its intention to approve licensing for American industrial participation in Taiwan’s indigenous defense submarine program. Washington should support Taipei’s submarine program, citing the strategic benefits of Taiwan acquiring new diesel-electric submarines and the range of missions they could undertake as part of coalition operations.”

On December 18, 2014, Randall Schriver and his Project 2049 colleague Ian Easton jointly published a report titled Taiwan and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Western Pacific. In their analysis, ROCN has a remarkably dense and resilient network for collecting information on Chinese Maritime activities, and its coverage ranges from the Sea of Japan to the South Pacific. Taiwan’s capabilities include a large number of land, air, and sea-based radars, signals intelligence (SIGINT) platforms, sonar arrays, human agents, and imagery intelligence (IMINT) assets that are critical to this region. “Taiwan has an important, but often underappreciated, role to play in the maritime component of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. As a capable security partner, Taiwan can provide PACOM with critical indications and warning information. Taiwan’s Navy, Air Force, Army and Coast guard can also work jointly with their counterparts in the U.S. and other friendly maritime nations in the Western Pacific to form a common operational picture of the maritime domain. As a further means of building trust and interoperability, PACOM should expand and deepen its military exchanges with Taiwan as part of the rebalance to Asia. It is in the American interest to integrate Taiwan’s maritime domain awareness capabilities into a joint infrastructure for shared indications and warning (I&W) and regional situational awareness. This could include the exchange of everything from radar and sonar data to intelligence derived from signals, human agents and imagery, as appropriate and warranted by events. However, both the U.S. and ROC militaries should continue to maintain their respective abilities to independently collect information as well.”

Taiwan’s Options

In the authors’ judgment, Taiwan could acquire submarines in one of four ways:

  1. The U.S. obtains used submarines from a third party (candidates include Greece, Singapore, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan) and then transfers them to Taiwan after upgrading their capabilities.
  2. The U.S. negotiates with potential submarine exporters (such as Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan) to build the hulls and propulsion systems on contemporary production lines, and then integrates them with U.S. designed and manufactured combat systems in CONUS or Taiwan.
  3. The U.S. consults with allies (such as Australia, Japan and South Korea) to include Taiwan’s submarine in their future manufacturing plans.
  4. The U.S. assists Taiwan in establishing new production facilities for indigenous submarines. There are three possible ways this could be done:

i.                The U.S. obtains the blueprints for a submarine hull and the manufacturing technologies from a third country then transfers them to Taiwan.

ii.                Taiwan uses the ZWAARDVIS-class design to produce a “clone” with U.S. assistance.

iii.                The U.S. builds from a new design based on configurations requested by Taiwan.

The feasibility of each approach is determined by a nexus of politics, technologies and funding. We believe that MND and ROCN will consider each of these options.

China’s Reaction

China has long remained staunchly opposed to all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The strength of the language used and the scale of the reaction largely reflects prevailing Sino-U.S. relations and China’s national power. After President Barack Obama signed legislation formally authorizing the sale of four Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates to Taiwan on December 18, 2014, China immediately lodged a strong protest through its foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang, who said that the sale “constitutes a grave breach of the spirit of the three joint communiqués between China and the U.S., especially that of the August 17 Communiqué, brutally interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests.” Since China condemns the U.S. for every arms sale, even that involving used warships, any U.S. assistance – direct or indirect – in Taiwan’s efforts to acquire submarines will all no doubt cross the “red line” drawn by China. The reaction is likely to be stronger than that when the U.S. approved the sale of 150 F-16 A/B fighters in 1992 or in this recent Perry-class case. The impact on Sino-U.S. relations of the submarine sale will be a critical factor for the U.S. to consider.

Post-Election Developments

After handling the KMT an overwhelming defeat in the 2014 local elections, the DDP is very likely to keep this momentum and win the presidential election in 2016. But no matter which party is in power, the IDS program will benefit from the departure of President Ma Ying-jeou. The strategy adopted by Admiral Chen Yeong-kang is both correct and feasible.

Although the DPP’s planning of the IDS program revealed in the Blue Paper is very detailed and attractive, problems still exist. For example, in the DPP’s version, although the first stage of life extension and reverse engineering for the ZWAARDVIS-class submarines is quite applicable, the other two GUPPY-class submarines are too old for another six to eight years of service and should be decommissioned immediately. The future 1,500 tonners suit the Navy’s requirement but the costs for design and manufacturing are high, as is the threshold for technology transfer. Moreover, it will take 8 to 10 years to complete the first ship and another 13 to 25 years for the rest. Beside, whether the configuration and number of this 1,500 tonner will fit Taiwan’s defense requirement in 2020 is also very questionable. The estimated cost of NT$350 to $400 billion is almost the same as that amount proposed by the U.S. when the DPP was in power between 2000 and 2008. Although the DPP will take a different approach this time, apportioning the budget over 25 years, it is unclear whether the impact on Taiwan’s economy, social welfare, and other areas will be acceptable. The opposition party (KMT) will also very likely accuse DPP again – as it did in 2005 – of “squandering an arms purchase.”

As for the number eight, whether this is in line with Taiwan’s future defense needs is also doubtful. Given the maintenance cycle, only four or five submarines will be combat ready when in contingency. This number is extremely low for Taiwan’s maritime defense, either in tactically centralized or dispersive deployment. In a real conflict, “better than nothing” is of little comfort. Moreover, the acquisition of the first submarine is too slow in both DPP and MND’s plans.

However, irrespective of whether submarines are acquired from Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore or Australia, U.S. approval is key. Although the sale of eight traditional submarines approved by President George W. Bush in 2001 stumbled on various issues, recent signs suggest that the United States has begun to seriously consider helping Taiwan acquire these assets. This change is associated with U.S. national interests and its strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The United States and Japan have shared defense duties and jointly developed an underwater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system since the end of the Cold War, and in particular have responded to China’s rise after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Taiwan’s special political status has weakened the strength of this critical mechanism, especially in the northern and southern regions of Taiwan and made the first island chain vulnerable. Randall Schriver has noticed this weakness and called for strengthening the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan, for instance exchanging sonar and radar data, to integrate Taiwan into a joint infrastructure for shared indications and warning and regional situational awareness. The U.S. military has acknowledged that bridging the gap is in the U.S. national interest and has begun to evaluate carefully Taiwan’s submarine requirement. MND and ROCN are well aware of this developing situation and have stepped up their efforts on the IDS program.

Although Obama has yet to agree to help Taiwan build its own submarines, interestingly, a report published on December 21, 2014 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) suggests that Taiwan should build 42 smaller submarines, similar to the Iranian 120-ton GHADIR-class to replace the currently planned 1,500- 2,000 tonners. This recommendation has not been popular with the MND and the Navy. It will be important to see whether this viewpoint reflects current and future mainstream opinion in the U.S. government.

The ROCN’s strategy of revitalizing the IDS program may find success after the 2016 election, when the original domestic obstacles recede. However, if the DPP wins the election, its strong pro-independence stance will create a new problem for the IDS program, since the currently balanced U.S.-China-Taiwan strategic triangle will likely change. As for the U.S., whether Obama will help Taiwan acquire submarines in defiance of Chinese opposition is uncertain. Certainly, Washington’s desire to maintain strategic superiority in the Asia-Pacific creates some reservations about transferring cutting-edge submarine technologies to Taiwan. For now, then, the type of submarines Taiwan ultimately acquires remains an open question.

Wang Jyh-Perng is a reserve captain in the ROCN and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Beijing University. Tan Chih-lung is a Navy Reserve Rear Admiral in the ROCN and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at National Sun Yet-Sen University, Taiwan.