The U.S. Department of State has approved licenses for U.S. defense contractors to sell sensitive U.S.-made submarine technology to Taiwan to support the construction of a yet to be determined number of domestically-designed and -produced diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK) for the Republic of China Navy (ROCN), according to local media reports.
Two U.S. defense companies interested in collaborating with China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC), the country’s only listed shipbuilder, and the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology on the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program initially submitted requests for marketing licenses in 2017 and have reportedly been granted this month. (The names of the two companies have not been made public.) However, the State Department has not publicly confirmed that any marketing licenses were issued.
Conversely, Taiwan’s Office of the President announced on April 7 that the United States has approved the defense contractors’ request: “The U.S. government’s decision will not only help Taiwan in raising its defense capabilities, it will also greatly benefit security and stability in the region.” Additional confirmation came from the Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) stating that the approval was a “breakthrough,” according to the South China Morning Post. “It is part of a process. We’ll take it step by step,” a MoD spokesperson added.
While no details have officially been released about the precise technology to be sold, Defense News reports that the licenses approved by the State Department involved a submarine combat management system and a separate technical assistance agreement.
The news of U.S. support for Taiwan’s domestic submarine program was publicly condemned by the Chinese government over the weekend. “China firmly opposes the US arms sales to Taiwan, this is clear-cut and consistent,” a Chinese MoD spokesperson said. “Taiwan is a part of China. One-China principle serves as the political foundation for the China-US ties.” The spokesperson also urged a cessation of all military contacts between Taiwan and the United States.
The IDS program was publicly announced in December 2014 as a result of the United States’ refusal to help Taiwan procure or build eight diesel-electric submarines, a commitment originally made by the former George W. Bush administration in 2001. The ROCN plans foresees a fleet of eight attack submarines with the first SSK entering sea-trials by 2024 followed by its first operational deployment in 2026: As I reported in March 2017, the IDS is divided up into two phases:
The first phase consists of completing design work on Taiwan’s new class of attack subs for the government allocated approximately NT$2 billion ($65.66 million). The second stage entails the construction of the new boats with the ambitious goal of finishing construction in eight years and commissioning the subs into service with the ROCN within a decade. (Each sub could cost as much as $1 billion, according to The Diplomat estimates.)
It is unclear whether design work on the new SSK class has been completed yet. Notably, while the United States may be able to offer additional expertise on, for example, the boats’ sonar and weapons systems, it will be less able to offer firsthand know-how on the SSKs propulsion system as all U.S. subs are currently nuclear-powered.
The license-built submarine combat management system could also just be used for now on the ROCNs two Hai Lung-class (improved Dutch Zwaardvis-class) submarines — the Hai Lung (Sea Dragon) 793 and Hai Hu (Sea Tiger) 794 —which are currently undergoing a $12.35 million life extension program. As I noted previously, the upgrade reportedly includes the installation of a new combat system.
Last June, the U.S. State Department also approved the sale of 46 advanced MK-48 Mod 6AT heavyweight torpedoes to Taiwan.