Having embarked on a program to develop indigenous submarines, the government of Taiwan is seeking to develop a new generation of submarines to replace its aging Chien Lung-class that has been in service for some three decades. With an operational lifespan that has already been extended, Taiwan sees the urgency for a new fleet of submarines to meet its growing 21st-century defense needs. With foreign sales of submarines (i.e., by Germany, Japan, and Israel) proving to be unrealistic, and its main armament and defense supplier, the United States, lacking older diesel submarines, Taiwan has opted to pursue its own design.
The Taiwan-based China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC) – the country’s main ship-building company – sought the government contract and almost immediately initiated a submarine development center in Kaohsiung. Taiwan envisioned the development of eight to 12 submarines over the span of two decades, with the first system to enter into service in 2026. With the assistance of the United States – officialized when Congress voted for the defense act of 2018, offering Taiwan technical support for its submarine program – Taipei’s aim is to revamp the existing fleet. Well documented as asymmetric weapons, a new generation of submarines would serve Taiwan with instruments of deterrence, particularly given China’s relative shortcomings in its anti-submarine capabilities – something which Beijing actively has sought to reverse.
Despite its ambitions, Taiwan lacks experience in the field of submarine development. Its current arsenals are composed of 30-plus-year-old Dutch models and U.S. relics from World War II that have been around for roughly seven decades. Adding to this, the United States has not produced the type of diesel submarines that Taiwan initially sought to build for more than three decades, thus translating into a steep and demanding learning curve for the Taiwan defense industry. Thus the CSBC’s announcement explicitly underscored the need for foreign support. Production estimates in terms of costs and time will likely exceed initial estimates; the history of weapons development is scattered and nearly every ambitious case of development displayed exorbitant overruns. With its limited defense budget and deteriorating strategic balance vis-à-vis China, Taiwan is in a difficult position. Pressure for foreign support such as European technology remains. Time is another critical condition that Taiwan will have to deeply study. With the first submarine not becoming operational, at least in principle, until 2026, more than a decade will pass before Taiwan’s deployment of a single submarine, leaving an ever increasing gap in Taiwan’s defense architecture.
In spite of multiple barriers, the Taiwan defense establishment and industry possess significant experience in unmanned systems development and design, having successfully developed a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones. Taiwan’s software and hardware industry also enjoys a pristine ranking among the world’s leading countries and has vividly demonstrated the requisite skills to develop new software and hardware systems essential for the development of sophisticated unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) capable of posing a deadly threat to China’s military vessels. There is much to be said about the possibility of joint ventures between the government, defense industry, and the commercial soft and hardware industry in Taiwan, which together would have the necessary skills, expertise, and understanding to embark pursue cutting-edge UUV development. Having gained vital experience in the development of unmanned systems over previous years, the lessons learned from past projects can lay the groundwork for a new and experimental project. Parallel to its own record of achievements in the field, the U.S. defense industry holds enormous experience researching and developing unmanned technologies.
While much focus has been made on the aerial element, in recent years, the U.S. Navy, in collaboration with the defense industry, embarked on a number of UUV projects that have yielded considerable success. While the prospects of the U.S. defense establishment and its industry partners sharing state-of-the-art technologies with Taiwan remains low, the United States remains Taiwan’s best hope for gaining the support needed in its unmanned submarine venture. As Washington appears inclined to support Taiwan’s defense industry in some ways, particularly under the current U.S. administration, Taiwan might just see the United States serving as a source of support in the island nation’s UUV development.
From an economic perspective, the development of unmanned submarines holds the advantage over the possible development of manned submarines. Since money matters, the greatest advantage of a UUV fleet can lie in the tactical and strategic military domains. As suggested, Taiwan could harvest a natural asymmetrical advantage in its defense vis-à-vis China, and in a stroke of irony learn from China – a country that has made very effective use of asymmetrical weapon systems, such as the DF-21D and its own UUVs to counter U.S. military power in the region. Given that Taiwan will never be able to match the military potential of China, a smarter, more technologically-advanced, and unmanned defense posture could be most effective in deterring China and defending Taiwan’s waterways.
The use of UUVs, in tandem with other unmanned systems, may provide a future Taiwan with an asymmetric opportunity for deterrence. The absence of operators allows for a number of offensive benefits. UUVs would be able to remain on the surface, hidden but activated in times of necessity or crisis, thereby increasing their stealth quality and undermining China’s ability to track all UUVs as potential threats to China’s military assets. Not burdened by the element of human cost, UUVs can engage in daring direct assaults and could also employ so-called swarming tactics. The use of several hundred smaller UUVs – in essence, automated and autonomous torpedoes – has a larger potential to overwhelm Chinese naval defenses.
The absence of manned operators on UUVs also poses a benefit in term of personnel: Due to their limited number, and personnel on board, a loss of a submarine would be catastrophic for its armed forces, inflicting a deep impact on support in Taiwan. The public opinion and political value of manned submarines have the potential to compel Taiwan’s Armed Forces to deploy submarines in moderate and defensive postures, due to the fear of losses in the submarine fleet. New, manned vessels, that may have once been seen as hunters become steep risk factors. Becoming targets themselves effectively level any offensive benefit in their deployment. With UUVs, the problem is expunged: the loss of steel, plastic, metal, and electronics has not (as of yet) led to public outcry, and it seems unlikely that will change in the near future.
The question of how the ROC Navy recruits enough staff for its new fleet of submarines ushers in a difficult reality. With dwindling recruitment numbers, the all-volunteer-force has attracted criticism and has even been labeled as a failed experiment. A declining appetite among Taiwan’s younger generations to join the military is becoming increasingly apparent. Whether or not Taiwan can recruit, train, and operate sufficient personnel for eight submarines remains a pressing question. UUVs would require staff just as their manned counterparts would, but advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are able to accommodate for a much lighter personnel footprint. Furthermore, any force operating UUVs would be heavily shore-based, and not locked away, hundreds of meters below the waves of the Taiwan Strait.
China’s rise and assertiveness leave little room for strategical error for Taiwan. There is little doubt that, especially in light of examples tendered by China and the U..S Navy, UUVs could present Taiwan with a positive economic, political, and military alternative to the development of manned submarines. Rather than betting on a single manned horse, the Taiwanese defense establishment will need to seriously consider its options and make a determination about the future of its submarine fleet and power on the basis of its immediate and long-term military and security needs.
Tobias Burgers is a doctoral candidate, Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin, formerly at the Center for Security Studies, NCCU, Taiwan and currently a visiting fellow at the Keio Global Research institute, Keio University, Japan. Scott N. Romaniuk holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Trento. His research interests include international relations, security studies, and terrorism and political violence.