The Case for Submarines

Taiwan has an obvious and ongoing need to field a modern and capable navy. Taiwan’s current navy is of a high caliber, and through the foreign military sales system Taiwan has procured ships both from the United States and from France. Nevertheless, the challenges faced by the Taiwan Navy have increased dramatically over the years, as China’s military modernization increasingly equips the PLA Navy with a formidable littoral force and a burgeoning blue water capability. In addition, China is building a significant number of submarines that threaten both Taiwan and many other Asian countries.

Taiwan has been able to continue to gain access to relatively modern ships for their surface fleet, ships that can interface with modern combat systems and that can field an impressive array of indigenously developed missiles. However, the same cannot be said for Taiwan’s tiny submarine fleet – half of which was literally built at the end of the Second World War. Taiwan currently owns two Dutch-built Hai Lung -class (modified Zwaardvis) submarines procured in the early 1980s, as well as two Guppy II -class submarines built in 1946.

Submarines remain one of Taiwan’s best asymmetric options, and Taiwan’s requirement for new submarines has now reached a crisis point. If Taiwan is to maintain a viable submarine fleet – and as importantly maintain the infrastructure and professional wherewithal to operate the capability effectively – it needs to a) procure additional submarines and b) upgrade their two existing Hai Lung -class submarines.

In April 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush committed to assisting Taiwan in procuring eight diesel-electric submarines. While the U.S. has not built diesel-electric submarines since the 1950s, its systems integration abilities, combat systems, and weapons are all world class. The design for the proposed new submarines was envisaged as coming from Europe. Due to political infighting in Taiwan through the middle part of the last decade, however, no progress was made on procuring the submarines and the possible program sat dormant.

During the latter parts of President Bush’s second term, then Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs, Richard Lawless, proposed that the program be split into two. This proposal envisioned a Phase I involving design of the submarine, and a Phase II involving construction and life cycle support. A Congressional Notification for the Phase I “Conception Definition and Design Source Selection” program was prepared in early 2008, and has been sitting at the U.S. Department of State since then. However, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have shown any interest in proceeding with the program.

In late summer of 2011, the Ma Administration formally asked the Obama Administration to consider approving the long-delayed submarine Concept Definition and Source Selection phase of the program. However, the submarine program was not included in the September 21, 2011 arms sales notifications to Congress.

At the end of 2011, a task force consisting of personnel from the Taiwan Navy, the Naval Shipbuilding Development Center (NSDC), the United Ship Design Development Center (USDDC), and CSBC Corporation, Taiwan (CSBC) completed a submarine program feasibility study for Taiwan. The study considered Taiwan’s pressing need to replace its two Guppy II-class boats, and looked at the acquisition of existing, second-hand submarines, as well as at a possible indigenous submarine construction concept to meet that need.

The Taiwan Navy’s interest and priority are clearly focused on acquiring completed submarines – even refurbished used boats – to replace the obsolete GUPPY IIs. The Navy has expressed only very limited and carefully-qualified support for local submarine construction. The rather conservative positions expressed by the Navy and the Ministry of National Defense are understandable in view of the perceived risks associated with an indigenous program.

In early 2012, reports surfaced indicating that 30 US-built surface-to-surface Harpoon cruise missiles would become operational on the two Hai Lung-class submarines sometime in 2013. An arms sales notification to Congress in October 2008 indeed included 32 UGM-84L sub-launched Harpoon Block II missiles, plus two UTM-84L exercise missiles and two weapon control systems, and Taiwan Navy recently test-fired these weapons in the U.S. However, integrating these Harpoon missiles would require substantial modifications to existing systems, and would only address a very small portion of the Hai Lung-class upgrade needs.

The US-Taiwan Business Council recommends that the U.S Government proceed with the Conception Definition and Design Source Selection phase of the Taiwan diesel-electric submarine program at the earliest opportunity, and/or materially supports Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. This would be an affirmation of its position that such a program would be beneficial to maintaining the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, and would provide stability in the region.

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