by KYLE MIZOKAMI
Locked in an an undersea arms race with China, Taiwan has decided to build its first domestically-produced attack submarines. For two reasons.
The first is that Taiwan’s ancient submarines, half of which are 70 years old, are a better fit for a museum than defending the island nation from a Chinese invasion.
Secondly, Taiwan has never built submarines before, and it would rather buy them abroad. But the country has spent decades fruitlessly searching for someone — anyone — willing to sell it submarines. No country wants to cross China and its potent economic leverage.
Now, Taiwan is admitting defeat and gearing up to build its own.
Taiwan, which split off from China in 1949, has lived under the threat of invasion ever since. For decades, the country’s naval forces provided the bulwark against forced reunification. As long as Taiwan maintained naval superiority, China could never risk an amphibious attack.
Submarines are an ideal defense for island countries. Once put to sea, they could be … anywhere. That greatly increases an invaders’ anxiety. Subs could hold back, reporting the positions of enemy ships.
Alternatively, they could close in and start sinking the invasion force.
A single troop ship sent to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait could take thousands of Chinese soldiers out of the fight, a nightmare for the rulers of a country with a one-child policy.
Two thousand Chinese marines lost at sea will leave behind 4,000 childless parents demanding answers from the Communist Party. China knows this, and Beijing applies diplomatic pressure to countries that build submarines to ensure they don’t sell to Taiwan.
Western politicians ignored the pressure in the past. But China is now the world’s second largest economy, and the repercussions of offending Beijing are impossible to ignore.
Taiwan has four submarines. The two most modern belong to the Hai Lung class. Taiwan ordered these diesel-electric submarines from the Netherlands in 1980, and received them by 1988.
Japan, by comparison, retires diesel submarines after about 18 years of service.
The other half of Taiwan’s submarine flotilla is positively ancient. The Hai Shih and Hai Pao were originally U.S. Navy ships built at the end of World War II.
The United States transferred the submarines to Taiwan in the early ’70s with their torpedo tubes welded shut. Each is roughly 70 years old, making them the oldest submarines in service … anywhere.
Hai Shih and Hai Pao are far too old to serve on the front line, and Taiwan uses them instead to train anti-submarine warfare forces.
They’re so old, historians have actually visited them for research purposes. In 2003, volunteers from the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association traveled to Taiwan to document the vessels.
“Walking up to the boats was like entering a time machine and setting the date to 1973 — or maybe even 1949,” the caretakers wrote. “Virtually nothing has been added or removed, and the very few upgrades were small.”
The other Chinese navy
Not only are Taiwan’s submarines extremely old, they’re heavily outnumbered. Beijing’s defense budget has risen annually by 10 percent or more for the past two decades.
Today, China spends six times more on its military than Taiwan.
In the event of a war, China could overwhelm Taiwan’s tiny, ancient submarine fleet with a multitude of threats. According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, Taiwan would face at least 34 Chinese submarines during wartime.
The Chinese navy’s east and southeast fleets have 32 diesel-electric submarines and two nuclear submarines. Not counting the World War II veterans, China outnumbers Taiwan by 17 to one.
Enemy submarines aren’t the only threat to Taiwan. China is aggressively boosting its anti-submarine forces. The Chinese navy’s new Y-8X maritime patrol aircraft would hunt Taiwan’s undersea fleet from the sky, dropping sonobuoys to locate them and then attacking with homing torpedoes.
China has also built more than three dozen new anti-submarine warfare frigates and corvettes during the last eight years.
But couldn’t the U.S. help? Sure. Under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is bound to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs to defend itself.
In 2001, then-Pres. George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would procure eight diesel-electric submarines for Taiwan. But there was a catch. America doesn’t actually build any conventionally powered submarines.
The U.S. Navy wants an all-nuclear submarine force, and discourages conventional submarine production because it doesn’t want to give Congress the option of forcing the Navy to buy them.
Washington tried to order the submarines abroad, but there were no takers. According to Combat Fleets of the World, three submarine producing countries, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany all refused to sell out of fear of offending China.
Fourteen years later, Taiwan is still looking for submarines.
Rolling its own
All of this poses the question — just how deadly are Taiwan’s future submarines? There’s a lot we don’t know, as Taipei won’t finalize the specifications until 2019.
But what we do know is that the Taiwanese navy wants subs that weigh between 1,200 and 3,000 tons. The vessels will probably have four to six torpedo tubes, and the ability to covertly lay minefields. The U.S. will likely offer modern weapons, such as the Mk. 48 torpedo and Harpoon missile.
But without that foreign assistance, the program will likely go nowhere.
Taiwan simply doesn’t have access to all the technology it needs. Only skilled submarine yards have the highly-specialized technologies that go into active and passive sonar systems, hull and propeller manufacturing techniques — and building advanced propulsion engines.
Taiwan has drydocked its two World War II-era submarines and taken them apart, ostensibly for a complete rebuild and to incorporate upgrades. But the real reason is likely to study how the the U.S. first put the submarines together.
Studying 70-year-old submarines to learn how to make modern ones illustrates Taiwan’s desperate situation.
The U.S. can provide some technical assistance, but conventional submarines are much different from nuclear submarines. Many technologies in the latter are not useful in the former.
Taiwan is looking to third countries for help with technologies, such as sonar, batteries and air-independent propulsion systems. On April 1, Taiwan navy chief Vice Adm. Hsiao Wei-min said that “more than 20 U.S. and European companies” have expressed interest in working with Taiwanese companies on the submarine project.
How many companies will still be enthusiastic after Beijing pressures their governments is unknown, but don’t be surprised if several quietly drop out.
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” the sixth-century general and strategic Sun Tzu once said.
So far, Beijing has masterfully defeated Taiwan’s submarine force without fighting, purely through political pressure. Taiwan’s submarine program is also far from a sure thing. It may fail, and without foreign technology, Taiwan’s reluctant dream of building submarines will die.
But the more Taiwan is able to defend itself, the less attractive invasion looks. The less attractive invasion looks, the less likely American and Chinese air and naval forces will clash over the fate of the island.