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  • Writer's pictureWei Azim Hung

Taiwan's Submarine Project: A Game-Changer in its Maritime Defense?

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Introduction


Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has never disclosed China’s underwater activities near Taiwan. Given that China's submarine force is much larger and more advanced, one could not help but speculate why China has not penetrated Taiwan’s maritime territory? In the worst-case scenario: We know they are here–but we have no means to neutralize or force them to surface, and thus have kept quiet.


In 2020, China had 66 boats and that number is expected to increase to 76 by 2030, featuring nearly silent next-generation technology. In contrast, the ROC Navy currently operates four submarines: two World War II vintage transferred from the U.S. in the 1970s, and two Hai Lung-class submarines purchased from the Netherlands in the 1980s; two of which are the world's oldest operational subs, and all of which use 20th-century technology. Taiwan’s submarines are no match for China’s.


Taiwan's Submarine Procurement Challenges


Taiwan has been attempting to procure modern submarines. However, its options have been severely limited with the U.S. exclusively producing large nuclear submarines and other sellers fear drawing Beijing’s ire.


For instance, although the Netherlands has helped maintained the subs it sold Taiwan, it has refused to participate in any submarines project due to a 1984 agreement with Beijing. Japan also faces a similar conundrum. Despite having one of the world’s most advanced conventional submarine fleet, Japan fears economic repercussion from Beijing. For more than 20 years, Taiwan’s submarine ambitions have proved to be a challenging task.


However, Taiwan has secretly acquired technological and recruited experts from at least seven countries, kickstarting its own Indigenous Defense Submarine in 2017 which aims to deliver eight submarines by 2025, in which it hopes to deter a potential Chinese invasion. The U.S. and UK have provided key technology and components, and the program is estimated to be worth up to $16 billion.


Effectiveness and Criticisms of Taiwan's New Conventional Submarines


President Tsai Ing-wen stated that the submarines would serve as a crucial element in the Navy's ability to engage in asymmetric warfare and as a deterrent against hostile vessels encircling Taiwan. The new conventional submarines will serve as threat to any Chinese invasion fleet, armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles and deployed in deeper waters east of Taiwan to keep open ports along the eastern coastline.


According to Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Taiwanese submarines could pose a threat to the Chinese Navy as the shallow and noisy waters of the Taiwan Strait are more advantageous for submarines than for air and surface anti-submarine warfare forces. This means that even with China's attack submarines and sonar-equipped surface warships and maritime patrol planes, they may not be able to defend against a small group of Taiwanese subs.


However, critics have also raised skepticism about the effectiveness of the submarines. For instance, Holmes Liao, an adjunct distinguished lecturer at Taiwan’s War College argues that if China attempts to cross the Taiwan Strait, their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces will likely render Taiwan's newly built submarines ineffective. Launching an attack using Taiwanese submarines could compromise their location, rendering them susceptible to enemy anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets, making it challenging to retreat undetected. Even if they can fire torpedoes, they must quickly withdraw.


Similarly, former Taiwan military chief Lee Hsi-ming believes that Taiwan should preserve the ability to strike back at an invader in the event of losing major conventional hardware. That is, Taiwan should focus on investing in smaller but lethal weapons, like mobile anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.


Considering this, one plausible alternative to submarines would be using smart naval mines and long-range anti-submarine rockets (ASROC) would be a more cost-effective strategy for countering PLAN submarines compared to depending on competing submarines.



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