Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The troubles over sub deals are more political than financial

By Mac William Bishop  /  STAFF REPORTER

There has been a lot of mudslinging over Taiwan's special arms budget, and the most contentious issue has been the proposed budget outlay for eight yet-to-be manufactured diesel submarines.

Never has a foreign military sales program been so complicated. Some opponents of the budget have said that the approximately NT$400 billion (US$12 billion) required to procure the eight submarines amounts to extortion by the US. These people believe that Washington is running a protection racket on a global scale.

Even some supporters of the arms budget have bought in to this kind of thinking, arguing in effect that the money must be spent to secure US military support in the event of a war between China and Taiwan.

But the submarine deal has become so mired in political infighting that the basic issues have been all but forgotten: Does Taiwan need the subs? Could the budget for submarines be used for better purposes that would provide more utility for the defense forces? And has Taiwan's defense establishment exhausted all other options, including those that could result in a less expensive product?

"Based on the separate assessments

of Taiwanese and US military experts, Taiwan does need submarines to help contribute to maritime defense. In particular, submarines can contribute to anti-blockade defense," said Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert at the Brookings Institution and a former chairman and director of the American Institute in Taiwan.

One senior US defense source agreed, but was pessimistic about the chances of the sub deal being completed.

"Personally, I would like to see the sub deal go through, but officially, the subs have become so controversial that many people [in Taiwan and the US] would like to drop the matter altogether," the source, who is close to the negotiations, told the Taipei Times.

"Observers in Taiwan have misread the views of US policymakers," the source said. "There is no longer much senior-level support for Taiwan in its acquisition of diesel electric submarines. If this program died, there would be few tears shed in Washington."

cost effectiveness

Some US policymakers question the cost effectiveness of diesel-electric submarines, and cite the long time line before

a submarine can gain an initial operational capability. Plus, the funds for submarines could be used for higher priority programs associated with C4ISR, upper tier missile defense and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) surveillance.

In addition, US approval of submarines was based on the assumption that they would be part of a broader approach to countering Chinese submarines, including a viable surveillance and command and control network. Other than the procurement of refurbished P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, little has been done in Taiwan to enhance ASW surveillance capabilities.

The source said that the submarines would be useful to Taiwan in a deterrent capacity.

"Look, they may not be the solution to all of Taiwan's problems, but effectively they give China one more reason not to try anything stupid," the source said. "It takes a lot of time and assets to hunt a sub."

At the heart of the controversy of whether or not to pursue the acquisition of the submarines are three issues. First, the price tag is viewed by most politicians in Taiwan as excessive, if not outright extortion. Second, several lawmakers have said that the state-run China Shipbuilding Corp must -- to some degree -- be involved in the project. Finally, no one has committed to building the subs, and the US, which promised to procure the items, no longer manufactures this kind of vessel.

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