The Ministry of National Defense (MND) will apparently officially propose a plan during the current legislative session to produce submarines domestically. Unlike the 2001 Sea Star Project, under which Taiwan was to purchase eight 2,000-tonne submarines from the US, the new project aims to either develop a 1,000 to 1,500-tonne prototype through technology transfer or purchase second-hand submarines to replace the old Guppy-class submarines and then develop new submarines after obtaining sufficient capability to do so.
Either way, the project is likely to gain support from the governing and opposition parties, as well as that of the defense industry. Whether it is pushed through, subsequent to approval of the budget, depends entirely on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
The 2001 submarine purchase plan, originally the most important of the three major arms procurement targets, has been dead in the water ever since the US Navy’s “independent cost estimate” (ICE) of as much as NT$290 billion (US$9.8 billion) led to it being boycotted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party (PFP). At the time, the issue was exploited by political parties wrangling over power in the legislature.
The Republic of China (ROC) Navy has previously always insisted on purchasing submarines directly. By the time US President Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush in 2008, China was much more powerful, both economically and militarily. Just as Beijing has been expanding its navy, the US has been gradually reducing its military budget because of various internal and external issues. With the Sino-US “co-management” of Taiwan and better cross-strait relations, there has been little chance of direct US submarine sales to Taiwan and the original procurement project has been sidelined.
Over the past 10 years, Australia and South Korea have been the most successful countries in terms of submarine development in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia plans to spend US$36 billion to build 12 new advanced submarines, which are expected to be ready for testing by 2022 and in service by 2025. However, a large-scale submarine project is also problematic, the biggest issues being securing the funding and deciding whether the submarines should be built domestically or purchased directly. Ultimately, the Australian government and navy decided to build the submarines domestically.
South Korea, having previously built Type 209 submarines, continued by pursuing German-made Type 214 submarines. According to a recent report, Indonesia plans to spend US$1.1 billion to purchase three South Korean Type 209, 1,400-tonne submarines, the first of which is to be delivered in 2018. This is a result of the cooperation and efforts of the South Korean government, navy and industry over the past 10 years.
In the face of China’s military rise, Taiwan cannot and should not engage in an arms race, yet it must inevitably make significant changes to its defense strategy. According to the MND’s March 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review, priority is now to be given to preventing enemies from making landfall.
The report said: “The size of the ROC Armed Forces shall be adequately measured by combat requirements, [the armed forces] should be large enough to safeguard the country, but not so large that they cause a financial burden. The goal for the ROC Armed Forces is to prevent enemies from landing and establishing a beachhead. Defense resources, therefore, shall mainly be allocated to major combat forces, and applied to develop basic and asymmetric forces in order to ensure the sustainability of total combat capability.”