Following the recent establishment of the anti-submarine warfare brigade of the air force’s 439th Composite Wing, the first P-3C marine patrol aircraft and the first batch of AH-64E Apache attack helicopters were delivered to Taiwan, and the domestically built 20,000-tonne Pan Shi fast combat support ship was launched.
Asked about the government’s foreign arms procurement plan during a review of the central government’s budget for next year on Nov. 4 at the legislature, Minister of National Defense Yen Ming (嚴明) said that the main concern was submarines.
The nation has been dreaming of setting up a submarine fleet for more than 40 years and after a lot work, then-US president George W. Bush agreed in 2004 to sell submarines to Taiwan. However, the power struggle between the pan-blue and the pan-green camps, as well as the cooperation and competition between the US and China have delayed any concrete action on the matter for a decade. Although pan-blue and pan-green legislators did reach an agreement to build local submarines, nothing came of it because of a lack of support from the military. Since it seems that a heated debate over the strategic development of this idea has been rekindled lately, there are a few issues that should be taken into consideration.
First, US arms sales to Taiwan will become increasingly difficult in the future, regardless of whether the pan-blues or the pan-greens control the government. One way of looking at US arms sales to Taiwan is that it is a means to control Taiwan’s military development. Unless Taiwan is happy to continue accepting unsatisfactory and expensive military equipment built in the US, it will have to consider developing such equipment itself.
Second, the submarines that Taiwan procures do not have to compete with those of developed countries, but should be based on its own defense needs. Officials should take a pragmatic look at what the nation needs, its financial capability and how these submarines can play a crucial and effective role both in peace and war. The most fundamental requirement should be that they can quickly replace outdated submarines.
Finally, the long debate over developing indigenous submarines has attracted the attention of businesses at home and abroad. During the initial planning stage, Taiwan should be careful to eliminate any difficulties arising from the interest and ensure that profit does not become the focus in this undertaking, or it will end in failure.
To sum up, successfully building submarines domestically requires political understanding, sound technology, economic support and cooperation from the military. It requires the support of all political parties, a careful assessment of the dynamics of the trilateral relationship between Taiwan, the US and China, and foreign support so that Taiwan can continue to develop its own technology. Preliminary tests should also be carried out within the limited scope of defense spending and the submarines should complement the military’s fighting capabilities, as well as be integrated into the overall defense system.
Wang Jyh-perng is a research fellow at the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China.
Translated by Perry Svensson