Thu, Jan 22, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Why Taiwan needs submarines

By Dean Cheng

In 2001, then-US president George W. Bush’s administration agreed to a major arms sale to Taiwan. Approved for sale were marine-patrol aircraft, anti-ship missiles, self-propelled howitzers, minesweepers and destroyers. The US also agreed to help Taiwan obtain new diesel-electric submarines to modernize its underwater forces. At the time, the Republic of China Navy had two ex-Dutch Zwaardvis-class boats, built in the 1980s, and two ex-US Navy Guppy-class boats built at the end of World War II.

Thirteen years later, Taiwan’s submarine arm still consists of two ex-Dutch submarines and two boats most of whose peers are now museum exhibits. Years of on-again, off-again discussions have not resulted in an actual sale from the US or any other nation. More seriously, there has also been no movement in facilitating US shipwrights’ and experts’ engagement with their Taiwanese counterparts to allow Taiwan to build its own boats.

An island nation, Taiwan is one of the most densely populated territories on earth, with more than 630 people per square kilometer. Its 23 million people are heavily reliant on imports for food and energy.

Equally important, Taiwan’s security depends on its ability to challenge the ability of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to cross the Taiwan Strait and mount an invasion, or impose a blockade that would leave the residents starving and in the dark. The PLA’s main planning guidelines appear to focus, still, on taking Taiwan. The PLA’s best forces, and much of its strategic and operational thinking, appear to be oriented toward either taking Taiwan or countering any US attempt to prevent such Chinese actions.

Because of the disparity in physical size, economy and geography, Taiwan’s maritime security in the face of the Chinese threat is a challenging problem. China has the wherewithal to simultaneously bombard Taiwan (especially with its large arsenal of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles), while also being able to deploy forces farther afield of Taiwan’s immediate environment. For Taipei, the key to a successful defense of the nation is to hold out long enough for the US to intervene decisively. Taiwan’s military must therefore be able to simultaneously defend the island, while also being able to deny the Chinese regime the ability to easily or rapidly isolate it.

Submarines have long played a role in Taiwan’s defense calculations. Given the relative weakness of China’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities, submarines would pose a significant threat to any amphibious force.

Indeed, the record of the British Royal Navy during the Falklands would suggest a disproportionate effect from even a handful of modern submarines. On the one hand, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano led the Argentine to withdraw all naval forces from the British-declared exclusion zone.

At the same time, however, even though the Royal Navy was considered the premier anti-submarine force in NATO, it failed to find the Argentine sub ARA San Luis. That boat managed to remain at sea for more than a month, and despite the best efforts of NATO’s premier anti-submarine force, was apparently able to operate relatively unhindered. The Royal Navy expended substantial amounts of ordnance against a variety of false contacts, depleting its stocks for no real effect. Indeed, but for problems with its fire control system, that Argentine sub might well have changed the course of the battle, as it repeatedly achieved firing solutions on elements of the British task force.

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