Time to decommission old subs

By Wang Jyh-perng 王志鵬  / 

Mon, Sep 26, 2011 - Page 8

On Sept. 13, two air force jets crashed into a mountainside, sadly taking the lives of three airmen. The accident raised questions from government and opposition politicians as to whether the air force’s F-5 series jet fighters are getting too old to fly. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that Taiwan’s armed forces have another high-risk weapons system where an accident could happen anytime, namely its submarines.

Taiwan has two Guppy-class submarines. The ROCS Hai Shih, which carries the hull number SS-791, was originally a US vessel, the USS Cutlass (SS-478), which was commissioned in 1945 and transferred to Taiwan in 1973. The Hai Shih has been in service for 66 years. The ROCS Hai Pao was originally called the USS Tusk. It was commissioned on April 4, 1946 and was transferred to Taiwan in 1974, so it has been in operation for 65 years.

Taiwan’s continued use of such ancient submarines is a “miracle” unique in the world. Both submarines suffer from warped pressure hulls, metal fatigue and unforeseen risks. In May last year, I wrote an article in which I described in detail what would happen in the event of the accidental sinking of one of these submarines. The navy would immediately implement a joint US-Taiwan rescue plan, by which the US Navy, on being informed about the sinking, would use a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane to carry the equipment and crew of its Deep Submergence Unit to Taiwan from its base in San Diego, California. This transfer would probably take more than 50 hours, and the surface support vessel would take at least 11 days to reach the scene of the accident. Thus, the rescue mission would clearly miss the critical period for saving the crew.

Take for example the major repairs and maintenance being carried out on the Hai Shih. Difficulty in obtaining replacement parts such as batteries has caused the overhaul to drag on for more than 18 months. Even without taking into account salaries and seagoing allowances, the refitting is likely to cost at least NT$200 million (US$6.59 million).

Even if the overhaul is somehow completed and the Hai Shih starts operating again, it will no longer have any role to play. Although the two Guppy-class subs are still officially in service, the navy risks submerging them as rarely as possible.

Even when they do go underwater, they are not allowed to dive deep, and they are not even permitted to operate in areas where the sea is deeper than 100m. Clearly, this does not allow them to realistically play the role of hypothetical enemy vessels in military exercises.

Official navy statements for public consumption claim that the two submarines are still being used for training, but in reality some of their training functions can be performed using simulators developed by the Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology. Letting these two submarines continue in service is, therefore, both unnecessary and inefficient. It is a meaningless waste of resources.

Even Taiwan’s more advanced Chien Lung (劍龍)-class submarines have been in service for nearly 25 years, which doesn’t leave long before they reach the maximum 30 years for which submarines can be used. If the authorities put off a decision to update and upgrade those subs any longer, the associated risk will increase.

The navy would like to obtain new submarines so that it can decommission the two Guppy-class subs. However, 10 years have passed since 2001, when then-US president George W. Bush announced his government’s intention to sell Taiwan eight diesel-electric submarines.

When it was in opposition, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) spoke out against buying these subs on the grounds that they were too expensive. After President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008, he at first took no clear stand on the issue. In fact, documents recently released by WikiLeaks could be interpreted as showing that he set the issue aside intentionally. Not until last year did Ma start openly calling on the US to sell the submarines.

Despite Ma’s change of tack, amid the current -competitive-cooperative relationship between the US and China, and given the present state of US-China-Taiwan trilateral relations, it is very unlikely that the US will push through the sale in the short term, meaning it could still take three to five years. That being the case, the Ma administration should come up with a workable contingency plan, otherwise the risk will not just remain, but it will keep increasing.

As for the navy, it can’t go on turning a blind eye to the risk. The vicious circle of aging equipment and gaps in training means that an accident could happen any time, suddenly and without warning.

The problem of the two Guppy-class submarines should be considered separately from the issue of weapons procurements. The subs should be decommissioned now, instead of waiting for an accident to happen.

If one of the subs were to sink, it would bring sorrow to more than 100 families. More than that, it would also seriously damage the prestige of Taiwan’s armed forces, as well as the government’s authority to rule the country.

Wang Jyh-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.

Translated by Julian Clegg