After more than a decade of delays and reversals, the navy has confirmed that it will embark on a domestic submarine program next year, with a prototype to be delivered within three to four years.
Taiwanese and US sources told the Taipei Times earlier this month that officials from the Taiwanese Navy had briefed a small group of legislators from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during a classified meeting late last month or early this month. Legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party are also said to have attended the meeting.
While not mentioning the initial meeting with legislators, the Chinese-language United Daily News reported yesterday that the navy would brief senior government officials and legislators on the issue and seek budgets for the program within two months.
One US source, who has been actively involved in efforts to procure submarines for Taiwan over the years, told the Taipei Times in a meeting on Feb. 11 that an unspecified budget for the 2013 financial year has been set aside for a domestic diesel-electric submarine program, which would involve a unique design and assistance from one or a number of foreign countries.
The navy is reportedly aiming for a design with a relatively light displacement of between 1,000 tonnes and 1,500 tonnes.
A navy official told the Taipei Times earlier this month that the acquisition of submarines from the US remains the preferred option and that the door — at least on Taipei’s side — has not been closed on such a course of action.
However, after more than a decade of aborted efforts following the offer by the administration of former US president George W. Bush in 2001 to provide eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan for the sum of about US$12 billion, Taipei has since resigned itself to the reality that it will likely have to build them itself or acquire them from a third party, analysts say.
Local media have reported that three countries have expressed an interest in either assisting Taiwan develop its own submarine prototype or selling it ships recently decommissioned from their own fleets.
Although it did not exclude such a possibility, the Ministry of National Defense yesterday would not provide confirmation on the matter.
One country, Germany, has often been rumored to be a possible candidate for the program. However, an official at the German Institute, Taipei denied yesterday any knowledge of such efforts as being underway.
Greece has been another country that has been rumored as a possible candidate, although the economic crisis that has beset the country could make it difficult to realize such efforts.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), who sits on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said yesterday that acquiring submarines from abroad would be difficult, as most countries that manufacture them enjoy good relations with Beijing and were reluctant to risk compromising those ties over the sale of submarines to Taiwan.
Lin said a more feasible alternative would be for Taiwan to consult with international naval experts to develop its own subs.
The Taipei Times reported in December last year that naval authorities were readying to send personnel abroad to study production technology or to negotiate technology transfers to develop pressure-resistant hulls, which are said to be among the most challenging aspects in building submarines.
Additional difficulties for domestic shipbuilders could also arise from an alleged decision by the US Navy to bar top US defense firms, such as Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Corp, among others, from participating in Taiwan’s submarine program,both under a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) program or Direct Commercial Sale (DCS), which requires approval from the State Department.
The US-based source with good knowledge of the matter confirmed as much during the discussion earlier this month, and if true, the directive could have a significant impact on the ability of the Taiwanese navy to integrate torpedo and ballistic missile systems, along with the electronic suites, into the submarines.
Ahead of the notification for the US$5.8 billion arms package to Taiwan announced in September last year, Taiwanese negotiators reportedly told Washington that a compromise for not obtaining the 66 F-16C/D aircraft Taipei was seeking could be the resumption of Phase 1 efforts on a submarine design.
Although the F-16 aircraft were not included in the notification, the US Department of State and the US National Security Council are said to have smacked down the proposed compromise, forcing Taiwan to go it alone.
In addition to expected pressure from Beijing on Washington not to assist Taiwan on the program, the US Navy is reportedly wary of seeing additional undersea vessels in the narrow Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, fearing that the increased traffic could lead to accidents.
Regional navies are also said to be failing to abide by customary navigation rules for undersea forces by ignoring the pre-established depths and “corridors” — similar to the air corridors used for civilian aviation — to avoid collisions.
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