Amid mounting apprehensions surrounding the emergence of China as a major military power, defense experts continue to focus their attention on Washington’s reluctance to sell Taipei advanced combat aircraft. A small group of military specialists, however, argues that another long-neglected system could prove a superior deterrent to Chinese aggression: submarines.
For almost a decade, the issue of submarines has been subject to the political vagaries of the triangular relationship between Taipei, Washington and Beijing, as well as disagreement over their utility and high cost. Mark Stokes, executive director at the Project 2049 Institute, is a strong proponent of submarines for Taiwan.
“The key thing about submarines is their inherent stealth and potential lethality,” he told the Taipei Times. “They represent one of the few capabilities that would be difficult to take out in a first, disarming first strike, especially if on patrol.”
According to most scenarios, a Chinese attack on Taiwan would open with missile salvos against Taiwan’s military targets, including airfields and command-and-control centers.
Stokes’ views dovetail with conclusions reached by former US Navy officer Bernard Cole, who wrote in Taiwan’s Security, a study of the Taiwanese military, that “eight additional submarines would increase Taiwan’s ability to conduct ASW [anti-submarine warfare], to conduct attacks on Chinese naval and merchant shipping, to conduct mining operations against [Chinese] harbors and perhaps most significantly, would introduce another element into the balance-of-forces equation with which China would have to deal.”
Taiwan’s navy currently has two operational submarines and two trainers.
While the effectiveness of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare would largely depend on a cueing and sensor network, Stokes said, even for surveillance missions, subs could be very useful.
William Murray, a retired US Navy officer and associate professor at the US Naval War College, agrees, albeit with some reservations.
“I agree with [Stokes] that submarines are more likely than airfields to survive a Chinese bombardment, with the caveat that the submarines have to be at sea when the bombardment occurs. Yet I feel that this is an impractical solution, since not only is it very difficult [and expensive] to keep submarines at sea for extended periods of time, but China gets to choose when and if to attack, and so could choose to attack when most or nearly all of Taiwan’s subs are in port,” Murray said.
“It remains a matter of opinion as to whether Taiwan’s intelligence organization would be able to provide adequate warning to allow ships and submarines to leave port before being destroyed in a bombardment,” he said.
On their usefulness as hard-to-pinpoint launch platforms for missiles, Murray said: “Modern submarines are so quiet that when at sea, they are nearly impossible to find and destroy. That’s true, but they can carry only a limited number of missiles and require a safe haven in which to reload,” adding that land-based trucks, which can reposition and be refitted with missiles frequently, were a better alternative.
Submarines also suffer from a significant cost disadvantage, Murray said. In 2001, former US president George W. Bush’s administration offered to provide eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan for about US$12 billion, or US$1.5 billion per vessel.