While Taiwan is quite capable of building its own submarines, their sophistication and effectiveness would depend on foreign cooperation, a Washington conference was told on Tuesday.
Project 2049 Institute executive director Mark Stokes said the indigenous submarine program — which is likely to start next year and create 6,000 jobs — would be the most complex undertaking in the history of the nation.
“Taiwan has a legitimate, long-standing requirement for a modern fleet of diesel-electric submarines,” Stokes said at the Institute’s “Deep Dive” conference on Taiwan’s future submarine program.
“It is perfectly feasible for Taiwan to build submarines, but the real question is: How sophisticated a submarine can Taiwan build? How sophisticated depends on the degree of foreign assistance,” he said.
Washington sources have said that the administration of US President Barack Obama would not provide assistance with the program, but Stokes told the conference that it was his “understanding” that Taipei would go ahead anyway.
He said that while it might take 10 years for an indigenous program to put submarines into operation, there would be an immediate positive political effect.
Stokes and other speakers at the conference supported the program and encouraged the US to allow the transfer of needed technology.
However, sources said that one company had already been turned down when it applied for a license to assist with Taiwan’s submarine program management.
International affairs think tank Atlantic Council senior fellow Roger Cliff said that it was well within the realm of imagination that, within the foreseeable future, China’s leaders would decide to use force against Taiwan. He said that a purely airborne invasion would be difficult and highly risky, and that a major naval operation would be needed.
“If Taiwan can prevent landing ships from reaching its shores, then China would not have the ability to invade Taiwan,” he said.
Cliff said that submarines were part of the solution and would be difficult for Chinese forces to find and destroy. As such, the very presence of submarines in Taiwan’s navy would act as a deterrent and might persuade Beijing not to invade in the first place.
Taiwan does not have the ability to design submarines by itself and is going to need help, Cliff said.
“The best solution is for the US and Taiwan to design them jointly,” he said.
“I can see plenty of defensive and deterrent advantages to them,” Cliff added.
The more capable Taiwan is of defending itself, the more stable the region will be, he said.
US Senate Armed Services Committee senior staffer Eric Sayers said the US Department of State and the US Department of Defense provide regular briefings on the submarine issue to the committee.
He also said that a Senate delegation would travel to Taipei in February — following the presidential and legislative elections — to discuss possible ways to proceed with the submarine program.
When a new administration takes office in Washington in 2017, it should reinstitute an annual arms sales review for Taiwan, Sayers added.
Taipei could make arms sales requests every fall and Washington would make its decisions by the following spring.
Following the conference, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia Randall Schriver said that action was long overdue on Taiwan’s submarine program.