The US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations on Tuesday last week released a defense funding bill that would secure US$915 million more to plug a shortfall in the US Navy’s budget, allowing for the purchase of two Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyers during fiscal year 2022.
If the bill is approved, the US Department of Defense would avoid the embarrassment of needing to pay damages to two naval shipyards — Ingalls Shipbuilding and Bath Iron Works — as both are contracted to build the ships.
The bill also proposes canceling the budget for one Navajo-class salvage-and-rescue ship, and proposes the purchase of four more C/KC/MC-130J multimission special operations/tanker aircraft, which had not been included in the budget.
While this news might appear unrelated to Taiwan, it is deeply relevant to the nation.
The nation’s new type of disaster-relief support ship, known only as the Anhai (安海), is one of 12 vessels under development as part of the government’s fast-tracked indigenous shipbuilding program.
In December last year, CSBC Corp, Taiwan was awarded a NT$2.9 billion (US$103.3 million at the current exchange rate) tender to build the disaster-relief support ships, with the first of five scheduled for delivery by the end of 2023.
In terms of numbers and overall progress, the project is not on track for a 2023 handover, nor is it keeping pace with the indigenous defense submarine program. The lack of rescue-and-salvage capability to dovetail with the submarines’ scheduled launch would put Taiwan’s submariners in significant danger.
Returning to the US Congress’ budget plans, the Navajo-class rescue ship is the most advanced vessel of its type. The keel for the first of seven planned ships in the T-ATS-6 class was first laid in October 2019.
The government should consider offering to take on the purchase. This would allow the US Department of Defense to avoid paying damages to Bollinger Shipyards for breach of contract, while Taiwan would receive a first-rate ship in active service with the US Navy.
It would also provide Taiwanese sailors with the opportunity to study naval rescue-and-salvage operations from their US Navy counterparts. This knowledge would help Taiwan to accelerate the production and commissioning of its locally made vessels.
As rescue-and-salvage ships are not combat platforms, but provide humanitarian assistance to stricken vessels, Western nations rarely refuse to grant an export license for this type of technology, as long as the purchasing nation is willing to pay the licensing and intellectual property fees.
Proficiency in submarine rescue requires at least three years of training: In 2015, Russia adopted the deep-water Submarine Rescue Diving Recompression System used by NATO members for its navy, and it took until 2018 to achieve full operational capability.
That a naval power as large as Russia required three years to perfect the system demonstrates the complexity of submarine rescue.
If the government cannot accelerate the commission of its next-generation rescue and salvage ships to correspond with the launch of the first locally made submarine, the safety of submariners will be a legitimate concern.
From a strategic perspective, possessing a state-of-the-art, but non-sensitive US capability would give other ships in active service a huge boost in terms of quality and technology.
Chang Feng-lin is a university administrator and writes for the International Air Transport Association.
Translated by Edward Jones
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