Submarine sales to Taiwan are “highly improbable,” a new commentary published by the US Council on Foreign Relations says.
“Transferring submarine technology to the island will take too long and cost the Taiwanese military far more than what it can afford,” council research associate Lauren Dickey said.
She said that the costs the US would incur to resurrect small numbers of diesel-powered submarines for Taipei would yield few benefits for the US military.
Dickey said that US submarine help to Taiwan would “tap into state of the art technology used in US nuclear-powered submarines” and that is not something the Pentagon would be eager to share with others.
“As Taiwanese military officials have an unfortunate history of passing classified military information into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, Washington should remain cautious in transferring any sensitive technology or capabilities to Taiwan,” Dickey said.
She said that Germany, Japan and the Netherlands all produce small, diesel-electric submarines that would meet Taiwan’s needs, but that what holds these countries back from selling to Taiwan is the fear of economic or political fallout from Beijing.
“China has demonstrated time and time again an ability to impose political costs and threaten those that sell weapons to Taiwan,” Dickey said.
She also said that any submarines acquired by Taiwan may actually do more harm than good due to their vulnerabilities to existing Chinese weapons.
“Simply put, diesel submarines are not the effective defensive capability the island wants or needs,” Dickey said.
Rather, she said, Taiwan should strengthen its antisubmarine warfare capabilities and add to its fleet of 12 P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft, replacing its antiquated S-2 Tracker aircraft.
Dickey also recommended more land-based anti-ship missiles and high-speed multifunctional fast attack craft similar to the Type-022 Houbei class.
“In the case a more conservative government emerges after mid-term elections in November, or perhaps more importantly, a pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government steps in to lead Taiwan in 2016, the need to re-evaluate Taiwan’s defense requests will persist, but for now, as Washington’s rebalance to Asia plays out, there is neither time nor money requisite to help the island develop its nascent submarine program,” she said.
Senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) Richard Fisher strongly disagreed with a number of Dickey’s arguments.
He said the US was not limited to US nuclear submarine technology.
“The US developed the Barbel Class conventional submarine in the late 1950s and it was so advanced that it became the basis for Japan’s early classes of submarines. Washington could purchase Japan’s advanced version of the Barbel on behalf of Taiwan,” Fisher said.
Fisher said the US was the principal subcontractor for Australia’s Collins-class submarines, supplying combat systems. Washington could assist Taiwan’s current submarine plans in the same way, he said.
Turning to Dickey’s claims that submarines were too expensive for Taiwan, he said Taipei had settled on a small, but still tactically useful, though much less expensive submarine design.
“Submarines are very expensive, but the deterrent value they offer against China is well worth the price,” Fisher said.
He said that every weapon sold to Taiwan, or most other US allies, suffered under the threat of espionage.
“The US probably takes precautions that it would rather not disclose,” he said. “Americans have never shied away from selling arms and offering assistance, and we should not start when it comes to selling submarine technology to Taiwan.”
He said that any weapon that could defeat a Chinese invasion was what Taiwan needed right now.
“Submarines can hide, wait and sink the scores of large ships filled with the troops and tanks that would be used to invade Taiwan,” he said. “Missile emplacements and other elements can be attacked by Chinese missile and air power. They have to work much much harder to find Taiwan’s submarines.”
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