Of the others, Japan is the most advanced submarine builder of the three. It produces advanced Soryu-class submarines using Stirling AIP, and is set to upgrades these with new lithium-ion batteries that could substantially improve performance. However, Tokyo has been reticent to transfer submarine technology abroad. Though Australia and India build submarines domestically, they depend upon largely foreign designs.
A Twenty-First Century Barbel-class Submarine?
In July 2018, Taiwan’s Liberty Times reported that six companies had submitted bids to assist the Taiwanese submarine program. These included manufactures from India, Japan (retired engineers from Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries), and two companies each from the United States and Europe that presumably prefer to remain anonymous for now. Reportedly the United States facilitated the contracting of the Japanese engineers. One of the proposals will be selected in 2019 and supposedly a design blueprint will be finalized in 2020.
Coates argues that several factors suggest Taiwan is seeking to build a 21st-century version of the Barbel-class submarine, which pioneered the teardrop-shaped hull featured in Qianlong model. Taiwan’s Dutch Swaardvis-class submarines are based upon the Barbel, and Japan also built Uzushio (Whirlpool)-class submarines inspired by that design. Thus Dutch, Japanese and American ship builders would all possess some familiarity with a Barbel-style design—and the ROCN would have experience operating the type. A modernized Barbel would still entail major improvements to sensors, command systems, propulsion, quieting of machinery and so forth.
However, given the lack of funding from Taipei, it remains questionable whether submarines are truly a practical solution to Taiwan’s security needs. Anti-ship missiles mounted in coastal batteries or small fast attack craft could offer a more cost-effective and survivable means of defending Taiwanese waters. Submarines, conversely, could be hunted down by Beijing’s vastly larger submarine force, or destroyed in port by a surprise attack by PLA missile.
The threat posed by a missile barrage is far greater than an amphibious attack in Coates’s estimation. “If China waged war, Taiwan’s current or future submarines would be very limited in countering China’s main advantage, which is to ‘invade’ Taiwan using airpower.”
This would begin with a strike employing over a thousand PLA short or medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles targeting military bases and infrastructure in Taiwan, followed by air strikes by hundreds of PLAAF warplanes, and concluded with an air-landing operation to occupy the island. “The much slower, more vulnerable option of a Chinese amphibious invasion may not occur. This would render Taiwan’s submarines, superfluous.”
For this reason, Coates sees the Project Qianlong as an “optimistic political exercise in engaging US and other Western submarine firms in a lengthy project in support of Taiwanese Government foreign and defense policy aims. For the US in particular, the more political and financial capital invested the more the US would be inclined to again underwrite Taiwan’s defense (in power and some financial terms).”
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .