The South China Sea remains the most contested region in the world. If recent signals from the Obama administration are credible, it’s about to become more contested as the U.S. challenges China’s island-building campaign in the international waters of the South China Sea.
Many nations dispute claims over groups of islands, reefs, atolls, seabed mineral rights, and large swaths of the South China Sea that are important for economic, navigational, and security reasons. The disputes continue to increase tension in the region. Vietnam has purchased Kilo submarines; Malaysia is upgrading its coastal navy; the Philippines are weaponizing their AW109helicopters; and Japan continues its naval buildup.
In the meantime, China continues to grow its stockpile of missiles across the Taiwan Strait and refuses to disavow force as a means of settling its dispute with Taiwan. Faced with the possibility of a future blockade or amphibious attack, and unaided by its friends in a decades-long effort to build a defensive submarine force Taiwan has chosen to upgrade its naval capabilities by building its own submarines.
Despite the shadowy security environment where U.S. support for Taiwan flickers according to American administrations’ judgment of the PRC, a robust Taiwanese defense is a strong interest of the U.S. Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain that brackets the Asian mainland. Its population is almost entirely dependent on imported food and energy. A recent Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (MND) Report states the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will exploit this vulnerability in a conflict, likely using a combination of blockades and threats against supporting nations to choke Taiwan’s economy before launching an attack against military and political centers.
According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, if war were to break out Taiwan would face upwards of 34 Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines. A dozen subs connected with advanced sensors and weapons could contest the PLA for control of the waters surrounding Taiwan. No other Taiwan platform could oppose a maritime blockade as effectively. The ability of submarines to act autonomously and stealthily would give Taiwan an effective defense against a real threat. The inability of hostile forces to detect submarines also helps assure the uninterrupted flow of sea-borne commerce. Taiwan is the U.S.’s 10th largest trading partner. A modern, deployable fleet of submarines is critical to the sustained defense of Taiwan.
International pressure has limited Taiwan to two WWII-era Guppy submarines received in 1972 from the United States and two new Zwaardvis-class submarines from Holland. These fall far short of Taiwan’s 12 boat minimum requirement. Most submarine-producing countries have continued to operate within the constraints of the Shanghai Communique of 1972 in which the U.S. acknowledged the “One-China” policy. This means that they will not assist Taiwan by selling boats, designs, or equipment needed to build subs.
The United States has historically been the source of many of Taiwan’s self-defensive capabilities. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 considers any non-peaceful means to influence Taiwan a threat to the security of the Western Pacific and a U.S. concern. Section 3(a) of the Act states that the U.S. will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and services necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability at the president and Congress’s discretion.
This de facto policy has remained in practice with significant U.S. arms deals to Taiwan despite a lack of official diplomatic relations. However the U.S. has hedged on the sale of submarines as an arguably offensive weapon, barred within the restrictions of the Taiwan Relations Act. The U.S. Navy’s submariners are famously skeptical about designing, building, or operating non-nuclear-powered subs. Assisting Taiwan with its effort to build conventional-powered subs would cross this line. The closest Taiwan has come to success thus far was during the presidency of George W. Bush who initially agreed, but then backed away from an arms deal that included eight diesel submarines.
Submarines have become the weak spot of the robust and very capable Taiwan navy. In the face of a long-standing inability to meet a critical need, Taiwan announced a plan to develop its own submarines. ROCN chief Admiral Chen Yeong-kang released the indigenous plan Forces Structure and Planning Concepts for the Future ROCN in January of 2014. The plan called for refurbishing the obsolete Guppy-class submarine with new steel plates and pressure hulls and extending their life as training vessels. The ROCN would invest $450 million dollars in the China Shipbuilding Corp (CSBC) and the Ship and Ocean Industry R&D Center (SOIC). In August this year the Ministry then submitted an $89 million proposal for an indigenous submarine design. The program includes a separate plan to extend the life of the two Zwaardvis-class submarines with estimated budget of $90 million.
In November 2014, a seminar on the indigenous defense submarines (IDS) program brought experts and officials from the U.S., Germany, France, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy, and Australia to Taiwan. The IDS program subsequently aimed to develop submarines that displaced between 1,500 and 2,000 tons with the first boat scheduled for completion in 2024. In December, the Ministry of National Defense, (MND), the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Science and Technology, the China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC), and Ship and Ocean Industry R & D Center (SOIC) met with the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and Defense Affair Committee. In the hearing, Vice Admiral Kao Tein-Chung revealed that the after a comprehensive evaluation the best approach for the IDS program would be to build the submarines in Taiwan with the technical support of the U.S.
Submarine design and production are formidable challenges. Ten to fifteen years is a reasonable amount of time to develop a new type of submarine, with two thirds of it devoted to design. A 2011 RAND analysis estimated that with sufficient software and facilities 600 to 900 professional designers are required to complete the design stage.
Australia’s experience is instructive. In recent years, the government in Canberra has built a 3,600 ton frigate and the Collins-class submarine. The submarine required almost triple the number of suppliers, called for almost triple the time of construction, and needed more than double the hours of assembly. Over 33,000 drawings and 5,000 work orders were produced before construction of the Collins-class submarine could begin. The Collins-class submarines faced a multitude of problems, from welding of the hull, to excessive engine noise, to a faulty combat system, and a propulsion plant that was prone to failure. Even after completion, the Australian Collins-class faced serious operational issues. In 2009, only one submarine (out of six), HMAS Farncomb, was capable of sea duty.
Many Taiwanese officials have spoken of their intent to secure international assistance before developing an IDS submarine. The United States has not constructed a diesel submarine since the late 1950’s, but could provide design engineers. The U.S. could work with Japanese shipbuilders who make excellent submarines. The U.S. could also relax export controls on items needed to build the submarines. Several U.S. defense contractors have solid working relationships with Taiwan. In 2002, when the U.S. Navy discussed options with the RoC Navy (ROCN), General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon all expressed interest in being the prime contractor. All of these companies have maintained interest in Taiwanese defensive abilities. Working with a U.S. company to design an ROCN submarine could set Taiwan on an accelerated path towards development while giving Taiwan control over production and manufacturing.
Another option is to use the blueprints of an existing model and customize it to fit the ROCN’s requirements. Japan is both capable and possibly willing—with the right encouragement—to assist Taiwan in constructing diesel-electric submarines. A transnational industrial cooperation with Japan could help strengthen security partnership between defense ministries that face the same threat.
A redoubled Taiwanese effort to engage Japan’s assistance in building the indigenous submarine is worth the effort. The timing is propitious. Tokyo is understandably and increasingly concerned irritated by China’s aggressive naval activity that frequently encroaches on Japanese territory. A strong naval presence in the South China Sea that is friendly to Japan and the U.S. is worth incurring China’s displeasure. By providing the framework for a bolstered RoC Navy Japan would improve its security without having to dedicate more resources to its own defensive structure. As Taiwan remains a vital component of U.S. naval strategy, Japan’s genuine interest in adding toTaiwan’s defensive ability complements the U.S. obligation to protect both Japan and Taiwan.
We are still living in a time when the U.S. is the strongest global power as well as the world’s pre-eminent seapower. Helping Taiwan acquire modern capable submarines materially adds to both our security and that of our allies and partners in East Asia.
Seth Cropsey is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.
This piece first appeared in RealClearDefense here.
Image: Creative Commons 3.0.