Taiwan’s Ancient Submarines Have No Business Being Anywhere Near a Real War
Officials spar in public over how to replace the aging fleet
As China expands its undersea arsenal, Taiwan is debating how to replace its own tiny fleet of antiquated submarines — two of which date all the way back to World War II.
Without a doubt, Taiwan needs new submarines. The problem is that no one wants to sell the country any new ones, so Taipei is stuck with its creaky old boats for the time being. That is, unless Taiwan wants to build its own submarines, which is easier said than done.
On Aug. 23, Taiwan Pres. Ma Ying-jeou told a gathering at the Hung Shen Propeller Company that the country should effectively abandon its hopes of getting any new submarines, especially nuclear submarines, from the United States. In 2001, U.S. Pres. George W. Bush agreed to supply diesel-electric boats to the Republic of China Navy as part of a larger arms package.
After more than a decade of waiting, “we’ve come to the point where it is kind of getting hard to take,” Ma said, according to the country’s Central News Agency. “We can source the technology at home, but the weapons systems must be introduced from abroad.”
The very next day, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense tried to soften Ma’s remarks. While agreeing that atomic subs were out of the question, MND spokesman Maj. Gen Luo Shou-he insisted the country was still in the market for American boats.
This unusual public disagreement underscores just how complicated and important the issue is for Taipei. “This is one of the key issues for Taiwan’s defense,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of the U.S. Naval Institute’s authoritative Combat Fleets of the World.
The fact that Taiwan is desperate for new submarines is nothing new. The underwater ships are critical to the country’s defense if China ever tries to invade or blockade the island.
Subs are “really a requirement of a modern navy today,” Wertheim said. “Just one submarine alters the dynamic of naval warfare.”
“When a submarine is out there, you don’t know where it is,” Wertheim added. In addition to this deterrent effect, the boats can spy on other ships and troops on the shore, ferry commandos to hostile territory and hunt for their enemy counterparts under the waves.
While one sub can be a menace, Taipei knows all too well that its current fleet is dwarfed and increasingly outmatched by its primary opponent — the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Right now, Taiwan has a grand total of four subs.
Dutch shipbuilder Wilton-Fijenoord delivered the two Hai Lung-class ships nearly 30 years ago. The Hai Lungs are based on the Dutch Navy’s Zwaardvis class, which dates to the 1970s.
That’s not to say the Hai Lung and her sister Hai Hu aren’t dangerous. Armed with six tubes capable of launching modern American Mark 48 or German Surface and Underwater Target homing torpedoes, as well as Harpoon anti-ship missiles, the submarines are formidable opponents.
The same can’t be said of Taipei’s other two underwater warriors of the Hai Shih class. American shipyards built the two Hai Shih boats at the tail end of World War II.
The first one, originally named USS Cutlass and now Hai Shih, entered service with the U.S. Navy five months before the war ended. Cramp Shipbuilding in Philadelphia finished her sister submarine Hai Pao after the Japanese surrender.
By the time Taiwan got them in 1973, the Americans had sealed up their torpedo tubes and converted them into trainers, according to Combat Fleets. Nearly seven decades after they first set sail, how well either would fare in a fight is anyone’s guess — if they’re even combat ready at all.
In contrast, Beijing’s naval arm has more than 50 submarines, including nuclear powered boats that can sail far away from their bases and stay at sea for long periods. Further, Chinese shipbuilders are building more to replace older types and for the international market.
That doesn’t mean Taiwan needs its own atomic-powered subs. Despite the prestige factor, nuclear boats are costly and complicated to build and maintain. “Diesel submarines can be very useful and are very useful in defensive operations,” Wertheim said.
By most accounts, the latest diesel-electric submarines on the global market are extremely quiet and hard to detect.
Taipei’s naval forces are primarily geared toward defense rather than far flung operations anyways. But as Ma and the MND have made clear, the question of how to get advanced diesel boats is up for debate.
The MND will keep lobbying Washington while developing the means to build the boats domestically, Lou told the Central News Agency. But both of these plans have serious pitfalls. Most importantly, no American shipyard builds diesel-electric submarines.
“It’s like going to a company that doesn’t make hybrids and saying ‘I want a hybrid,'” Wertheim said.
On top of that, China had a very different relationship with the outside world in the early 1980s when Taiwan bought its last submarines. The Netherlands, as well as other major producers of diesel electric subs such as Germany and Australia, are now unwilling to risk damaging their relationships with Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei — even if the United States served as an intermediary.
Still, the MND wouldn’t want to ease the pressure on Washington when it comes to arms deals. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is supposed to guarantee that Taipei can maintain its arsenal for self-defense.
In practice, relations with Beijing have had an impact in the halls of the White House and the Pentagon, too. Most recently, Taiwan had to lobby the United States hard just to get vital upgrades for its aging F-16 fighter jets. The MND had initially wanted brand new Vipers.
Conceding that the Pentagon will not supply new submarines anytime soon could set a bad precedent.
Taiwan going it alone and building its own submarines isn’t a cakewalk either. “The design in of itself is a huge challenge,” Wertheim explained. “The trouble is getting a design that works.”
Of course, that’s not to say Taiwan couldn’t do it. For example, North Korea is far more isolated from the world and has severely limited resources. Despite that, Pyongyang has managed to keep up a steady supply of small submarines for its navy.
In Wertheim’s estimation, Taiwan could probably get its own production going in a decade. Authorities in Taipei might call on the Pentagon or American defense contractors to help out — not that it has always worked out well in the past.
In the 1980s, Lockheed worked with Taiwanese firms to build its Ching-kuo fighter jet. Despite touting this partnership on the company website, representatives from the Texas-based aircraft maker back-talked the plane as “the best aircraft the U.S. State Department ever designed,” according to a 2010 briefing to U.S. Air Force commanders in the Pacific we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Some level of foreign cooperation would probably still be necessary. In his recent remarks, Ma conceded that “the weapons systems must be introduced from abroad” on any future Taiwanese diesel-electric sub.
Whatever the final decision turns out to be, Taiwan’s executive branch and the MND will need to get their story straight soon. There is a submarine arms race “pretty much across the board” in Asia, Wertheim pointed out.
Nearly every country in Taiwan’s neighborhood — with the possible exception of the Philippines — is looking to build or buy new subs. Russia and China have been happy to offer their wares to Vietnam and Thailand. Japan and South Korea are both working on their own indigenous designs.
If Taipei doesn’t act quick, its navy could fall even farther behind friends and foes alike.