A look into Taiwan’s effort to increase its fleet in the face of Chinese military assertiveness
On 22 May, Taiwan local sources announced that an agreement had been reached between the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence and Dutch maritime systems integrator RH Marine for the long-awaited upgrade of the two ‘Hai Lung’ class diesel electric submarines (SSK). Hai Lung and Hai Hu, improved Dutch ‘Zwaardvis’ class submarines, were purchased and delivered in the 1980s when they came to complement the two other submarines, Hai Shih and Hai Pao, which were built for the US Navy in 1944-45 and were given to Taiwan in the 1970s.
According to local sources, the upgrade cost has been estimated at around $13million and the retrofitting is likely to include hull, mechanical, and electrical upgrades as well as non-propulsion electronic system modifications such as upgrades to the TIMNEX 4CH(V2) electronic support measures. The contract should be signed next year, after RH Marine carries out an additional feasibility study to complement the initial preliminary assessment, and the modernisation work is scheduled to take place between 2020 and 2022. The two submarines will also be armed with the 46 heavyweight torpedoes (Mk-48 Mod 6AT) Taiwan purchased from the US in July 2017 as part of a $1.4billion US arms sale to Taiwan. The aim of these upgrades is to extend the lifespan of the ‘Hai Lung’ class into the late 2030s, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence, to avoid a severe capability gap while waiting for the planned eight indigenously-built SSKs, which are expected to be operational by 2026; it will also contribute to increasing their lethality since, according to the torpedo manufacturer Raytheon: “The torpedo is capable of autonomous operation or control via wire link, Software-based guidance and control enables autonomous operation, ‘fire and forget’ tactics, simultaneous multiple target engagement and close-in attack. MK 48 quieting technology … significantly reduces self-noise to enable covert deployment and minimise detection.”
Indeed, in the context of an increasingly assertive China in the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, which is involved in three different disputes with the Asian giant, cannot afford to remain without an efficient underwater capability. First and foremost, China and Taiwan have been divided over the issue of Taiwan’s independence for decades, with tensions constantly on the verge of transforming into a confrontation between the two countries. Successive Taiwanese presidents have each had very different relations with their Chinese counter-parts, some advocating for independence while others promoting closer ties with China, however relations have become significantly tense once again since 2016 when Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in favour of independence. Moreover, the two countries also have competing claims on groups of islets in the East and South China Seas (respectively the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the Paracel and Spratly island chain).
Proof of the heightened tensions came once again last month when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held live-fire exercises near Taiwan. Although very limited details on the exercises were released by the Chinese government, local sources indicated that it was very likely a direct warning from China to Taiwan. Moreover, in the China Daily of 24 May, a detailed article reported that the PLAN is not only undergoing the capability modernisation well-monitored around the world (including the recent sea trials of the first indigenously-designed aircraft carrier, the Liaoning) but has also been intensifying training of its crew to ensure full operational capability at all times.
As such, it is not surprising that Taiwan has been working hard to step-up its efforts to improve its currently rather meagre submarine fleet. In addition to the agreement with RH Marine reported above, in April this year the US State Department granted the marketing license required for the sale of technology to Taiwan to support the country’s domestic submarine programme to build the SSKs. According to local sources, this marketing license would include the submarine combat management system as well as a separate technical assistance agreement, which could cover critical areas of submarine development that Taiwan lacks.
Taiwan’s domestic submarine programme really began shaping-up in December 2016, when local shipbuilder CSBC Corp. was awarded an $80million contract to begin working on submarine designs; subsequently, in March 2017, CSBC, the Taiwanese Navy and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology signed a procurement contract and memorandum of understanding to explore the design of a 1,200-3,000t submarine. The decision was made after years of attempting to buy new submarines from other countries. The difficulties encountered by Taiwan were primarily due to its tense relationship with China and the reluctance of foreign powers such as France, Japan or Germany to risk their relationship with China if they sold military capabilities such as submarines to Taiwan. Even the US, which is bound under the Taiwan Relations Act since 1979 to provide Taiwan with the means necessary to defend itself, had thus far been walking on eggshells when it came to providing support to fulfil the country’s submarine capability needs – especially seeing as the US only builds nuclear-powered submarines and is forbidden by international law to export such technology.
But for better or worse the tides are changing under President Donald Trump’s administration. Where his predecessors were extremely weary of negatively affecting their relationships with China, including George W. Bush whose announcements to provide support to Taiwan’s underwater capability failed to materialise, Trump has been far less concerned with diplomacy. Starting with a congratulatory phone call to the new pro-independence Taiwanese president in 2016 and continuing, amongst other things, with the imposition of trade tariffs on Chinese products, the US’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy has taken a whole new meaning, likely as unpredictable as Trump himself.
Whether this will play out to be in favour of Taiwan or not, only time can tell. The life-extension programme of the two ‘Hai Lung’ class SSKs, including improved armament, as well as the design and construction of possibly eight indigenous-built SSKs will no doubt contribute greatly to Taiwan’s defence against China. While the latter continues to build and commission new submarines, which are regularly patrolling regional waters, the former’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) fleet is slowly ageing. Indeed, although in December 2017 Taipei announced that it had just commissioned 12 P-3C Orion aircraft to replace the 11 S-2T anti-submarine aircraft in service for over 40 years, this is far from sufficient considering that most of the Republic of China Navy (RoCN) frigates have been in service since the 70s, 80s and 90s and are therefore likely to reach the end of their service-life (or need a life-extension) soon. Consequently, submarines are Taiwan’s best bet to tackle’s the PLAN’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in that they can be used as a deterrent through tactics of sea control (for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes), sea denial (denying the PLAN access to Taiwanese waters) and maritime power projection (attacking PLAN ships).
Of course the diplomatic question-mark remains as to whether increased US involvement in Taiwanese defence capability plans will indeed spark strong reactions from China and, if so, whether the US will decide to side with Taiwan or whether it will choose to step down to avoid further souring relations with the Asian giant (since the Taiwan Relations Act does not bind the US to actively protecting Taiwan in the event of an invasion). Again, the outcome of this situation is as unpredictable as Trump’s next Tweet.