This commentary comes courtesy of Lauren Dickey, research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She discusses the new push by Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou government to expand and reinvigorate the island’s submarine program by acquiring U.S. technology and platforms. She argues that doing so would serve the strategic interests of neither Taiwan nor the United States.
The island of Taiwan wants new submarines and has turned to the United States for assistance. Amid a Taiwanese congressional delegation visit to Washington this [last] week, the interest of the Ma Ying-jeou government in developing indigenous submarine capabilities has resurfaced. The four subs Taipei is currently operating—two Zwaardvis-class acquired from the Netherlands and commissioned in the 1980s and two U.S. Navy Guppy II-class vessels delivered in 1973 for training programs—are grandfathers, lagging far behind Chinese capabilities and thus leaving the island with few undersea capabilities.
As hopeful as Taipei may be, however, U.S. submarine sales to the island are highly improbable. Transferring submarine technology to the island will take too long and cost the Taiwanese military far more than what it can afford. Back in 2001, under President George W. Bush, negotiations to sell Taiwan eight diesel submarines to help provide defense against Beijing’s increasing military power eventually stalled due to budget constraints and domestic politics, not to mention Beijing’s opposition. At the time, as the United States lacked a diesel-powered submarine program, the Bush administration intended to build new subs for Taiwan from scratch as part of a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. After bids from seven domestic and foreign companies were received, the FMS program was evaluated by the U.S. Navy to cost $10.5 billion, a price tag that led to boycotts of the FMS by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP) in Taiwan.
Despite public statements, the FMS has never been a practical option, at least not for Washington. While the FMS required huge upfront financial commitments from Taipei alone, the costs the United States would incur to resurrect small numbers of diesel-powered submarines for Taipei yields few benefits for the U.S. military. Submarine construction programs that would draw upon government resources would also tap into state of the art technology used in U.S. nuclear powered submarines.
The current strategic advantage the United States has in its use and ownership of nuclear submarines is not something the Pentagon should 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 (PLA), Washington should remain cautious in transferring any sensitive technology or capabilities to Taiwan. These cost-benefit concerns, as well as those of espionage, emerged initially around the Bush submarine deal in 2001, but linger today as the Pentagon appears to weigh the option of a submarine program with Taiwan.
With the United States clearly limited in its ability to fulfill Taiwan’s persistent requests, one can only begin to wonder why the Taiwanese defense establishment isn’t looking elsewhere to fulfill its wish list. Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands all produce small, diesel-electric submarines that would meet Taiwan’s needs. Unlike the United States, these countries are already actively selling their submarines abroad: Germany’s Dolphin class has ended up in Israel and Japan is currently putting the finishing touches on Soryu submarine sales to Australia. What holds these countries back from selling to Taiwan is the fear of economic or political falling out with Beijing. China has demonstrated time and time again an ability to impose political costs and threaten those that sell weapons to Taiwan.
Past U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, for instance, have spurred Beijing’s talk of sanctions, and even weapons sales to Pakistan in retaliation. Thus, any movement to transfer submarine technology to the island—technology that is intended to check the capabilities of the Chinese navy—would not go unnoticed. Thus, the only option remaining for Taiwan is to turn to the one country which has so far proven willing to disregard Beijing’s threats in selling weapons to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s government can and should look to expand its offensive and defensive capabilities, but U.S. submarines are not the solution. Rather than looking to high cost submarine programs, Taiwan may be better served developing other capabilities to deter Chinese short-term military coercion without immediate intervention from abroad, a so-called “porcupine strategy.” While intended to defend against Beijing’s increasingly capable surface forces and submarines, 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.
Alternatively, Taipei should explore opportunities to develop military items that would, in the words of Taiwan-watcher, J. Michael Cole, “make the PLA’s life difficult.” If political gridlock and a declining defense budget can be overcome, Taiwan’s defense apparatus should refocus its energies from submarine aspirations to strengthening antisubmarine warfare capabilities, a defensive shift that may even alleviate some of Beijing’s consternation toward Taipei. Adding to the island’s fleet of twelve P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft, and fully replacing Taiwan’s antiquated S-2 Tracker aircraft, would bolster Taipei’s ability to detect the movement of China’s submarine fleet.
Investment in low-cost, land based anti-ship missiles would, according to one RAND study, have a significant impact on China’s power projection. Taipei could also consider procuring high-speed multifunctional fast attack craft, similar to the “pure-bred, ship-killing” Type-022 Houbei class.
Beijing’s military capabilities will but only increase in the years ahead, particularly as reunification with Taiwan remains a top priority item on the Communist Party’s agenda. But as military capabilities evolve, so too will political environment. 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 into lead Taiwan in 2016, the need to reevaluate 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.