Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Taiwan Wants to Buy U.S. Subs; This Would Be a Bad Deal for Both Countries

by Lauren Dickey
September 15, 2014

A Dutch-made submarine docks in a military port in Taiwan's southern city of Kaohsiung, November 7, 2005. Taiwan has long sought to buy additional diesel submarines to supplement its aging fleet. (Jameson Wu/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Lauren Dickey is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her research interests include U.S.-China and cross-strait relations. She is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by SJ

    How in God’s name is Taipei supposed to procure Type-022 Houbei from the PLA?

  • Posted by WES

    The US made a commitment to Taiwan during the Bush II administration to help Taiwan acquire modern subs. It has yet to fulfill it.

    The defense of Taiwan is highly predicated on sea defense to prevent blockades and ensure the flow of exports.

    A porcupine defense only allows the invaded country to deal with invading troops once they are ashore. Diesel submarines alone might not be the cure all for Taiwan’s defenses, but they certainly add to it. Moreover, the acquisition of such would undoubtedly boost morale. After all, what military officer wants to use outdated hardware.

    Isn’t it time for the democracies of the world to come to lend a hand to democratic Taiwan.

  • Posted by Brian

    I strongly disagree with most of the author’s arguments–many of which are inaccurate.

    -Taiwan’s interest hasn’t just “resurfaced”–it has been consistent for decades.

    -Taiwan can’t simply send a delegation to the countries suggested and openly request a sale of subs. The reality is much more complex than what was implied in the article.

    -The porcupine strategy has some aspects Taiwan should be seriously considering, but taken at face value is not a panacea for its defense needs.

    I wrote a counter argument entitled “Missing the Point on Taiwan’s Pursuit of Submarines” where I went into more detail challenging these points.


  • Posted by Abby Lee

    In her article Lauren Dickey suggests Taiwan cease attempts to buy U.S. subs and shift its strategy to purchasing multifunctional fast attack craft. However, her article fails to recognize that Taiwan already has the ability to develop its own fast attack crafts and is in need of submarines to enhance its anti-submarine operations in order to hold potential attacks at bay.

    By selling Taiwan weapons of a defensive nature, the United States would fulfill the legal obligations of the Taiwan Relations Act and also act in protecting its own interests. Providing Taiwan with weapons can bolster Taiwan’s confidence in the process of reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China, thus contributing to peace in the long-term while reducing the American military burden in East Asia.

    Helping Taiwan to better defend itself and preserve its sovereignty serves the interests of the United States and Taiwan.

  • Posted by Chang, Yungwen

    Q1-Transferring sub technology too long and too much for Taiwan military to afford?
    Excessive amount of budget is required to support ROC “IDS” program. However, strategic deterrence effect of submarines is not what money can measure. Plus, under the guidance of Taiwan “Self-Reliant defense industry,” Taiwan is able to keep ship building capacity in its country and stimulate economic growth. Taiwan will adequately allocate defense budget for the IDS program.

    Q2-Washington’s cautious in transferring sensitive technology?
    The type of submarine what Taiwan needs is diesel submarine, rather than nuke one. All submarines are nuclear submarines at services in the U.S. Navy. If the U.S. agrees technology transferring to Taiwan, there should be no concern of high-tech disclosure.

    Q3-Multifunctional fast attack craft is suitable for Taiwan?
    U.S. RAND study suggested that Taiwan develop rapid attack craft for self-defense. ROCN’s Guang-Hua VI Class Fast Attack Craft-Missile, armed with Hsiung Feng II Anti-ship missile, is capable to execute combat readiness, such as surface striking mission. However, in order to enhance Taiwan sea-dominance capability, secure the sea communication line, and safeguard the territorial seas, submarine’s role is irreplaceable.

    Q4-The U.S limited in its ability to fulfill Taiwan’s persistent requests?
    The focus point of U.S. foreign policy turns to Asia-Pacific region, and Taiwan plays a major role of it. If the U.S. provides necessary technology assistance to its IDS, this demonstrates how U.S. provides support to its Asian allies. Furthermore, U.S. is obligated to provide Taiwan with arms of a defense need by Taiwan Relations Act, the law that has governed U.S. Arms sales to Taiwan since 1979.

    Q5-Neither time nor money for Washington to help Taiwan’s sub program?
    To assist Taiwan procure defense submarines will enhance Taiwan’s confidence in cross-strait negotiations. It helps maintain the status quo of cross-strait relations. Also, it serves the interests of both Taiwan and the U.S. and will also contribute to long-term peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

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