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Taiwan Is Serious About Its Naval Modernization

July 15, 2018

A French Scorpene-class submarine in the Royal Malaysian Navy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The island nation China considers a “rogue province” is moving ahead with plans to strengthen its navy against the PLAN, whose capabilities are now too great to ignore. This month Taiwanese media revealed the extent of the country’s submarine acquisition project by naming the countries pitching their designs. To this day, the ROC Navy is still reliant on US-made vessels although it has sought assistance from other major NATO member states in the past.

The acquisition of submarines is being carried out with US assistance and is divided into three phases. First, a preliminary design is chosen. Second, the design is made into a blueprint that affords compatibility with US-made subsystems. Third, production commences in the 2020s.

At this stage, six unnamed firms are proposing designs for the ROC Navy. These include shipbuilders from India and Japan as well as two others from the US–there’s a strong likelihood General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls are competing with each other. Taiwan’s submarine program requires a diesel-electric model equipped with US armaments, sensors, and engines. Whether locally designed missiles are to be installed on these vessels is unclear.

If companies from India and Japan are aggressively pitching a diesel-electric submarine design to Taiwan’s defense ministry, these aren’t just unprecedented but fraught with challenges. Since India’s newest diesel-electric submarines are based on the French Scorpene, which has been sold to several navies, it’s possible the shipbuilder Mazagon is reaching out to Taipei with Delhi’s blessing. But the poor reputation of India’s military industries, whose output is exported in meager amounts, means Taiwan might ultimately reject their submarine offer.

Japan’s participation is even more remarkable since Tokyo has shunned direct arms exports for decades–not anymore, apparently. When it comes to diesel-electric submarines from Japan two companies stand out, these are Kawasaki and Mitsubushi. The report by Taiwan News did mention a team of Japanese engineers, rather than one particular company, are collaborating to fulfill a design for a diesel-electric submarine.

A handful of Western European countries manufacture submarines for export and guessing which one is trying to corner a rare client in East Asia can be taxing. France and Germany have both contributed to the ROC Navy in the past, however, and French shipbuilder DCNS is okay with sharing production of its Scorpene-class diesel-electric subs. Since the prospects of half the contenders in Taiwan’s submarine acquisition are a question mark, it’s safe to expect the final contract is with a US shipbuilder whose supply chain is reliant on other American subcontractors.

Recent events this year indicate no changes in the US alliance with Taiwan. This month alone had two events that showed Washington, DC isn’t going to stand by while Beijing menaces an ally. Two US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the USS Benfold and the USS Mustin, crossed the Taiwan Strait after departing Japan in the first week of July. Then the ROC Army commissioned its new squadrons of AH-64E Apache gunships days after. The addition of Apaches to its rotary fleet represents a significant upgrade to the ROC Army’s deterrence against a massive amphibious invasion by the PLA.

Beijing’s actions towards Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen took office has been far from conciliatory. Elaborate exercises in the vicinity of the island nation are held on a regular basis involving the Chinese navy’s latest weapons. Some of the more ominous provocations are flights by missile carrying H-6K bombers escorted by J-11 multirole fighters that cross the South China Sea and trace a path around Taiwan. These can be interpreted as invasion rehearsals where the combined strength of China’s air force and navy impose a blockade as land-based ballistic missiles hit essential targets throughout the island.

The risk of naval encirclement followed by a shock and awe campaign to force its surrender can explain why Taipei wants new submarines for its navy.


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