TAIPEI - Taiwan is moving forward with the life extension program (LEP) for its two Dutch-built Sea Dragon-class (Zwaardvis Mk 2) submarines. The decision will have direct implications for Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program to build eight attack submarines.
James Holmes, co-author of the book, "Red Star Over the Pacific" and a US Naval War College professor, said the LEP announcement and potential IDS was “good news, albeit the new-construction boats won't appear for some years.”
“Even with the Zwaardis upgrade of two submarines has great potential,” he said. “Remember how much mayhem a single Argentine boat gave the British task force during the Falklands War.” The British expended virtually all of their stock of war shots -- munitions it needed to police the North Atlantic against the Soviet Navy. “One boat can make a big difference if handled guilefully.”
“Assuming the new-construction boats work out, that will open up new tactical vistas. With a ten-boat fleet, the navy would have, what, maybe five ready for sea at any time,” Holmes said. “That makes modest wolfpack tactics possible...and will amplify the deterrent effect of subs on the PLA Navy, which emphatically does not excel at anti-submarine warfare. Taiwan is staging some access denial of its own in a bubble surrounding the island.”
The Sea Dragon’s have been in service since 1987/1988 and the objective of the LEP program is to extend the service life of the boats for at least another 15 years, local defense contractors and Taiwan military sources said. Contracts for the LEP design work was awarded in mid-March to two unidentified European marine engineering firms, with Taiwan’s Ship and Ocean Industries Research and Development Center (SOIC) playing a significant subcontractor role. Design work would take about two years, with actual modification and installation work to start in 2018. Completion is scheduled by 2020.
The LEP is mainly to address obsolescence issues, by replacing legacy, difficult-to-support hardware with current, more sustainable equipment. The scope of work will encompass hull, mechanical and electrical (H/M/E) as well as non-propulsion electronic system (NPES) modifications. The program will also provide select new capabilities that would allow the boats to remain operationally viable in the coming decade.
“Given the age of the Sea Dragon class, I would expect the Taiwan Navy will need to pay close attention to the condition of the hull - welds, patches, through hull penetrations,” said Guy Stitt, president, AMI International, Naval Analysts & Advisors.
One of the mission system updates will be to the TIMNEX 4CH(V2) electronic support measures (ESM) system, originally supplied by Israeli-based Elbit. A number of European and US firms are understood to be competing for the contract.
Another area of modernization will involve an upgrade to the existing combat system, which was based on the Signaal (Thales Netherlands) SINBADS-M architecture coupled with the SIASS-Z integrated sonar suite. The boats received 32 UGM-84L Sub-launched Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles in a $200 million Foreign Military Sales deal under the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency. However, for reasons that are unclear, as part of the deal the stand-alone launch control console was not integrated with the combat system.
Taiwan also plans to purchase Mk 48 Advanced Capability (ADCAP) torpedoes from the US, to supplant the surface and underwater target (SUT) torpedoes that Taiwan acquired in the mid-1980s via Indonesia.
Stitt said there might be problems acquiring the ADCAP. The reason is that US Navy submarines are priority users of Mk 48 heavyweights. “There are not many being made available to allies. The production re-start of the 48 heavyweight is still several years away from producing additional torpedoes.”
Although the military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) is supposed to be responsible for work on the submarine combat system mid-life update, the Taiwan Navy apparently prefers minimizing indigenous content, ostensibly to reduce development risks. Taiwan Navy sources say that Navy leadership are leaning towards an off-the-shelf solution, such as that being proposed by Lockheed Martin based on its SUBICS (SUBmarine Integrated Combat System) system, instead of an indigenous combat system solution to be developed by CSIST, presumably with foreign technical assistance. US Government sources confirm that Lockheed Martin had received the export license earlier in the year to assist Taiwan in submarine combat system and other submarine-related work.
Mark Stokes, executive director, Project 2049 Institute, said “US licensing of technical assistance for the life extension should be a positive indicator of US support for Taiwan's designing, developing, and manufacturing of new diesel electric submarines. Better late than never.” Stokes was senior country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1997-2004. Stokes is described by many inside the Taiwan defense industry establishment as the original campaigner of Taiwan’s efforts to procure new submarines and framer of the 2001 US arms deal to Taiwan that included eight diesel attack submarines.
The Taiwan Navy plan calls for contract for the LEP combat system work to be awarded before the inauguration of the new president, Tsai Ing-wen, on May 20. That is, before the newly-elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government takes office. The DPP president-elect, Tsai, had campaigned on a platform that envisages local defense industry as part of her economic agenda, with significant emphasis on indigenous research, development and production of weapon systems, including warships, submarines, jet trainers and combat aircraft.
Local industrial participation, particularly in higher value-added technical content, such as research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) of naval combat management systems and associated weapons, is at the core of Tsai’s defense and industrial revitalization policies.
There are a variety of problems and unanswered questions the LEP face. “I would be skeptical about how effective this work will be in terns of providing a modern submarine capability commensurate with what other navies in the region possess,” said Sam Bateman, professorial research fellow, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security, University of Wollongong. “There seems to be a rag bag' of system updates planned for the work which are unlikely to be properly integrated into an effective combat system. Part of the problem is that the US is not prepared to release 'state of the art' systems to Taiwan for fear of a technology 'leak' to the mainland.” Bateman doubts the timeline for the work will be achievable. “The work is intended to extend the service life of the vessels for 15 years but is not scheduled for completion until 2020 - and that's very optimistic.”
Bob Nugent, also with AMI, said Taiwan’s effort to improve its undersea capabilities faces problems at multiple levels.
At the political level, European suppliers who are best equipped, and most motivated, to step-in to provide submarine H/M/E shipbuilding, systems integration, and weapons and sensor capabilities that the US can’t or won’t supply are constrained by domestic government policies oriented toward preserving good relations with China.
At the industrial policy level, Nugent said, the technologies and lessons Taiwan has accumulated from operating the current submarine inventory do not look like they will be much help to “jump start” a new submarine construction program. Given how much the state of the submarine building, equipping and integrating arts have moved on since the Zwaardvis were built almost 30 years ago.
From a strategic perspective, facing these kinds of challenges might prompt another analysis of alternatives on how to achieve the deter and fight missions of the current Taiwanese submarine force, he said. “Something in the underwater domain that is quicker to obtain, cheaper, less risky, technologically more accessible from foreign suppliers and a better fit with current Taiwanese systems house capabilities than a clean sheet indigenous submarine construction program.”
Nugent said one near term alternative is large unmanned underwater vehicles. Another is to look at alternatives to the US and Europe for submarines, submarine design and build, and submarine weapons and sensors. Suppliers that are not as concerned about inflaming geopolitical relations with China, such as Japan, Russia, and India.
A Taiwan defense industry source said that since the Sea Dragon-class submarine combat system update effort is intended as a lead-in to development of the combat system for Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program, “it would be interesting to see how the Taiwan Navy’s position on off-the-shelf foreign solutions, and seeming attempt at a fait accompli before the new president enters office, is to be reconciled with a core policy agenda item of the incoming administration.”
Ching Chang, research fellow, Society for Strategic Studies, ROC, said military procurement plans in Taiwan are never purely professionally conducted. There are always a certain degree of political considerations, both domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, the fait accompli scheme will not be totally accepted by the new Tsai administration unless their political demands are also satisfied. “Otherwise, the current decision can be easily trumped after Tsai's inauguration.”
Although Tsai’s political promise to establish an indigenous defense research and defense as well as production capacity, the future leadership will also consider whether they may have some substantial contribution in the first term. It explains why the project was designed to be completed in 2020, which is consistent with the election campaign of the next term of presidency. “Again, it proves the sad old saying: you may get your sword after I get my vote.”
The whole LEP somehow is seemingly based on the availability, either the sources of procurement or the technologies accessible, Chang said. Neither the operational requirements nor the future combat environmental factors seem to exist in the calculation or assessment of this LEP program. “At the end of the day, the Taiwan submariners may only fight with what they get, not fight with what they want. It is something very sad to know, yet, it is exactly the political situation Taiwan always faced.”