WASHINGTON — In 2001, President George W. Bush's administration released the largest arms package to Taiwan since the closing of US military bases on the island in 1979. The deal included four Kidd-class destroyers, 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and eight diesel-electric submarines.
Since then, the package has been completed except for the submarine offer. The many sticking points include the fact the US has not built diesel-electric attack submarines since the last Barbel-class was finished in 1959. But that has not stopped Taiwan's Navy from pushing forward on an official release via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) office before beginning an indigenous build program.
Taiwan’s frustrations with the US FMS process it began 14 years ago are growing, leading it to pursue an indigenous construction effort that it hopes will provide some tactical and strategic leverage against China’s rapidly growing naval modernization efforts.
On Dec. 1, the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute sponsored a conference on the topic with Taiwan's Rear Adm. David T.W. Yang presenting the keynote speech. The conference, “A Deep Dive: Taiwan’s Future Submarine Program,” included commentary by Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute.
Stokes said the US FMS effort was frozen in 2007 due to a number of factors: political considerations and U.S.-China relations; domestic debates in Taiwan over pursuing an FMS program or an indigenous build; perceived cost effectiveness in the US of building only eight subs; US operational considerations regarding waterspace management as more countries in Asia procure submarines; and past US Navy institutional concerns over fears in the nuclear submarine community that cheaper diesel electric subs might be forced upon them during future budget cuts.
It should be noted that Stokes served as the Pentagon’s team chief and senior country director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the 2001 arms release. He is described by many within the US and Taiwan defense industries as the architect of the original arms package and continues to be a major advocate of Taiwan’s acquisition of submarines.
Yang, who is a military attaché at Taiwan’s de facto embassy, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, told the conference that Taiwan has improved its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities with the procurement of the P-3 aircraft, but additional enhancements are required. “The training programs, however, failed to meet requirements because of limitations of the aging submarines ... and Taiwan’s defensive capabilities are adversely affected.”
Taiwan's only two combat-operational submarines are Dutch-built Zwaardvis-class subs acquired in the late 1980s. It also has two of the oldest submarines in operation — two Guppy-class submarines acquired in the early 1970s that served at the end of World War II. These submarines are described as training platforms, not operational ones.
Yang said the Guppys should be replaced and the Zwaardvis “urgently” need to be refurbished. He said the FMS program has been “suspended through the ‘interagency review’ phase for over a decade ... [and now] Taiwan has been urging the US to accelerate the FMS process to provide Taiwan with the urgently needed submarines.”
Yang said Taiwan has created the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program to fulfill its requirements. IDS will be built locally with some foreign, including American, assistance.
“In consideration of the longstanding security cooperation with the US, acquiring submarines from the US government will remain as the priority option," he said. "Until there is a concrete response from the US, a dual-track ‘FMS-plus-IDS’ policy will be implemented.”
Yang admitted that Taiwan was “in communication” with Japan for a possible deal for Soryu-class submarines. Japan’s export defense restrictions have been eased, and Japan and Australia are currently working on a joint submarine program.
Bob Nugent of AMI International, a Bremerton, Washington–based naval market analysis and advisory firm, said he could “envision a scenario where there is an outright sale to Taiwan of Japanese submarines.” The current price is around $500 million a hull for the Soryu, and that includes airindependent propulsion — significantly less than the US offer estimated at $800 million for just the design stage.
China and Japan are bickering over control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and China claims as its territory. Additional friction was created in 2013 when China announced an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, which included the airspace over the Senkakus. Increased Chinese fighter and surveillance flights into Japanese air space in recent years have also rattled Tokyo.
Both Taiwan and Japan face an enormous Chinese submarine fleet that now numbers over 70 submarines. Yang called the growth “aggressive.”