TAIPEI – Taiwan Navy officials are committed to their submarine build plans and will not wait for the US government to fulfill a 2001 pledge to sell Taiwan eight diesel submarines, a senior Navy official said.
The 2001 deal has been held up by a variety of problems, including the fact the US no longer builds conventional attack submarines. If the US won't deliver, "we are prepared to go with an indigenous build," the Navy official said.
The Taiwan Navy refers to the US foreign military sales case as the Taiwan Defense Submarine program. A State Department spokesman declined to comment.
As a standby, the Taiwan Navy has begun the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program. Even if the US cannot move forward on the sale, US companies can still participate in the IDS program, the Navy official said.
His comments were in response to testimony by Deputy Defense Minister Kao Tien-chung during legislative questioning Dec. 10. Kao told the legislature that a Taiwan-built submarine could be completed by 2024.
Since 2013, Taiwan's Navy has sponsored three IDS seminars with international participation. These include an academic seminar in September 2013, a technical seminar in June and then a managerial seminar in early November. All three saw participation from Australia, US, Italy, France and other unnamed European countries. The November seminar included industrial site visits to Taiwan industries involved in shipbuilding, including Kaohsiung-based shipbuilder CSBC in southern Taiwan. The visits gave international companies a chance to judge what they could provide to the IDS program that Taiwan's industries could not.
Possible objections that China's government might raise are also causing concern. Yet, the international firms are keen to work the contract. "There is a lot of international interest in helping us build the submarines," the Navy official said.
"I sense there are two polarized views in supporting Taiwan in an indigenous submarine development," said Guy Stitt, president, AMI International, Naval Analysts & Advisors. One is the US perspective and the other is of countries that are independent of China's main economic influence, particularly South Korea, Japan and perhaps India.
"My view is in the United States there exists this general concern over the lack of security of any technology shared with Taiwan," he said. The reported cases of espionage from China within Taiwan are numerous and "I expect many feel that whatever is shared with Taiwan, the 'intellectual property' would end up arming [China] eventually."
South Korea and Japan have experienced China's aggression due to overlapping claims in the South China Sea, and have gradually reduced their economic dependence on trade with the Chinese. "Therefore, I could envision some component supply or support for this undertaking. While India may be sympathetic to the undertaking, they have few indigenous components available for diesel submarines."
Independent naval analyst Bob Nugent said the IDS program would have to have two different kinds of partners: one to design and be involved in sub construction and another to deliver combat and other systems integration. "Disconnects between the hull design and build and systems design and integration efforts would be the most significant risk to realizing a new sub build on time, within budget and performing to requirements."
Nugent said Taiwan must have that "indefinable but absolutely critical element of culture — a program where all involved share and observe rigorous adherence to zero defect outlook in all aspects of the program — even when that means challenging leadership on technical issues that have big schedule, budget and performance targets."
The number of people with the right training and experience to do this well in the submarine construction industry is low, "which makes teammates and partners the other must have for a successful program in Taiwan," he said.
The Navy has two IDS design options: the first, based on Taiwan's 2,500-ton Dutch-built Hai Lung-class submarines, and the second based on a smaller vessel in the 1,500-ton range. Taiwan owns the intellectual property rights to the design of the Hai Lung, but "we still need international assistance" on a design and build based on the sub, the Navy official said. A new design on the 1,500-ton range is based solely on the fact that this is the most common tonnage of conventional attack submarines being built today, he said.
The most difficult aspect will be finding the critical systems and components such as sonar, periscopes, propellers, shafts, torpedo tube inner and outer doors, and all related torpedo tube firing and interlock systems, Nugent said. Hydraulic systems become complicated when considering back-up solutions for fail-safe conditions. Electrical systems are complicated due to the use of batteries as main power storage devices.
"The hull would likely be the easiest thing to design and build in that I expect they can easily find some hull designs available for smaller diameter submarines with 'outside of hull' vent valves and tank piping," he said. The biggest problem with the hull will be the design of the back-end of the boat — where most of the noise will be generated, which is not good for submarines whose main strength is stealth.
The Navy official emphasized that the submarine requirement is not only for Taiwan's defense, but also for anti-submarine warfare training for surface ships. Taiwan has only two Hai Lung submarines, and there are tentative plans to conduct a life-extension program along with the IDS program. The Navy official did not provide a budget number for the IDS, but said Taiwan would build the first as a prototype, then a second for initial sea trials, and then two to four additional subs if the budget allows.
The Navy is planning to begin preliminary designs in 2016. Asked if the submarine-launched UGM-84 Harpoon missiles recently supplied by the US for Taiwan's Hai Lung's would be factored into the design, the Navy official said the preliminary design would not, but they could be added later. ■