MELBOURNE, Australia ― The State Department has given the go-ahead for American defense companies to market submarine technology to Taiwan to aid in its quest to locally develop and build its own submarines.

According to media reports from Taiwan, the Ministry of National Defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Chen Chung-chi and presidential office spokesman Sidney Lin confirmed that the State Department has granted the marketing license required for the sale of technology to Taiwan.

The granting of the license is a significant step for Taiwan’s domestic submarine program, and Lin added that the decision would upgrade Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, as well as benefit the safety and security of the region.

Neither official provided specifics about the submarine-related system the marketing license has been approved for. However, Liao Yen-fan, a Taipei-based analyst who focuses on air power and the Taiwanese military, told Defense News that the approvals cover a marketing license for a submarine combat management system, or CMS, along with a separate technical assistance agreement.

This will cover some of the critical areas of submarine development that Taiwan lacks, which according to Dr. Collin Koh, research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, also includes sonar systems, modern periscopes and weapons systems.

The latter will be in addition to the Mk-48 advanced heavyweight torpedo Taiwan gained approval from the State Department to acquire in June 2017 under the Foreign Miliary Sales program. However, Liao said that the latest license approvals will instead fall under the Direct Commercial Sales program, and the two companies the approvals have been granted for have not yet been named.

Propulsion questions

Propulsion is one area the U.S. will be unable to assist in Taiwan’s submarine quest. Taiwan is seeking conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines, while the U.S. Navy currently operates only nuclear-powered boats. Taiwan may need to seek help from other countries that build diesel-electric submarines for assistance, particularly if it seeks enhanced underwater propulsion systems such as Air-Independent Propulsion or AIP, according to Koh.

Koh added that if Taiwan is content to eschew AIP for its new submarines, it is within the capabilities of Taiwan’s own local shipbuilding industry and National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology or NCSIST to develop its own diesel-electric propulsion system, or adapt commercial marine engines and generators for submarine use.

The submarines are a central plank of Taiwan’s ambitious $15 billion shipbuilding and force modernization program, with the equivalent of $94.81 million being allocated from December 2016 to December 2020 for the design of the new boats. It has been reported that preliminary design was completed in March, although the MND denied the reports. Taiwan is also carrying out a life-extension program on its two Zwaardvis-class diesel-electric submarines purchased from the Netherlands in the 1980s.

Taiwan, an island just off the east coast of China and separated by the Taiwan Strait, is viewed by China as a rogue province following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. A massive force modernization program over the past two decades has seen China substantially outgunning Taiwan today, and submarines are seen to be an important asymmetric capability and will complicate any attempt by China to take Taiwan by force.

China has also successfully used its substantial economic and political clout to restrict the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan. Even the United States is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, which limits arms sales to “self-defense” weapons.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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