- Taiwan has begun construction of the first of eight locally designed and constructed submarines.
- The subs will replace an aging fleet of four, including two submarines dating back to World War II.
- In an invasion scenario, new subs would be highly useful, but Beijing has pressured sub-producing countries into not selling to Taiwan.
Taiwan held a keel-laying ceremony earlier this week for its first locally produced submarine—the first of a planned fleet of eight.
The Indigenous Defense Submarines (IDS) will become a pillar of the country's defense against invasion from mainland China, bolstering its ability to patrol the Taiwan Strait and sink amphibious transport ships that dare to make the trip. The small country of just 23 million must build its own submarines, rather than purchase them from experienced sub-producing countries, since Beijing has cut off its access to the international submarine market.
Taipei held the ceremony on Tuesday at the China Shipbuilding Corporation in Kaohsiung, according to Naval News. Construction actually began a year ago, but as the Taipei Times points out, submarines don't technically have a keel (the structure at the center of a vessel's hull upon which the rest of the hull is built). Instead, the news site reports:
In submarine building, the ceremony means the builder has successfully connected the submarine's sail, the tower-like structure on the top of submarines, to its main hull, and passed pressure tests.
This first submarine, given the factory number 1168, is scheduled to be delivered to the Taiwan's navy in 2025. Seven more submarines will follow.
Currently, Taiwan has a fleet of four submarines. Two of them, Hai Hu ("Sea Tiger") and Hai Lung ("Sea Dragon"), were ordered in 1980 from Dutch shipyards. The boats are based on the Dutch Zwaardvis-class attack submarines, and are 219 feet long with a beam of 27.5 feet. Each has a crew of 67 and is equipped with German-made SUT torpedoes, American-made Mk. 48 heavyweight guided torpedoes, plus Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Considering Hai Hu and Hai Lung were delivered in the late 1980s, they're pretty old among submarine-operating navies. But by Taiwanese standards, they're relatively new: the island's other two subs, Hai Shih and Hai Pao, were built in 1943 and 1944 for the U.S. Navy. The submarines were transferred to the Republic of China Navy for anti-submarine warfare training. Their torpedo tubes were sealed with concrete, but the navy removed it in fairly short order. At least one of the submarines is reportedly out of operation.
Taiwan has tried—unsuccessfully—to buy modern submarines many times over the years; China has urged other sub-producing countries not to work with Taiwan, which it views as a "renegade province."
As the People's Republic of China's economic and political might has grown, it has gradually choked off Taiwanese access to many countries and their defense equipment. It has warned these countries that working with Taiwan could cost them trade deals and orders for goods from China. As a result, most have heeded this warning and turned a blind eye to Taiwan. In 1981, for instance, Taiwan tried to buy six subs from the Dutch, but Amsterdam bowed to pressure from mainland China after it completed the first two.
The United States, meanwhile, provides Taiwan with most of its arms, including Patriot air defense missiles, F-16V fighter bombers, and M1A2T Abrams tanks. So why not subs? The problem is that America's submarine industrial base quit designing and building diesel electric submarines a long time ago, and nuclear-powered submarines are too expensive for Taiwan.
As a result, Taiwan is forging ahead and building its own Indigenous Defense Submarines. Taiwan has never built subs before, and according to naval analyst H.I. Sutton, IDS are based on the submarines built in the Netherlands. The program is receiving unofficial assistance from Japan and will use Lockheed Martin-provided combat systems and weapons.
The new submarines will incorporate an X-shaped tail fin arrangement, which is reportedly useful in sitting closer to the bottom of ocean floor than a traditional cruciform-shaped tail, and is seen in neighbor (and former colonizer) Japan's current Soryu-class submarines. The submarines will also have a more modern sail and use banks of lithium-ion batteries to provide power while submerged.
Beijing has shut Taiwan out of the international submarine market for good reason: a fleet of modern Taiwanese submarines could do serious damage to an invasion fleet steaming from the mainland. Submarines are difficult to detect and can strike without warning, and if a submarine torpedoes a transport ship, it could potentially kill hundreds of invasion troops with just a single shot fired. Even worse, a stricken or sunken transport ship cannot make further crossings, shuttling reinforcements across the Taiwan Strait to complete a conquest of the island.
China knows Taiwanese subs are coming and is preparing. China has never hunted submarines in wartime before, and just last month completed an anti-submarine warfare exercise with Russia. If there is a conflict between China and Taiwan in the near future, the underwater battle will likely be fought with a ferocity—and danger to Chinese warships—unimaginable just a decade before.