Taiwan’s Submarine Program: Lessons from the Past and Expected Challenges

The winner of the 2016 presidential election will have the unenviable responsibility of pushing Taiwan’s nascent indigenous submarine program forward
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Michal Thim

During the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K., all but one ship of the Argentinian navy retreated to port after the controversial sinking of the General Belgramo light cruiser on May 2, 1982. That ship was the San Luis, a diesel-electric submarine (SSK) from the very successful German-made Type 209 class. Between May 1 and May 10, the San Luis fired torpedoes at the expeditionary fleet three times without success. However, the Royal Navy fleet was equally unable to find, force to the surface or sink the San Luis despite nearly depleting its inventory of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons. In the end, the San Luis was a mere side-story of the Falklands War. Nevertheless, the Exocet anti-ship missiles clearly demonstrated the danger that modern sea-skimming supersonic anti-ship missiles present to surface warships (out of a total five of airborne Exocets fired, three hit their target, sinking the HMS Sheffield and SS Atlantic Conveyor), and the San Luis showed how daunting a task it can be to find and destroy a modern submarine.

Taiwan can hardly afford the luxury of not having a navy strong enough to protect her maritime interests, including securing open access to sea lines of communication (SLOC) and surrounding waters as a first line of defense against a potential aggressor. In this respect, Taiwan’s navy (ROCN) would wield respectable power if its only real challenger were not the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

One area where the ROCN lags particularly behind is its submarine fleet. Two submarines out of Taiwan’s total of four are more historical curiosity than combat platform. Two World War II-era Trench-class (Guppy II modification) submarines are in all likelihood the world’s oldest serving subs and hardly a challenge to the PLAN surface fleet. This leaves only two combat-capable submarines, the Dutch Zwaardvis/Hai Lung-class, which were built and delivered in the 1980s. Both subs are harder nuts to crack than the Guppys as they were gradually upgraded and given the capability to fire anti-ship missiles from torpedo tubes.

Taiwan has tried to acquire additional submarines, but in 2014, after long decades of fruitless efforts, it finally decided to solve its submarine problem via domestic production. For a nation with no submarine-building experience, that is a bold step, and arguably one made out of desperation.

Why does Taiwan want more submarines?

The answer should be self-evident, but it gets more complicated as the details come in. The experience from Falklands suggests one example of why Taiwan’s military find the prospect of expanding its submarine fleet so tempting. Submarines are excellent asymmetrical platforms that punch well above their weight. If one diesel-electric submarine managed to fire three times at British surface fleet and still escape punishment, we can easily imagine what a fleet of eight, hiding in the waters of the Taiwan Strait with all the background noise that comes from littoral seabed, could accomplish. The conditions in the Taiwan Strait offer a natural shelter for Taiwanese submarines as long as their crews are familiar with the area. In this regard, the ROCN would benefit from an extensive network of sensors in combination with decades-long mapping of the undersea terrain in the Strait.

Diesel-electric subs, unlike their nuclear-powered counterparts, may need to trade their stealth for speed, but in itself that does not pose a fundamental impediment for Taiwan. Taiwanese submarines would not need to traverse long distances to reach the battlefield; their ports are right next to it. Another useful lesson from the Falklands comes from British utilization of submarines. The loss of the General Belgramo was caused by the nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror, one of three British subs deployed to the area between the commencement of hostilities and the middle of May, when three other submarines joined the fleet. Consequently, the Argentinian navy, including its singe aircraft carrier, retreated to port and stayed there until the war was over.

This is not to argue that the PLAN would be equally afraid of Taiwanese submarines. For one, Chinese ASW would fare much better than the Argentina’s basically nonexistent ASW capabilities in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the mere presence of submarines in the enemy camp inevitably alters the conduct of wartime operations. Lyle Goldstein of the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC) quotes in an article (p. 73, paywalled) from China’s Falklands lessons piece published in the major PLAN journal Modern Navy (當代海軍):

The undersea battle of the Falklands War warns us that modern antisubmarine warfare is still the most difficult and most challenging of deadly games – even a small force of submarines can compel surface warships to be constantly on the run.

In 1982, the Royal Navy (RN) was not considered unskilled in ASW warfare. On the contrary, the RN was primarily tasked with hunting Soviet submarines as part of its commitment to NATO defense. Yet despite its focus on ASW, it did not fare very well, as James Holmes (also at the USNWC) notes in The Diplomat:

For their part, Royal Navy anti-submarine crews were unable to reliably classify sonar or magnetic contacts, so they “classified targets with ordnance.” That’s a fancy way of saying they dropped anti-submarine munitions on anything with a signature remotely resembling that of an Argentine boat. This ham-fisted approach had a perverse strategic effect: it virtually exhausted the Royal Navy’s war stock of antisubmarine weaponry at a time of surging tension in the Cold War.

Taiwanese defenders can make Chinese ASW operations even more arduous by using unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) as decoys (and in many other roles, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Compared to 1982, Taiwan’s submariners have greater operational flexibility in the combination of torpedoes and anti-ship missiles at their disposal. The U.S. standard Mk. 48 torpedo has an effective range of between 40 and 50km depending on its speed, which can reach over 100kph. The UGM-84L Harpoon Block II subsonic anti-ship missile, designed to be fired from the same torpedo tubes as the Mk. 48, has an effective range of 124km. The Harpoon offers relative safety for a less efficient warhead, which is not a bad tradeoff considering that simply damaging a warship may be enough to remove it from combat. Depending on design requirements, submarines can also be equipped with the latest generation of mines, which enhances their role in anti-amphibious landing operations.

That being said, submarines have a role to play outside the ultimate task of preventing the takeover of Taiwan by China. Should Beijing prefer to impose a maritime blockade instead of a full-scale invasion, Taiwan’s submarine forces would play a crucial role in countering the blockade. Although the benefits of having a greater number of submarines also depend on the doctrine developed for their deployment, subs have inherent value as standalone platforms and as a part of an asymmetrical response to China’s growing military might.

How can Taiwan get its submarines?

First of all, Taiwan’s shipbuilders have demonstrated their competence in addressing the needs of the ROCN with a range of warships, from the nimble Kuang Hua VI fast-attack missile boats, the Tuo Jiang missile corvettes, licensed production of Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and production of the largest ship in the ROCN, the 22,000-tonne Panshih combat support ship. However, a submarine program takes the challenge for the domestic sector up to a completely new level, especially in terms of hull and propulsion design. Taiwan’s problems with building submarines are not unlike China’s ambition to build aircraft carriers. Both are latecomers to their respective game, and both are pushing forward a project they have no experience with.

Mark Stokes, executive director of the U.S.-based Project 2049 think tank, is confident that Taiwan’s industry is up to the challenge, but maintains that foreign assistance is essential:

It is perfectly feasible for Taiwan to build submarines, but the real question is: How sophisticated a submarine can Taiwan build? How sophisticated depends on the degree of foreign assistance.

Indeed, Taiwan isn’t just building any submarine; it needs to build submarines that will be competitive against the best of what the PLAN has (or will have) in its inventory, both in terms of engaging the enemy as well as evading ASW counter-measures. The industrial base should be up to the challenge; the know-how part is where Taiwan lacks resources. In other words, Taiwan needs to hire submarine experts from abroad and potentially groom its own human resources. This relates closely to the future of the program after the submarines are built and delivered. What is the 20, 30, or 40-year perspective? Is the current ambition to build submarines as part of a one-time effort, or is there the intention to sustain the capability? How could other defense projects benefit from the submarine program?

These are questions that will require answers sooner rather than later. If the current project is a one-time effort, then the investment in indigenous expertize is not that crucial beyond keeping qualified personnel for maintenance and repairs. Ideally, Taiwan would seek to establish itself as a submarine builder for decades to come. But that needs a firm commitment to keep the human resources within the defense sector. A potential game-changer would be Japan agreeing to sell its highly regarded Soryu-class submarines or jointly build them in Taiwan. It is a compelling option, especially when considering that the price tag for a Soryu-class vessel is $500 million per hull, significantly lower than what the domestic development and production would cost. Japan lifted its arms export restrictions last year and is currently bidding to build a new generation submarines for the Australian navy. However, favorable conditions notwithstanding, a sale by Japan is just a hypothetical option at this point.

Despite the challenges for domestic shipbuilders, Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program will succeed, provided it receives sufficient political and budgetary support. So far, the former does not seem to be a major issue. Both major parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), support the program. However, we should not expect the “submarine honeymoon” to last forever, and problems will likely quickly materialize. Cost overruns and correction of design flaws resulting in delays during different stages of construction and sea trials can be expected.

In addition to problems stemming from a project of such a scale and complexity, there is also a danger of costs caused by contractors and subcontractors, intentionally or otherwise. The recent scandal involving the company of the father-in-law of KMT Chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu may serve as one of many examples when contract is awarded under suspicious conditions to a contractor that has no experience with a given weapons system. Should this become a problem with the submarine program, the tide of broad political support could quickly turn against it.

When the new president takes office in May next year, the submarine program will be one among many urgent defense-related issues. The unfinished transformation to an all-voluntary service, the future direction of the three services, and the strengthening of information and electronic warfare capabilities are just some of the issues on the 2016-2020 defense agenda. There is little doubt that a larger submarine force would greatly contribute to Taiwan’s defense capabilities. However, mismanaging this major endeavor would not only threaten the program itself but could spill over and weaken Taiwan’s entire defense posture. Getting it right is therefore of the essence.


Michal Thim is a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, currently working toward postgraduate research degree in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham. Michal owns the blog Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim.

One Response to “Taiwan’s Submarine Program: Lessons from the Past and Expected Challenges”

March 20, 2016 at 2:44 pm, Harvinder said:

Wish them the best picking a doable design and move forward with it.


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