Taiwan’s submarine mess deepens, new thinking needed

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A file photo of one of the two Hai Lung class submarines in service with the Taiwanese Navy. These subs are old and badly in need of a major overhaul. Meanwhile, new subs would cost billions and take a decade to deliver. Photo: National Defense Ministry of Taiwan

The United States made a “sort of” pledge to consider supplying submarine technology to Taiwan. Most likely, the US is thinking of helping Taiwan with a combat system, probably the one produced by Lockheed (AN/BYG-1 Combat System) that was also used in the Collins -class submarines built by Australia.

While a modern up-to-date combat system would be a positive development, there are other factors that pose serious problems for Taiwan’s underwater deterrent.

Currently, Taiwan only has two semi-functional submarines – Dutch submarines purchased from The Netherlands.  Called Zwaardvis-class (Swordfish), they are loosely based on a hull design of the American Barbel-class diesel-electric sub, a design that saw service from 1956 until 1990. Taiwan wanted more than two but was blocked by China, which even stopped Taiwan from buying retired Zwaardvis-class subs that were dumped in Malaysia and eventually sold for scrap.

The Dutch gave up on the Zwaardvis subs in the 1980s and adopted the Walrus-class, a more up-to-date design (1979 to 1992, four built) competitive with Italy’s Sauro-class and Germany’s Type 209 subs. The Walrus-class is used on NATO patrols and special missions.

The two Taiwanese submarines are badly in need of a complete top-to-bottom fore-and-aft overhaul, with less than five years left on their service life. They also are equipped with somewhat obsolete weapons and aging sensors and command and control systems.  These boats, while relatively quiet for the time they were built are likely substandard now and obsolete.

Taiwan has authorized a study of how to refurbish these two platforms. From what is known about the study, Taiwan will need at least a year to put in place the planning and industrial sources required to rebuild parts for these old hulls and locate and replace aged electronics and warfighting equipment. It will take at least another two years to carry out the work.

Realistically, each sub will be laid up four to five years which means that once the planning year passes, one of the submarines will be out of service for up to half a decade. Furthermore, with new systems and equipment and new maintenance operations, it will take a year or more of sea trials before the subs will be operational and fully integrated into Taiwan’s naval operations.

Timing very bad

While it is true that Taiwan has very little choice but to follow through with the modernization, the timing is extremely bad. China is rapidly building up its submarine fleet and enlarging its Navy – a second aircraft carrier is already in initial sea trials and its latest diesel-electric submarine, the Type 039 has extremely quiet MTU engines from Germany but also has Air Independent Propulsion, seriously extending its range and time on station.

Worse still for Taiwan and also a danger to Japan and the US, the Type 039A is a cruise missile platform.

Taiwan is planning to build new diesel-electric submarines, but progress on that is minimal to non-existent. The country lacks just about everything to make that happen: it does not have the special metals needed for the hull; it does not have its own optimized combat system; it does not manufacture torpedoes and it does not have ultra-quiet diesel engines like the German MTU engines supplied to China. It is unlikely that Germany will sell to Taiwan, although it has had no hesitation in supplying China, mostly because such sales are an enabler for other deals Germany wants. By the way, the US does not have ultra-quiet diesel engines that it might sell to Taiwan because the United States does not build or support any diesel-electric platforms, opting exclusively for nuclear-powered submarines. China and Russia, on the other hand, produce both diesel-electric and nuclear subs.

It is important to note that the key advantage of nuclear is duty cycle. From the point of view of stealth, diesel electrics are just as good, maybe even better in some scenarios (nuclear reactors have to draw in tons of water for cooling, which generates noise) and the reactors cannot be shut down).

Taiwan chasing overly ambitious goals

A new submarine, if it is achievable, is minimally a 10-year project even with outside help. The design itself will take years to refine and different parts of the onboard systems will have to be tested for efficacy and reliability. Taiwan is looking at a multi-billion-dollar project without any assurance of success and with a timeframe that is, for all intents and purposes, too long to be of much help for Taiwan’s security.

This leaves Taiwan with a considerable dilemma. And, it appears one that is not properly appreciated by key decision-makers in that country who are plodding on, chasing unrealistic and overly ambitious goals, and lack the industrial infrastructure and external supply networks needed for success. The chances of failure are so high that responsible leaders really need some alternatives.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to get new thinking even where the need is compelling. Taiwan would be wise to consider a range of alternative approaches so that it can preserve at least some of the operational value and qualities of a stealthy underwater submarine fleet.

Among the ideas are to build smaller submarines, both manned and unmanned that can do part of the job of larger submarines. While they are range limited, they can operate stealthily, can be powered purely by batteries and therefore don’t need diesel power-plants, can be charged on the seafloor, can be networked, can be manned or robotic, can exploit new technologies such as artificial intelligence, and can benefit from commercial technology developed for non-underwater applications.

Another alternative is to “carry” the robotic or even manned small submarines on the outside of the Zwaardvis hulls. Then they would have the range needed and could be very effective as a force multiplier for the Zwaardvis platforms. Zwaardvis can keep them fully charged and if they return to the mother sub they could also be rearmed.

Investing in alternative technologies is far less costly than big submarines, can exploit an infrastructure that already is partly there, and provides an opportunity for innovation and brainstorming solutions that can be game-changing.

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