FEATURE | Washington to assist with Taiwan submarine project

Photo: Republic of China Navy
Photo: Republic of China Navy

Taiwanese lobbying on Capitol Hill has notably increased in effectiveness under the Trump regime, and in early April, Washington announced that export licences will be granted to defence contractors for the provision of diesel electric attack submarine technology to Taiwan. Reports from the US indicate that two, as yet unidentified, contractors will be taking up the licences.

Taiwan’s Republic of China Navy (ROCN) currently operates four diesel-electric subs, namely two Dutch-built, 1980s vintage Sea Dragon boats (currently subject to a major upgrade programme), and two ex-US Navy World War II Guppy submarines.

In 1981, then President George W Bush committed the US to helping the Taiwanese to boost their submarine capabilities. This commitment was rapidly followed by rumours that new submarines would be built in America, but there have since been few signs of progress, reportedly due Washington’s wariness of Beijing’s extreme sensitivity over the issue.

In 2014, therefore, Taipei announced that the submarines would be built indigenously. It subsequently emerged that the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, would lead the project, in collaboration with leading shipbuilder, China Shipbuilding Corporation. Unconfirmed rumours persist, incidentally, that Taipei covertly acquired a modern diesel electric attack submarine design from a European source some years ago.

According to regional analysts, the intention is to build eight boats, all to be commissioned within the next decade, and Taiwan requires assistance with the following technologies:

  • Propulsion
  • Combat management system
  • Torpedo tubes (the US has already agreed to provide the ROCN with heavyweight Mk. 48 torpedoes)
  • Sonars
  • Non-surface penetrating periscopes

The surveillance, early warning, and attack capabilities of a modern and effective ROCN submarine fleet, operating in the Taiwan Strait, would constitute a major deterrent to a blockade or invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has therefore already protested volubly to Washington over prospective US/Taiwan co-operation over submarine construction, and its complaints are sure to grow louder as the project progresses.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.