Stealthy technology acquisition eludes China’s firewall but faces multiple technical and industrial challenges
https://asiatimes.com-by Andrew Salmon
Taiwan is adding a new deterrent to its fleet – modern attack submarines. In the photo, the US fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut in open seas. Photo: US Navy
SEOUL – Under a sea-fog of strategic ambiguity, Taiwan is building a home-grown fleet of submarines – a build-up involving multiple global players in an effort to bypass China’s de facto arms blockade, and one that poses multiple questions for regional strategists.
Will that hodgepodge of assistance be enough for the island to engineer working, high-spec submarines from scratch? Who is assisting Taiwan, and who is not? Could a similar low-key strategy be used to acquire other arms – or even synchronize Taiwan’s weapons with friendly countries’ systems?
And are submarines a credible game-changer in deterring a potential Chinese cross-strait invasion?
The program comes against a fraught political background in the region.
After ex-US president Donald Trump initiated his term-long push against China, President Xi Jinping responded in kind. While Trump is out of office and Joe Biden is in, cross-Pacific animosity has not slackened.
As this rising giant flexes its growing muscles, it is facing pushback from both the United States and its allies. Signs of this pushback are multiple.
Washington is promoting the semi-official Quad alliance and in September cut the ribbon on an Anglosphere alliance between Australia, the UK and the US, known as AUKUS. That plan is on a similar frequency to the Taiwanese in that it is submarine-based.
AUKUS aims to – eventually – provide Australia with nuclear submarine technologies that will grant Canberra the range to patrol extensively in Asian waters.
Meanwhile, right-wingers in US ally Japan – which has no defense pact with Taiwan, but which considers the island its key friend in the region, harkening back to the years when Taiwan was a Japanese colony – are increasingly agitating for some form of political or military support for Taiwan.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan a province of China under the “One China” policy, responded angrily to both AUKUS and toward the rising tide of provocative comments from Japanese hawks. It is unlikely to be delighted about the latest revelations on Taiwan’s underwater ambitions.
While the program has been known since 2017, more information has become public following the publication of an in-depth report sourced by a team of journalists citing sources in multiple nations.
Taipei dives under Beijing’s firewall
In a November 29 report, Silent Partners: T-Day the Battle for Taiwan, Reuters reported that Taipei was bypassing a firewall Beijing had attempted to place around it by sourcing components from at least seven nations in a low-key procurement program.
Political considerations almost certainly came into play regarding the program’s start date. Xi took office in 2013, while outspoken Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen and Trump both took office in 2016. The result has been raised tensions with Beijing.
Under the program, local shipyard CSBC will build eight current-generation submarines, with a price tag of US$16 billion.
The first vessel should be delivered by 2025, Reuters reported, though a subsequent report in the South China Morning Post, quoting a Taiwanese military official, said the program was ahead of schedule and Taipei’s navy would take delivery in 2024.
That would be an extraordinarily swift transition from drawing board to sea trials. Take the UK’s Dreadnought program, designed to replace its aging Trident submarine fleet. Approved in 2007, the first sub was due to enter service in 2024 – a date that has now been pushed back to “the early 2030s.”
While those nuclear missile submarines are more complex than Taiwan’s diesel-electric attack submarines, Taipei faces the additional difficulty of piecing its fleet together from a range of designers and equipment vendors. A source told Reuters that process was akin to a “jigsaw puzzle.”
Moreover, Taiwan’s navy is underequipped and inexperienced in underwater warfare.
In addition to two World War II-era training submarines, it has only two operational Swordfish-class boats, known in Taipei as Sea Dragons. The Swordfish were imported from the Netherlands in the early 1980s but use 1960s-generation technology. The new vessels should be a major upgrade.
The boats will be conventional rather than nuclear powered, which means that US yards that only build atomic-propelled submarines cannot supply. However, Reuters reported that Washington had released key component technologies for the project. The other parties involved, according to Reuters, were from Australia, Canada, India, South Korea and Spain.
Underwater David vs on-water Goliath
Assuming all the boats are successfully built with top-end specs, how serious are eight vessels as a deterrent against the world’s biggest surface fleet if the latter indeed carried out the nightmare scenario of an invasion of Taiwan?
The biggest submarine campaigns in World War II – the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic and the US submarine blockade of Japan and its Pacific territories – were both offensive campaigns. Both were aimed against supply lines, rather than combat fleets.
Of course, submarines certainly have application against men-of-war. In 1982, a British nuclear attack submarine sunk an Argentinian cruiser in the South Atlantic, and in 2010, a South Korean corvette was sunk in the Yellow Sea by what Seoul insists was a North Korean mini-submarine attack. Pyongyang denied responsibility.
The defensive use of submarines is fuzzier. According to the Reuters article, the submarines would pose a “deadly threat” to any cross-strait invasion fleet.
That is questionable. While submarines can destroy surface units, their use as a line of defense against a fleet is unprecedented. For example, German U-boats and mini-submarines failed in their attacks on Allied shipping during the amphibious invasion of Normandy.
Even so, the presence of submarine forces presents surface commanders with a problem, forcing them to commit brainpower and resources to defensive measures.
“Just having a submarine out there puts an unknown in the adversaries’ mind and restricts his freedom of movement to put surface ships into the area,” said a person familiar with naval warfare who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
According to the Reuters report, the vessels would not only be a deterrent against an invasion fleet, they would also be deployed in deeper waters off the island’s east in a defensive posture to keep open ports along the coast, thereby permitting resupply from overseas during a conflict, it said.
But another expert, who considers submarines “a very important” element of Taiwan’s defense, suggests that the island could find wider tactical uses for its submarines.
“China has shown it can use roll-on, roll-off vessels to carry armored brigades over the Strait, so submarines would be part of the response,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based independent security consultant and an expert on China’s defense capabilities.
“But submarines are eyes and ears too: They can be early-warning and intelligence-gathering platforms close to the Chinese coast, as periscopes can sniff out the signals environment.”
Sharks without teeth?
Neill did, however, raise questions over the shortfall Taipei faces in the key weapon of attack submarines.
“One question is whether Taiwan would build indigenous torpedoes or will buy off the shelf,” he said. “Lethal torpedoes are essential.”
That is a familiar problem for Taiwan. Its 1980s purchase of the two Dutch boats did not include the German-designed AEG SUT 264 wire-guided torpedoes usually used on that class of vessel. Instead, Taipei sourced an armory of those weapons from Indonesia.
But according to Forbes, the country is short of torpedo supply, and many of the Indonesian torpedoes are passing their sell-by date, leading to accuracy issues. Moreover, Taiwanese submariners may well be mulling a recent tragedy: In April, an Indonesian submarine sank, with the loss of all hands, after a torpedo accident.
According to Taipei media, Taiwan will be importing US-made Mark 48 Mod 6 Advanced Technology heavyweight torpedoes from Raytheon. Forbes reported that these are not scheduled to arrive before 2028, but Taipei has requested they be delivered two years earlier in 2026.
Neill also contradicted a belief current in some quarters that China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, lacks anti-submarine warfare, or ASW, assets.
“They have some pretty powerful ASW warfare capabilities aboard their new Type 55 destroyers,” he said, noting that China also deploys ASW patrol aircraft.
“They could be placing these planes on their bases in the [disputed] Spratly Islands,” Neill said. “There is a lot of talk about fighters, but they have already put AWACs [Airborne Warning & Control System] planes on the islands. They are honing those capabilities.”
In June, a flight by 28 Chinese aircraft off the Taiwanese coast mixed a fleet of fighters, bombers and an ASW plane.
Technical journal Popular Mechanics, reporting on the advent of the sub-design program in 2017, noted that the threat of Beijing’s economic retaliation has, in recent years, been successful at stopping sub-vendors from supplying vessels to Taiwan.
In 1984, the Dutch, who supplied Taiwan with its Swordfishes, agreed with China not to continue sales.
The US subsequently attempted to step in. In 2001-02, the George W Bush administration sought to sell submarines to Taiwan, but as it lacked diesel submarine technologies, it tried to outsource the project to Germany. Amid Gulf War tensions, Germany baulked, and that project sank out of sight.
Beijing’s pressure has not relented. A Chinese source who spoke to Reuters regarding its submarine report said the suppliers to Taipei “are playing with fire” and “could get burned themselves.”
But since Taiwan’s submarine ambitions resurfaced, tensions between China and the US-led powers have spiked. As a result, the thinking appears to be shifting inside the international community when it comes to the supply of components, design and consulting.
The US has not denied related technology transfers. Indeed, some appeared in plain sight in a January Congressional notice. Specialist media Naval News found that these “red zone” US technologies include combat system integration, digital sonar systems, optronic masts/periscopes, torpedoes, torpedo tubes and other combat equipment – and diesel engines.
Reuters found that the US had green-lighted the outsourcing of certain technologies and skillsets to the UK, its partner in NATO and AUKUS, to Taiwan. The report said the UK had enabled the exports of components and added that engineers who had been part of the Royal Navy’s submarine service were also involved, via a Gibraltar-based firm that also employed Israelis.
Israel, a key player in military high tech which operates advanced, German-built boats, has long had a low-key defense procurement relationship with Taiwan. The Gibraltar-based firm supplied design expertise to the Taiwanese shipyard for the submarine’s pressure hull and bulkheads – mission-critical components.
While this outpouring of international assistance may warm Taiwanese hearts, the potpourri of incoming solutions is likely to cause headaches at the coal face.
CSBC, which has its origins under Japanese colonial rule in 1937, is a formerly publically-owned shipyard. It makes offshore installations, merchant shipping and indigenous warships – including frigates, patrol vessels and missile boats – for Taiwan’s navy. But it has no specialized submarine expertise.
And while some key players in the sector are supplying, others are not.
Reuters found that a German contractor had pulled out of the project a year ago, without giving details or reasons. While nations including France, Russia and Japan also produce advanced diesel-attack submarines, Germany is a key player in propulsion, steerage and battery systems.
Asia Times has been unable to confirm that a German contractor was engaged. Nor has it discovered why it may have exited the project. But if true, the loss of a German vendor could prove particularly irksome, given German strengths in submarine technologies.
Berlin has always been cautious about submarine sales. As well as its non-compliance with US requests during the Bush years, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel had more recently taken a less severe stance against China than have US-led Anglosphere leaders.
And German submarine companies are touchy. It was reported in August that ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, considered a frontrunner in an Indian submarine project, decided not to bid – partly due to concerns about the high indigenous content percentages required by New Delhi.
Another key producer named as a supplier to the Taiwanese swiftly returned fire with a presidential-level denial.
South Korea maintains a robust defense industry and this year showcased home-grown ballistic missile-capable submarines. And its diesel-electric subs – licensed German designs – have AIP systems. But it is ever careful about irking its key trade partner, China.
A day after the Reuters report was published, an official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House told local media, in a question and answer session, that the report’s reference to South Korea as a supplier “isn’t true.”
However, the source added that authorities were looking into “illegal transfers of information to Taiwan at the individual level.” Radio silence has since descended. A spokesperson at the Blue House told Asia Times that there was no follow-up on the official’s comment.
Given these dramas, it is unsurprising that there are areas where sourcing remains opaque. Neill pointed to air-independent propulsion, or AIP, systems, used in stealthy conventional submarines. Those are not a strong point of either the UK or the US, whose navies sail nuclear boats.
Those types of systems are more the province of European and Japanese engineers. Reuters hinted strongly that Spanish engineers had worked in Taiwan, while Italy supplied technical expertise. Some reports state that Spain possesses AIP expertise.
Alternatively, the Taiwanese submarine may use advanced lithium-ion batteries, rather than an AIP system.
But for all its lack of submarine expertise, in one technological area, Taiwan leads the world: leading-edge semiconductors.
“They have a head start in terms of chip technologies for their onboard systems,” Neill said. “A good way of hybridizing Taiwanese capabilities would be in the sophisticated processors onboard ships with very sophisticated sonars – that plays to Taiwanese strengths.”
Sympathies and possibilities
The industrial difficulties Taipei is facing are almost certainly surmountable. North Korea, for example, not only possesses a credible submarine force, it is now developing the ne plus ultra of underwater weapons – submarine-launched ballistic missile capabilities – in defiance of a heavy international sanctions regime led by the US.
And despite jitters and political concerns among some vendor countries, there appear to be plentiful countries willing to assist Taiwan with – as one expert put it to Asia Times – “private players who are transferring [technologies] with sovereign support and a wink.”
“Taiwan isn’t really all that lonely,” a source on the island told Reuters. “Given all the export permits we managed to get, we know that many countries are helping.”
At a time when both Japan and the US are increasingly talking up Taiwan’s defense, and potentially seeking ways of pressuring China by upgrading defense integration with the island, Taiwan’s core chip technologies could, feasibly, be synched with those of their US and Japanese counterparts, particularly, if, as reported, the US is supplying advanced combat system suites.
“These could be linked into command-and-control nets ashore, and other platforms,” Neill said. “The US has its C&C assets networked with surface, sub-surface, air and space assets, and Taiwan’s processing capabilities could interface into the US and Japanese systems.”
On the issue of wider politics in the region, the source familiar with naval affairs was sympathetic to the Taiwanese cause.
“More and more nations are looking to take sides in this world as there is a feeling that the aggressive behavior by China is pushing it,” he told Asia Times.
“Australia, in 2017, was trying to walk a tightrope between its economic and strategic allies and politicians were doing everything they could, but China pushed it into a corner and did something it probably would not have done otherwise. I’d think other countries are feeling the same way.”
And Taiwan may find support beyond the Anglosphere powers and Japan. While the US applies diplomatic pressure on its allies to lean toward Taiwan, some multinational bodies are adopting US-style language.
The EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in Indo-Pacific report was released about the same time as the AUKUS alliance was unveiled. Regarding China, that report states: “The EU’s approach to the region is one of cooperation, not confrontation.”
Even so, Brussels’ report deploys language that sounds remarkably similar to that used by Washington.
“The EU will promote an open and rules-based regional security architecture, including secure sea lines of communication, capacity-building and enhanced naval presence by EU Member States in the Indo-Pacific,” it said.
The reference to sea lines of communication is commonly aimed at China’s activities in the South China Sea. US allies claim that Beijing’s occupation and weaponizing of disputed islands and reefs in the area threatens freedom of navigation.
However, these claims are not without their critics. Neill points out that trade-dependent China has no interest in interfering with the navigation of civil shipping. Beijing is, however, extremely sensitive to foreign warships near those islands and in the Taiwan Strait.
And earlier in the year, NATO released a statement that surprised some by naming China.
“China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance,” NATO said in a June communique. “We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance.”
Ambiguities and risks
Granted, the Reuters report is not an official press release from the Taipei government, and sources and officials in other countries remained relatively tight-lipped – but there were leaks.
This appears deliberate. The release of incomplete information obfuscates the issues of both weapon supply and potential tactical usage, presenting Beijing with analytical conundrums.
America’s Taiwan Relations Act limits the amount and type of weapons it can supply to only what is necessary “… to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
In this sense, opacity provides a useful cloak in quiet deals between Taipei and Washington, Neill suggested.
“Politicians in Taiwan are very ambiguous about Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, and there is a fine line between what is offensive and what is defensive,” he said. “The Pentagon has also been pretty ambiguous about Taiwan.”
But regardless of the technicalities of submarines and related strategic ambiguity, bigger questions hover over whether Taiwan can turn itself into a “prickly porcupine” that is simply too spiny for China to digest.
Can Taipei – deploying a range of defensive assets, of which submarines are only one component – make an invasion so costly in terms of lives and assets that Beijing will be forced to write it off as a strategy?
Opinion on that is divided. But the upgrading of defenses, paradoxically, holds its own risk. Misplaced belief in the efficacy of a defensive asset may embolden politicians to embark upon courses they otherwise would not, thereby stoking rather than diminshing instability.