Taiwan to unveil first locally built sub; US, half-dozen countries help with tech


Taiwan Dutch submarine Hai Lung class. (Taiwan National Defense Ministry)

SYDNEY — Taiwan plans to unveil its first conventionally powered submarine Thursday, with a second to follow by 2027, according to a recent briefing by the national security advisor to Taiwan’s president and head of the program.

The autonomous island’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, started what’s envisioned as an eight-boat program in 2016 to add to the two Dutch-built submarines bought in the 1980s and the two ancient ex-U.S. Navy Guppy-class boats built at the end of World War II.

“If we can build up this combat capacity, I don’t think we will lose a war,” Adm. Huang Shu-kuang, Tsai’s national security advisor, said at “an internal briefing on the project,” according to Reuters.

The first of the new boats will enter sea trials in October and should be formally delivered to the Taiwanese navy by the end of 2024. The sub is scheduled to be displayed for the first time at the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

“They’ve managed to do it. That’s the key takeaway,” Euan Graham, a China expert with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Breaking Defense, “and they did it against very strong political headwinds that apparently affected the supply of equipment. This is impressive.”

Building a sub, one of the highest technology ventures in which a military can engage, faced hurdles since so many countries do not have formal diplomatic relations with the island entity. Getting export permits — always a time-consuming challenge — was much more difficult than usual. Efforts by Taiwan to obtain subs from the US had foundered twice before, during the administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama.

Taiwan’s Huang noted that China’s massive trade leverage and often belligerent reaction to anyone helping Taiwan was always in the background. According to Reuters, he said that one foreign supplier had pulled out of the program after the work with Taiwan was disclosed to a Chinese embassy. He did not provide any details.

Huang mentioned the “great help” provided by a team led by an unnamed retired rear admiral of Britain’s Royal Navy, who Reuters said secured British export permits through a Gibraltar-based company.

“That’s the stuff of an airport pulp-fiction book,” Graham said.

Huang reportedly said at the briefing that the $1.54 billion boat uses Lockheed Martin’s combat system — also to be used in Australia’s Virginia- and AUKUS-class subs — and will be armed with the company’s MK-48 torpedoes. Seven countries reportedly have supplied technology for the Taiwanese boats, with much of it coming from the US, and likely the UK.

The Taiwanese sub program officially began in 2017 and is formally known as the Indigenous Defense Submarine Program. Its codename is Hai Chang, which means “Sea of Prosperity” in Chinese

“This was also the strategic concept of the U.S. military — to contain them within the first island chain and deny their access,” Huang said. “If Taiwan is taken, Japan will definitely not be safe, South Korea will definitely not be safe.”

The six new boats may add US anti-ship missiles to their arsenal, the admiral said, though he didn’t provide more details. He could be referring to Boeing’s Harpoon missiles, which are fired through a boat’s torpedo tubes. Taiwan already fields the Harpoon, and the US Navy awarded a $1.17 billion contract for Harpoon Block 2 missiles in April. The Block 2 can be deployed from air, sea and land platforms.

Whatever the make, Huang noted production for the missiles “capacity was already tight.”

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