Amid Tensions With China, Taiwan Started Building Submarines

A mockup of Taiwanese submarine to be built by 2025. Source RoC Navy.

Taipei, Taiwan (GDC) – After years in the making, Taiwan on Tuesday officially began work on its first domestically produced submarine in an effort to beef up its coastal defences against an invasion from China, reports Taiwan Times.

Taiwan’s new programme will see the island build eight new diesel-powered attack submarines, which will substantially rejuvenate its fleet of two World War II-era vessels and two Dutch-made submarines built in the 1980s. The first submarine is expected to be completed by 2024.

It will be armed with MK-48 Mod 6 Advanced Technology heavyweight torpedoes, UGM-84L sub-launched Harpoon Block II missiles, and other combat and digital sonar systems provided by US suppliers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, Taiwanese naval officials said.

CSBC began work on a shipbuilding hall in Kaohsiung in May last year, which it said could accommodate three submarines at a time.

The vessel will have an X-shaped stern resembling Japan’s diesel-electric Soryu-class attack submarine, according to a model on display at the ceremony.

“According to the contract … construction of the prototype submarine will take 78 months … and delivery of the sub to the navy will be made by 2025,” said Cheng Wen-lon, chairman of Taiwanese firm CSBC Shipbuilding told GDC, during the ceremony in the southern city of Kaohsiung.

The submarines are the latest initiative by President Tsai Ing-wen to reorient the island’s defence policy towards preventing an invasion rather than focusing on the aftermath. Her administration’s military shopping list has reflected the change, including the purchase of missiles and drones from the US over traditional buys such as tanks and destroyers, said Michael Mazza, a visiting fellow in foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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“Taiwan needs to replace old equipment but at the same time, there’s recognition they cannot rely on those sorts of [weapons] platforms quite as heavily as they have in the past,” Mazza said. “They’ve been shifting to a more ‘asymmetric’ approach that focuses on things like survivability, a large numbers of munitions, mobility, and a focus on smaller survivable lethal platforms rather than F16s, tanks and destroyers.”

Submarines would play a critical role in deterring an amphibious landing by China’s People Liberation Army and also patrol the Taiwan Strait, a strategic 180km (90-mile) wide waterway that separates Taiwan from mainland Asia. Beijing’s Communist Party claims sovereignty over both.

A Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet flies next to a Chinese H-6 bomber [Taiwan’s defence ministry via AFP]

Taiwan has traditionally bought much of its weaponry abroad, particularly from the United States, but the decision to produce submarines at home was likely done with the approval of Washington. While the US does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, it is the democracy’s defence guarantor under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Shortly before the groundbreaking submarine programme, the Reuters news agency reported that Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, a “two-star Navy admiral overseeing US military intelligence in the Asia-Pacific region” had visited Taiwan.

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