On April 2 the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense issued a rather unusual press release, in response to an article published in an online publication. The article asked whether the Taiwanese were receiving help from North Korea in designing and building their new class of attack submarines.
The response from the Taiwanese was strong. They used the term “fake news” a couple of times, and spell out that they “did not, do not and will not” have dealings with North Korea on this issue.
What’s odd about the whole situation is that firstly, the original article was first published in 2019, itself stimulated by speculation in the Taiwanese press on the subject. Why it has suddenly become an issue now isn’t explained.
The second is that such a teaming would be highly unusual considering North Korea’s dependence on China and Taiwan’s on the United States. What IS interesting is the language used by the Taiwanese:
“…only cooperate with actors from Europe and the US.”
The Taiwanese have been desperate to acquire new submarines for decades now. Currently, their navy operates a total of four, though only two can be considered likely to be fully combat worthy.
The Hai Lung and Hia Hu were first commissioned in 1987 and ’88 respectively and represent arguably the most powerful naval assets the Taiwanese have against a possible invasion from the People’s Republic of China. Built by the Netherlands and based on the Zwaardvis-class, these are capable boats that have been upgraded to remain formidable, including reportedly the ability to launch sub-harpoon missiles.
However, they are pushing forty, which is getting on for a front-line submarine.
The other two submarines operated by Taiwan are Hai Shih and the Hai Pao. These are Tench-class submarines that first saw service with the United States Navy. In 1945 and ’46!
These subs are seventy-five years old – and they are still in service! The Hai Shih, formerly the USS Cutlass, technically saw military service against Japan.
There is a great deal of speculation as to whether they are actually combat worthy, and they are officially listed as training boats, but it seems likely that should the worst come to the worst and China attempts to invade, the old subs would sail out to fight.
After all, submarines still represent the most formidable conventional sea denial weapon around, especially against an invasion force that would be operating in a limited operational corridor – as the Chinese navy would be. The Chinese certainly appreciate that.
The reason for Taiwan’s difficulties in acquiring new submarines is because the People’s Republic has waged a successful diplomatic and commercial campaign to stop anyone building them. China, after all, still considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province of their country, and they have leveraged their growing economic might to threaten and punish anyone who seeks to supply Taiwan with high end weaponry.
In 1992 the Dutch pulled out of deal to build four additional submarines after the Chinese put pressure on them and as a result Taiwan has been a “no go” for the world’s submarine manufacturers.
The United States has been talking about helping Taiwan acquire submarines since 2001, when George W. Bush gave a commitment to build eight for the Taiwanese navy. Problem was, the US hasn’t built diesel-electric subs for decades – concentrating exclusively on nuclear designs – and so would have to licence a design from another, likely European, builder. But with fear of Chinese sanctions, there were no takers.
This situation continued until 2014 at which point the Taiwanese gave up on foreign-built submarines and initiated their own development program – the Indigenous Defense Submarine, or IDS for short.
It was here that the allegations of working with the North Koreans started popping up. After all, Taiwan has no experience in building submarines, whereas North Korea has a reasonably successful homegrown development program. In reality it seems that the Taiwanese have been making steady progress largely by themselves, developing as many elements of their own design as they can and building suitable construction facilities.
In November 2020, the Taiwanese President announced that construction was starting on a prototype IDS that was intended to be the first of a class of eight attack submarines, with delivery of the first being made to the ROC Navy in 2025.
The new submarines look, on the very basic information available, to be extremely capable. The United States has already approved the export of a number of key technologies such as sonar, periscopes and weapon systems to Taiwan for use in the new subs. They will apparently be equipped with Mk-48 Mod.6 torpedoes and Harpoon Block II missiles, and be powered by a diesel-lithium battery propulsion.
Once they get into service, they have the potential to radically change the naval balance in the Taiwan Strait, which has been swinging towards China due to that country’s massive naval building program. But the Taiwanese still have issues in acquiring certain components necessary that neither they nor the United States build. Here we come to another interesting part of the Taiwanese statement:
“…actors in Europe…”
With European manufacturers being world class in the construction of conventional submarines, their input, expertise and technology exports would be invaluable in building the new boats. But they have, as already pointed out, always refused to risk angering China.
Apparently, some retired experts from European builders have found employment on the IDS project, but the general reading of the Taiwanese statement is that this is them announcing that there is much broader and effectively official cooperation.
Of course, there is some conjecture in this, and the fact that the Taiwanese might just be saying it to infuriate the Chinese. But considering that more European nations are starting to make at least notional stances against Chinese behaviour in the Pacific, especially after the crackdown in Hong Kong and the disturbing allegations coming out of Xinjiang, further defence cooperation is a real possibility.
For example, the United States routinely conducts Freedom of Navigation sailings through areas of the South China Seas that China claims as their territory, but which is unrecognised by the international community. Both Britain and France have conducted similar sailings, but now Germany has stated it intends to conduct similar patrols in the future. These are generally met extremely negatively by China, but now it seems that that situation may be changing.
While no specific company or country has been singled out in terms of assisting with the IDS project, it now seems that European countries are less concerned by potential Chinese sanctions and more concerned about potential Chinese actions.