Submarines: Taiwan’s Submarine Project Ahead of Schedule


July 2o, 2022: Taiwan’s IDS (Indigenous Defense Submarine) program is a year ahead of schedule according to a July 12 announcement by the government-controlled CAN (Central News Agency). The first (of eight) IDS subs will be in the water (launched) sometime in September and after nearly three years of fitting out and sea trials will enter service in 2025. The first sub of the class always takes longer, especially for a nation that has never built submarines before. At this point Taiwan believes they can have all eight of the IDS boats in service by the early 2030s.

While Taiwan sought to play down their IDS program, it was not a secret. In 2014 Taiwan announced that the United States had agreed to help Taiwan build its own submarines. In 2016 Taiwan’s CSBC (China Shipbuilding Corporation) established a submarine development center. In 2018 the U.S. government said it would approve American firms selling or licensing submarine technology to Taiwan. In 2019 Taiwan revealed a scale model of its IDS design, which is very similar to the twelve Japanese Soryu-class boats, the last of which entered service in 2019. Japanese firms are supplying Taiwan with design and construction assistance for the IDS. This may mean some or all of the IDS boats may be built with Japan’s Lithium-ion battery technology, which has been in safe use since 2020 and three Japanese subs with six more on order. The Japanese are the most proficient and advanced submarine builders in East Asia. South Korea also builds its own subs. These three nations all have to deal with the growing Chinese naval threat. Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia are also part of this coalition and most of them have modern diesel-electric submarines.

Later in 2019 Taiwan announced that the Keelung shipyard in northeast Taiwan would build the IDS. Tech personnel working on IDS were told to stay out of China, including Macau and Hong Kong to avoid Chinese efforts to arrest such travelers on fabricated charges in order to extract details of the IDS program. China frequently does this sort of thing when it has the opportunity.

In 2020 construction of the first IDS boat began in Keelung. Up until then the conventional wisdom in the West was that Taiwan was not supposed to be capable of this. Foreign journalists began wondering what was going on. Questions were asked and the response was either “no comment” or statements professing no knowledge of such a project. Investigations continued and with many journalists searching for information, details began to emerge. There were rumors that British companies were assisting Taiwan in secretly designing and building its own submarines. This led to a 2021 story from the Reuters news agency that detailed how Taiwan had, since 2014, managed to quietly enlist the help from seven foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, to quietly recruit foreign submarine design and construction experts. This enabled Taiwan to design their own diesel-electric submarine and quietly obtain the components, including major systems, from foreign suppliers. The secrecy was critical because since the 1980s China has threatened economic retaliation against any foreign country that supplied Taiwan with new subs or the components and expertise to build their own.

In 2001 the United States proposed building diesel-electric subs for Taiwan but discovered that it would take years to assemble a team of American specialists to revive a capability the United States had abandoned in the 1960s as it switched to an all-nuclear submarine force. The Americans tried to persuade allies, who did build and export diesel-electric subs to do the job, but was told that the threat of Chinese economic sanctions was too great a threat to local economies to risk it.

Taiwan sought other, less public ways to get this done. China did not see this as a real threat because they knew from their own experience that obtaining and using the knowledge was difficult and took time. Some Taiwanese politicians quietly pursued the idea. One of these politicians, Tsai Ing-Wen, was a professor of law and active in government affairs, especially trade issues. She became leader of a major party in 2000, and was the first woman elected president of Taiwan in 2016. She was reelected in 2020. Tsai came up with the idea of using stealth and good relations with many industrialized nations to organize what she publicly announced as the IDS (Indigenous Defense Submarine) program. In 2015, a year before she was elected president, Tsai spoke with Taiwanese submarine and naval experts about the possibility of Taiwan designing and building its own submarines. This is where the stealth submarine construction effort began. Tsai was elected in part because she had long urged that Taiwan upgrade its military and she pushed through several such projects once she was president. She was also on good terms with many foreign leaders and this enabled her to quietly obtain cooperation from foreign leaders for her submarine project.

By 2016 most Western nations, including local economic superpowers like Japan and South Korea, were more open in their defiance of Chinese economic threats and efforts to absorb foreign territory. This enabled Taiwan to assemble a team of foreign submarine experts to work with Taiwanese warship designers to come up with a detailed design for a Taiwanese sub. Taiwan then broke down the list of components needed so that many could be obtained without raising suspicions from China. Some major components were obtained from the United States, ostensibly for modernizing the two relatively modern diesel electric subs Taiwan had. China protested but the U.S. was largely immune to Chinese threats of economic or diplomatic retaliation.

In 2020, when news of Taiwan beginning construction of a diesel electric submarine became public, China dismissed it as propaganda because they knew nothing of the detailed preparations Taiwan had undertaken and saw the Taiwanese president as a troublesome woman who was in over her head. When the Reuters story appeared, the Chinese were surprised and could only repeat past threats of retaliation. These threats were either ignored or criticized by the potential victims.

At that point China realized that they had missed many public developments that were real and not propaganda. A decade ago, Taiwan already had a good idea of what was needed. A 2011 search effort did compile a lot of useful information on costs and the more reliable (resistant to Chinese threats) suppliers. It turned out that a lot of American manufacturers could produce components for diesel-electric subs even though most of their regular work is for nuclear boats. But aside from the nuclear propulsion, a sub is a sub and the Americans were willing to supply Taiwan with components. The only problem with the Americans was there being a government there that was willing to resist Chinese pressure to ignore submarine related orders from Taiwan. Since a new American (in 2016) government agreed to allow the export of sub components to Taiwan a growing number of modern shipbuilders quietly indicated that they were willing to participate, but discreetly so as not to bring down the wrath of the Chinese. That wrath had lost a lot of its intimidation effect in the previous decade as several industrialized nations were hit with Chinese trade sanctions and survived. As more of those futile Chinese trade sanction efforts occurred, potential victims had a more realistic idea of what these threats involved and each use by China convinced more nations in general that China was a threat to everyone who exported to or imported from China.

Alternative solutions were also investigated. Publicly, Taiwan said it wanted the subs for anti-submarine work. But it's been pointed out that there are cheaper and more effective anti-sub capabilities available via helicopters, aircraft, and UAVs. What was left unsaid was that the subs could also be used to shut down China's ports, crippling their economy and causing lots of domestic political problems for China's leaders. It's also possible to shut the ports without subs using air- dropped naval mines or just threatening to attack any merchant ship entering Chinese waters. But nothing does this sort of thing as effectively as a submarine, especially a very quiet diesel-electric sub.

From the beginning, Taiwan wanted eight new diesel-electric boats, preferably with AIP (air independent propulsion). This would drive the price up to nearly a billion dollars a boat. Japan later proposed a cheaper alternative they had been using since, lithium-ion batteries. More compact and powerful than the usual lead-acid batteries, the new batteries provided the benefits of AIP without the bulk and expense of conventional AIP.

Taiwan could use some cost saving tech because the Indigenous Defense Submarine program will cost about $16 billion, including the high development costs requiring quietly recruiting foreign experts and paying them well as they moved to Taiwan to help with the submarine design. Building the subs in Taiwan also makes it easier to receive help from other nations threatened by Chinese naval power. Japan and South Korea build world-class subs but declined to help because they would be hardest hit by Chinese sanctions and had already suffered several such attacks by China. Western nations had local suppliers willing to provide Taiwan with components and technical assistance once their own government let it be known that this was permitted if it was done quietly. The United States played a key role in persuading other Western nations to quietly help and this became easier once it became apparent that Taiwan could get away with building the subs locally.

While European firms still won't sell Taiwan submarines, they were less reluctant to quietly sell components, tech advice and training. The IDS effort still had to deal with possible resistance from the Taiwan legislature. Tsai took care of that by regularly conducting secret briefings for a small group of parliament members on the progress of the IDS. This included models of the most recent design and cost estimates. This kept parliament from becoming an obstacle to IDS. In 2018 it was revealed that the IDS plan would have the new subs entering service in the late 2020s, which was possible if Taiwan kept moving forward. The reality was that the IDS effort was much more advanced and construction of the first sub began in 2020, with launch in 2022 and entry into service by 2024 or 2025. Until the Reuters story this was all happening, and generating hardly any press activity. Mustn’t disturb the dragon (China) unless it becomes unavoidable.

China currently has 58 subs, twelve of them nuclear powered, Taiwan has four submarines. Two are World War II era American Guppy-class diesel-electric subs that entered service months before that war ended in August 1945. These two boats are used only for training and are increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. Despite that, the crews and trainees work hard to keep these museum pieces looking good and still operational. Recently Taiwan announced a $19 million effort to refurbish one of these World War II era subs so that it will remain in service until 2026. Since this sub entered service in mid-1945 as the USS Cutlass and in 1973 was given to Taiwan where it has served as the Hai Shih it will, with the latest refurb, become the submarine with the longest active career; 81 years if it lasts until 2026. One reason these relics were kept operational was to train the crews for the IDS subs. So now the oldest subs still in service are more useful than ever.

In 2018 Taiwan revealed that the U.S. had approved export licenses for major submarine systems. This includes CMS (combat management system), sonar systems, periscope systems and other offensive and defensive weapons systems. In mid-2017 the United States approved the export of 46 Mk 48 wire-guided torpedoes. These are the same ones used by all American subs. At the same time, it was announced that a Dutch firm had agreed to assist in the upgrade of the two Dutch built submarines Taiwan received in the late 1980s. It is believed that these two boats were to receive the new American CMS and perhaps some of the other U.S. made systems Taiwan was able to purchase from the Americans. Such systems were also used for the IDS boats.

At the time only a few people outside Taiwan knew that these admitted purchases were not about upgrading old subs but building new ones in Taiwan as part of Taiwan’s IDS program. This effort to build eight diesel-electric submarines locally meant they would have to use the only shipyard in Taiwan that could do it. Even so that yard had to first gain access to and begin receiving and stockpiling all the components needed. Shipyard workers had to be quietly trained and acquire new construction skills needed to build subs and install a lot of components that surface ships do not use. That happened while few people in Taiwan or elsewhere knew what was really going on in the shipyard. Taiwan is normally secretive about all local defense construction projects, including new warship construction, so this special training for building subs went unnoticed.

Meanwhile, there was a personnel problem; plummeting morale among the 200 sailors who operate the four subs Taiwan already has. Years of delays in obtaining new subs, and dim prospects of ever getting them, discouraged qualified young sailors from volunteering for the submarine service and many old hands were retiring as soon as they were eligible. As news spreads of the IDS boats being a reality, it will be easier to retain experienced submarine sailors and make it easier to find capable sailors to train for submarine duty for the expanded, by eight IDS boats, submarine force.

China is, as expected, determined to punish those seven nations that defined the Chinese prohibitions on arming Taiwan, especially with locally built submarines. The Taiwan IDS sub is embarrassing in other ways because Chinese diesel-electric subs are copies, often improved ones, of the Russian Kilo-class. The IDS is an original design that copies no existing sub that Taiwan already has or sought to import. The Chinese had warned the Dutch not to assist Taiwan in using the two 1970s era Dutch subs Taiwan received in the late 1980s as a model for a new sub. Taiwan respected the Dutch situation and borrowed nothing, except Taiwanese sailors who gained their submarine handling skills on the Dutch boats. They assured the seven nations that quietly helped Taiwan design the IDS that Taiwan would understand if some of those seven nations succumbed to Chinese threats and economic pressure. For that reason, the IDS identified multiple sources for most experts and components so that it would be more difficult for China to shut down production of the IDS boats. Taiwan admits it recruited engineers and retired submariners from the U.S., Britain, Australia, South Korea, India, Spain, and Canada but did not identify which of these countries, or any others, supplied components. America and Britain were the largest suppliers of components, especially major systems. The smaller nations that contributed tech see this undertaking as an effort to curb Chinese threats of economic retaliation as a political tool. All these nations have been on the receiving end of this bullying and have already been pushing back. The IDS is seen as another victory over China and the Chinese won’t admit that. This means the Chinese will not give this defeat a lot of publicity and will instead concentrate on h0w they will deal with this obstacle to conquering Taiwan.




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