Taiwan subs plan tests the waters

For Asia Times Online http://www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – To help speed up a long-awaited arms deal, Taiwan has decided to accept a United States proposal that Taipei buy four diesel-electric submarines instead of eight, according to local media. The story is difficult to believe as submarines are the last weapons system Beijing wants the Taiwanese to get their hands on.

Almost immediately after People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde ended his recent high-profile visit to the US, Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) government-leaning China Times carried a report according to which Washington proposed and Taipei accepted a watered down arms deal.

The transaction in question concerns the sale of eight conventional submarines to Taiwan, approved by then-US

president George W Bush in 2001. As the US stopped building diesel-electric subs decades ago, and European countries still producing them fear reprisals from Beijing, the deal has been in limbo pretty much ever since it was approved.

But now, at least according to the China Times, citing anonymous sources from within the Taiwanese military and ones in the US, the solution has been found, with Taipei settling for half the number. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) rejected the story while an insider Asia Times Online talked to senses a political feint, thought up by the Taiwanese government under pressure.

“The maximum Beijing would possibly tolerate is the sale of F-16C/D tactical fighter jets to Taipei, but submarines would be crossing the red line by far,” said Wang Jyh-perng, a reserve captain of the Taiwan Navy and associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies who was once involved in the Taiwanese navy’s submarine procurement planning. “As national defense is the weakest aspect of President Ma Ying-jeou’s performance, he possibly thought up the ‘four subs concept’ to test the waters, wanting to see how US, Taiwanese public, domestic opposition and even Beijing react.”

With presidential elections to be held in January 2012 approaching, opinion polls show Ma notoriously on par with his contender, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen. This is despite his Beijing-friendly cross-strait policy obviously having a very positive impact on the island’s economy.

Last year, gross domestic product grew by over 10%, and unemployment has just dropped to its lowest in 31 months. Ma’s major problem is the tedious topic of national sovereignty. Taiwanese across the specter are turned off by news that a rapidly growing number of international institutions label Taiwan as a province of China, and also by indicators, plentiful in recent months, that Ma is letting the island’s armed forces wither.

To cater to these public sentiments, Ma has been persistently requesting the US to go ahead with sales of F-16C/Ds as well as other items, desperate to present some breakthrough related to defense and sovereignty before the elections.

On the rumor front, apart from the sub story, it is whispered that Ma plans to delay payment for US weapons to make good on his 2008 campaign pledge to establish an all-volunteer military more capable than the current one made up of conscripts and also that intelligence gathering will soon be handled by the military itself instead the National Security Bureau (NSB).

It is confirmed, however, that the MND plans to spent US$400 million on 100 MK 48 torpedoes for the launch tubes of the very eight diesel-electric subs that have been sticking in the pipe.

In the past, the US defense industry as well as think tanks have indeed proposed that Taipei should make do with four subs instead of eight. Washington would find it easier assisting Taipei with the purchasing on the world market, and procurement costs would also see a handsome decrease, so the tenor of opinions expressed.

Yet building diesel-electric subs is not a small matter, and countries that have the expertise to do so are few. South Korea, certainly ahead of Taiwan in terms of mechanical engineering, had three brand-new boats out of service for much of 2010 because its engineers didn’t get some bolts right. Modern diesel-electric subs require very sophisticated sensors and combat systems, and their hulls have to be optimized to avoid flow noise.

Just as desirable are air independent propulsion (AIP) systems and fuel cells that enable the boats to stay underwater for up to two weeks, bringing the bill to up to US$1 billion for each vessel. One country with the expertise is Germany, which could look the other way if the US could get one of the handful of nations that recognize Taiwan’s statehood to buy submarines for re-transfer to Taiwan, or so goes one rather daring school of thought.

However, the question of why Berlin would believe that having four instead of eight German-build subs ending up under command of Taipei would make Beijing any less likely to punish German companies active in China – Siemens, ThyssenKrupp, Volkswagen and their likes – is left unanswered.

Beijing may react ferociously if it were hoodwinked in such a manner. “Beijing assesses that a sale of F-16C/Ds would only be of transitional significance in terms of cross-strait military balance. That’s a different matter with subs,” said Wang.

Wang explained that diesel-electric subs would be the first choice of weapon needed by the Taiwanese to conduct asymmetric warfare. In case of an outbreak of hostilities, the PLA would likely first gain control over the airspace and the seas and then attempt amphibious and airborne landings, bringing combat units and their hardware onto Taiwanese soil.

“After Taiwan has lost air and sea control, it’s the subs that will still be able to attack groups of amphibious landing craft,” said Wang.

By contrast, at that stage, Taiwan’s F-16C/Ds, if the island’s air force ever were to get some, would likely have a hard time taking off and landing as the island’s airstrips and highways were pot-holed by salvos of PLA missiles. Mediagenic drills recently carried out by the Taiwanese air force in which fighter jets took off and landed at a highway stretch were obviously meant to suggest otherwise.

Also supportive of Wang’s argument that Beijing would possibly still tolerate F-16C/Ds in Taiwanese hands but never subs is the prospect of the PLA commanding a fleet of stealth fighters. A prototype of the J-20 had its maiden flight in January, and once it is mass produced, Taiwan’s chances of maintaining air control in the event of war would likely be negligible, even with F-16C/Ds.

Michael Mazza, a senior research associate with the Foreign & Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, shed light on the timeline, making apparent that the prospect of F-16C/Ds becoming less relevant is one of the medium-term future.

“The J-20, if it turns out to be as capable as has been reported, will certainly be a superior aircraft to the F-16, but it will still be several years before China’s new fighter is operational”, Mazza said in an interview.

Conclusions about any deployment of the J-20 could possibly be drawn by looking at how long it took making other aircraft operational. “China’s indigenous J-10, a fourth-generation fighter like the F-16, took about five years to reach operational capability after its first test flight, while the US F-22 – to which the J-20 can be more properly compared – took eight years”, Mazza said.

As Taiwan faces a serious air threat from the mainland, the F-16C/Ds (which, according to Mazza, are comparable to anything the PLA Air Force at present flies) would help in countering that threat and addressing the growing cross-strait air power imbalance.

“Ideally, in addition to F-16 sales now, the United States will sell the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Taiwan later in the decade in order to avoid a continuing deterioration of the balance of air power,” he said.

That Beijing knows all too well what diesel-electric subs can do – namely, making an amphibious landing a very bloody undertaking for the PLA – is not the only reason why claims that Taiwan is about to get four subs seem so much hot air.

If Taiwan were to get subs, they could become an annoyance to Japanese and US armed forces in their daily routine. In January, Tokyo Shimbun reported that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s most prominent mission had become stepping up surveillance in waters labelled as the “TGT triangle”, a maritime area that covers Tokyo, Guam and Taiwan, to track intrusions of China’s submarine fleet, already consisting of not fewer than 65 vessels.

“What the US and Japan really aren’t short of is a few Taiwanese subs bobbing up and down there, making surveillance even more complicated,” a US defense expert told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

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