To score against his domestic political opponents, gain leverage in negotiations with Beijing, and assure Washington that his country remains committed to defending itself, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou presents himself as a commander-in-chief who insists on a military with the highest standards.
Yet despite the appeal Ma’s style has to the general audience, a glimpse behind the scenes of Taiwan military affairs sometimes reveals neglect that on the daily basis puts Taiwanese
servicemen and women’s lives at risk. Arguably the most hair-raising examples of this are the island’s two Guppy-class submarines.
Built in the World-War-II era, they are the oldest serving submarines of any navy on the planet, and unsurprisingly, they are beginning to fall apart. While Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) government wastes its breath by persistently requesting the fanciest weapons the US has on offer, the clock ticks. The more often the age-old Guppies leave their port, the likelier is the day they will become steel coffins for their crews. Their deaths – or indeed even more so their rescue – could then well bring about weighty repercussions for Taiwan’s political fate. ell bring about weighty repercussions for Taiwan’s political fate.
While China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has roughly 60 submarines under its command, Taiwan’s navy has four. Although the administration of former US president George W. Bush in 2001 announced an arms-sales package that included eight boats, procurement has proved difficult as the US ceased building diesel subs in the 1950s, and the remaining manufacturing countries have little interest in putting their lucrative relations with Beijing into jeopardy for coming to Taiwan’s aid.
The US at one stage offered to arrange the procurement of fairly priced vessels decommissioned by the Italian Navy, but Taiwan somewhat stubbornly insisted on new ones. Moreover, a program to locally build submarines has so far been unable to get the support of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND). But nonetheless, what has been by far the biggest factor keeping Taiwan from obtaining decent submarines is a lack of consensus among the island’s notoriously feuding political parties. And while those bicker, the state of the subs the Taiwan Navy operates has become severe.
Two of the Taiwanese subs are Dutch-built, modified Zwaardvis-class attack submarines, each accounting for 25 years of service. The other two boats are US-built Guppies, the oldest operational submarines in the world. Just how spine-chillingly antiquated these subs are is illustrated by the story of their development. The US Navy obtained the Guppy technology by testing and reverse engineering captured Nazi U-boats. This is the state of technology that Taiwan still sends to plough the seas in 2010.
Neither the Sea Lion nor the Seal – as the Taiwanese Guppies are named – are equipped with torpedoes, as the boats are used exclusively for training. During naval exercises, the Guppies are assigned to simulate PLAN subs, allowing surface ships to practice anti-submarine warfare (ASW) techniques. After an overhaul in the early 1960s, the boats could dive to 125 meters, yet by the late 1990s, a commander wouldn’t have dared to exceed a depth of 60 meters. Now, because of the growing fear of accidents, the Guppies stay on the ocean’s surface as much as they can.
So must Taiwan’s navy really resort to submarines of such a biblical age for its ASW drills? Apparently, it must.
“A simulator can be used as an alternative. But training in a real environment is also necessary”, says Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military-affairs expert at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.
It is hard to imagine how sailors who grew up with mobile phones and game consoles would feel in a submarine welded together in the 1940s. However, Wang Jhy-perng, a military analyst with the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies and a former officer on Taiwanese submarines, can tell a thing or two about it.
Out of his nine years on board Taiwanese subs, Wang served as an officer for about a year each on the Guppy-class Sea Lion andSeal. In an interview with Asia Times Online, he recalls that although the crew members always did their best to keep the Guppies neat and clean, the conditions on the boats were light years from those of modern subs. Wang describes the mechanical noise at any given time in the vessels as deafening, but what was all but unbearable was the air quality. “Needless to say it is loud, but the lack of air purification systems was simply outrageous”, Wang says.
On a more upbeat note, Wang tells of the usual reaction of visiting active-duty personnel of the US Navy. “The Americans were very keen on taking a Guppy out to the sea because they could only see these old vessels in their favorite Hollywood movies.” Reportedly, veteran US navy sailors who once served upon the two Guppies have long been trying to persuade Taiwan to return the submarines to the US for display in a museum.
Apart from these anecdotes, however, to the submarine crews, the daily routine is rather grim, and this not only because the average monthly salary of those on board is as low as US$1,100. “As the Taiwanese subs are constantly involved in drills, they often spend as much as 27 days per month at sea”, Wang laments. “This brings about a lot of physical and mental stress for the sailors.”
Every time the two Guppies leave Kaohsiung’s Tsuoying naval base, which is their mother port and the Taiwan’s naval headquarters, both Naval Command and Fleet Command bite their nails as the crew of 80 – in addition to 20-odd sailors who are normally on board for training – take on significant risks. For someone like Wang who has served on the vessels, it is just too easy to imagine how accidents could come about. He describes the scene as vividly as if he has lived it in nightmares. “On a dive, the crew could notice the vessel gaining depth faster than it should. As soon as one of the old welding seams cracks open due to outside pressure, sea water rushes in like a sword.”
Wang further expounds that by the time the vessel reaches a depth of 20 meters, it could well tilt, and the mobility of its control fins could become suppressed. In theory, the crew could close off the compartment where the leak occurred, as the boat is divided into nine of them. But after decades of service, the Guppies’ hulls have become fragile and are covered with multiple deformations, so this could prove a difficult task in an emergency.
“Then, the communication systems would fail, and all the crew could do is grab metal tools to bang on the hull,” Wang adds.
The peacetime death of a crew of a hundred healthy young men will have a deep impact on any nation – on the military, the political landscape and society as a whole. Psychologically, a submarine accident affects a people more than the crash of an airplane because the thought of having so many die a slow, grisly and – seemingly until the last minute – still avoidable death on the ocean floor while their families pray at the pier is hard to bear, even to those who are not related to the victims.
If one day Tsuoying naval base was to lose contact with a Guppy, the navy command would almost immediately turn to the US for help. However, the US Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) and Submarine Rescue Chambers (SRC) are likely to be located at San Diego, California, a long way from the waters off Taiwan. “A C-5 transport aircraft could fly the DSRV; that would take at least 50 hours”, estimates Wang. “The support ship, however, would likely need 11 days to make it”.
By that time, Wang says, domestic and international TV crews would have long set up station at Tsuoying. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman would have held a press conference in far away Beijing, offering the dispatch of two PLAN submarine-rescue ships, which could be on the scene shortly after what China calls “their Taiwanese compatriots” requested help.
When the island’s TV screens are bombarded by news coverage with computer-generated animations depicting the men on Taiwan’s Guppies banging the hull in two hundred meters of water, and footage showing their wives and children weeping in despair on the shore, the question of how President Ma could politically afford to refuse Beijing’s offer would be a rhetorical one. So would the question of whether a rescue by the PLAN would have a significant impact on how the Taiwanese see the KMT’s Beijing-friendly policies.