Taiwan’s Sept. 28 launch of a new indigenous conventionally powered submarine begins to correct a longstanding failure of leadership in Washington and Taipei.
During exercises on Sept. 11–15, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was able to deploy a record 70 ships to practice the execution of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intent to impose a naval blockade on Taiwan.
Had Washington succeeded with its 2001 plan to arm Taiwan with eight new conventional submarines, the threat of a CCP/PLA blockade of the island democracy would have been significantly deflated by Taiwan’s ability to deploy up to 228 submarine-launched torpedoes and cruise missiles on 10 submarines.
Since the 1990s, Taiwan has tried to obtain modern submarines to deter and combat Chinese naval coercion. Still, it only began to fulfill this longstanding requirement on Sept. 28, when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen led the launch ceremony for the first product of Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program, the Hai Kun class submarine SS-711.
This represents a political as well as a military victory for Taiwan, which has had to overcome decades of political pressures from China against countries that might have supplied submarines or submarine technology, domestic political infighting that delayed Taiwanese action, and a conflicted United States, which tried but failed to sell Taiwan much needed submarines in during the 2000s.
In 2001, President George W. Bush decided to sell Taiwan eight conventional submarines, overcoming the refusal of the previous Clinton administration and the opposition of the U.S. Navy.
The Bush administration had to overcome the opposition of the U.S. Navy, which was and remains deeply opposed to building non-nuclear powered submarines in the United States but ultimately could not overcome political infighting in Taipei, where the opposition Kuomintang Party balked at the high cost of submarines proposed to be based on a European design, but built in the United States.
Adding insult to injury, from 2004 to 2006, China took delivery of eight Russian Kilo 636M conventional submarines, then among the world’s most stealthy and well-armed with the sub-launched Novator Club family of anti-ship cruise missiles.
Despite this Chinese show of force, the following Obama administration did not revive and fulfill President Bush’s 2001 submarine commitment.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States began trying to convince Taiwan to purchase smaller, cheaper “asymmetric” military capabilities that did not include large, expensive weapons platforms like submarines and large fighter aircraft.
But by 2014, under the Kuomintang government of President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan decided to pursue its own IDS program, which gained real momentum in 2017 with adequate funding approval from newly elected President Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party.
It appears that the Hai Kun design has been significantly influenced by the Dutch Zvaardvis design, of which Taiwan purchased two in the mid-1980s. The Zvaardvis design itself had been influenced by the pioneering teardrop-shaped U.S. Navy Barbel conventional submarine design of the early 1960s.
But Taiwan had also cast a large net to seek submarine assistance, obtaining engineering consulting help from Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau and engineers from Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Spain, and Canada.
With the support of the Trump administration, Taiwan was also able to purchase submarine combat systems and submarine weapon systems from the United States.
Thought to displace 2,500 to 2,800 tons, with a length of about 70 meters, the Hai Kun only has a reported maximum diving capability of 400 meters, which is a modest performance given the great ocean depths on the east side of Taiwan.
Hai Kun does not use an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system that can extend the submerged patrol time up to 10–15 days without having to rise to vulnerable snorkel depth for recharging batteries.
Instead, the Hai Kun may use modern lithium-ion batteries, which enable the latest South Korean Hanwha KSS class submarines to remain submerged for six days before recharging.
This submerged endurance provides ample time to prosecute blockading PLA Navy submarines and surface warships.
Running on battery power also significantly decreases submarine radiated noise, which increases tactical combat performance.
It also uses a modern X-type stabilizer and incorporates large side-mounted flank sonar arrays to assist distant target detection.
Videos released by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense show the Hai Kun has eight torpedo tubes and uses a “hybrid double hull” design that dates back to the Barbel, which can help the submarine survive an attack.
The Hai Kun will initially be armed with Lockheed Mk 48 Mod 6 heavyweight torpedoes with 31–77 mile range Boeing Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles. If it matches the Hai Lung, it may carry up to 28 torpedoes and cruise missiles.
While its completion is a major political-military achievement for Taiwan, this submarine still requires many months of testing and refinement before it is combat-ready, and its early finish shows that its hydrodynamics around the sail can be much improved.
Over the next 10 years, Taiwan hopes to build eight Hai Kun class submarines that will likely incorporate spiral improvements, and the two Dutch-built Hai Lung class subs acquired in the mid-1980s may give Taiwan a fleet of 10 conventional submarines.
While policy pressures have only increased from Washington to force Taipei to emphasize cheaper “asymmetric” weapons, if Taiwan, the United States, and Japan are successful in deterring a Chinese attack, then Taiwan will also require increased “deterrent” capabilities later in this decade, such as modern submarines, long-range conventional attack missiles, and fifth generation combat aircraft.
The best way for Washington to ensure that Taipei can continue to deter a CCP blockade or invasion is to rapidly help Taiwan build up its asymmetric anti-invasion deterrent, while also helping the island nation build up its longer-range deterrent capabilities that can interdict PLA invasion forces.
Under the George W. Bush administration and before, it was believed that Washington’s main goal should be to ensure Taiwan had superior modern weapons—if it could not have numerical weapons superiority—to sustain deterrence of a Chinese attack.
But this policy priority has since eroded. The United States had a major chance to sustain a “technical” deterrence posture by selling Taiwan new submarines.
Washington’s failure to sell new submarines to Taipei, even to the point of convincing opponents in Taiwan, was a serious strategic mistake as that capability is now not available to deter a Chinese attack, which could occur in the near term, literally in months or in just a few years.