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Taiwan’s submarine breakthrough corrects Washington’s strategic mistake

Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen led the launch ceremonies of Taiwan’s first Hai Kun class indigenous submarine, SS-711, potentially the first of eight, that will significantly strengthen Taiwan’s deterrence of blockade or invasion from China.
FPI / October 4, 2023


By Richard Fisher

Since the late 1950s non-Communist Taiwan has always been vulnerable to naval attack or blockade from much larger Communist China, which is now a major existential threat. How so?

China now has the world’s largest navy and since August 2022 has regularly been building up naval blockade exercises around Taiwan.

Beginning in the 1990s Taiwan tried mightily to obtain modern submarines to deter and combat Chinese naval coercion but only started to fulfill this longstanding requirement on Sept. 28, when 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, and a conflicted United States, that 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.

But politics in Washington, in addition to Chinese opposition and the continued opposition of the U.S. Navy, which is massively opposed to building non-nuclear-powered submarines in the United States, combined to prevent Bush from fulfilling his 2001 commitment.

Adding insult to injury, from 2004 to 2006 China took delivery of eight Russian Kilo 636 class conventional submarines, then among the world’s most capable and well-armed with the sub-launched Novator Club family of cruise missiles.

Despite this Chinese show of force, the following Obama Administration did not revive and fulfill Bush’s 2001 submarine commitment.

Under Obama, U.S. policy pressures began to favor Taiwan obtaining 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 Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan decided to pursue its own Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program, which then in 2017 gained the necessary funding needed for completion under President Tsai.

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, which in turn was influenced by the pioneering teardrop shaped U.S. Barbel design of the early 1960s.

In addition, Taiwan also obtained engineering consulting help from Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau and from engineers from Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Spain and Canada, and with the support of the Trump Administration, purchased submarine combat systems (Lockheed Martin and Raytheon) and submarine weapon systems from the United States.

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