Taiwan has made an important move toward modernizing its submarine force, with the launch of the country’s first domestically-made submarine. The advanced diesel-electric design is part of a program that seeks to eventually field eight new boats for a much-needed overhaul of Taiwan’s aging submarine force, one that will still be vastly outnumbered by China’s fast-growing underwater armada.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing Wen presided over the launch ceremony for the Hai Kun (SS-711) in the southern port city of Kaohsiung today. The name Hai Kun has been said to describe a mythical giant flying fish, popular in Chinese literature, but also has been translated into English as ‘Narwhal’.
“History will forever remember this day,” Ms. Tsai said during the ceremony. “In the past, a domestically made submarine was considered impossible, but today a submarine designed and built by our countrymen is in front of you,” she added. “It is the concrete realization of our resolution to protect [Taiwan].”
Reportedly coming with a price tag of $1.54 billion, the new submarine was built by Taiwan’s China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC Corp.).
According to reports from Taiwan, the new submarine is around 260 feet long and has a displacement of between 2,460 and 2,950 tons. Although unconfirmed, the Hai Kun is thought to feature some form of air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, which should greatly increase the time it can stay submerged and make it harder to detect. Otherwise, the appearance of the new submarine is immediately reminiscent of the Dutch-built Hai Lung class boats that Taiwan already operates.
It has also been suggested, by some observers, that the overall quality of the finish on the new boat leaves something to be desired, especially around the sail, perhaps reflecting the pace with which the first-of-class submarine was completed.
The Hai Kun will next undergo pre-service trials, before being delivered to the Republic of China Navy (ROCN), which is planned to happen before the end of 2024.
A second boat of the same design is now under construction and is reportedly expected to enter service in 2027.
Eventually, Taiwan aims to operate a fleet of 10 submarines — the eight Hai Kun class boats plus two older Hai Lung class boats, built in the Netherlands in the mid-1980s but subject to a mid-life upgrade that began in 2016.
The introduction of the new submarines will finally allow for the replacement of the two veteran Hai Shih class boats, which were originally built as Tench class and Balao class submarines during World War II. They were transferred to Taiwan from U.S. Navy stocks in 1973–74 and are reportedly now used exclusively for training, with some reports suggesting that they no longer go to sea at all.
While building new submarines is clearly a source of pride for Taiwan, they have been realized with a significant amount of foreign assistance. The vital combat mission systems are provided by Lockheed Martin, and the United States will also supply their armament of Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes. At least six other countries have also provided help, including the United Kingdom, according to reports.
Reuters has also suggested that Taiwan engaged engineers, technicians, and former naval officers from Australia, Canada, India, Spain, and South Korea, to help with the sub-building program. While this cannot be confirmed, the fact that foreign expertise of any kind has been involved is a significant development and one that will no doubt lead to concerns in Beijing.
“We had a lot of difficulties acquiring submarines from other countries,” said Lo Chih Cheng, a lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and member of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, according to a report in Time magazine. “No countries, including the U.S., were willing to sell submarines to us, so we decided to build our own.”
“And in the process of building the submarine, Taiwan received a lot of international support,” Lo added.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Taiwan was largely forced into building its own submarines, to a significant degree, due to pressure exerted by China. By calling upon a range of economic and diplomatic threats, Beijing was able to prevent the sale of foreign-made submarines to Taiwan. There was, for example, an abortive 2001 deal to acquire eight diesel-electric submarines from the United States, with those hulls to be of a foreign design, built under license. That deal collapsed, as did a plan to transfer to Taiwan former Italian Navy submarines, followed by a renewed proposal to build a new class of diesel-electric submarines in the United States.
Ultimately, however, Beijing wasn’t able to stop at least some countries from providing support to Taiwan via more covert channels, after the country decided in 2014 to launch a domestic submarine-production program.
“The process was torturous,” Cheng Wen lon, the chairman of CSBC Corp., told reporters, about Taiwan’s submarine-building effort. “Although we have worked quietly the past several years, it doesn’t mean the process was very smooth.”
In the meantime, underwater warfare, and submarines in particular, have become a priority within Taiwan’s evolving defense strategy, although even Taiwan’s future force will be tiny compared with the submarine fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The PLAN submarine fleet numbers at least 60 boats, with production of different designs continuing at a rapid pace. These boats include numerous advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and conventionally powered designs.
Beijing’s submarines would be expected to play a critical role in any operation waged against Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province that it has vowed to reclaim one day. It has not ruled out a military campaign against the self-governing island as a way of achieving this ambition.
Despite Beijing recently talking of its goal of peaceful “reunification” with Taiwan, officials on the island and in the United States have repeatedly warned that, while not necessarily imminent, a Chinese military operation is certainly a possibility within the next few years.
Many have suggested that 2027 — which also marks the centenary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army — is the year China could be capable of invading Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also instructed the PLA to be prepared to conduct a successful invasion of Taiwan by no later than that date.
In the meantime, the situation in the Taiwan Strait has become increasingly tense, with repeated large-scale maneuvers conducted here by the Chinese military, involving both aircraft and naval assets. Some of these have also been clearly rehearsals for potential multi-pronged attacks against Taiwan or have otherwise trained for a possible naval blockade of the island.
Against this backdrop, Taiwan’s submarine program has assumed a higher priority, especially under Tsai Ing Wen’s presidency, which has seen defense spending increase considerably.
Speaking last week, the head of Taiwan’s domestic submarine program, Adm. Huang Shu Kuang told reporters that these boats were part of a strategy aimed at preventing China from encircling the island, which would likely be done either to launch an amphibious invasion or impose a naval blockade.
Submarines prowling in and around the Taiwan Strait could pose a threat to a Chinese amphibious invasion fleet, which would likely involve less survivable civilian vessels to bolster troop transport capabilities.
In the case of a Chinese naval blockade, Taiwanese officials hope that the new submarines could offer a deterrent, if not at least some form of a countermeasure. Describing the submarines as a “strategic deterrent,” Adm. Huang added that they could be used to help maintain the island's “lifeline” to the Pacific by keeping ports along Taiwan’s eastern coast open. Whether that is actually feasible is debatable.
Ultimately, using submarines would be one way of buying time during the early part of a Chinese offensive, until the United States and Japan could come to Taiwan’s aid. As we have reported in the past, this tallies with Taiwan’s aim for its military to hold out unassisted for at least two weeks against a Chinese offensive.
These aspirations, and the Taiwanese submarine-building program in general, have been met with ridicule from Beijing. In an article this week, China’s state-run Global Times media outlet said that the outlined submarine strategy was proof that Taiwan was “daydreaming” and that China “has already constructed a multidimensional anti-submarine network all around the island.”
Despite this bluster, even a small force of advanced submarines could be of great use to Taiwan, especially if used in accordance with its ‘asymmetric’ warfare strategy, as officials have suggested. As analysts have pointed out, ROCN submarines could be used for “guerrilla-style warfare,” exploiting their stealth to ambush Chinese vessels or even to launch special operations raids.
Other wartime missions would likely include laying mines — a key function of the ROCN, targeting China’s maritime oil supplies, and attacking important military facilities along the Chinese coastline.
The submarines could also venture further east into the so-called ‘first island chain,’ where their shallow-water capabilities could come into play in the numerous straits and channels found there. In particular, the submarines could be used to patrol major chokepoints like the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait, through which PLAN vessels could transit if they were to encircle Taiwan.
On the other hand, it needs to be recalled that anti-submarine warfare, once seen as something of a weak point in the Chinese military, has also been subject to intense investment and development in recent years. The PLAN Naval Aviation branch, for instance, appears to be being tailored to become primarily an anti-submarine warfare and intelligence-gathering/command-and-control specialist.
Should the Hai Kun class prove successful, it will be a major milestone for Taiwan. As well as being a powerful addition to the island’s military as it readies itself for a potential future clash with mainland China, it also indicates the great strides that have been made — albeit with foreign assistance — when it comes to shipbuilding and design, and major military programs in general.
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