Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Taiwan Reportedly Lobbying US Congress for assistance in acquiring new submarine platform

     What a difference a year makes.  In 2012 the hot topic around the beltway  regarding the U.S.-Taiwan arms sales relationship was seemingly focused on the long-pending sale of the F-16 C/D platform to Taiwan  (Actually this "pending" authorization has been in limbo for over twenty years and has covered four U.S. Presidential administrations).  With Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) leading the charge, many members of Congress were placing pressure on  the Obama Administration into authorizing the sale of the fighter jet platform, which would then allow for Congress to vote on the issue.  However, at least publicly, the Taiwanese government made no statements vocally to coincide with the U.S. Congressional push, and the issue of F-16's has remained in a state of limbo ever since.  During this time, the issue of another long standing request from Taiwan was considered dead in the water: the 2001 approval from the Bush Administration authorizing the sale of 8 diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan.  It's well known among those who follow this issue the complex logistics that would be involved in making this sale a reality, and this blog has a previous 2-part article discussing in depth the complexities of the issue.  However, a brief overview:

1.  The United States has not domestically produced diesel submarines since the 1950's, therefore it would likely need to find a third country that would be willing to aid Taiwan in either the production of the requested submarines, or more likely, transfer the blueprints to either Taiwan or the United States for production.

2.  Third countries have been reluctant to agree to such a sale for fear of Chinese economic reprisals.

     Yet in 2013 among many think tanks, military experts, and US government officials the issue of Taiwan acquiring submarines has suddenly.....pardon the pun....resurfaced.

The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), visited a Taiwanese Naval yard in Kaohsiung, and brought attention to Taiwan aging guppy-class subs, stating a need for Taiwan to modernize its submarine fleet. One source with knowledge to the visit stated that the Ma Administration was not aware that the issue of submarines was going to be brought up during the visit, and following the visit was "rather receptive" to the idea of pushing for the long-stalled purchase.  In addition to the Royce visit, a number of officials inside the halls of Congress have stated that Taiwanese officials from its TECRO office in DC have approached them in recent months regarding ways in which the sale could be facilitated.  The officials stated that the the talks focused primarily upon finding a third country that would be willing to transfer the blueprints and expertise to the United States, and then transferred to Taiwan, where the submarines would be built. American defense companies, most likely General Dynamics or Northrop Grumman, would be contracted to implement the weapon systems and electronics into the completed submarines. The sources also state that TECRO officials have specifically suggested that the United States "specifically approach Nordic countries to assess their interest in such a project." Currently, Sweden is the only Nordic country that actively has a domestic submarine production capability (although Denmark, Norway, and Finland  have the ability to transfer the technology on a smaller scale).

In 2006, a Swedish HSwMs Gotland-class submarine "defeated" a U.S. Navy carrier  in an exercise, as it  penetrated  the American defensive measures, essentially "sinking" the carrier. 

From the perspective of American interests in the region, increasingly aggressive behavior by various Chinese agencies in the disputed areas of the South and East China Sea over the past year could have triggered a change of heart regarding the importance of Taiwan obtaining the platform. The strategic benefits for Taiwan would be obvious:
- The ability to counter a potential PLAN blockade of Taiwan would allow Taiwan to keep vital sea lanes of communication open for potential American assistance in a conflict scenario---which is vital for Taiwan's chances of surviving such a conflict.
-Enhanced mine-laying capabilities
-Asymmetrical counter to upcoming PLAN aircraft carriers
-Chinese anti submarine warfare capabilities are still widely seen as poor, which would give Beijing pause to issuing a green light for any potential military action that would involve its maritime forces.

The completion of a sale could also have political implications within Taiwan. Unlike the F-16 platform, the diesel sub acquisition by Taiwan would likely  provide thousands of jobs domestically within Taiwan, with many of them being in Southern Taiwan, a traditional political stronghold of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Although unlikely to be finished in such short order,  if such a agreement could be completed,  the KMT government could point to the economic benefits for Taiwan before the 7-in-1 municipal  elections taking place in 2014.

Although the talks between the U.S. and Taiwan have appeared to begun on some level, they are merely informal, as Taiwan appears to be testing the waters for more meaningful discussions regarding its desire to see a modern submarine fleet as part of its naval capabilities. Such a scenario remains a distant prospect, albeit slightly more likely in the future.

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