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Taiwan Might Have to Fight China with World War II Submarines

Taiwan's World War II Submarine. Image Credit: ROC Navy.
Taiwan's World War II Submarine. Image Credit: ROC Navy.

Red China’s latest round of belligerent posturing toward Taiwan is justifiably a cause for concern. An article in this past Monday’s edition of The Washington Times noted, among other things, that “The exercises would include anti-submarine drills, apparently targeting U.S. support for Taiwan in the event of a potential Chinese invasion, according to social media posts from the eastern leadership of China’s ruling Communist Party’s military arm, the People’s Liberation Army.” That passage, in particular, sparks the question: how ready is the submarine fleet of the Taiwanese Navy — officially the Republic of China Navy (ROCN;中華民國海軍; Zhōnghuá Mínguó Hǎijūn) — to take on a would-be invading force of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)? And how far has the ROCN submarine fleet come in recent years?

Flashback to 2019

Thinking back to September 11, 2019, when i was a Strategy and Policy Analyst on a contract assignment with Naval Warfare Group/OPNAV N5i6 at the Pentagon, I attended the “Reinforcing the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Alliance” event at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute think tank. The discussion panel consisted of former Taiwan Defense Minister Michael Tsai and the President of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, Dr. Mike Kuo, and was moderated by Hudson Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for American Seapower, Seth Cropsey. During the Q&A session, I posed a question to the panel about the status of the Taiwanese submarine fleet. Both Messrs. Cropsey and Tsai fielded my question, but for the sake of brevity, I shall only quote Minister Tsai’s reply for now:

There are two major vital threats against Taiwan from PLA – one, submarine underwater warfare systems. The second is missiles. That’s two of the vital threats against Taiwan. The submarine’s development program, we are far behind. Although 15 years ago when I served in the MND in Taiwan, I strongly recommend we have to develop the indigenous development for Taiwan for the submarine but did not materialize, and the U.S. – the government under the George Bush instruction, the U.S. was planning to sell the eight diesel-powered submarine to us, but that did not materialize either. Therefore, now under the current government three years ago, we start to undertake in the submarine project …. But because of the sophistication of the submarine systems, we needed technical support from the United States, probably also from Japan and other nations, as well. If this indigenous submarine project can be materialized, I think, in the next five to seven years, we should first, our nation, build that submarine while coming to service. But in the interim – in this period, the next five or seven years, we’re still seeking for the alternative if we can purchase new submarine of – used submarine for Taiwan. This what – I personally believe submarine warfare is very important to ensure we are capable to deter China from taking this submarine systems attack against Taiwan. This is what – my personal view.”

Flash Forward to 2022

So then, three years later, has the state of Taiwan’s submarine program improved significantly? Unfortunately, not by much. Yes, the ROCN’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program finally got underway in November 2020. But the IDS program, though a step in the right direction, is currently set to build only eight subs, a mere fraction of the PLAN’s 60-strong submarine fleet. Moreover, the first of the desperately-needed IDS boats isn’t expected to enter service until September 2023, which, needless to say, will be way too little, too late if Beijing decides to invade this year. 

WWII-Era Submarines? Yes. 

In the meantime, the ROCN is hamstrung by a submarine fleet consisting of a mere four boats: two Chien Lung (“Sword Dragon”) aka Hai Lung II (“Sea Dragon”) class submarines and two Hai Shih (“Sea Lion”) class submarines based at Tsoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung. 

The Hai Lung class diesel-electric attack submarines were built in the Netherlands in the mid-1980s. At the very least that makes them a newer design, than, say, the 1970s vintage Soviet-designed Typhoon/Akula (“Shark”) class boats. 

Consisting of the Hai Lung (SS-793) and Hai Hu (“Sea Tiger;” SS-794), they are in essence modified versions of the Dutch Zwaardvis “Swordfish”-class design, with a length of 219 feet, a reported speed of 20 knots, and a carrying capacity of up to 28 torpedoes. Interestingly, the Zwaardvis namesake has a proud legacy in the history of the Royal Netherlands Navy, as during WWII the original Zwaardvis [S814] sank several Axis vessels, including the Nazi German submarine U-168.

As for those other two Taiwanese subs, this passage from Thomas Newdick, staff writer for The War Zone, is particularly troubling: “Even older than the Hai Lung class submarines are the Hai Shih class boats, comprising Hai Shih, built as a Tench class submarine, and Hai Pao, originally completed as a Balao class submarine. Both of these underwater veterans were constructed during World War II and transferred to Taiwan from U.S. Navy stocks in 1973 and 1974, respectively.” 

Yes, you read that correctly; half of the ROCN’s submarine fleet is of WWII vintage! Now, mind you, back in their heyday, the Tench and Balao-class boats were top-notch submarines that absolutely devastated the Imperial Japanese Navy and merchant fleet. But now, roughly 80 years later? The Hai Shih and her sister ship, the Hai Pao (“Seal”) are the world’s oldest submarines still in active service, which is hardly a prestigious claim or badge of honor when you consider: that they reportedly can no longer even dive below 100 meters (328 feet); there have been reports of warped pressure hulls and metal fatigue; they’ve evidently been relegated mainly to training usage. 

Taipei’s politico-military leadership has been keeping their fingers crossed that any CCP invasion doesn’t transpire prior to September 2023. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).