Lacking Boats, Taiwan Sub Office in U.S. May Shut Down; Country’s Spending Cut Raises Questions About Office’s Value
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Officials here are considering the closure of a key office in Washington in a move that could signal the death knell for Taiwan’s efforts to procure submarines from the United States.
Taiwan has been paying roughly $2 million a year to support the workplace in the U.S. Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Submarines (PEOSubs) office. But with dwindling chances that the vessels will be built, officials are discussing its closure to save money. The Cabinet recently approved a 6 percent cut in defense spending for 2010.
“Senior [Taiwan] civilian leaders are indeed questioning the cost-effectiveness of the submarine program, and have held at least five conferences on the issue over the last year,” a defense industry source said.
Sources in Washington did not dispute reports that the office could close.
In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush offered to build Taiwan eight diesel-electric submarines. However, the United States has not been able to carry out that deal because it no longer builds non-nuclear submarines, and third-country manufacturers have been reluctant to anger China by selling subs to Taiwan. The sale has been in limbo ever since.
The last gasp for the program came in late 2008, when it was hoped that, during the last weeks of the Bush administration, Washington would allow the submarine effort to go forward. The U.S. government did release $6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan last October, but no subs were included.
A Taiwan defense official said the country’s Navy still hopes the submarines will be released despite talk of closing the office. But a U.S. government official said the comments were nothing more than “lip service” and there is no serious support for new arms sales.
A former U.S. defense official insists the submarine deal is not dead yet, but conceded there is little or no chance the program will go forward.
“When someone, either on the Taiwan or U.S. side, makes a conscious decision to stop the program and the PEOSub office shuts down, then the program could be considered ‘dead,’” the former official said. “As for now, the office is still open.” Part of the problem has been decreased tension across the Taiwan Strait and efforts by the U.S. government to improve relations with China. Beijing canceled military-to-military exchanges with the United States after the October 2008 arms release to Taiwan. There is no evidence the new U.S. administration plans to repeat that step.
A U.S. decision to cancel the program unilaterally would send a signal to China that efforts to stop arms sales to Taiwan were working. It also would hurt morale in Taiwan’s military.
If Taiwan made the announcement first, then critics would interpret the decision as evidence that Taiwan is not serious about defense.
The decision to close the PEOSubs office will be difficult, but sources here indicate someone should make a final decision soon. “The problem is that no one on the Taiwan side has pulled the trigger,” and until they do, it might linger on indefinitely, the former U.S. defense official said.
No European Options
There also appears to be no evidence Taiwan will buy German submarines, despite recent local media reports that Taiwan was negotiating to procure the four Type 214class diesel-electric subs originally contracted by Kiel-based shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems for the Greek Navy. Athens in September rejected the four submarines due to contractual disputes.
Sources in Taiwan also argue that Germany would never risk angering China over an arms sale to Taiwan. Europe has sold no arms to Taiwan since the early 1990s, when France sold six Lafayette frigates and 60 Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets to the self-governing island.
Those purchases were the last French arms sales granted to Taiwan before France succumbed to Chinese pressure in 1994 and agreed to prohibit future arms sales. The United States is now the sole provider of foreign arms to Taiwan.
An effort to build the submarines locally was met with skepticism here and in the United States. Taiwan’s only shipbuilder, China Shipbuilding Corp. (CSBC), proposed an indigenous project in 2001.
The first stage was the Hidden Dragon Project, a design feasibility study. This later evolved into the Indigenous Defense Submarine program in 2003 with a concept design based on Norway’s Ula class (Type 210) and the Argentinean TR-1700-class subs. CSBC finally gave up on the effort after losing support from the Taiwan Navy.
A Taiwan government official said CSBC lacked the technical capability to build a complex platform such as a submarine. CSBC has built Perry-class frigates under license from the U.S. government, but never a submarine. It currently focuses on container and cargo ship construction and repair. However, CSBC will have an opportunity to work on the midlife upgrades for Taiwan’s two operational Dutch-built Hai Lungclass (Sea Dragon) subs, scheduled for 2010 or 2011. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are competing for part of that contract. ■