Taiwan unveils its first domestic submarine

Taipei unveiled its first domestically built submarine this week. President Tsai Ing-wen, who presided over the ceremony, said the vessel will play a key role in strengthening the Taiwanese Navy’s “asymmetric warfare” capabilities.

The ‘Hai Kun’ submarine is a notable feat for the self-governing island:

  • There are only ~14 nations that can build their own subs, and
  • China has long opposed any effort at helping Taiwan join the club.

But it seems Taiwan is just warming up: its fleet will eventually comprise eight new diesel-electric subs, plus its two Dutch vessels from the 1980s.

Why? Well yep, it’s about deterring China:

  • Last year, China’s forces started regularly crossing the median line that had long functioned as an unofficial divide with Taiwan, and
  • Two undersea cables connecting Taiwan’s Matsu islands were mysteriously severed earlier this year.

Why subs? Any invasion would require vast numbers of amphibious landing ships, which are vulnerable to submarine tracking and torpedoes.

For its part, a Beijing spokesperson called Taiwan’s deterrence strategy “idiotic nonsense”.

Intrigue’s take: Bigger players than Taiwan have long struggled to design and build their own subs. The fact Taipei has pulled this off reflects well on its capabilities, but also on its partnerships: the weapons systems, electronics and sonar were imported, and the hull design shows clear signs of Japanese (et al) assistance.

The other thing worth mentioning: nuclear-propelled subs have been all the rage lately, but smaller diesel subs like this tend to be better suited for shallow waters (the average depth of the Taiwan Strait is only 60m).

So bravado notwithstanding, this new sub complicates Beijing’s calculations.

Also worth noting:

  • US President George W Bush approved the possible sale of diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan in 2001, but no deals were ever closed.
  • China’s submarine fleet currently counts around 60 nuclear and diesel-powered submarines.
  • ‘Hai Kun’ translates loosely as ‘sea monster’ in English. The submarine’s official name in English is ‘Narwhal’.
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