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China’s Expanding Submarine Fleet Makes Experts Worry About Taiwan’s Readiness

FILE - In this April 23, 2019, photo, a type 094A Jin-class nuclear submarine Long March 10 of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade near Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province.
FILE - In this April 23, 2019, photo, a type 094A Jin-class nuclear submarine Long March 10 of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade near Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province.

Even to laypeople, the odds of a China-versus-Taiwan underwater faceoff seem unbalanced.

China’s submarine force: 66 boats in 2020 with 76 expected by 2030.

Attributes: Nearly silent next-gen tech.

Taiwan’s submarine force: Four boats.

Attributes: Two of the world’s oldest operational subs, all use 20th-century tech.

The experts worry that Taiwan may lack the ability to fend off China without updating its military equipment, given that China has been investing in advanced weaponry and equipment— and overhauling its military command structure to modernize its armed forces as it eyes the war in Ukraine. China’s defense budget in 2022 is $230 billion, the second largest in the world behind the U.S. By contrast, Taiwan’s defense budget is $12.8 billion, 5% of China’s.

The Naval News, the official newspaper of the British Royal Navy, pointed out on Aug. 11 that China’s East Sea Fleet, which carries out operations around Taiwan, acquired a new submarine representing “the cutting edge of Chinese non-nuclear submarines.”

The boat, often referred to as Type 039, was placed to directly oppose the Taiwanese navy. “The East Sea Fleet submarine bases are north of the main Taiwanese Island, about 500 km south. It also faces off against Japan’s island chain,” reported Naval News, adding the boat was commissioned in 2021, and entered operation just over a year later, a very short timeline for a new class of submarine.

Seth Cropsey, founder and president of the defense think tank Yorktown Institute and former deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, told VOA Mandarin that the Type 039 cannot be ignored.

“The submarine, because of its stealth, is well suited to carry out a blockade, or to protect surface ships that are being used for an amphibious assault, or to launch missiles in an invasion,” he said. “So, the submarine is an extremely important weapon platform.”

Michal Thim, a research fellow focusing on Taiwan’s defense policy at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin in an email that it’s impossible to confirm whether China’s latest submarine has been deployed near Taiwan.

“Submarine deployments and movements are among the most closely held secrets in any navy. What is already a long-standing concern for Taiwan, for Japan, and for the U.S. is the speed with which the Chinese navy submarine fleet has expanded,” he said.

Holmes Liao, former adjunct distinguished lecturer at Taiwan's War College, said that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense seldom, if ever, publicizes China People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine activities near Taiwan.

“Given the PLAN’s warplane incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and surface combatants menacing near the 12-nm territorial line, it’s highly likely that the PLA’s submarines have been active near or in Taiwan’s maritime territory,” he wrote in an email to VOA Mandarin.

Liao said the new PLAN submarine is allegedly very quiet and poses a significant threat even to U.S. Navy’s surface assets.

As an example, Liao said, “In 2005, a Swedish submarine Gotland conducted a series of simulated attacks against the newly commissioned Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier battle group. Throughout the exercise, Gotland launched torpedoes on multiple occasions without ever being detected by the U.S. ASW [Anti-submarine Warfare] assets. The episode shows that an advanced submarine can significantly threaten valuable surface combatants.”

The focus on the two submarine fleets comes during a time of heightened tensions between Taiwan, a self-governing island and China, which views Taiwan as its own territory.

Taiwan’s defense ministry Friday said it has detected 17 Chinese aircraft and six Chinese vessels, with eight of those planes flown over the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which in an unofficial barrier between China and Taiwan.

The Chinese military ramped up its tactics earlier this month in reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Aug. 2 visit. This week, it is conducting daily drills in response to a surprise visit by another U.S. congressional delegation. Sources told Reuters that Chinese navy ships were active off both the east and west coasts of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s vintage subs

According to a report released earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service, China has been steadily modernizing its submarine force and is expected to have 76 boats by 2030.

By contrast, Taiwan has four boats. Two of them are World War II vintage ex-U.S. Navy fleet submarines, the world’s oldest operational submarines.

Richard Stirn, a former submarine technician who worked for the U.S. Navy, said he’s not sure these two ships would still be able to launch weapons. “Taiwan today has four older boats using mid-century tech,” he told VOA Mandarin.

Thim said that the other two are combat vessels that Taiwan acquired in the late 1980s. While all of them underwent substantial upgrading, they are “hardly a deterrent” toward China.

“China, of course, now has around 60 conventional submarines and could use them in many ways to make life in Taiwan difficult. Enforcing [a] naval blockade, attacking surface combat ships, and hunting Taiwanese submarines,” he said.

Taiwan has been trying to build its own submarines, but China has repeatedly prevented other countries from participating in Taiwan’s submarine-building project. However, manufacturers from seven countries, including the U.S. and the U.K, secretly assisted Taiwan in upgrading its own advanced diesel-electric submarines.

Thim said the U.S. provides both expertise and critical technology to Taiwan. “There is definitely room for improvement, the greater involvement of Japan — that makes excellent submarines — is one area that can be improved,” he said.

Liao argued that Taiwan should focus [on] less expensive and more effective defensive weapons. He said Taiwan can deploy [a] Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) to listen for underwater sounds, particularly submarines, and can pinpoint the coordinates and depth of the intrusion. “To neutralize enemy submarines, smart naval mines and anti-submarine rockets are much more inexpensive and effective than submarines,” he added.