Saturday, 7 April 2012

A Short On Diesel-Electric Submarines

One of the chief justifications of the State is the provision of collective defense against military aggression by other States. This justification is not by any means beyond question or critique, but in any calculation from the premise of de facto political independence and its supposed connection with freedom, defending against potential military aggression from the PRC really ought to be the top priority of any government in Taiwan.

Necessary to that end is the procurement of strategic military assets and the avoidance of error, waste and corruption in this procurement process.

Would the establishment of a domestic program in Taiwan for the design and manufacture of conventional (diesel-electric) submarines - or perhaps procurement of similar submarines from abroad (say, of the German Type-214) - be a strategic asset or liability?

I tend toward the view that procurement of such submarines could be an asset, primarily because their effective deployment would raise the uncertainty and risk with which PLAN commanders would have to deal in their calculations for a shipping blockade of Taiwan or for access denial to the U.S. Navy in the event of a precision bombardment campaign against Taiwan. Additionally, a submarine fleet with a number of cruise-missile capable boats (SSGs) would offer a concealed land attack option which could conceivably overcome the range limitations of conventional missiles based on Taiwan; boats that could remain submerged for up to say, two months, could not only patrol the first island chain, but might be able to loiter undetected in China's coastal waters from where they could launch cruise missile strikes against land targets if ordered to do so.

Among the arguments against Taiwan's development of indigenous diesel-electric submarines are the three following claims: first, that their successful deployment requires a long institutional experience which Taiwan's Navy does not have; second, that Taiwanese engineers are unlikely to deliver faultless boats and will be unable to maintain them properly; and third, that the money required for establishing a diesel-electric submarine program could be better spent on simpler and proven capabilities such as long-range missiles.

With regard to the first claim, the point must be conceded that Taiwan's Navy currently lacks sufficient experience operating large numbers of modern boats. Yet there is only one way that experience can be acquired, and the longer the Navy goes without modern diesel-electric subs the less time there may be to acquire this vital experience. If the argument is couched in budgetary terms, that the money available for a submarine program would be better spent on immediately functionable equipment such as missiles then the appropriate counter is to begin defunding the State controlled education system, though this is obviously a seperate argument.

On the second point, design and construction could conceivably be aided by foreign companies if political permission can be obtained and there is also the point that some foreign designs, e.g. Germany's Type-214 have already had many engineering flaws detected and ironed out subsequent to their purchase by the South Koreans. Taiwan's Navy could benefit from this. Moreover, there would seem to be no good reason to suppose that poor maintainence is an indelible problem that cannot be quickly eradicated by better leadership and improved morale - to which end, reform of the military and the elimination of waste and corruption is essential. If the argument from poor maintenance were to be consistently taken seriously, then the people of Taiwan would be left without any collective military defense.

Thirdly, although land missile deployments would be cheaper, their value largely depends on their capacity to function offensively, i.e. to hit land targets in China itself or perhaps naval targets in the Strait. Not only is it conceivable that the PLA be readily able to develop effective counter-measures to these missiles, but their deployment and targetting would suffer from range-limitation and lack any element of surprise - unlike say, a cruise missile launched from a lurking submarine. An additional point to be made is that, like its attempts to procure new fighter aircraft, the Taiwan government suffers from difficulties in attempting to purchase other serious military gear, including missles - this is partly a result of international treaties and partly a result of PRC diplomatic manipulation combined with Western acquiescence.

The deployment of diesel-electric submarines by the Taiwanese military would primarily be valuable because of their defensive nature - simply raising the level of uncertainty with which PLAN commanders must contend with might itself be a significant strategic value.

More generally however, any offensive capabilities are to be regarded as a secondary function; we don't want to get into a shooting match with the PRC. If it is true that the PRC is unlikely to attempt a military move on Taiwan until things start to get desperate for them internally (which is the bet I'd take), then we ought to be very careful to avoid giving them the propaganda ammunition they would need (imagine: "Taiwan missiles strike Shanghai") to rally nationalist sentiment against the people on Taiwan, or which would convince the politicists in any opposition movement into adopting a confrontational stance against Taiwan.

A better general approach to defense would be depoliticization; the rational deconstruction and removal of powers from the central government in Taipei. The existence of a State under which almost all political power is centralized provides an obvious and convenient target either for subversion or for conquest. A society in which politics has become largely decentralized and non-coercive would necessarily be a more difficult society to rule without destroying it.

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