Saga of Submarines: Licenses in the Newest Episode

Saga of Submarines: Licenses in the Newest Episode

Saga of Submarines: Licenses in the Newest Episode

Shirley Kan is Retired Specialist in Asian Security Affairs who worked for Congress at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) and a Member of GTI’s Advisory Board.

The Trump Administration’s approval of marketing licenses for US companies to discuss potential technical assistance for Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program was overdue. As I wrote in last December’s GTB on a conceivable “second Trump-Tsai phone call,” the State Department conveyed conflicting decisions concerning assistance for Taiwan’s IDS program thereby undermining US credibility with incoherent messages. Now that the Administration has resolved the reversals for the pending licenses and has allowed defense companies to brief Taiwan’s Navy, what are some implications in this newest episode in the saga of submarines since at least 2001? What does this starting step mean and what does it not mean?

Marketing Licenses for Submarines

On April 7, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced that the US Department of State approved marketing licenses for US companies to talk to Taiwan about its domestic submarine program. MND asserted that Taiwan will become more “self-sufficient” in defense. A spokesperson for the State Department implicitly confirmed the step, asserting to Taiwan’s media that US sales of defense articles and defense services are guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and based on assessments of Taiwan’s defense needs.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the Ministry of Defense of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) responded on April 9 that the PRC strongly opposed the US licenses and urged the United States to stop military contact with and arms sales to Taiwan. The PRC also demanded that the United States abide by the three US-PRC Joint Communiques, stressing that the “one China principle” is the political foundation for bilateral ties. The PRC also threatened a possible use of force against Taiwan, warning that the PRC’s military “has the ability and determination to defeat all attempts to separate our country, and will adopt all necessary measures to resolutely defend national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” The PRC did not name any specific steps.

On April 16, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) stated that the US licenses will not only help Taiwan to defend itself but also help maintain cross-strait peace and prosperity.

Overdue Decision for a Starting Step

In June 2014, Taiwan’s MND decided to seek US Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) for an IDS program to build diesel-electric submarines to supplement two Hai Lung-class (former Zwaardvis-class) submarines. The new issuance of pending marketing licenses to allow US defense companies to discuss potential technical assistance for the IDS program is an overdue step and could have been issued a year ago without reversals. Last year, the State Department’s inconsistency undermined US reliability, coherent decision-making, and progress in assistance for Taiwan’s stronger defense. The licenses are required for US companies to brief Taiwan’s Navy on potential technical assistance, which would still require additional approvals, inter-agency decisions, and reviews by Congress. 

Now, the White House effectively is directing inter-agency decisions and lifting a counter-productive ban on talks about Taiwan’s IDS program. The White House is fixing problems that obstructed credible, coordinated policymaking. The Administration’s approach is in adherence to the TRA, informed about defense matters, and strong in not conceding to the dictates of the regime in Beijing threatening Taiwan. The TRA requires decisions on defense articles and defense services to be based solely on the judgments of the President and Congress about Taiwan’s needs along with the US military’s professional reviews.

As an overdue resolution of twisting and turning for a decision that could have been conveyed in a straight-forward way last year, the licenses are not timed now to provoke tension in the Taiwan Strait or in US-PRC ties. However, some media reports are hyping Taiwan as a “flashpoint” and the Trump Administration’s and Congressional efforts as part of “tension” with the PRC along with “trade wars,” differences over North Korea’s threats, and legislation to support a stronger Taiwan, despite long-overdue measures to counter China’s economic, political, and security challenges.

US security assistance is carefully considered for substantive effects to strengthen Taiwan’s deterrence and defense of its island against the PRC’s threats to use force. The licenses do not warrant the shrill charges by PRC Ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) in Washington that US policy seeks to stop China’s so-called “reunification.” Indeed, Cui vindicated Taiwan’s need for self-defense, warning that China will achieve “reunification” through “whatever means necessary.

Taiwan never was a part of the PRC, so its goal would not be really “reunification.” US policy (as considered in the Legislative and Executive Branches) promotes the interests of stability for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question, not any set outcome.

Thus, in the short term, the Administration’s new decision means that the United States is starting to help Taiwan to build diesel-electric submarines through its IDS program. Initial briefings still require the licenses. This step releases long-awaited licenses for US firms to talk to Taiwan’s Navy about potential assistance, not for the exports of submarines or technical assistance of software, components, combat systems, or systems integration.

Significance for Saga of Submarines

In the long-term context, however, the release of the licenses is significant. The initial decision by President George W. Bush in April 2001 to sell Taiwan eight diesel-electric submarines entailed options for either a government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program or a DCS program with US companies providing technical assistance. Taiwan first opted for an FMS program. Since then, despite discussions for years by legislators, other officials, and companies of the United States and Taiwan, that initial endeavor did not reach results. Political problems obstructed progress on both sides, particularly the partisan disagreements in Taiwan.

Facing Taiwan’s increasing challenges in defense and determination to develop domestic defense industries, the licenses signal support for assisting Taiwan at least to conceptualize wisely the options for its IDS program. Also, the licenses indicate continuation of the trend of transitioning from selling major weapons systems to technical assistance. Overall, this Administration is willing to make difficult decisions that previous Administrations put off.

The Administration is signaling some resolution of a long-standing debate about whether it is in the US interest to assist Taiwan to acquire submarines. There have been legitimate concerns about whether Taiwan can afford the time and limited defense budgets to urgently upgrade defense in an effective manner, as well as whether Taiwan has adequate technical capability and protection of technology and secrets. Moreover, undersea warfare presents a complicated challenge, including for the US Navy. Still, some advocates, such as former Pentagon official Mark Stokes, have stressed submarines for Taiwan’s survivable, credible deterrence, as well as asymmetrical advantages. 

However, uninformed opinions distracted deliberations, arguing unwisely whether Taiwan’s submarines are “offensive” or “defensive.” Now, the Administration’s decision on the licenses is consistent with the understandings that weapons systems cannot be simplistically labeled one way or the other and that Taiwan’s military strategy is inherently defensive.

For Taiwan, the acquisition of submarines is moving in the direction of domestic industry and away from the past goal to procure foreign submarines. Taiwan will need to show a sufficient capability to build submarines. Taiwan’s MND describes the IDS program as the first priority in domestic naval shipbuilding. The program seeks to integrate industrial, governmental, and academic resources to develop domestic design and construction, improve domestic equipment, and build up critical technology. The design phase is planned for 2016-2020.

The marketing licenses to allow US commercial briefings is only a starting step. As a legislator, Wang Ding-yu (王定宇), stated in Taiwan, its military “needs to improve its underwater combat capabilities, which it should have done 10 years ago.” Wang added that, “the nation’s development of submarines is already 20 years behind schedule, but better late than never.”

Thus, the main lesson for Taiwan in this saga of submarines is that Taiwan has lost time that it cannot afford in building up its deterrence and defense. Taiwan needs to strengthen its military to focus on the self-defense of the island while wisely applying its limited defense resources and technical capability. Also, Taiwan needs to do more to demonstrate its trustworthiness in safeguarding secrets and sensitive technology. Taiwan has urgent needs to raise the budget and strengthen deterrence and defense by focusing substantively on priorities that include its volunteer force, doctrine, reserves, veterans, security clearance process, protection of technology, cyber security, realistic training, and asymmetric warfare.

The main point: The release of marketing licenses to allow talks about Taiwan’s IDS program was overdue and not meant to provoke tensions. The licenses are a starting step. Taiwan needs to show seriousness about its submarine capability, self-defense, and safeguarding secrets and technology.