Friday, December 30, 2005

The Submarines for Taiwan: Brian Dunn

Intrepid blogger MeiZhongTei, who has recently withdrawn his support from the purchase of submarines for Taiwan, points out that Brian Dunn, who blogs on Taiwan-China-US defense affairs, still imagines that the subs are a useful purchase. Dunn, responding to MZT, writes:

This analysis ignores the fact that China's subs are on average, quite poor and poorly trained as well. They rarely put to sea and usually do so with the company of surface ships just in case. I sincerely doubt that the PLAN could put 16 effective attack submarines to sea to sink the 8 proposed Taiwanese boats under debate.

Nor do I think the PLAN's anti-submarine capabilities spell a death sentence for the Taiwanese boats. I'm not even sure the PLAN would be immediately aware of their own losses let alone the amazing ability to destroy modern subs with PLAN assets. Chinese naval warfare capabilities are not exactly advanced except for narrow bands created by buying Russian weapons. Even there the training won't be very good.

Dunn is right to note that China's subs suck. But his argument is insufficiently robust. Let's revisit some old prose on this topic:

Since I've mentioned subs, let's point out a couple of salient facts. First, the subs do not actually exist. US shipyards do not have the capability to build them, and those nations that can, the Netherlands and Germany, will not sell them to Taiwan. Hence there has been some talk of building them in Taiwan, though Taiwan does not have the capability to build them completely.

Counting hardware and its applications is insufficient; the socio-technical context of weapon deployment must also be considered. The fact is that Taiwan currently has four submarines, two dating from WWII, and has no real experience in anti-submarine work with subsmarines. The weapons are deliverable over the next 15 years, not immediately from extant inventories, and it will be many years before they become operational and appropriate training is in place and absorbed. Surely $12 billion can be spent more effectively elsewhere -- on advanced aircraft, spare parts, command and control systems, hardening airfields and command and control sites, patrol craft and small attack craft, and so on.

Basically, Taiwan's subs suck, and so do China's. It's fundamentally a wash, and China has more subs. If the two sides merely cancel each other out, that is a victory for China. Taiwan has to totally deny the sea to China; China need merely make sure that Taiwan's forces do not inflict unacceptable losses on the way over.

Further, the $12 billion budgeted for the subs is astronomical, with each sub priced at more than three times the usual world rate for a new submarine. The high prices are understandable, since there is no place the subs can be built, but it is not cost-effective to purchase the subs when proven weapons, such as attack aircraft, can be purchased and delivered in a much shorter time. The subs are not slated for immediate delivery, but instead delivery will not be fully completed until 2021 even assuming that Taiwan passes the arms purchase in 2006. And if the Chinese control the air over the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese subs will not be able to operate in those waters. Ironically, spending all that money on subs may ensure that they cannot actually be used, since no funds will be leftover for aircraft to give them cover.

One might also ponder the fact that each sub will cost in excess of $1 billion. Such subs might well be too expensive to risk. At least, the high cost of the assets will almost certainly inhibit their full use.

It is true that Taiwan's subs can cause China a ton of economic pain by sinking merchant ships and raising shipping rates. But merchantmen sunk off Hainan or Shanghai will have no effect on a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

More importantly, there are no cases on record of a large invasion being defeated or even deterred by submarines. The determining factor in any invasion is control of the air. Always. Taiwan could have a fleet of 50 subs and the Chinese would simply adapt their force structure accordingly (that's why paratroopers were invented) and take their losses. Consider that the $12 billion wasted on submaries will buy five or six hundred modern fighters, which would prevent China from ever taking Taiwan. Indeed, the US arms purchase proposal has the strong flavor of Operation Mustang or the Afghan resistance policy, in which enough weapons were provided to cause pain, but not enough to ensure victory. Sometimes I wonder if the US deliberately withheld attack aircraft precisely because they would effectively guarantee Taiwan's independence.....

Similarly, I observed before:

The submarines, as offensive weapons, have to be looked at in the larger context of the US-Japan-Taiwan alliance to contain China. As Wendel Minnick note, a strong submarine force would make Taiwan an attractive strategic partner to Japan and the United States. Taiwan's acquisition of submarines would give it political and military bargaining power in the future. One is reminded of the argument over artillery in Lawrence of Arabia: "If you give them artillery, you'll be giving them a country." Something similar is at work with the submarines.

I think this analysis, which I wrote back in July, wasn't quite there yet. Now the way I understand it, in essence, attack aircraft give Taiwan independence on its own terms, while submarines force it to depend on the US and Japan. It is easy to see why Taiwan is getting subs and not aircraft.

Regrettably, Dunn's argument descends into absurd arrogance:

As for cost effectiveness, let me just add that as long as a single Taiwanese sub equipped with American-made Harpoons is at sea (or believed to be at sea), the United States will be able to maintain plausible deniability that American subs are not actually shooting at the invasion flotilla (we in the blogosphere can then marvel at the capabilities of the lone intrepid Taiwanese captain wreaking havoc on the PLAN surface fleet).

Yes, it is very cost effective, from the US standpoint, for Taiwan to spend $12 billion so that the US can have cover. If the US wants cover, it can spend the money itself. After all, that's only about a week's expenses for our ongoing defeat in Iraq. Sadly, Dunn's analysis treats Taiwan as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself.

We'll let Dunn's last words stand by themselves:

I don't know much about macro-economics, but I think buying those submarines and getting the possible use of the US submarine fleet is highly cost effective.

Sure, Brian.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brian J. Dunn is a US military man. Michael Turton is an English teacher.

At the end of the day, it will be Mr. Dunn the military man that get shot by motherfuckers and have to shoot back to save the day, but he will not be appreicated by our media and even by our society because he is a heartless killer.

Taiwan NEEDS the submarines!
Taiwan MUST have the submarines!
Taiwan WILL have those submarines!