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DEFENSE/Taiwan's 1st indigenous submarine a key step towards 'defense autonomy'

09/30/2023 03:18 PM
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Taiwan's first Indigenous Defense Submarine "Narwhal" is on display at a ceremony in Kaohsiung Thursday. CNA photo Sept. 28, 2023

Taipei, Sept. 30 (CNA) When Huang Shu-kuang (黃曙光) sees Taiwan's first domestically built defense submarine the "Narwhal" displayed prominently on its launch platform, its bow neatly draped in the country's national flag, he knows he has accomplished the important mission of helping Taiwan take its first step toward "defense autonomy."

The first military officer to be promoted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to the rank of admiral second class, Huang was given a clear mission by the president -- to oversee the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program. In September 2021, he was appointed National Security Council advisor and designated as convener of the IDS project.

In retrospect, Huang's military career seemed linked to submarines. As far back as the 1980s, he was in charge of taking delivery of two Chien Lung-class submarines ordered from the Netherlands, which were a modified version of the Dutch Navy's Zwaardvis subs.

He later captained the "ROCS Hai Shih" (Sea Lion) submarine, which was acquired from the United States in the 1970s and was formerly named the USS Cutlass. Huang was also the leader of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Navy's 256th Submarine Squadron, before he became the chief of the general staff in 2020.

Nicknamed "Mr. Squeaky Clean" by those close to him in the armed forces, Huang was eventually tossed into the billion-dollar business of warship building, where he had to deal with individuals who wanted a piece of the action. In a recent interview, he disclosed that certain "elected officials and high-ranking military officers" had tried to pressure his subordinates on behalf of manufacturers that were tussling for contracts.

He said he had always instructed his subordinates to steer clear of any backroom dealings, but that directive resulted in relentless lobbyists making false accusations about the IDS program, in an attempt to bend him to their will.

To tackle the problem head-on, Huang embarked on a speaking tour at universities around Taiwan, including National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Ocean University in Keelung. The tour also allowed him to explain to young people the importance of the IDS program to Taiwan's national defense.

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) promotes Huang Shu-kuang to the rank of admiral second class in 2016. CNA file photo
President Tsai Ing-wen (left) promotes Huang Shu-kuang to the rank of admiral second class in 2016. CNA file photo

While Huang was commander-in-chief of the IDS program, the chief executor was Cheng Wen-lon (鄭文隆), chairman of the project's contractor CSBC Corp.

Speaking at the Narwhal's launch at a CSBC shipyard in Kaohsiung on Sept. 28, Cheng said the submarine was a "formidable" asymmetric combat weapon, and its performance data and specifications would remain classified.

The development of the Narwhal was a "very bumpy" process, but the CSBC team pushed ahead with "unprecedented tenacity" and overcame one challenge after another, Cheng said.

The biggest challenge was the sourcing of parts and components, most of which were not available in Taiwan, he said.

That situation, however, presented an opportunity for Taiwanese manufacturers to diversify their skills and expand into making submarine parts and components, thus giving Taiwan's shipbuilding and metallurgy sectors a boost, Cheng said.

In the process, about 100 Taiwan companies and institutions such as China Steel Corp. and National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) became part of the supply chain, which resulted in 40 percent of all the parts and components for the Narwhal being made in Taiwan.

The seven-year development and building of the Narwhal involved nearly 1,000 personnel from CSBC, NCSIST, the Naval Shipbuilding Development Center, and the Navy's 256th Submarine Squadron, which Cheng likened to an extended intensive combat mission that could not have been accomplished without the understanding and sacrifice of the participants' families.

"Like the equipment and technology, not everything that occurred during the building of the Narwhal will be known to the world, but this epic project in Taiwan's history of indigenous warship building will forever be remembered," he said.

The submarine is scheduled to undergo harbor and sea acceptance tests soon, after which it will have operational testing and evaluation before being officially commissioned into the Navy, Cheng said.

The launch of Taiwan's first domestically built defense submarine represented a milestone on a long journey that was fraught with setbacks.

Taiwan's submarine acquisition history dates back to the 1960s, when it purchased a small fleet of CE2F and CT2F chariots from the Italian submarine manufacturer Cos.Mo.S. The wet sub models were decommissioned in 1973, along with two SX-404 midget submarines bought from the same manufacturer.

Huang Shu-kuang (center) at the ceremony in Kaohsiung Thursday. Photo courtesy of Presidential Office
Huang Shu-kuang (center) at the ceremony in Kaohsiung Thursday. Photo courtesy of Presidential Office

In 1973, the U.S. sold Taiwan two decommissioned submarines, the USS Cutlass and USS Tusk, which were then commissioned into the Taiwan Navy and renamed the "Hai Shih" and "Hai Pao" (Seal), respectively. Currently, those two submarines are being used only for training purposes, due to their age.

Under the Chien Lung Project that was initiated in 1979, Taiwan placed an order with the Dutch shipbuilder Rijn-Schelde-Verolme to procure two modified Zwaardvis submarines, which were delivered in 1987 and 1988 and named the "Hai Lung" (Sea Dragon) and "Hai Hu" (Sea Tiger) respectively. The two subs were upgraded by the Navy and are still in service.

In a bid to expand Taiwan's fleet of submarines, then President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1995 established an "office for submarine development" under the Kuang Hua No. 8 Project, but by 2001 the project was shut down, after then-U.S. President George W. Bush approved the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan.

That sales package, however, was stymied, due to a lack of funding, as the Kuomintang (KMT), which was then in opposition but held a legislative majority, voted with the other opposition party to slash the budget for the purchase of the eight U.S. submarines.

The current IDS program was planned under the administration of former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and implemented by Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party, after she became president in 2016.

In 2016, the contractual terms of the IDS program were finalized, and a test run was conducted for some equipment. After Tsai officially launched the program in 2017, her administration encountered great difficulty sourcing the "red zone equipment," including combat and sonar systems, torpedoes and torpedo tubes, which at one point almost caused the program to stall.

(By Novia Huang, Wen Kuei-hsiang, Matt Yu and Sean Lin)


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