SEOUL, South Korea — Taiwan on Thursday officially unveiled its first domestically built submarine, showcasing both a potentially potent new weapon and the sophistication of the island’s military-industrial complex.
The Haikun, or “Narwhal” in English, its bows draped in a Taiwanese flag, debuted at a ceremony in a shipyard in the southern city of Kaohsiung. The first of eight boats ordered, the vessel will start sea trials next month prior to delivery to the fleet by the end of 2024.
While the fledgling Taiwanese sub fleet cannot hope to halt a potential cross-Taiwan Straits invasion by Beijing, due to the channel’s unsuitability for underwater warfare, the force could present major problems for any potential Chinese naval blockade.
“With our first domestically produced submarine, Taiwan has taken a substantial step in boosting self-sufficiency in defense [and] protecting its territorial waters,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in a post on social media.
The apparent success of Taiwanese shipyard CSBC in overcoming engineering challenges — and delivering the sub two years ahead of earlier estimates — defies skeptics who thought Taiwan’s domestic defense industry was not up to the job. Various reports have suggested that Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Italy, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. have all supplied technological or material help to Taiwan’s program.
Susan Oudkirk, the de facto U.S. envoy to Taiwan, attended the sub ceremony, according to local media reports.
It is the second major defense program ordered by Ms. Tsai, whose ruling Democratic Party strongly leans toward independence from the mainland. The first, for indigenous jet trainer aircraft, is expected to be deployed in 2025.
China, which has stepped up its military intimidation of the island democracy in recent months, claims to be unimpressed by the sub’s development. “The idea of Taiwan’s submarine deployment plan to block the [Chinese military] from entering the Pacific Ocean is daydreaming,” state-controlled Chinese news website the Global Times editorialized earlier this week.
The newspaper asserted that China “has already constructed a multidimensional anti-submarine network all around the island of Taiwan.”
An analyst familiar with Taiwan’s defense industry said on background that there was reason for optimism that the line of new Taiwanese submarines could prove effective.
“Taiwan builds [commercial] ships very well, and I have heard from foreign diplomats who have been into their naval facilities that they are quite impressive,” the person said. “But what weapons suite it has on board, we don’t know at this point.”
The submarine program, with a price tag estimated at $16 billion, has proven controversial in Taiwan.
“The expense for this is astronomical, and there is a debate in Taiwan, and elsewhere, over whether it is better served acquiring asymmetric capabilities,” the analyst said. “But it is important from a national pride perspective: When the Taiwanese put their mind to it, they can pull it off.”