More U.S. heavyweight torpedoes for Taiwan

In a move that has brought the usual condemnation from Beijing, the U.S. will supply Taiwan with a further 18 Mk 48 Mod 6 heavyweight torpedoes. These are most likely for two Chien Lung class diesel electric submarines, which are derivatives of the Dutch Walrus design. Built in the 1980s, they are still relatively stealthy and have been progressively upgraded and are believed to have the ability to fire a variety of advanced U.S. weapons, including Harpoon surface strike missiles.

These torpedoes have a 290kg warhead – more than sufficient to sink or catastrophically damage any ship in the PLA(AN), including their aircraft carriers. Originally designed to counter fast and very deep diving Soviet submarines, such as the Akula class, Mk 48s have been progressively upgraded to improve their performance in littoral and shallow waters, where bottom reverberations can often confuse a torpedo sonar. While the Straits of Taiwan have a couple of deep pockets of water, the undersea terrain is generally quite shallow and so a torpedo capable of operating at different depths is essential for self-defence.

As Beijing’s military planners know, a successful invasion of Taiwan could only be carried out by a major amphibious assault. Air power alone could not support a major lodgement because the island at its closest point is still 130km from the mainland – and so a fleet of ships would be required to deliver heavy equipment, ammunition and stores. Therefore even a single submarine with a full load of Mk 48 torpedoes is a powerful deterrent.

A great deal has been accurately written about PLA(N) anti-submarine warfare capabilities, which have been growing rapidly in terms of both technology and numbers. However, submarines remain a powerful asymmetric weapon – and all that a well trained Taiwanese CO and crew would need to do was settle their craft on the floor of the sea, which everything switched off except for the most vital crew support equipment and then wait for an invasion fleet to come within range. Quiet submarines sitting on the sea floor are notoriously difficult to detect – and even harder to target.

Given how quiet modern torpedoes are, this hypothetical submarine might be able to fire two salvoes of six weapons each before even being detected. Since they are wire-guided for much of their run, they could successfully be launched against twelve separate large targets within a 50km radius, such as amphibious and supply ships – as well as aircraft carriers, large surface combatants and enemy submarines. The simultaneous loss of so much life and tonnage is not something that any navy – or government – in its right mind would risk.

This deterrent effect is not even factoring in Taiwan’s indigenous highly secret submarine program. Construction of the facility in the city of Kaohsiung commenced in May last year – and it has been hoped to have it open and building the first of a planned eight vessels about now. This activity has been hit by COVID-19 travel restrictions. Local media is reporting that experts from a who’s-who-of submarine-building nations have been held up, including: the U.S.; U.K.; Germany; Italy; Japan; and South Korea. Combined with Taiwan’s indigenous expertise in high technology heavy engineering, this looks like a powerful combination.

In providing the required notification to Congress on May 20, the U.S. Department of Defense said:

“This proposed sale serves U.S. national, economic, and security interests by supporting the recipient’s continuing efforts to modernise its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability. The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region.

“The proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability in current and future defensive efforts. The recipient will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen homeland defense. The recipient will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment into its armed forces.”

DRA will continue to provide updates on this program.

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