Heck yes! If the rumors are true, the yet-to-be-announced Taiwan deal puts the U.S. back in the conventional sub business. I’ve seen this coming for awhile. Back in July 2008, I wrote that Fincantieri’spurchase of the Manitowoc Shipyard looked, ultimately, like a move to support the U.S. promise of subs for Taiwan. In August 2008 I followed up with some additional signals and indications, and now, it looks like my guess might be right.

At any rate, as details of the U.S.-Taiwan arms deal leaks out, the chances the Manitowoc shipyard–a legacy building site for U.S. subs–will return to the sub businesses look like they’ve gotten a substantive boost.

Appreciate the nuance, here. The best reporting to date is coming from Reuters, and they’ve offered an interesting tidbit on the Taiwan arms sale–the aid package may likely include design work for advanced subs and not the subs themselves–yet:

“The design work, estimated at $360 million, would require a U.S. company to show it had the ability to build them or had found a foreign partner that would do so, said Ed Ross, director of operations at the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency from 1994 to 2007. The cost of building eight diesel-electric submarines had been estimated at $10.2 billion and would take 10 to 15 years, he added in a telephone interview.”

So what, exactly, are some implications of granting Taiwan permission to pursue sub “design” work?

  1. It won’t totally infuriate the Chinese or Taiwan. (It’ll just make ’em angry.)
  2. It will give the U.S. an opportunity to fund design of non-nuke subs without totally infuriating nuke-loving U.S. Submariners. (It’ll just make ’em angry.)
  3. It may give the Navy a means to somewhat painlessly cancel the Manitowoc-built LCS-1 platform, throwing sub design work and potential contract work to a spurned Manitowoc yard might find some Congressional friends. (It’ll just make the locals angry–for awhile.)
  4. Though I’m looking to see the big boys (Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics) get bought off by an acceleration of the SSBN(X), any contest for non-nuclear subs may give established U.S. sub fabricators a means to weather the slow-down of the Virginia Class buy (It’ll just…well, they’re angry already, anyway.)

Keep in mind, the submarine deal is something Taiwan has long wanted, long asked for, and that the Bush Administration kinda heedlessly granted three months into his first term (and subsequently didn’t proceed upon).

So now, nine years later, Obama is trying to put this “un-backed” obligation to rest–as best he can–in a way that might benefit the U.S. a tad. At any rate, this bit of defense politics seems to be one of those interesting deals that includes everyone–and yet irks everybody, as well. We’ll see…But this “everybody gets a tiny piece holiday pie” strategy is fascinating to watch.

Remember, it might be worth reading Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work’s Navy-oriented portion of the CSBA’s Strategy for the Long Haul, particularly this passage:

“The tactical submarine fleet must develop a whole new generation of undersea
weapons and capabilities including smaller multipurpose submarines (both manned and unmanned), vehicles and weapons…”

Feed a Joint Multi-Mission Submarine some steroids (hey, it’s so new it could grow into anything) anytime before it is scheduled to reach initial operational capability in 2016, and you might even end up with a Type 212. It’d make a nice compliment to any Taiwan buy…and, so doing, tie into Robert Work’s wider interest in offering U.S. Navy platforms for export.

If the U.S. dives in, the international submarine market is going to be an incredibly interesting place. But, that said…do we really want to join the rest of the nation in exporting these things? Really? Is that wise? What’s more dangerous? A Chinese carrier-killer ballistic missile, a multi-component, multi-site weapon system held under tight central control, or a lucky sub commander (from one of any number of nations) with an anti-U.S. grudge and an American carrier coming down the maritime choke-point?

Me, I fear the latter.

Posted by Defense Springboard in Foreign Policy, Navy

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  • UltimaRatioReg

    “a lucky sub commander (from one of any number of nations) with an anti-U.S. grudge and an American carrier coming down the maritime choke-point?”

    Do you think such a situation as a hostile SS targeting a US CVN in a choke point is dependent upon whether or not the US engages in design and construction of smaller non-nuclear submarines?

    In the opinion of many, we have been foolish and short-sighted in not being squarely in the middle of warship design for foreign nations.

  • At the very least we need these for export to allies. No one is going to buy a $3/4 billion LCS, but for small navies, a d/e submarine might be a capital vessel. It sure has the mighty USN worried enough to restart her own ASW training in recent years. If they are still so effective and 1/4 or even less the price of a nuclear boat, we certainly must have some.

    Though best not to place them in the hands of traditional shipbuilders like Electric Boat or Lockheed, which would give us a 3000 ton, $3 billion conventional sub, maybe a decade or two later! Manitowoc under the tutelage of the Italians will do just fine.

  • URR–sure, I’m maintained for ages that sucks that we took our eyes off the export ball–a generation of leaders grew up thinking that our supply of old cast-offs would be in an endless supply. But that said, I’m trying to make a distinction between surface ships and subsurface. Subsurface vessel sales need to be approached with a bit more circumspection ’bout the customer than, say, oh, your average FREM frigate.

    But keep your eyes on the argument here: Again, what’s the bigger risk? A centralized semi-strategic weapon system or a stealthy semi-strategic platform whose weapons are under the command of one guy?

    Mike–I told this to ya on my site, but I’ll repeat it here–The majors are gonna say “hey, Mike & Springboard, why are you two so supportive of this Manitowoc sub thing–since you’ve been trumping every LCS-1 miss-step and price increase.” How do we get around that?

    There’s some neat small sub designs out there!

  • 12 for our friends in Taiwan …. 12 for USA (yes, I would trade 9 SSN for 12 SSK, I’ll put my kevlar on now) …. and who know, maybe a few to our friends in South America or Israel as well.

    As for fear of one guy; I am worried more about another O4 who people refuse properly vet, than some CAPT Ramius type tooling around with a “Made in USA” sticker behind him.

    Also, پاک بحریہ, I mean Pakistan Navy, has some nice French Agosta SSK with some 214 probably on the way who spend all their underway time next to those nice Strategic SLOC …. worry about them if you have a concern with a rogue SSK CO – which for the record I am not.

    There are a lot more things out there that make my spidey senses tingle – rogue SSK CO’s ain’t one of them.

    The Strategic risk posed by an undercapitalized USA shipbuilding infrastructure due to Tiffany Navy malpractice over the last decade … ummmm …. yea. That bothers me.

  • Nicely put CDR! But, seriously, in the future, with the way technology is developing I fear it’s gonna be harder to trace attribution of a subsurface strike than a big CCS-5 missile attack.

    I mean, if the sub export market is already split wide open, then, well, we might as well claim a piece of it. Fine. But I think it’s good to do some navel-gazing about the implications of this wide-ranging dissemination of sub-surface weaponry. Which we ain’t doing. (And I’d refer us all to the good CDR’s occasional glorious rants about mine warfare as exhibit A…)

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Spring, ACK MSG re: higher risk of subsurface capability in many ways. But I see it like Phib does. We build relatively small numbers (a few dozen) for selective customers. And not the jillion-dollar gold-plated monstrosities our yards are currently trending toward.

    It ain’t like we are building by the hundreds and selling them to all comers in a Marrakesh bazaar.

  • Saturn5

    Even if the Italians were to begin constructing SSK’s in USA, the German must give their consent at the first place.

    Currently Italians are building Type 212 submarines for their navy. The Type 212 submarines are of German design and its features are a German intellectual property. Therefore Germans must first give their approval to Italian’s to have them build Type 212 subs in USA.

    Are Germans ready to offend China, an important commercial partner by selling submarine plans to USA via Italians? That seems to be a big question.

  • Jumpinjill

    I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for senior bubbleheads to buy in to a diesel electric sub being designed, developed, and built in a US shipyard for a foreign customer. They’ve been trying to kill it eight years. Here’s background:


  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Are Germans ready to offend China, an important commercial partner by selling submarine plans to USA via Italians?”

    Hmmm. So how does that bode for this Thousand Ship Navy/Global Maritime Partnership idea? If the Germans won’t offend China by selling plans, will they offend China by possibly going to war with PLAN or a PRC ally at America’s request?


    DS, you left out a few things to be worried about. 1. An overcentralized shipbuilding industrial base that stifles evolutionary improvements at the margins. 2. The corrosive effect of the “nuclear cult”. Nuclear power confers many advantages. It also has costs (monetary, training, lifecycle, basing restrictions, etc). We must constantly re-evaluate these factors.

    I don’t assume that if we don’t build them, other nations won’t buy them elsewhere. And that is perhaps the biggest concern. If the US is perceived as incapable of producing relatively affordable, sufficiently capable weapons systems, it sets in motion a calculus we don’t want. Something like this, “their economy isn’t strong and they can’t afford large numbers of their best platforms. But they also can’t or won’t build cheap for themselves or others. Because of this, their numbers are necessarily limited and other nations are wavering in their defense cooperation relationships. Thus, their leadership is not unassailable. We can take some calculated risks (size of the ocean, lucky shots, risk-aversion) against their few extremely capable platforms. We win, we win big. We lose, we still win because we reset expectations.”

    Finally, don’t conflate the interests of defense contractors and United States more broadly. For defense contractors, this is about getting a piece of the market. For the US, it is about the perceived value of a nation’s relationship with the US.

  • Yeah. I agree with you. I just wish we’d managed the transition from handing out surplus hulls to selling ’em a bit better.

    I do wonder how our sbrupt departure from the small-ship business and the failure to support sorta low-end amphibs and sea control type carriers lost us a market (same with conventional subs, too). I’m not an economist, but it doesn’t take much to see see that a lot of differnt players worked hard to fill in the niches we deliberately opened–niches that we should have owned from the very beginning.

  • Submarine Iconoclast

    “I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for senior bubbleheads to buy in to a diesel electric sub ”

    JumpinJill, Dick O’Kane would weep at how true this statement has become.

    An affordable option like a few 212s in a high-low mix would help make up for our overall platform shortfall. Instead, we have squandered years pointing to numbers like “313 ships” with one hand and “50 knots” with the other as if empty policies and boutique requirements would eventually deliver cold steel in the quantities we need… all while patting ourselves on the backs for going through the motions of ensuring national security.

    Heck, maybe get creative and spend some LCS or JSF (or even FCS) money on a proven platform that would actually deliver capability. I can already see the fundamental counter-argument: shifting rice between community or service bowls isn’t cricket. My rebuttal: if we keep playing by the same gentleman’s rules of acquisition that got us here, we’ll continue to fall short of our nation’s needs. Punishing nonperformance (and rewarding performance, such as in the relatively effective Virginia program) has remarkably useful second-order organizational effects. The first-order effect (enough operational submarines to meet our many varied requirements) alone would justify the decision to add a dozen or a dozen-and-a-half conventional subs to the currently programmed force.

    High time for an outsider (SecDef? POTUS?) to demand that the Services take a round turn on consistently unacceptable performance in providing force structure. Would honoring our commitment to Taiwan provide the right opening for arresting our descent? I won’t hold my breath, but if I were N87 I’d consider the situation to be more opportunity than threat – and prepare accordingly. NR, on the other hand, has very little legitimate equity in whether conventional submarines would make a useful ADDITION to our nuclear submarine force – a point a strong SecNav and SecDef should clearly maintain.

  • Submarine Pete

    We are so enamored by our submarine fleet. It is surely a great one. We must remember that our TRAINING makes us the best!!

    There is no doubt in any submariner’s mind that any ship in the U.S. Fleet is vulnerable if and when it faces a credible convention force, trained and loaded with high tech and lethal weapons.

    The nukes have had their heads in the sand for at least the last 25 years.

    I suppose we have to wait until the inevitable – only this time it will be a very tough lesson given that we have had the capability but not the national will!!