San Diego Union-Tribune

April 27, 2001

Navy brass may try to sink submarine sale to Taiwan
   Leadership against export of U.S. boats

By Otto Kreisher 

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's pledge to supply eight diesel-powered submarines to Taiwan could aggravate the U.S. Navy's leadership as much as it does China if the deal requires the subs to be built in the United States.

Navy leaders, particularly submariners, have fought all past proposals to allow American shipbuilders to produce conventional-powered subs for export. The Navy cites concerns over sharing advanced technology. But naval experts said the Navy really fears that the availability of cheap, U.S.-made diesel submarines could undermine its insistence on the more capable but much more expensive nuclear boats.

Bush triggered a sharp reaction internationally with the announcement Tuesday that he had approved the sale to Taiwan of a package of weapons including eight diesel submarines.

China denounced the submarines as offensive weapons, and the major Western nations that produce advanced conventional subs said they would not help supply modern submarines to Taiwan.

That could require the government to have the diesel-electric submarines produced by American shipbuilders, which have not built a conventional boat for 40 years.

But Navy leaders might fight such a move, as they have in the past.

Ingalls Shipyard, which built conventional submarines for the Navy until the transition to an all-nuclear sub fleet in the 1960s, is seeking permission to build two diesel boats for Egypt. Ingalls, in Pascagoula, Miss., proposes building an advanced, Dutch-designed diesel submarine equipped with combat systems from U.S. companies.

The State Department approved a license for the sale in October 2000, "but we need to clear additional hurdles," including congressional approval, an Ingalls spokesman said. Asked if the yard would be willing to build the subs for Taiwan, he said, "We stand ready to assist."

Navy officials have argued repeatedly over the years against allowing U.S. shipbuilders to produce submarines for export.

"They have been resistant or opposed to the idea for many years," said Ronald O'Rourk, a naval programs analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "Their primary stated reason is that this activity would run the risk of technology transfer." Naval expert Norman Polmar said the Navy's argument is weak because little of the advanced technology used in nuclear submarines is applicable to diesels.

The real reason for the Navy's opposition is that "they're afraid the Congress would force them to buy diesels," which are much cheaper, he said.

According to a Navy report, the best diesel subs made by a Western nation cost about $500 million, compared with nearly $2 billion for the Navy's newest nuclear boats.

The Navy report notes that a diesel sub, operating on its batteries, is quieter than a nuclear boat. But the Navy argues that diesel submarines are inadequate for its missions, which require long transits to operating areas off foreign shores and prolonged periods hidden underwater.