Submarines in Southeast Asia: Proliferation, Not a Race
Image Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Submarines in Southeast Asia: Proliferation, Not a Race

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In early January this year, Vietnam formally joined the Southeast Asian “submarine club” with its first Russian-built Kilo-class submarine christened the Hanoi. Not too long ago, Jakarta expressed interest in acquiring the same model of submarines from Russia or more boats from South Korea, ostensibly to augment the incoming new fleet of three SS-209 boats purchased from South Korea back in August 2012. Just recently in November 2013, Singapore contracted German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp to develop the Type-218SG, the first of two boats slated to enter service in 2020.

Other Southeast Asian countries have evinced interest in acquiring an undersea warfighting capability, but were prevented from doing so largely because of budgetary constraints. In the case of Thailand, even though no submarines were bought after the German offer of second-hand Type-206A boats lapsed in March 2012, the Royal Thai Navy has reportedly constructed submarine basing support and training facilities in anticipation of future acquisitions. The Philippine Navy has been eyeing submarines but for now, decided to prioritize the use of limited funds to beef up surface and naval aviation forces, with anti-submarine warfare capabilities tipped as the next major focus to substitute for a submarine capability.

A “Submarine Race” in Southeast Asia?

This recent spate of submarine acquisitions being implemented or planned has characterized Southeast Asian naval modernization efforts to date, which could lead to observers highlighting the revival of a “submarine race” in the region after the bout of submarine purchases made in the 1990s to early-2000s. A superficial survey of open remarks by the region’s defense and naval planners seemed to allude to this. For example, Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro reportedly remarked that the submarine purchase, among other defense equipment, is designed to signal Jakarta’s commitment towards Indonesian defense modernization so that “we can keep up with ASEAN members.” Bangkok referred to the submarine programs of neighboring Southeast Asian navies when it emphasized the need for submarines as part of the country’s naval capabilities.

However, technical and geopolitical indications point to neither the existence of a “submarine race” nor the prospective emergence of such a phenomenon in the foreseeable future. Any negative effects of submarine proliferation in Southeast Asia appear to be at least counterbalanced by rising trends of regional cooperation in the submarine field.

Key Patterns in Submarine Capabilities

While there are evident efforts among regional submarine operators to look beyond a mere “fleet-in-being” force to create a more effective and sustainable force to guard their national waters, there are no indications of a rapid expansion of submarine forces. The Vietnamese submarine force will number six boats by 2016 while the Indonesians will muster three new submarines around the same time, whereas the existing pair of West German-built Type-209s will most likely be decommissioned. With the progressive phasing out of the ageing Challenger-class boats by then, Singapore will most likely have just two Archer-class submarines in service before the first Type-218SG is inducted. In short, the number of submarines in service throughout Southeast Asia will remain more or less stable within the next decade, with new boats supplanting old ones for existing submarine users while any expansion will take place over a significant span of time, primarily dependent on the countries’ economic health.

There is also no indication of a qualitative submarine race. When Singapore became the first Southeast Asian navy to introduce submarines with the air-independent propulsion (AIP), designed to prolong the underwater endurance of conventional submarines with reduced need for snorkeling, the consequent submarine buys of the other regional navies did not include that capability in response. The only area where there is some “catching up with the Joneses” has been submerged-launch anti-ship missiles. The Royal Malaysian Navy’s Scorpene-class submarines touted the region’s first such capability in the form of SM-39 Exocet, followed by Vietnam with the Klub-S, while Indonesia’s intent to purchase Kilo boats from Russia is intricately linked to a similar capability. In fact, new conventional submarines on the global market are typically offered with submerged-launch anti-ship missiles as an optional part of the entire sales package. This is an international trend in contemporary proliferation of submarine technologies, by no means unique to Southeast Asia. Navies in the Northeast and South Asian sub-regions have in fact long possessed such a capability.

Submarine-launched cruisemissiles (SLCM) for land attack purposes, however, represent a wholly different ballgame. Such weapons are potentially destabilizing, especially when launched from a platform as stealthy as a submarine, since they can project offensive firepower at standoff ranges deep into another country’s territory. It is noteworthy that whereas other major navies in the region have either acquired or explored the SLCM option, at present no Southeast Asian navy is seriously considering this capability. Another point is that none of the ASEAN member states is partner to the Missile Technology Control Regime, which restricts proliferation of missiles (and associated technologies) with a 500-kilogram payload out to a minimum range of 300 kilometers.

It is not yet ascertained whether the Kilo boats, which Indonesia is reportedly keen to purchase, will be armed with SLCM, such as the Klub-S land-attack variant. Scant information has emerged thus far regarding the capabilities of the Type-218SG. Nevertheless, SLCM is unlikely to appear on the future wish-lists of Southeast Asian navies unless serious evolution of geopolitical circumstances compels the introduction of such a weapon into the region. For now and the foreseeable future, AIP and submerged-launch anti-ship missiles constitute key submarine capability patterns in Southeast Asia.

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