By now, it is all but a foregone conclusion that submarines will continue to be on the wish list of key navies in the Indo-Pacific, even if it means stretching their resource limits to attain this elusive goal. The fact that even such small, traditionally under-resourced navies as Bangladesh have recently laid their hands on a pair of second-hand Chinese submarines means that the projected 250-300 submarines lurking in the regional waters by 2030 is not a remote eventuality.
It is true that such technically complex platforms as submarines would require considerable time and resources to acquire, operate, and maintain as a viable operational force. Yet it is also true that the process of this regional proliferation offers a tight window for necessary measures to prevent and mitigate the underwater safety risks therein.
As Rear Admiral Timothy Lo, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Head of Naval Operations, put it during the second Submarine Operational Safety Conference (SMOSC) held in South Korea back in June 2016: “Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen a proliferation of submarines and submarine-operating navies. When the underwater environment becomes more crowded, the risk of an inadvertent collision is higher.”
Dangers Lurking in the Deep
In outlining the risks therein, the facts really do speak for themselves. Geography is immutable: the Indo-Pacific littorals constitute congested water spaces – over, on, and under which dense traffic exists. The South China Sea, for example, where submarines are likely to operate in the backdrop of the persistent maritime disputes, is only around 60-70 meters deep, especially in the southern reaches.
It does not help that deep-draught vessels increasingly ply the regional waters. Ultra-Large Crude Carriers (ULCCs) and giant container ships, such as the Maersk Triple E class for instance, have draughts around 16-24.5 meters deep, leaving little space for maneuver which “is more akin to a two-dimensional space rather than a three-dimensional space for submarines” as former Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Lai Chung Han aptly described back in 2015. The margin for error is too narrow for submariners.
Add to this the persistent submarine proliferation in the region, where not only are existing operators expanding their fleet, but newcomers are also joining the fray and new submarines are getting increasingly quieter. Indeed, the region is not just witnessing a buildup in terms of submarines but other asymmetric countermeasures such as anti-submarine equipped aerial and surface assets. There is an entire ecosystem of platforms that enhances detection and tracking, while also complicating underwater safety at the same time.
Limitations of Reactive Safety
To be sure, some of the regional navies have been exploring ways to mitigate underwater risks, chiefly through the acquisition of submarine emergency response capabilities such as rescue vessels. Yet there are also clear limitations to such measures. First, only better-endowed navies can afford to acquire these assets since they add on to the already exorbitant costs of building an underwater force. Where no independent rescue capabilities are available, regional navies are seen to be striking up bilateral submarine rescue pacts.
Secondly, submarine emergency response, as its name implies, is a reactive undertaking – essentially waiting for disaster to strike and then hope to mitigate it. Quick response may not always be forthcoming, and this could mean life and death for the submariners in distress. Recall the procrastination amidst internal bureaucratic constraints and suspicions about foreign intervention within the Russian establishment that led to delays in rescuing those few survivors on board the submarine Kursk back in 2000.
What this region lacks is a robust preventive approach, which would complement the reactive aspect. Europe does offer a model for some of this. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has a Submarine Movement Advisory Authority to deconflict underwater activities, and there are also established procedures and standards under the auspices of NATO’s International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO). But there is no NATO in the Indo-Pacific, and given the vastly different geopolitical context, an ISMERLO analogue would likely continue to prove to be elusive in the region, at best requiring significant time and effort to build mutual confidence and trust in order to eventualize.
Information Sharing as the First Step
Nevertheless, initial if modest steps could still be undertaken that would be consistent with the geopolitical realities of the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) recently launched the Submarine Safety Information Portal (or SSIP) – a first step toward a larger operational framework for submarine safety, comprising both reactive and preventive measures.
The portal, hosted by the Information Fusion Center at the Changi Naval Base, is a centralized, multi-input information platform designed to promote voluntary sharing of non-sensitive, “live” updates of activities at sea such as movements of ULCCs, deep-sea oil rigs, submarine-cable layers, trawlers, and seismic activities (which may interfere with sonar).
It would also prove critical for the coordination of submarine rescue assets – including vessels of opportunity – should disaster strike. International liaison officers stationed at the Center would act as the conduit to facilitate access or resources for submarine rescue. The Multinational Operations and Exercises Center (MOEC) at Changi Naval Base possesses the ready infrastructure to support the essential planning and control of rescue operations if required.
Toward a More Holistic Framework
Following SSIP, the logical next steps envisaged by the RSN would entail the sharing of best practices (not just on submarine rescue, but also certification and training); the establishment of common standards, for example leveraging on the U.S. Navy’s SUBSAFE mechanism; and a submarine Code of Conduct. The last step represents an ambitious undertaking that would be feasible only once regional governments attain sufficient levels of mutual trust and confidence.
As part of common standards, Singapore has also proposed to extend the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which was promulgated by 21 regional navies at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014, to the underwater realm. This Underwater CUES seeks to outline operational safety procedures that could guide submarines. For instance, when a submarine detects another boat, if both vessels are able to reduce their speed or reverse propulsion, that would allow more time to assess the situation.
Given the heavy maritime traffic characterized by diverse types and sizes of surface vessels, the risk of collision with submarines would be of particular concern. In this regard, the Underwater CUES would also stipulate that prior to conducting an emergency surfacing action, submarines are to release a red pyrotechnic to alert surface vessels in the vicinity to give them time to clear the area.
Based on inputs from the second SMOSC, a second draft of the proposed Code would be tabled for further discussion at the upcoming SMOSC Working Group workshop in Singapore later this October.
Better Now, At Least Later Than Never
SSIP represents the first yet not less significant step toward a more holistic framework to promote submarine operational safety in the Indo-Pacific. Given the prevailing geopolitical context regional navies face, such non-intrusive mechanisms as the portal and Underwater CUES – which do not require the divulging of sensitive operational details about submarine positions and movements – may be the best way forward.
Yet getting to a political environment that would create the conditions conducive for this goal. Notably, while the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea, promulgated between ASEAN and China in September 2016, generally reaffirmed the parties’ “commitment to CUES in order to improve operational safety of naval ships and naval aircraft in air and at sea,” there is no specific mention about the underwater dimension.
As the next ASEAN chair in 2018, Singapore would be in a good position to actively push for the Underwater CUES. In the meantime, SSIP represents the best initial and possibly interim preventive mechanism navies in the Indo-Pacific could hinge on to promote submarine operational safety. It is better for regional navies to be proactive now than wait till disaster strikes.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow with the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.