Amid the ongoing public discourse related to the drafting of Malaysia’s first White Paper on Defense, there appears to be renewed interest today in the value of the two Scorpène-class submarines acquired for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) in 2002. There are two views about the RMN’s submarines: one view considers that it is too costly to run a submarine fleet, and the second view questions the strategic value of just having a two-boat submarine fleet. Strategic history, however, will demonstrate that the value of submarines in peace and war lies in the capabilities of submarines to stealthily conduct a wide range of operations that can generate immense strategic effects far above the vessel’s tonnage.
Malaysia’s Scorpène submarines are hunter-killer types and diesel-electric powered. They can operate submerged for up to 21 days. The two Malaysian submarines were completed and delivered in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Submarines have a multitude of functions such as gathering intelligence; carrying and launching nuclear ballistic missiles – providing a first and second strike capability – as a potent equation in nuclear deterrence strategy; launching land attack cruise missiles (such as the April 14, 2018 Tomahawk attacks against Syrian targets by U.S. and British military forces); stealthily infiltrating and exfiltrating special operations personnel; and traditional combat roles in time of war — hunting enemy submarines and sinking enemy surface ships (both naval and merchant), as well as laying mines. Most modern submarine operations focus on underwater intelligence gathering. Because of the covert nature of these operations, most people do not know that a large bulk of submarine operations are used for this role. Because of this secretive nature, the submarine force is commonly dubbed as the “silent service.”
Since the end of World War II, submarines have only twice engaged in sinking enemy ships. The strategic effects of these two sinkings, however, although not spectacular in terms of number or tonnage of ships sunk, had immense psychological impact and managed to garner consequences far above the weight of torpedoes launched.
The sinking of an Indian frigate, the INS Khukri by a Pakistani submarine, the PNS Hangor, in the 1971 India-Pakistan War had forced the Indian Navy to cancel a crucial attack on Karachi port as well as diverting and scattering valuable naval assets to search for and destroy the PNS Hangor. The fact that an enemy submarine, having just successfully sunk a frigate, was lurking in the Arabian Sea was more than enough to fuel the fear of further losses, which led to an intense anti-submarine operation to neutralize the threat.
HMS Conqueror’s sinking of ARA General Belgrano in the early stages of the Falklands War in 1982 likewise gained immense strategic effect for the British forces sailing to recapture the Falkland Islands. The entire Argentinian navy returned to port (including its sole aircraft carrier) and did not dare to venture out again during the Falklands War. Thus Argentina was not able to prevent British naval forces from launching a successful land operation that defeated the Argentinians in the Falklands. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later remarked, “The sinking of the Belgrano turned out to be one of the most decisive military actions of the war.”
Submarines are also very useful in laying mines covertly at vulnerable but important maritime areas such as enemy ports (for blockades) and in narrow chokepoints. Mines have been a very useful naval weapon and were extensively used in some of the major wars and conflicts. A significant number of surface warships, submarines, and merchant ships have been sunk by mines. For example, in World War II, thousands of mines were laid in the Baltic Sea (which was instrumental in blockading Russia), in the Atlantic (to blockade Great Britain), and around Japan (successfully blockading the Japanese islands and cutting off vital war supplies to the Japanese). Mine clearance operations are costly, difficult, and time-consuming. A modern submarine such as the RMN’s Scorpènes can carry up to 30 mines, and in war is able to covertly maneuver into enemy harbors or vital maritime chokepoints to lay its mines at selected critical locations.
Malaysia’s regional neighbors such as Singapore and Indonesia have also procured submarines with respectable operating tempos. The Republic of Singapore Navy has two operational Challenger-class submarines (formerly the Swedish Sjöormen class) and two Archer-class submarines (formerly the Swedish Västergötland class), and is acquiring four new Type 218SG subs from Germany. Indonesia operates five Type 209 submarines (of different variants) and has signed a contract for an additional three. Meanwhile, Vietnam operates six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines and Thailand plans to procure up to three Type S26T submarines from China.
These developments in the region support the thesis that Malaysia’s decision to procure the two submarines in 2002 was correct. A long time is needed not just to build a submarine (averaging six years), but also to set up the infrastructure and logistics required to support the submarine fleet, and more importantly to train a capable and experienced submarine crew and maintenance personnel. The RMN pioneering submarine crew reportedly spent four years training in France learning how to operate a submarine. The attrition rate among submariners is also high – the long time spent underwater within confines the size of two train coaches, isolation from the outside world, and its related stress and deprivations are some of the reasons why it is hard to recruit, train, and retain submarine crews.
Since the size of the RMN is small, at around 15,000 sailors, the relative manpower base to source for its submarine personnel is limited. It requires substantial effort, cost, and time to train, maintain, and manage its submarine fleet’s crew. Hence the current two-boat fleet needs to be viewed realistically not just from the angle of cost affordability and quantitative value but also the necessary manpower required to sustain its operational tempo.
Malaysia has extensive maritime interests and areas to manage, which include the Strait of Malacca and parts of the South China Sea, effectively making Malaysia responsible for some of the most important and busiest maritime sea lanes and critical choke points in the world. The two RMN submarines are essential for Malaysia’s defensive posture, which places importance on the practice of limited sea-control and anti-access naval strategies in selected maritime chokepoints and passageways.
According to the RMN’s “15-to-5 Transformation” plan, Malaysia’s navy will have a four boat submarine fleet by 2050. However, at the moment the RMN has to cope with just two submarines until budgetary funds are available to purchase more submarines and the silent service has enhanced its capacities and capabilities to man and operate a larger submarine fleet.
In view of the strategic utility and strategic history of submarines (that even a lone submarine can generate valuable strategic effects), the two Scorpène submarines, for now, are able to provide the RMN with the vital means to engage in the shadowy business of underwater warfare.
Dr. Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in strategic studies and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia.