Malaysia Launches First Submarine
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The Royal Malaysian Navy’s first diesel-powered SSK Scorpene-class attack submarine was launched on Oct. 23 at the Defence Conseil National (DCN) dockyard in Cherbourg, France. Malaysia will take delivery of the submarine in six months, adding to what some analysts view as a naval arms race in the region.
The new submarine, the KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, was one of two ordered in 2002 for $972 million. The deal with DCN and Navantia (then Izar) involved two new submarines and one used French-built Agosta 70-class submarine, the Quessant, as a training platform. Under the agreement, the fore sections are built in Cherbourg by DCN and the aft sections are built in Cartagena, Spain, by Navantia.
The second submarine, the KD Tun Razak, will be launched in 2009 and delivered to the Malaysian Navy in 2010. The two submarines will be known as the Prime Minister class. Since 2005, a 142-member Malaysian Navy crew has been training at the DCN Dockyard in Brest, France. Plans are to base the submarines at Sepanggar Bay naval base in Sabah state on Borneo, which has been undergoing a major renovation.
The submarine procurement is part of Malaysia’s effort to match developments in neighboring countries. Singapore and Indonesia operate submarines and Thailand has been discussing the idea.
According to Sam Bateman, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, the new submarines will give Malaysia a variety of options.
“Malaysia’s submarines have long range and provide Malaysia with the capability to operate covertly well out into the Indian or Pacific oceans, or along the East Asian coast to Northeast Asia, or into the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos,” he said.
Pointing out that this procurement could be seen as part of a regional arms race, and fearing an incident involving submarines, he argues there is a strong need for confidence-building measures.
“In effect, this means there is a ‘naval arms race’ with submarines in the region,” he said. “There is a very real risk of a nasty ‘intruder’ submarine incident in the future if, for example, an unidentified submarine was detected in the territorial waters of another country. Unfortunately the confidence-building procedures are not in place in the region at present to deal with such an incident, and it could easily spiral out of control, particularly if the submarine was attacked.
“Such procedures need to be discussed in an appropriate forum, perhaps the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, although submarine operations are hugely sensitive and there will be regional reluctance to open up dialogue.”
Bateman expects the submarines to be used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), covert intelligence collection and surveillance roles. The Malacca Strait has a notorious reputation for piracy, and surveillance on organized groups preying on international shipping is expected to be an important role. Also, as more submarines are launched by nations in the region, overall ASW requirements are expected to grow.
“Rather more than the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea would be the likely main operating area for Malaysia’s submarines, including in the Ambalat area off Borneo,” he said. “However, submarine operations in the South China Sea, including around the disputed Spratly Islands, would be limited in the areas which are presently poorly charted.
“Along with increased numbers of submarines in the region, we may expect to see an increase in hydrographic and oceanographic surveying to support submarine operations. Also greater emphasis may be given in regional navies to ASW.”