As Asian Sub Forces Grow, So Do Concerns
Motivation Behind Submarine Acquisitions More Complicated Than Defending Shipping
By JUSTIN GOLDMAN and WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE and TAIPEI — The increasing numbers of submarines operating in the Asia-Pacific region complicate efforts at maritime confidence-building, preventive diplomacy and safe sub operations, particularly in crowded waterways such as the Malacca Strait, where millions of tons of oil and natural gas containers transit between the Middle East and East Asia.
Submarines are an attractive naval weapon in the region, and the price tag for new diesel-electric vessels, such as the $200 million Russian-built Kilo class, makes them an affordable status symbol for countries, such as Singapore and Vietnam, concerned about their neighbors.
Over the next decade, the submarine market for Asia is estimated at about $35 billion, with 10 countries procuring or planning to procure up to 90 submarines, according to regional observers.
Recent new submarine purchasers include Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. China continues to expand its submarine fleet, with about 60 submarines of different classes. Taiwan wishes to procure eight new submarines, but the sale has been on hold since 2001 due largely to Washington’s reluctance to anger China.
Malaysia has two new Scorpeneclass diesel submarines built jointly by France and Spain. In 2009, Vietnam ordered six Kilo submarines from Russia while Indonesia plans to procure two subs in the next few years. South Korea and Japan continue building submarines while India and Pakistan push forward on new submarine procurements.
Interest in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities has also increased after North Korea used a mini-submarine to sink a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in early 2010. Japan also has expressed renewed interest in ASW capabilities due to continued problems with Chinese submarines intruding into Japanese waters.
Whatever the reasons, the proliferation of submarines in the region may be destabilizing, said Sam Bateman, maritime security adviser at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
For China, Japan, India and South Korea, the motivations are simple: safeguarding the sea lanes of communication for energy security, Bateman said. For these countries, the role would be more traditional, such as defending shipping against submarine attack and, if need be, attacking shipping. There would also be additional roles, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, focused on piracy and terrorist activities.
For other Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, the motivation is far more basic: ISR missions aimed not just at pirates but at each other. The increase in submarine procurement in the region has created a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, Bateman said.
ISR is one vital mission that submarines excel in, said Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International, a naval analysis firm.
“Deployment of special operations forces is another likely related mission to be part of the task set for subs in the region in the future,” he said.
While Asian countries are acquiring more submarines, the U.S. is increasing its submarine patrols in the area. The U.S. has begun homeporting about 60 percent of its submarine fleet in the Pacific. In mid-January, the USS Hawaii (SSN 776) visited Singapore’s Changi Naval Base to highlight the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate in Asia-Pacific littorals.
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine arrived in Singapore on a theater security engagement port call as part of its first Western Pacific deployment, said the Hawaii’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Steve Mack.
The visit demonstrates the submarine’s ability to operate in shallow waters along littorals, he said. This, combined with the endurance due to its nuclear reactors, makes the Hawaii a force central to the evolving dynamics in the Asia-Pacific and further.
“In the normal course of the dayto-day naval life, managing the increased underwater traffic” in the region will be a challenge, Nugent said. “What the U.S. Navy calls ‘waterspace management’ will require some sort of minimal framework of bilateral and multilateral agreements among those operating subs to avoid unwanted incidents,” he said. “At the same time a sub’s strongest asset — stealth — is a strong enough incentive not to share even minimal information on their locations and status.” Other concerns that many Southeast Asian countries have not addressed are submarine accidents that result in trapped crews. During the Hawaii’s visit to Singapore, Mack and key personnel visited the Singaporean Navy’s submarine support vessel, MV Swift Rescue, which is outfitted to launch a submersible rescue vehicle.
Last August, Singapore held the Pacific Reach exercise, the largest and most sophisticated submarine rescue exercise in the Asia-Pacific, bringing together submarine rescue counterparts from Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the U.S., along with 13 observer nations, including Malaysia. Last June, three U.S. guidedmissile submarines, whose intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) launchers were converted to fire conventional weapons, visited Pacific Rim ports: the Ohio to Subic Bay in the Philippines; the Michigan to Pusan, South Korea; and the Florida to the Indian Ocean outpost of Diego Garcia. The visit of the Hawaii reinforces the 2011 National Military Strategy that states the U.S. must invest new attention in Southeast Asia.
“U.S. Navy submarines have a key role to play in bolstering U.S. maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific region, not only to counter potential threats [China, North Korea] but even more to work together with increasingly capable and numerous submarines of our allies and friends in the region,” said Stan Weeks, naval specialist at SAIC.
While Mack has spent nearly a quarter of a century with the U.S. Submarine Force, regional navies which have more recently begun operating submarines may not have the benefit of such experience.
“Navies operating submarines must be confident that their submarine commanding officers have sufficient skills and experience to handle serious incidents, including ones that could escalate into conflict,” Bateman said.
By expanding engagement with such nations as Singapore and Malaysia, the U.S. can help build the capacity of commanders and crews so these regional navies can safely operate in the undersea environment. The maritime geography, complex oceanography and volume of shipping traffic increase the difficulty of operating in East Asian waters, Bateman said.
As additional regional navies join the submarine ranks, bolstering the skills of their personnel will be essential to good order at sea, he said.