Conventional submarine centre of gravity moves East

Kym Bergmann / Singapore & Vladimir Karnazov / Langkawi

In a reflection of global economic and technological changes since the Second World War, some nations have given up the ability to produce conventional submarines and new players are emerging. Countries that are no longer in the game are the United States and Britain – concentrating exclusively on nuclear boats – as well as Italy and the Netherlands. These latter two still operate diesel-electric submarines, but seem to have given up the desire to construct them. Sweden continues to produce submarines, but is the first country to give up national ownership of the company undertaking the work following the sale of Kockums to Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.

At the end of the Second World War the only nation in Asia with a history of building major conventional submarines was Japan. To this can now be added: India; Australia; China; and South Korea. The first two have the ability to manufacture submarines under license – though India is moving towards indigenous capabilities for nuclear boats – while Japan and China have the know-how to design and produce their own craft. South Korea is in an intermediate position with manufacturing ability beyond question and the country is now also taking the first tentative steps towards an export design – leaning heavily on German technology – with three submarines being built by Daewoo for Indonesia. North Korea produces mini subs up to 300 tonnes displacement – one of which sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010.

Three nations have the ability to design and build both conventional and nuclear submarines: France, Russia and now China. It is only the latter two that operate combined fleets, with the French Navy – like the US and UK – opting for all-nuclear fleets. India also now operates a mixed fleet, and is hoping to introduce the indigenous nuclear powered Arihant class into service soon. Curiously, the next generation of Indian conventional submarines will still be an imported design in the form of the French ‘Scorpene’. The first Indian nuclear submarine to enter service is the imported INS Chakra – an Akulla II leased from Russia in 2004.

The reasons for this substantial geographical change in submarine production capabilities are complex. Both the Netherlands and Italy were producers and operators of high quality conventional designs, but both found the cost of staying in the business too high. The UK and France moved to all nuclear fleets (though France produces conventional submarines for export) partially for cost reasons – when possessing an undersea nuclear deterrent force was their highest priority – and they no longer possessed the military budgets to simultaneously operate mixed fleets. This decision was made easier by the allocation within NATO of various submarine responsibilities, where missions better suited to conventional submarines – such as SSK operations – fell on countries astride the Baltic Sea, especially West Germany. This partially explains the continuing strong position of German submarine design on the export front, which started with the Type 209 series and now with the addition of Type 214s.

While the US had the economic size to maintain both a conventional and nuclear fleet, the hugely influential Admiral Hyman Rickover decided in the early 1950s to go down the all-nuclear path. As a consequence the United States does not sell submarines, though it does release some technology to countries such as Britain and Australia. Russia – and previously the USSR – persevered with both conventional and nuclear submarines that are continuing to enjoy design advances and export success after the economic hiatus of the early 1990s.

So why are Asian nations becoming increasingly heavily involved in submarine production – especially conventionally powered ones? Because they can. China has been investing heavily because their naval doctrine is to be able to push the USN back out to the second island chain and beyond. Submarines are an excellent sea denial asset and China is believed to be examining several design possibilities for future classes. More on this later.

Japan has a long and distinguished history of submarine production and as an island nation wishes to be able to safeguard sea lines of communication. Japan has built the world’s largest conventional submarine – the I400 Class. These were two 6,000 tonne beasts constructed during the Second World War to attack the Panama Canal with embarked seaplanes – from the Atlantic Ocean side. Japan is prevented by its pacifist constitution from exporting military products, including submarines, but there are signs that this situation might change. Australia has had some preliminary discussions with Japan about gaining access to that country’s diesel-electric propulsion technology as a possible alternative to the trouble plagued Hedemora diesels of the Collins Class.

South Korea, India and Australia have all been acquiring the skills not only to manufacture submarines under license, but also to develop indigenous designs. The former two countries have arguably had more success to date, though with Australia looking to eventually introduce a new class of 12 conventional submarines, that country, too, will be ramping up its skill base. Another Asian nation that might also enter the submarine production field is Taiwan, which is believed to be considering building its own submarines.

It is too early to predict that Asia will one day overtake Europe in producing leading edge conventional submarines, but the possibility is not farfetched due to the large number of technology transfer programs that have been put in place. However, for the moment design expertise for diesel-electric submarines remains substantially in the hands of existing producers.

Developments in China are especially interesting. That country certainly added a new dimension to IDEX’2013 and LIMA’2013 by participating in those shows with stands. The wares on display included a scaled model of the S20 diesel-electric submarine, the first-ever submersible vessel from China specially developed for export. With this, the People Republic of China has filed an application (figuratively speaking) to join the very narrow club of nations exporting conventional submarines. China comes in after two other recent applicants, South Korea and Spain. The latter country has split from France and is now returned to the field of submarine design and production in its own right, while South Korea is benefiting from German technology transfer.

LIMA’2013 was the first air and maritime show on the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi to have a Chinese exhibitor with a stand. During conferences and press briefings at LIMA’2013, the Malaysian defense minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi touched on China several times. Answering a question whether Malaysian government and the military are concerned with growing Chinese naval might, and expanding presence, he answered: “They have been here for ever! We have lived with them by our side for centuries. We do not have issues with China”.

This explains the fact that China Shipbuilding & Offshore Co. Ltd. (CSOC, actually received an invitation from the Malaysian side to take part in LIMA’2013. In other words, Chinese industry is now a welcomed partner for Malaysia, so that collaboration programs between the two countries shall be considered a future possibility. CSOC is a subsidiary of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), one of the two largest shipbuilding conglomerates in PRC with nearly a thousand enterprises and a workforce of 300,000.

A CSOC spokesman told media members that “LIMA is very impressive and interesting” and that his company “enjoys the opportunity to exchange information”. CSOC will certainly take part on the next show on Langkawi in 2015, he added. A number of countries in the region already operate ships built by CSOC. The spokesman said that the company is offering to its traditional overseas customers and potential clients landing platform docks (LPDs), frigates, fast craft and submarines, adding that exportable versions are similar to the baseline designs already in service with the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN).

Information available on the S20 remains scarce: the Chinese manning their stands briefed spoke only to invited guests. Graphics indicated that the S20 can attack surface targets using “anti-ship missile”, lay “mines”, launch “torpedoes” (with no indication of intended targets) and release “frogman”. Nothing indicated the ability to launch the long-range CH-SS-NX-13 ASCM or any other sort of land-strike missiles (which might be of interest to some potential customers, knowing that PLAN’s diesel-electric boats are land-strike capable). The scaled model itself was relatively schematic, with no cutaways. It indicated presence of six torpedo tubes in the nose section and seven-blade propeller in the tail with highly curved blades.

In appearance, the S20 bears resemblance to the Yuan class or Type 041. The latter is believed to have an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, most likely employing Stirling type of engines (which, again, might be of interest to potential customers). By US estimates, the Yuan class possesses a lower relative detectability than the Song. By noise characteristics, the Yang is placed in between the Project 636 and the Type 039, according to Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).

Making an exportable version of the series produced Yang does make sense, as this promises reduced costs, parts commonality and interoperability with PLAN assets. Currently, China is known to have in series production only one diesel-electric boat, with 11 Type 041 vessels completed in 2009-2012 timeframe.

The potential of the local industry has allowed PLAN to keep a steady-state force of conventional submarine force at roughly 50 units throughout this century. Construction rate has been about 2.2 per year in 1995-2012 timeframe, with PLAN intake rising to 2.8 with Russian-built Kilo class included. Ever-growing potential of the local industry leaves little doubt about PRC’s ability to deliver obligations before foreign customers if there will be some making decision in favor of Chinese submarines.

Today, China is one of the established submarines operators, along with India, Pakistan, Iran, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and both Koreas. All of them continue building up their submarine fleets. Countries that recently added submarines to their assets or have placed orders include Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Naturally, this fact motivates other countries in the region to consider submersible assets for the navies of their own. “These facts give a clear indication of ongoing arms race in the region. We see a number of new nations coming to possess underwater capabilities and many more considering such a move”, says Andrei Baranov who leads the exportable diesel electric submarine operations at Russia’s Rubin submarine designer. There are quite a few of disputed islands in the Asia-Pacific waters. Submarines are seen as the right argument in defending a smaller nation’s claims to these islands in the case when these are disputed by a larger nation with far bigger naval forces. “Submarines are the sort of weapons that can be successfully employed in the region”, Baranov insists. “There are indications that many nations of the region are going to buy submarines… and buy them in worthwhile quantities”, he continues. For example, Bangladesh indicated its intent to follow the trend as well as Thailand. The Philippines may also join in – though all these countries face budget constraints and competing demands on expenditure.

South East Asia is becoming a very lucrative market for shipbuilding companies. Traditional suppliers of such equipment in Germany, Russia and France hope for a big portion of orders. But they are to meet growing competition from within the region, notably from the Korean and Chinese manufacturers. Viewed from this perspective, the presence of those at IDEX and LIMA with their wares on display makes no surprise.

The sensitivity of the situation is that, while offering the S20 for export, China continues to import Russian submarines. In addition to 12 Kilos – the last batch of which was accepted in 2006 – PRC has recently ordered from Russia four submarines of the Amur 1650 design – which is similar to the S20. This fact might give a third country seeking to procure submarines a base to believe that the Russian design is somewhat more advanced. This, however, will hardly produce a worthwhile affect on the S20 target market. Its core is likely to be made of traditional clients for Chinese military equipment, the countries that receive help from China or in other ways dependant on PRC and motivated/inclined to buy “made in China” products.


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