Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

One of the more poorly equipped Asia-Pacific militaries is the Philippines, but even this money-starved force is calling for submarines to be fielded for deterrence effect. Earlier this year the Philippine Navy outlined the structure of its envisioned future fleet, and it included three submarines. However, such underwater ‘force multipliers’ are extremely costly to buy and operate, as Malaysia found out this with its two Scorpènes. Their purchase cost MYR4.3 billion, but maintaining them for the first five years alone is budgeted at MYR3 billion! Although a Philippine acquisition of submarines may sound far-fetched, it does demonstrate the regional rush to field these underwater assets. In actuality, the Philippines does not have to rely on purchasing its own submarines, for its closest ally possesses the world’s most capable fleet.

In September, USS Hawaii, a Virginia-class attack boat, motored into Subic Bay and moored alongside the tender USS Emory S. Land. This may not seem a particularly significant event, but taken in context, it was. This was the third visit of a US Navy (USN) submarine to Subic Bay since May. US officials described the visit as routine, but it is indicative of the shadowy work submarines are performing in Asian waters where territorial disputes have become extremely heated. The USA’s “strategic pivot” announced by President Barack Obama last November is already a reality. Significantly, Subic Bay is the closest friendly port for USN warships monitoring the extensive People’s Liberation Navy (PLAN) submarine base on Hainan Island. It is unclear what US forces are doing under the waves, but more than 50% of USN attack submarine missions are typically in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) arena. The region’s maritime domain is becoming increasingly complicated and busy.

The ‘surge’
Conventional submarines are small enough to approach enemy coastlines and conduct spying missions such as tapping undersea cables or electronically eavesdropping on targets ashore. They can also transport elite teams of Special Forces. These boats rely on stealth, and loaded with torpedoes and missiles, they can threaten surface fleets in times of combat. This article looks at the region’s ‘submarine surge’, as well as discussing some of the technologies available for new-build and older vessels.

The USN is shifting its balance of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By 2020, 60% of American submarines will be based in the Pacific, including some of its most advanced designs. Presently, about 31 attack boats are in the Pacific, utilising bases at Hawaii, Guam and Japan. An American submarine typically stays on station for 60 days, but dedicated tenders allow submarines to forward deploy and conduct long-term missions.

It is not just the USA that is bringing more submarines to Asia-Pacific waters. One American defence industry representative described Asian countries as “joining the poker game”. For instance, the archipelagic nation of Indonesia confirmed a US $1.4 billion contract with DSME in August 2012 for three Type 209/1200 boats. This makes South Korea Asia’s first submarine exporter. Another Southeast Asian country increasing its submarine fleet is Vietnam. Hanoi ordered six Russian Kilo-class submarines, armaments and associated infrastructure in December 2009 for US $3.2 billion, with first delivery due next year. In addition, a highly strategic submarine base is being built at Cam Ranh on the southeast coast with Russian assistance.

Submarine type
Country Conventional Nuclear-Powered Coastal/Inshore
Australia 6 – –
China 52 6 –
Indonesia 2 (+3) – –
Japan 18 (+4) – –
Malaysia 2 – –
North Korea 22 – 48
Russia 18 – –
Singapore 5 – –
South Korea 11 – 12
Taiwan 4 – –
Vietnam (+6) – 2
US Navy Pacific Fleet – 39 –
Note: numbers in brackets refer to confirmed future acquisitions.
Figure 1 – Regional submarine inventories

When it comes to Western submarine manufacturers, choices are relatively limited. The most successful products are the German Type 209 and Russian Project 877/636 Kilo designs. The major producers of diesel-electric craft are Navantia in Spain, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) in Germany, Kockums in Sweden and DCNS in France. Politics have always played an important role in selling submarines, and the above limited palette is troublesome to Taiwan. No European manufacturer or government is willing to run the gauntlet of Chinese fury by selling Taipei new platforms. Nor is the USA in a position to help since American shipbuilders have not dallied in diesel-electric boat construction for half a century.

Taking a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine as an example, we gain a picture of the complex level of equipment required to fit out a hull. For starters, the American craft has a BQQ-5 active/passive sonar suite, BQS-15 detecting and ranging sonar, WLR-8V(2) electronic support measures (ESM) receiver, WLR-9 acoustic receiver for detecting active-search sonar and acoustic homing torpedoes, BRD-7 radio direction finder, BPS-15 radar and WLR-10 countermeasures set.

The ‘nerve centre’ of a submarine is its combat management system that controls and integrates sensors and weapons. An American staple is the Raytheon AN/BYG-1 Combat Control System. Australia has been modernising its Collins class with the AN/BYG-1(V)8 under Project SEA 1439 Phase 4A, and HMAS Waller was the first to receive an initial operational release in 2008. Indeed, such submarine modernisation programmes are just as important to defence contractors as new-builds, especially as defence budgets become tighter. For example, Lockheed Martin is fitting Submarine Integrated Combat System (SUBICS) modules in each of Taiwan’s two Hai Lung submarines. The scalable SUBICS can be forward-or back-fitted, and Spain is also inserting it in its S-80 boats.

Several European combat management systems are on offer too. Kongsberg offers the MSI-90U Mk 2, based on an earlier version fitted on German, Italian and Norwegian submarines. Meanwhile Saab is building a new-generation system for the Swedish Navy. French manufacturer DCNS has its generic SUBTICS available for the Scorpène. SUBTICS has been installed on more than 40 submarines to date, including Indian, Malaysian, Pakistani and Singaporean vessels. Atlas Electronik offers the ISUS 90, while BAE Systems has the SMCS NG.

Submarines are benefitting greatly from new technologies such as air-independent propulsion (AIP) and optronic masts. Kollmorgen is the sole designer and manufacturer of optronic masts for all modern-day US submarines, with the first fitted to a Virginia-class boat in 2004. On an optronic mast, a digital array replaces mechanical, line-of-sight periscopes; this has the advantage of freeing up space and reducing the risk of leakage. Such electro-optical masts include high-resolution electronic imaging and integrated sensor packaging such as ESM, direction-finding and communication antennas. Sagem is now offering the optronic Series 30 Search Mast System, while Britain’s Astute class uses similar masts from Thales Optronics. Japan licence-produces the Thales Optronic Mast, which was the company’s first export sale. In Asia, only China and Japan have the technological wherewithal to produce electro-optical, sonar sensors and combat management systems – though South Korea is not far behind – so export opportunities abound for specialist-product firms.

On the horizon is the mating of submarines with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). Sweden’s new 1,800-ton A26 due later this decade, for example, has an integrated ‘multi-mission portal’ for swimmers and UUVs. Gabler Maschinenbau in Germany has developed the TRIPLE-M mast system that can accommodate a VOLANS UAV launcher.

Air-independent propulsion
AIP is essential for modern conventional submarines. Without snorting, a submarine can stay beneath the surface for an average of 100 hours whilst operating at 4 knots. AIP can at least triple this endurance. Three Western AIP systems are on the market – the Module d’Energie Sous-Marine Autonome (MESMA) from France (since 2007), Stirling as used by Sweden, Singapore and Japan (1990), and Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells as used by Germany, Spain and South Korea (2005). The latter is considered the most efficient. In its ‘National Defence Programme Guidelines, Fiscal Year 2011’, Japan announced it was enlarging its diesel-electric fleet from 16 to 22 platforms. Japan operates one of the youngest submarine fleets in the world and the latest type is the 84m-long, 2,900-ton Soryu class. Its enhanced length was necessary to accommodate a Kockums Stirling 4V-275R Mk-III AIP system. Four boats have been commissioned to date, and more will join the Japanese fleet in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Singapore currently operates three ex-Swedish Challenger-class submarines that are being supplemented by two second-hand 1,500-ton Archer-class craft. RSS Archer was commissioned in December 2011 while the second’s arrival is imminent. They were retrofitted with the same Kockums Stirling AIP system via a 12m plug in their hulls. Their combat data, weapon control, flank array and mine/obstacle avoidance sonar systems were all modernised too.

China has also employed locally developed AIP systems in its Type 041 Yuan class that is set to be a mainstay of the PLAN fleet. Pakistan has three Khalid-class Agosta 90B diesel-electric boats, with the final one procured possessing the MESMA. Interestingly, this is the only boat worldwide with MESMA to date, but it is also being retrofitted to the first two Pakistani boats. The Pakistan Navy also has two older Agosta 70 types, and in 2010 DCNS was contracted to upgrade them with SUBTICS. In 2006, Pakistan announced a requirement for six new SSKs to replace its Agosta 70s and it has opted to cooperate with China in buying AIP-equipped submarines.

Whilst on the topic of China, PLAN submarines do not venture far from shore very often, and the navy’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability is comparatively weak. For example, no dedicated indigenous ASW helicopter is yet in Chinese service. Gary Li, an analyst with Exclusive Analysis, stated: “From the longer strategic point of view, regional submarine fleets are not going to be a threat within the next five to ten years. So China’s strategists probably think they have three or four years of breathing space before they have to seriously start expanding ASW capabilities.”

As well as needing propulsion and sensors, a submarine must also be armed in order to wield any deterrence value. A number of armaments are available – torpedoes, missiles and sea mines. An American Los Angeles-class attack submarine has four 533mm torpedo tubes and a payload of 37 Mk 48 torpedoes, Mk 67 Submarine-Launched Mobile Mines (SLMM) or Mk 60 CAPTOR mines, plus a twelve-tube vertical launcher system (VLS) able to fire Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (LACM) and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Torpedoes are of two types – lightweight and heavyweight. The heavyweight torpedo typically has a 530mm diameter, and this semi-autonomous weapon is primarily an anti-submarine weapon today. Modern examples include the Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei (WASS) Black Shark, BAE Systems Spearfish and Atlas Electronik DM2A4. Pakistan uses the latter and Singapore the former, for example. After swapping to Atlas Electronik as a new partner, DCNS is developing the F21 with an expected release date of 2016. As a replacement for the incumbent F17 Mod2, the F21 is being marketed as the world’s most advanced torpedo.

Regionally, LIG Nex1 in South Korea has manufactured the K731 Baeksangeo since 2000, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan developed the Type 89. The Chinese Yu-6 is regarded as the equivalent of the American Mk 48. Speaking of the Mk 48, the US has co-developed the Mk 48 Mod 7 CBASS with Australia, and a Collins class successfully fired one in 2008. Russia has the versatile wake-homing UGST that weighs 2,200kg. India’s Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL) is developing Varunastra heavyweight and Thakshak thermal torpedoes. The Varunastra weighs 1.25 tonnes and is ready to commence trials.

On the other hand, lightweight torpedoes are around 324mm in diameter and are usually reserved for anti-submarine operations by surface combatants and airborne platforms. One third-generation example is the EuroTorp MU90/IMPACT, widely regarded as the world’s most advanced lightweight torpedo.

Malaysia was thus the first Asian power to acquire underwater-launched anti-ship missiles. Its Scorpène boats are equipped with MBDA SM39 Exocet missiles, and Malaysia’s first subsurface test-firing took place in mid-2010. Pakistan is the only other Asian country to use the submarine-launched Exocet, but India will join it once it fields its six Scorpène submarines beginning in 2015. They will also be equipped with Black Shark torpedoes and India is debating whether to fit AIP to its last two boats. India is also planning six Project 75I submarines that are expected to boast supersonic BrahMos cruise missiles. Indian Kilo-class and newly leased Akula-class boats carry Novator 3M-54E1 anti-ship missiles plus 3M-14 LACM of the Klub-S system.

Boeing’s Harpoon is widely used by allies of the USA, and the submarine version is deployed by Australia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Taiwan’s two Dutch-built submarines have been modified to fire UGM-84L Block II Harpoons. The most capable American system is the Raytheon UGM-109E Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM Block IV) with a 1,700km range. The only other country to use the Tomahawk is the United Kingdom, although Australia is reportedly interested.

Germany is working on the torpedo tube-launched, 20km-range IDAS missile that can shoot down ASW helicopters, as well as attack warships and coastal targets. Based on the IRIS-T air-to-air missile, it is being developed by Diehl BGT Defence and HDW, and is expected to join the German Navy in 2014. IDAS is the world’s first system that allows submerged submarines to engage air threats. Another German innovation is the HDW Muraena mast-mounted automatic gun system featuring a Mauser RMK 30mm cannon. It can fire from periscope depth, and the gun itself is accommodated within the submarine superstructure. Muraena will form part of Gabler’s TRIPLE-M mast system in the future Type 216 submarine. Meanwhile, HDW is upgrading Israel’s three Dolphin submarines with Rafael’s Torbuster, a fourth-generation hard-kill decoy that seduces incoming torpedoes through acoustic deception.

Local production
South Korea is growing into a formidable naval power on the back of indigenous construction. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) is pursuing a three-phase programme, the first of which involved nine license-produced Type 209/1200 craft. After an international competition, Sagem was selected last year to modernise them with Sigma 40XP inertial navigation systems. Type 214s are being inducted under phase two, and three 1,860-ton boats were ordered in 2000 equipped with Thales SPHINX-D radar plus Thales X-band satcom terminals. In 2007, the government announced an intention to buy six more Type 214 boats fitted with Siemens PEM fuel cells that offer a three-week underwater endurance. The first craft should be delivered by 2014. The pinnacle of South Korea’s programme is the domestically designed KSS-III that will carry vertically launched Hyunmoo-3 cruise missiles, although first delivery has been put back till 2020. Samsung Thales has been tasked with developing this new type’s combat management system.

Australia opted for local construction of its six Collins-class submarines, each of which can carry 22 Mk 48 Mod 7 CBASS torpedoes or UGM-84C Harpoons. These submarines have proved unsatisfactory in terms of cost, technology and maintenance, so it will be intriguing to see what decisions occur regarding the acquisition of twelve new boats under Project SEA 1000. Will Australia again pursue a high-risk pathway of indigenous design and production, or will it opt for a more established platform? While the ability to mix and match different systems and armaments sounds attractive, the Collins-class experiment serves as a warning to the unwary. Military off-the-shelf contenders for the Australian programme are the DCNS Scorpène, Navantia S-80, HDW Type 212A/214 and Japanese Soryu class.

A regional proliferation in submarines is occurring, one that will enthuse submarine manufacturers and numerous specialist suppliers. Indeed, the Asia-Pacific area is expected to account for some 23.6% of the international market between now and 2021. Furthermore, one by-product of the American strategic shift is that we may expect more training between allied navies, something the USA already does regularly with Australia, Japan and South Korea. As one former USN submariner remarked, “It’s going to get quite crowded out there.”


Malaysia has inducted two Scorpène submarines. Both were commissioned in 2009 and they are based at Sepanggar. (Andrei Chang)

The Los Angeles-class USS Hampton is moored alongside the tender USS Frank Cable during a routine Hong Kong port visit. (Gordon Arthur)

The newest Soryu class of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force is easily identified by its X-shaped rudder configuration. (Gordon Arthur)

This is PNS Saad from the Pakistan Navy, an Agosta 90B vessel whose construction began in France and was completed in Karachi. (Gordon Arthur)


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