Submarine numbers growing.

The Asian-led recovery in the world economy is reflected by a burst of activity in the region’s submarine market where currently only Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka appear to have either no interest in – or resources for – these platforms.
The importance of submarines to navies cannot be over-stated for they have become the new capital ship replacing both battleship and aircraft carrier. They are the arbiters of naval power capable of keeping surveillance on vast areas of sea, engaging both surface vessels and other submarines, conducting covert operations and now, of striking targets deep in land. Moreover, to coin a phrase, size does not matter – because the last two ships sunk by submarines were the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, by the nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Conqueror, and the corvette ROKS Chon An by a midget Shark (Sang-O) class submarine.
Asian submarine fleets have expanded steadily; during the 1980s about 30 submarines were added to local inventories, a further 35 in the 1990s and more than 40 this decade with at least 18 on order. It has been calculated that, even excluding the United States, navies of the Asia-Pacific region will have 150 modern diesel-electric submarines by 2025.


Western Asia is dominated by the continued rivalry between India and Pakistan but the former’s numerical superiority is under threat. Superficially all is well with the launch of the first domestically-designed nuclear submarine INS Arihant which, surprised the world by being not a copy of a Russian Charlie I (Project 670) attack submarine but a ballistic-missile firing ship.

T here are ambitious plans for another two Arihants, although these will launch cruise missiles (one is on order) and for three nuclear-powered attack submarines. To train crews for the latter New Delhi took out in January 2004 a 10-year lease costing US$900 million on the RFS Nerpa which was scheduled to join the Indian fleet in the summer. This has recently been amended to October, although some Russian sources say problems with the ship’s automated systems could delay this further. It is worth noting that the ship, which will become INS Chakra, was due to have joined the Indian fleet in 2008 but her original trials were abandoned due to the faulty deployment of a fire-fighting system which killed some 40 men.

The nuclear submarines are to be augmented by 24 modern diesel electric boats, some with air independent propulsion (AIP) to provide higher underwater endurance. The Indian Navy currently has 14 boats, the two Foxtrots (Project 641) having been paid off, of which 10 are Kilos (Project 877) or Sindhughosh class and the remainder are Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (HDW) Type 209/1500 or Shishumar class. These were to be joined by six-nine Project 75 and another six Project 75I (India) class boats based upon European designs. But to date only the former programme, based upon the DCNS/Navantia Scorpène, is being implemented and due to bureaucratic delays, governmental procrastination and possibly an underestimation of the challenges for the builder, Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL), it is now three years behind schedule – which means that the first will not be commissioned until 2018. Worst, costs have risen by 25% to the equivalent of some US$5 billion.
The US$11 billion Project 75I programme will be launched in November and may aggravate the Indian Navy’s problems for the Indian Defence Ministry has decided not to involve commercially-owned shipyards and instead to use state-owned ones such as MDL, causing a log-jam in production and further delaying replacement of the existing submarines. This is an urgent matter because the Indian submarine force is rapidly ageing and by 2012 five boats will have been paid off and by 2014 only five will be operational.

The Indian Navy is also seeking to improve the capability of its submarines. Domestically-designed heavyweight torpedoes are reported to have proved disappointing and there is a requirement for new ones, but given the dispute over the 98 WASS Black Sharks purchased for Project 75 it may be difficult to attract interest. The Indian Navy is planning to buy Submarine Mine Laying Equipment (SMILE) to augment existing capabilities of its conventional fleet. It has issued a request for information to industry for a system with two independent magazines capable of housing at least 12 mines each.


Pakistan, which has eight submersible platforms (including three midgets), had sought four HDW Type 214 boats with AIP of which two were probably to replace the Agosta 70s or Hashmat class. However, the negotiations have become increasingly taut over the US$1.5 billion contract with Islamabad complaining of the price while Berlin was reluctant to authorise the sale to a country increasingly dominated by Islamic radicals.
Islamabad has now broke the Gordion Knot with the Cabinet approving in March the purchase of six Chinese submarines having apparently considered, and rejected, a DCNS offer of the new Marlin class. However, this plan has not won full parliamentary approval and it remains unclear when the first boats would be delivered (some will certainly be built in Pakistan like the last two French-designed Khalid (Agosta 90B) boats). Although Pakistan would like AIP boats, and is converting a second Agosta 90B to the French Mesma system, neither of the likely Chinese candidates, the Song (Type 039) or Yuan (Type 041) is believed equipped with this form of propulsion.

The only other western Asian nation with aspirations to submarines is Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has revealed her government has plans to modernise and to expand her maritime forces to create what she has called ‘a 3D navy’. She has twice publicly stated that Dhaka wishes to have two submarines, with a base, by 2019 to provide an effective deterrent to both India and Myanmar. Given her country’s parlous economic state it is likely that these aspirations will be met only by acquiring second-hand boats from either Europe or possibly South Korea.

South East Asia

In South East Asia there has been a trend to consolidation rather than expansion with submarine programmes. The exception is Thailand which last acquired submarines, four coastal boats, from Japan in 1936 and paid them off in 1955. It has only been since the 1990s that the Royal Thai Navy has been pressing for submarines but the dominance of the army combined with the parlous economic situation has prevented any progress.
The Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Kamthorn Phumhiran, has managed to organise Baht 6-7 billion as part of a 10-year plan to upgrade the armed forces and it was anticipated he would acquire two surplus boats. But Bangkok appears to pulled off a coup for the government has agreed that with Baht 7.7 million (US$257 million) he can acquire six German Type 206A boats from the German Navy. All were upgraded in the late 1980s and early 1990s but are now being replaced by Type 212 AIP boats. However, they are extremely versatile – although it is unclear when a formal agreement will be signed and how many will be operational. It seems likely that the first two might be delivered about 2015, giving Bangkok time to train crews and prepare the initial facilities, although some of the boats will certainly be cannibalised. It is worth noting that the Malaysian Parliament was notified at the end of March that annual maintenance on its two new submarines would cost the equivalent of US$16.5 million.

To the south Malaysia is still absorbing its two Scorpène class boats, the second arriving at Sepanggar naval base in Sabah in July 2010. These boats have cost the equivalent of $2.1 billion, in a package that includes 40 MBDA Exocet SM 39 Block 2 anti-ship missiles and 30 Black Shark torpedoes. The first boat Malaysia, KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, successfully test fired an Exocet last year and the Royal Malaysian Navy is now developing combined operations with surface combatants. Kuala Lumpur has no plans to acquire any more boats for the next five years at least, but it is possible the French Agosta class submarine FS Ouessant, used to train Scorpène crews, might be acquired as a training boat.

Singapore is to receive two AIP boats from Sweden, which supplied the three Challenger (Sjöormen) class submarines from the late 1990s. Like their predecessors the Archer class are second-hand vessels being the Västergötland (A17) class commissioned in the mid 1980s and sold to Singapore in 2005. The deal includes conversion of these boats to AIP using the Stirling Mk III system, the installation of a pressurised diver’s lock-out system at the base of the sail for special forces operations, the addition of air conditioning and improvements to the periscope.

It was anticipated that the first boat would join the Lion City’s fleet from last year and the upgraded second, RSS Swordsman (formerly HSwMS Västergötland), was re-launched on October 20. Singapore has not announced its plans but it is generally believed the Archers will replace two Challengers while in the long term the well-established relationship between Stockholm and the Lion City over submarines may be strengthened. A year ago the Swedish Defence Materiel Organisation (Försvarets Materielverk or FMV) has awarded Kockums AB a contract for the overall design of the A26 next generation submarine.
The A26 will be designed for operations in littoral as well as ocean waters making it not only suitable for the domestic requirement but also a contender at the export market. The strengthening of the hull for ocean deep diving also means improved protection against mines and depth charges in the littoral role. It will be about 63 metres long with a beam of 6.4 metres and a submerged displacement of 1,900 tonnes and have the Stirling Mk III AIP. Stockholm is seeking partners for the programme and it is widely believed that Singapore will be happy to participate to meet its own requirements in a manner which is both cost-effective and provides technology transfer.

Across the Malacca Straits, the Indonesian Navy deputy chief-of-staff, Vice Admiral Marsetio has said the country needs 39 submarines to protect its huge maritime territory. But Jakarta has a long way to go if it is to meet this aspiration for it currently has two Type 209/1300 (Cakra) class boats although the five year plan to modernise the fleet by 2014 aims for two to five submarines. It is unclear whether these will be to augment the existing flotilla or merely replace the Cakras, which have each been refitted three times and are 30 years-old. It seems likely that at least two boats will be bought from foreign yards, possibly Russian or South Korean, and that two will be built by PT PAL probably in the latter part of the decade and all of them will replace the Chakras. PT PAL’s president director, Mr Harsusanto, recognises his company has no experience building submarines and concedes that if his company wins contracts to build foreign designs, parts of the boat will have to be built abroad.


Australia’s US$33 billion SEA 1000 programme for between eight and 12 boats to replace the Collins Class is looking increasingly like a flight of fancy, given the difficulties of operating the six Collins which have been plagued with manning and maintenance problems. Indeed it seems more realistic to expect the future fleet to be cut back to six boats. Project SEA 1000 is to provide Australia with a boat which, when compared with the Collins class, will feature greater range (more than 11,500 nautical miles or 21, 300 kilometres), higher speed (more than 20 knots), longer patrol endurance and increased capability. Design approval is currently anticipated by 2015, construction beginning in 2016 and the first boat replacing a Collins in 2024 – which looks increasingly unlikely.

North Asia

The last region to be considered is China and its neighbours. Relations with Vietnam in the south have always been strained and will hardly be eased in Beijing’s eyes by the expansion of the Vietnamese fleet, mostly with Russian aid. Hanoi currently has two Yugo class miniature submarines which may provide a cadre of crews but they are no longer believed to be operational.
It has signed a $1.8 billion contract with Russia to supply six Kilo (Project 636) class submarines, which will be capable of carrying land attack missiles, and Moscow will also build a base for them, possibly at Da Nang, bringing the total package to up to $3.2 billion. The first boat is believed to have been laid down late last year by the Admiralty Yard in St Petersburg – which reported starting work on the submarine but did not name the customer. The yard has indicated this submarine will be completed by April 2013 with the remainder following at annual intervals. It is interesting to note that India has agreed to support Vietnamese warships – including Kilo class submarines – and has already transferred surplus spares for some old Russian-designed frigates from its own depots to Vietnam.
The expansion of fleets across its line of communications, especially to the oil-rich Middle East, is hardly welcome to Beijing. The expansion of the submarine fleet continues at a relatively modest rate with four Jin (Type 094) class strategic missile submarines building at the Bohai yard in Huludao to join the fleet between 2012 and 2016. Beijing has a small force of nuclear-powered submarines but since the second of the Shang (Type 093) class appeared in 2007, Beijing appears to have been pondering its next step.

Work is continuing on the Yuan (Type 041) class diesel-electric boats at the Wuhan yard, the first boat joining the fleet in 2006 and a requirement for up to eight, work on the new batch reportedly beginning last year. The second and third boats each reportedly incorporate incremental improvements with their predecessors (the third might incorporate AIP) and construction stopped for three years to evaluate data from the trials of the first-of-class. But even modern Chinese boats seem old-fashioned and they are believed to lack sophisticated combat management systems, non-hull penetrating masts and AIP, although an AIP plant is reported under development in Wuhan. The Chinese seem to be concentrating on increasing their expertise in submarine operations with longer and more frequent patrols beyond the continental shelf since 2008 and exercises co-ordinating with surface combatants.

Longer patrols throw up unexpected problems in boats which lack air conditioning and suffer high humidity. The food they carried, which consisted mostly of canned meat and rice with few vegetables and no fruit, tended to last barely a week, which was sometimes realised only after it was eaten, and crews returned from patrol sick and malnourished. The navy has now developed new rations, designed to survive shipboard conditions and keep the crew healthy.
Even excluding the Russians and the Americans, the submarine threat to China is also growing stronger in the east. Beijing is the only friend to North Korea, which has about 70 submarines and submersibles. More than half are miniature Sang-Os, accounting for about 40 of the total. There are no signs of any replacement for the conventional Romeo (Project 033) which are an ancient design, indeed the focus has been the midget submarine (and mother ships for covert operations). US satellite images and other intelligence indicates construction has switched to an Improved Sang-O (Shark) class submarines with better performance, a longer body and higher underwater speed. The new boats are reported to be about 39 metres long, 5 metres more than the Sang-O and through improved hull design, to be up to 5 knots faster under water.

South Korea continues to build the HDW Type 214 AIP boats under licence to meet its Korea Submarine Phase 2 (KSS 2) requirement with the first batch of three boats being built by Hyundai while the next batch of seven began last year and will be shared with Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering with the first being launched in 2013. Plans exist for a 3,500-tonne design, the KSS-3 although the world financial crisis has hit this programme which has slipped two years and the first boats are now scheduled to join the fleet in 2020. Up to nine boats are required and they will probably be built in batches of three.
Before the earthquake of March 11, which caused some US$145 billion worth of damage, Japan had maintained a fleet of 18 diesel-electric boats under the Defence Programme Guidelines of 1976 with replacements joining the fleet on a regular basis. Currently coming down the stocks are the Souryu class which incorporate Sterling Mk III AIP propulsion, modern combat systems and mast-mounted sensors. Five have been ordered with the Hakuryu scheduled to be commissioned in March and the other two boats joining the fleet in 2012 and 2013.

But with China expanding her fleet and increasingly being encountered nearer Japan or Japanese territories Tokyo revealed early last year plans to increase its submarine fleet for the first time in 36 years.  It was planned to increase the fleet to 22 boats with six boats being funded to the Fiscal Year 2015, possibly by cutting back the Maritime Self-Defence Force elsewhere. Such plans may be suspended as the country tries to recover from the largest earthquake it has ever recorded.
For Beijing the only good news on the submarine front comes from Taiwan which is seeking a fleet of up to eight boats to augment and replace its two ageing Hai Lung (Zwaardvis) class boats in Project Kwang Hua 8. It is clear that the United States, which had proposed eight diesel-electric boats, is incapable of meeting such a requirement directly or indirectly. Taiwan’s government and the CSBC Corporation, formerly China Shipbuilding, are examining ways and means of building submarine hulls but Washington would have to provide almost all the equipment.
With no sign of any solution the existing submarine fleet is reported to be performing too many exercises and patrols, spending as much as 27 days per month at sea with the physical and mental stress on the crews, together with a growing belief there will be no new boats, proving demoralising. The 65-year-old Guppy (Sea Lion) class training boats are reported to be in poor shape and require sustained maintenance with crews constantly fearing an accident.



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