Opinion

Southeast Asia’s underwater
bazaar

A scan of recent naval procurement by Southeast Asian navies points to the fact that submarines top their shopping lists. Thailand and the Philippines have been talking the talk to add submarines to their fleets.

Thailand plans to buy six ex-German Navy Type-206 submarines. Despite facing domestic criticisms against the plan, Bangkok believes the US$257 million purchase will be money well-spent.

The Thai Navy argues that the underwater warships are needed to patrol the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand and catch up with neighboring navies’ modernization.

The Philippines, too, has recently announced the “Sail Plan 2020” to buy, among others, a submarine. Although financial problems have stifled the plan, the recent tension in the South China Sea (SCS) may bolster domestic support for the purchase.

Following its maritime spat with China over the South Chine Sea, Vietnam decided to acquire six Kilo-class submarines from Russia in December 2009.

The delivery of the boats will begin in 2014 and greatly increase Hanoi’s capability to monitor activities in the disputed sea.

Despite that submarines alone form part of a regional naval modernization trend, the motive and timing for the purchases have led some to argue that the region is in some sort of a naval arms race.

Indonesia purchased submarines in the early 1960s and 1980s. But it was not until 1995 that a second regional country, Singapore, purchased submarines from Sweden.

Malaysia followed suit in 2002 with two Scorpene-class boats purchased from France, allegedly as a response to Singapore’s procurement. And recently, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have announced their bids almost simultaneously.

This will result in Southeast Asia having at least six submarine operators in the next decade or so. Should this trend persist, it will be unprecedented in the regional naval development.

Not only will the waters become more crowded, it could also bring deleterious consequences for regional maritime security. Thus, it is necessary to examine why the submarine has become a weapon of choice for regional navies.

The submarine is different from surface warships for the purpose they are built and the method they are deployed. Surface warships are not only designed to attack their likes. For example, they can also conduct counter-piracy patrols, marine environmental protection, or even peacekeeping operations.

Thus, surface warships are less sensitive to other navies provided they are only fitted with modest armaments to conduct normal, routine patrols.

By contrast, a submarine has nothing else to do but to sink ships, especially for a diesel-electric attack, or conventional, submarine (SSK). The SSK is the only type currently sought after by the six Southeast Asian navies.

Armed with torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), the SSKs can sink enemy vessels at sea while remaining underwater.

They can also support special operations, for example, to discreetly land Special Forces, lay sea mines, or conduct intelligence activities inside or near enemy waters.

The SSKs can perform these roles thanks to its stealth capability. Stealth is a matter of life and death for submariners. Stealth permits a submarine to quietly intrude into enemy’s waters and covertly do whatever it wants.

But stealth is also a submarine’s Achilles’ heels. Once detected, a submarine is left vulnerable to attack from aircraft, surface warships or other submarines.

But, submarine’s stealth capability has recently been improved by an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system which permits the submarine to stay submerged for a longer period of time.

Non-AIP SSK may have three to five days underwater. But with an AIP, it can stay submerged for weeks at a time. Malaysia’s Scorpene and Singapore’s Västergötland submarines are known to be equipped with AIP systems.

Hence, SSKs are very attractive indeed. They come as an effective weapon against stronger navies with an affordable price tag. They can greatly restrict the operational range and mobility of surface warships with a specter of being sunk.

They can be secretly deployed in disputed waters, such as the SCS or Ambalat, to monitor activities unnoticed.

Thus, they are less likely to generate tensions often associated with the deployment of surface warships. Should a conflict occur, they can also be tasked to protect sea lanes from the enemy’s or belligerent warships.

On the flip side, however, they can easily trigger misperceptions and miscalculations.

A submarine found lurking in disputed or foreign waters will be perceived as having a clear intention of doing activities detrimental to the latter.

Thus, it does not make sense when the Malaysian armed forces chief said that the Scorpene submarines could “stabilize regional security” during his recent visit to Jakarta (The Jakarta Post, July 6, 2011). There is nothing regional about it. It is only individual.

Clearly, the submarine shopping spree in the region is an indication of existing inter-state tensions in the maritime domain.

Regional institutions and security regimes provide a solid framework to ease the tensions, but they are
not silver bullets. Nobody wants war to occur. But referring it as an assumption that war is impossible is indeed foolish.

Facing this, Indonesia must react and act quickly.

First, with military expenditure expected to rise by US$9 billion in 2014, Indonesia must put naval modernization high on the defense agenda.

Second, it must improve anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities by adding ASW sensors on all platforms, particularly on naval aviation. The current ASW platform based only on surface warships (hull-mounted sonar) is dangerously insufficient. This also implies the need for better ASW doctrine and exercises.

Third, it must accelerate the submarine procurement process and come up with a capability on par with other regional states, but with a number more suitable to meet Indonesia’s maritime needs.

This means that they must be at least AIP-equipped, armed with both torpedo and ASCM. The new submarines will likely be German-Korean Type-209 or French Scorpene, after Russian Kilo-class boats were disqualified by the navy. All are capable of being equipped with AIP and ASCM.

But the deal should also include provisions for the construction of submarine support and training facilities ashore.

Fourth, it should gradually develop self-sufficiency in naval shipbuilding to enable all-around maintenance capabilities for the new submarines and other ASW platforms.

Only then can Indonesia be ready to sail the treacherous waters ahead.

The writer is a postgraduate student in Strategic Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and a researcher at the Center for East Asian Cooperation Studies (CEACoS), University of Indonesia, Jakarta.

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