Asian submarine race raises security concerns

Navies expected to deploy 250 advanced vessels in western Pacific within eight years.

A rapid build-up of submarines in the western Pacific is fuelling Asian demand for vessels with advanced technology, defence groups say. High quality global journalism requires investment. 

The number of submarines in the region is expected to rise to 250 from 200 within eight years, according to Singapore’s defence ministry, which warned this week of a growing risk of “miscalculations at sea”. Quiet vessels with long-range firepower pose a challenge for planners seeking to keep Asian sea lanes open, said contractors and analysts gathered at a maritime defence exhibition in Singapore.  “The region is growing submarine capability quicker than anywhere else on the planet at the moment,” said Brett Reed, responsible for Southeast Asia defence sales at Austal, the Australian shipbuilder. “[Asian] navies want to be able to search for, detect and prosecute submarines.” The latest increase in naval capabilities came this week when Singapore, which has the biggest defence budget in Southeast Asia, announced the purchase of two submarines from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp. 

Singapore’s defence ministry said the vessels would have modern combat systems and “air-independent” propulsion technology that makes them quieter and allows them to stay submerged for longer.  “If programmes proceed as projected, major change is afoot in the submarine operational picture in the region,” said Paul Burton, Asia-Pacific defence director at IHS Jane’s. “The common thread running through these developments is the introduction of increasingly modern, capable and quiet submarines.”  Thailand’s military junta last month approved a contentious plan to spend $393m on the first of three Chinese submarines.  Critics question the need for the vessels, since Bangkok is not engaged in any significant maritime dispute and the Gulf of Thailand is shallow. The military has defended the purchase, saying submarines can be used for exploration as well as defence.  Australia, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Indonesia plan to expand and modernise their submarine fleets.  Even Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, has announced a plan to buy a submarine if budgets permit. “Our neighbours have submarines and we want them as well,” Major General Myint Nwe, deputy defence minister, said this month.
Rob Hewson of Saab, the Swedish defence group, said: “Having the ability to detect and track and potentially counter somebody’s else submarines is a hot topic in this region at the moment.” Mr Hewson said there was also mounting Asian interest in airborne early warning and maritime patrol systems. Systems on display at the IMDEX naval defence show in Singapore included one Saab promotes as ideal for tracking “super-quiet” submarines. The equipment uses a combination of sonar buoys that can be deployed from an aircraft and an onboard acoustic processing system to filter out a submarine’s sonic signature from background noise.  Saab, which is competing with Lockheed Martin to supply fighter jets to India, was also interested in pitching for New Delhi’s proposed submarine modernisation, Mr Hewson said.  “India has French submarines at the moment,” he said. “They are now looking at other options for the next batch and that we think will be a more open competition . . . which is potentially very interesting for us.”  China’s naval ambitions have set the pace, with plans to expand its submarine fleet to as many as 78 by the end of the decade from 62 last year, according to a Pentagon analysis.  The 2017 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships shows the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had 16 submarines between them, half of them in Vietnam.  At a maritime security conference alongside the defence industry show, Mohamad Maliki, a junior defence minister in Singapore, called for navies in the region to abide by mutually agreed rules to “avoid unintended confrontations and accidents at sea”.