Given the costs of submarines, it is not surprising that in regards to South-East Asian submarines, questions are asked if they are necessary and viable for such countries. One of the issues that come up is due to the fact that submarines are generally wartime tools, as opposed to surface ships that can carry out peacetime missions such as maritime enforcement, interdiction of illicit goods transported at sea, and the monitoring and interception of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. For the cost of procuring a submarine, operating it, maintaining it and training the crew for it, along with procuring the necessary support equipment and services (such as a submarine rescue vessel), a country could easily procure, operate and maintain several surface ships for the same amount.
The submarine advantage
Yet the submarine has several advantages over surface ships. A submarine at sea is hard to detect and possesses the ability to launch a surprise attack due to its ability to be underwater for concealment. This contrasts to surface ships, which today can be tracked via sea, air and satellite. In the early 20th century, it was possible for surface ships to evade detection until visually sighted by the Mark 1 Eyeball, essentially the only sighting system an aircraft had. The vastness of the ocean meant that aircrafts were limited in their search perimeter and the movements of surface ships were largely unknown.
Nighttime also allowed surface ships to take advantage of the cover of darkness to approach and launch surprise attacks. However, nowadays technology has diminished the ability of surface ships to move undetected. That being said, it is possible for small surface ships, using the cover of coastal terrain or islands, to launch surprise attacks, but such situations for surface ships are highly dependent on the circumstances. Submarines have the ability to approach undetected to surprise an opposing naval force.
As such, possessing a submarine force is akin to having an ace up one’s sleeve. Defensively it acts as a deterrent. As long as a submarine is not caught in port, it is difficult for an attacking country to destroy it under a declaration of war given one has to find the submarine in the first place. In contrast, surface ships and aircraft can be far easily seen and detected, which of course is the rationale for major nations to have ballistic missile submarines. For smaller nations, the capability of having a retaliatory asset, not easily detected or removed from the equation at the outbreak of war, is seen as ensuring a deterrent effect to any country with hostile intentions.
Conversely though the same can be applied in regard to the offensive, as with its ability to be largely undetected, a submarine can position itself to launch a crippling opening attack the minute hostilities are declared. The result is that a country obtaining a submarine as a deterrent factor may actually precipitate a submarines arms race as neighbouring countries without submarines seek to achieve equality by having submarines to match their neighbours.
The acquisition of submarines
Currently, acquisitions of submarines in South-East Asia are driven by the need to replace or enhance existing fleets, as in the case of Singapore and Indonesia, or in introducing a submarine capability, as in the case of Thailand and Myanmar.
Both Singapore and Indonesia currently are in the process of modernizing their submarine fleets with Singapore having ordered four Invincible class submarines, ordering two in 2013 and an additional two in 2017, and Indonesia about to induct the last of three Nagapasa class submarines, which were ordered in 2011. Indonesia is currently planning to order additional submarines. Thailand has made its initial step in a submarine capability by ordering a single Yuan class submarine from China, with plans to acquire an additional two, while Myanmar has been gifted a single Kilo class submarine from India and is said to be planning to buy more of the same class from Russia. The Philippines, being one of the major nations in South-East Asia without a submarine fleet, is said to be looking to start a submarine force in order to not only meet its defence needs but also to maintain strategic parity in the region.
The costs of operation
However, in South-East Asia, there are factors that limit the number of submarines countries can actually field and operate. The cost of fielding a submarine force does not end with the purchase of submarines but continues with the maintenance. Additionally, specialised facilities to not only support and maintain the submarines but to generate and train crews is a necessity. At the same time, there is also the cost of having a specialised submarine rescue ship on hand in case of an emergency incident.
At the same time, one factor that is overlooked by many is the availability of personnel to become submariners. The operation of a submarine requires its crew to be able to have an elite combination of physical, mental and intelligence characteristics and abilities, one that not easily found in the majority of the population. The pool of such people is even more diminished by the numbers who actually join the navy and volunteer for submarine service. It is for this reason too that countries have limitations on the number of submarines they can actually have in their fleets. Singapore for instance has kept its fleet at four submarines throughout its operation history, with two Archer class submarines entering service in 2013 and replacing two of the four Challenger class submarines. The remaining two Challenger class will be eventually replaced by two Invincible class submarines scheduled for delivery in 2022 and 2023. A further two Invincible class are also to be delivered from 2024 onwards and it remains to be seen as to whether the Archers will be phased out of service with this upgrade.
The Royal Malaysian Navy plans to have a strength of four submarines but is likely to remain at two for a long time due to the cost. As of now, the Malaysian Auditor General’s Report that was released in 2020 and focuses on the operation of the RMN’s submarine, warned that from 2023 the RMN would face problems on maintaining crews for its two submarines. This is due to a combination of a decrease in applications for submarine service from 2010-2019, with a corresponding effect on passing and qualifications of submariners, and the fact that a number of submarine qualified personnel would be retiring or leaving the service in the period of 2019-2023. Only South East Asian countries with a large population and military face fewer issues in this sphere. For example, Vietnam has six operational submarines and Indonesia will soon have a submarine fleet of five with and an eventual goal of a fleet of 10-12.
Other than Singapore, there has been little interests in Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) by South-East Asian countries. This is not surprising though given the technological and fiscal requirements to possess such systems. Additionally, many navies are pressed fiscally in maintaining, supporting and enhancing existing naval capabilities. Singapore, given its limited population, naturally places an emphasis on unmanned systems in all spheres while other regional countries are constrained by finances and unable to fully pursue such capabilities. UUVs so far have mainly been considered in terms of mine detection and mine disposal by South-East Asian countries, only Singapore is in general talks on expanded roles and missions by UUVs.
External factors also play a role in affecting South-East Asian countries’ plans for the acquisition of submarine capabilities. For example, how Myanmar’s plans to acquire additional submarines will be affected by the current situation of instability is anyone’s guess, but it can be expected that procurement of additional submarines will not be carried out until the government stabilises. Meanwhile, Thailand’s plans to acquire an additional two submarines, which was to have been allocated in 2020, was postponed due to the economic situation bought about by Covid-19.
Similarly, Singapore faces a one year delay from the originally planned delivery date of its Invincible class submarines, due to a supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19 for the submarine builders, TKMS in Germany. With Malaysia, a combination of factors has pretty much made it difficult to see the RMN achieving its planned four submarine fleet. Aside from limited funding for defence and the cost of maintaining its current submarine fleet, the entire controversy surrounding the purchase of the Scorpene submarines with a murder case linked to it has made it difficult for any Malaysian government, irrespective of which political coalition it is, to justify or convince the public on the large expenditure to purchase two more submarines, even if Malaysia’s fiscal situation made it viable to do.
Given these factors, the number of submarines operated by South-East Asian countries, while expected to grow, will not increase beyond a certain number for each country due to the cost and personnel investment pertaining to them.
Overall, South-East Asian countries will continue to invest in submarines, because the costs that go into them – not only the cost of purchase but maintenance, training and staff – is worthwhile. Even if they are not involved in a war scenario, they act as a deterrent and defence strategy, particularly for the smaller countries of the region. Furthermore, with today’s technological advances, submarines remain undetectable, discrete and effective. Thus submarines will remain a crucial part of military strategy and defence for South-East Asian countries, regardless of external political issues, fiscal issues and global pandemics.