Across East Asia, countries are increasing their submarine fleets, writes Ian Bowers. Yet this does not mean there is an undersea arms race, although the more competitive dynamics in Northeast Asia at least raises that possibility in the future.
By Ian Bowers, May 29, 2017
The recent announcement that Taiwan is to develop a new class of eight submarines has once again brought submarine procurement in East Asia into sharp focus. Fears regarding a sub-surface arms race and the potential for war frequently appear in both the popular and specialist literature.
However, the reality is somewhat different. Submarine procurement in East Asia is a long-term process, with multiple and diverse drivers, and does not necessarily indicate a particularly destabilizing or competitive trend. Across East Asia, submarines feature prominently in the procurement plans of small, medium, and large navies. Yet, this is not happening in isolation; rather submarine programs are part of wider force modernization trend occurring across the region, where navies are replacing old and introducing new capabilities.
China is, of course, leading the way in pursuing a broad spectrum modernization of its submarine force. It has introduced new nuclear powered and diesel electric classes, and while numerically its fleet has shrunk, assessments indicate significant qualitative improvements. Currently China operates approximately 57 submarines including four nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). While Beijing initially relied on Russian imports for its most advanced vessels, its indigenous shipbuilding industry is now fully capable of producing modern submarines. A US Department of Defense publication estimates that by 2020 this figure could increase to between 69 and 78 platforms. However, such growth is dependent on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) having the financial resources to maintain such a building rate.
While Beijing initially relied on Russian imports for its most advanced vessels, its indigenous shipbuilding industry is now fully capable of producing modern submarines.
China’s closest Northeast Asia neighbours are also growing their subsurface fleets, but in very different contexts. The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces have been building and operating diesel submarines since the 1960s. In an effort to retain the industrial skills required for submarine construction, the JMSDF sub-surface fleet undergoes near continuous modernisation with older vessels being routinely replaced. Japan currently maintains a fleet of 17 advanced diesel-electric submarines and in 2010 committed to gradually increasing this number to 22 by 2021.
In contrast, South Korea is relatively new to submarine development. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) introduced conventional submarines to their fleet in the early 1990s. They are now in midst of a three-phase plan to not only operate but indigenously design and construct their own vessels. Currently South Korea operates two types of submarines that are Korean iterations of the German Type-209 and Type-214 classes. The majority of these vessels were constructed in South Korean shipyards with German assistance. They have now designed and have started building a new 3,000-ton conventional submarine. The ROKN currently operate 16 submarines with two Type-214 ships yet to come. Up to nine 3,000-ton vessels will be constructed with the first scheduled for operations around 2020.
Taiwan’s ambitious submarine development program has foundered in the planning stages for some time. Taipei has struggled to find partners to either sell or assist in the development of a new class of submarine, due to pressure from Beijing. The 2017 decision to indigenously design and produce a new class was in part driven by this reality. Consequently, the design phase is scheduled to last until 2020, with the first submarine expected to enter service in 2030. This is a potentially ambitious timeframe given the technical difficulties of modern submarine construction, the lack of indigenous expertise, and the possibility that foreign companies will be unwilling to sell critical technologies to Taiwan.
In Southeast Asia, the numbers are considerably smaller. Vietnam has procured six advanced Kilo-class submarines from Russia, while Indonesia is procuring three Type-209 submarines from Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering in South Korea. The first two will be constructed in South Korea, while the third will be built under licence in Indonesia. They will operate alongside their existing fleet of two Type-209 procured in the early 1980s. Malaysia currently has two French-built Scorpene-class submarines bought in the early 2000s and Singapore is in the midst of upgrading its fleet with 4 Type-218SG platforms built in Germany. Importantly, Thailand has announced that it will join Pakistan in becoming the first customers for the Chinese S20, an export variant of the modern Type-039A diesel electric submarine.
The increasing presence of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian Ocean fits within the trend of the PLAN’s ever expanding global footprint.
What is driving such procurement is a question with no single answer. For China, an advanced submarine capability provides a number of strategic benefits that fit within their longer-term defence planning. Their nascent SSBN capability provides the potential for a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent. However, by operating out of Hainan, these vessels are hemmed in by geographic features and may find it difficult to escape to the open ocean without detection. China’s construction of advanced diesel and nuclear powered vessels contributes to their strategy of near sea defence but also bolsters China’s ambitions to operate beyond East Asia. The increasing presence of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian Ocean fits within the trend of the PLAN’s ever expanding global footprint.
Undoubtedly, China’s growing naval power is in part responsible for driving wider submarine procurement in East Asia. This is clearly indicated in Japan’s gradual increase in submarine numbers, which is occurring in direct response to the heightened operational pressure caused by China’s increasingly capable submarine capability.
However, in the case of South Korea and Taiwan, such an explanation may be overly simplistic. South Korea’s pursuit of a substantial sub-surface fleet is driven by the need to counter North Korea’s own submarine capabilities, contribute to potential operations on the peninsula, and also maintain an independent conventional-deterrent capability, which could discourage not only Beijing but also Tokyo from coercive policies towards their smaller neighbour.
In the case of Taiwan, security planning is clearly dominated by China. However, submarine procurement is not just in response to China’s increasing power but also Taiwan’s need to replace its aging extant submarine fleet. Two of its four vessels were constructed during WWII and the remaining Dutch-built ships were both completed in the late 1980s.
Similarly, in Southeast Asia submarine development is not solely driven by China. To be sure, many of the littoral nations in Southeast Asia are in dispute with China and view submarines as a possible deterrent and credible denial asset. Vietnam’s naval procurement policy, of which submarines form one part, is a broad program aimed at creating a powerful littoral-force designed to raise the cost if China decides to use force in pursuit of its goals in the South China Sea.
However, other security dynamics in the region include Southeast Asian states eyeing each other with a degree of suspicion and ensuring that they maintain some sort of parity in terms of capabilities. Further, submarines are now viewed as being a vital part of any modern naval force. As such, it is logical to procure such assets when undergoing broader force-modernization programs.
The Northeast Asian nations possess the financial capacity and long-term planning processes required for the effective introduction and sustained operation of submarines.
Yet a number of caveats remain. The Northeast Asian nations possess the financial capacity and long-term planning processes required for the effective introduction and sustained operation of submarines. In Southeast Asia, the picture is somewhat different. Submarines represent large-capital outlays and are very expensive to operate and maintain. Crews require high-levels of training and for the submarine operations to be efficient their platforms need to be integrated into the wider naval force structure.
Questions remain surrounding the ability of many Southeast Asian nations to sustain the investment required to maintain a credible submarine capability. With the exception of Singapore, there is little indication that stable long-term planning has gone into submarine procurement. As an example, Indonesia has a stated requirment to procure up to 12 boats. It remains to be seen if they have the financial ability or political will to sustain investment over the long term. Further, piecemeal procurement of multiple types of submarines heightens the already formidable maintenance and training challenges.
Further, the total size of the fleet does not equate to the total number of deployable platforms. Japan, for example, aims to maintain eight submarines at sea, while the remaining 14 would be reserved for training and maintenance. This would suggest that those nations with a small number of submarines would struggle to operate more than one or two submarines at sea at any one time. This calls into question the actual deterrent effect of a small submarine fleet, when faced, for example, with the numerical superiority of the PLAN.
All of this creates a bifurcated picture of submarine development in East Asia. In Northeast Asia, there are stable long-term plans to design, build and integrate submarine capabilities. There are also strong strategic and operational rationales. In Southeast Asia, the reality is somewhat different. Nations are slowly introducing, largely imported, sub-surface capabilities, but, currently, in-terms of numbers the actual strategic impact is slight. Of course, as nations introduce complex machines into small operational spaces, the chance of an accident or miscalculation with potential political or strategic consequences increases.
While there is some evidence of competitive behaviour, it does not, as of yet, amount to an arms race. However, this could change if nations engage in tit-for-tat construction arising from a significant increase in geopolitical tensions. A highly competitive arms dynamic would be difficult for the nations of Southeast Asia to maintain due to their reliance on imports and the long lead times such procurement entails. On the other hand, the nations of Northeast Asia have the greater potential for competitive submarine construction due to their indigenous manufacturing capability. However, given the nature of current submarine procurement, for the time being fears of a destabilizing arms race seem to be overblown.
Ian Bowers is an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. His areas of research include South Korean security, Asian naval modernization and conventional deterrence.