Submarine acquisitions in the East Asia region are arguably symptomatic of three features. First, they reflect ongoing geopolitical movements and trends. The ultimate fear, rationally or irrationally, is that submarines may become the capital ships in sea-lane denial missions for countries in the region. Submarine acquisitions are as much for bilateral diplomacy as they are military hardware acquisitions. Second, they are markers of coping mechanisms to deal with recent tensions in both the East China and South China Seas. Third, besides politics, the submarine deals are also a reflection of the economic capabilities and influence of the supplying countries.
In June 2015, Thailand chose to acquire Chinese submarines. The acquisition was interpreted by observers as part of the Thai tilt towards China. It also marked the 40th anniversary of bilateral ties between the two countries. Since the military coup to depose the last of the Thaksin family members in power, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand has been ruled by the military under General Prayut Chan-o-cha and has faced sanctions from Western nations due to restrictions on democracy placed on the Thai political system. It has since tilted towards China for economic cooperation while remaining a firm strategic ally of the West.
However, for practical reasons, Thailand has sought this submarine deal given its budgetary restraints and also given the longstanding military exchanges between the two countries. China was also the chosen country to build Thailand’s north-south railway system although it faced recent challenges when the Thai government was not willing to prioritize land usage along the track for commercial purposes by Chinese State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and private sector firms, a deal purportedly given to Chinese railway development in Laos.
Thailand is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute but Vietnam is. In 2009, Vietnam purchased 6 Russian-made Kilo submarines, which are the same class of submarines that the Chinese purchased from the Russians. The Kilo submarines are widely regarded as extremely silent and difficult to detect, and they are powered by diesel engines. The purchases reflect the claimant’s coping mechanisms to manage geopolitical changes in the South China Sea, augmenting defensive postures while trying out diplomatic solutions.
Another claimant in the South China Sea maritime disputes, the Philippines, is apparently considering initiating the build-up of a submarine force, according to the domestic Filipino press. They wish to deploy these submarines in what they have termed the “West Philippines Sea” (also known as a component of the “South China Sea” in conventional maps). They are considering acquiring electric or diesel submarines, suitable for navigating the shallow waters of the South China Sea, and they are also quiet with a low signature.
The function of this submarine force and other accompanying naval build-up is apparently targeted at protecting the rights of Filipino fishermen. In the meantime, while time and resources are needed to build up a small credible submarine force, the Philippines is opting for a more practical option which is to purchase submarine-hunters. The maritime archipelago nation has bought two AW-59 anti-submarine helicopters. This is a practical solution compared to building up underwater submarine capabilities which requires time and resources.
In 2013, 4 years after the Vietnamese purchases, the Chinese followed suit and bought four Lada submarines from Russia. The orders were custom-made such that two of the submarines will be built in Russia while the other two are constructed within China. The Chinese are well-known for their reverse engineering capabilities and may eventually develop Lada-standard submarine technologies indigenously. The large deal with Russia appears to complement what has been characterized as “big power diplomacy” by the Chinese in dealing with major powers like the Russians.
Nuclear submarines are designed as part of Chinese desires to break out into the Pacific Ocean and pierce through what they perceive as the first island chain of defense by the US.
Project 677 Lada class submarines are silent submarines that can carry torpedoes and cruise missile systems. They are smaller than the Kilos and can be used as submarine-hunters with their low signature in the water. The Kilos will eventually be replaced by Ladas in the Russian Navy. Ladas are likely to be silent hunters in the shallow waters of the South China Sea.
While making purchases overseas, the Chinese authorities are also developing indigenous technologies. In July 2016, at the height of anticipation of The Hague’s ruling on the disputed maritime territory of South China Sea, photos of China’s augmented Type 94A Jin Class Ballistic Missile nuclear submarines found their way into the public sphere. This submarine is believed by military analysts to be capable of launching the Chinese JL3 submarine-launched inter-continental ballistic missile system. These missiles have global range in their targeting capabilities.
Some analysts believe the release of the photo is not coincidental. It may be a way for the Chinese navy to indirectly hint at its muscle power in that part of the world in the run-up to the ruling which was highly anticipated to go in Manila’s favor at that point of time. This view remains a conspiracy theory for now due to a direct lack of evidence. But in terms of infrastructure, the Chinese have also built a formidable submarine base (Yulin Naval Base) in Sanya, Hainan which is proximate to the South China Sea, with underground tunnels that are theoretically out of range of US spy satellites.
Nuclear submarines like the Type 94A Jin are designed as part of Chinese desires to break out into the Pacific Ocean and pierce through what they perceive as the first island chain of defense by the US (meaning the perimeter formed by Guam, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines). The Jin Class became operational in 2014 and they form a nuclear deterrent force that is highly mobile alongside land-based nuclear missiles carried on trucks and railway launch vehicles. If the Jin submarines are able to penetrate the “first island chain,” some analysts believe their targeting range in the Pacific Ocean can be wider with greater and more accurate targeting and strike capabilities.
Further down south, Australia is also upgrading its hardware with USD 39 billion worth of purchases of state-of-the-art Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A submarines. The submarines are small and nimble, able to carry special ops operatives and, unlike their original French counterparts, they are diesel-powered which means they are quieter. On top of the quieter engine, they are stealth submarines with low signatures. In terms of weapons systems, they can carry the now-famous French Exocet sea-skimming missile systems that once took down the HMS Sheffield naval destroyer during the British-Argentina Falklands war in 1982. In the Australian submarines, they will be the underwater launched versions.
One of the most sophisticated conventional-class submarines, Japan’s Soryu-class submarines constructed by the Mitsubishi and Kawasaki heavy industrial firms lost out to the French Barracuda in the Australian bid. If the deal had been successful, it would have been post-1945 Japan’s most significant arms sale overseas. Like the Barracudas, the Japanese Soryus also carry torpedoes and anti-ship missile systems. They also have 4 state-of-the-art Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) units that allow the submarines to submerge for a longer period of time. The Soryus are also built with components complementary with hydroplane deployment. The new models of the Soryu are also constructed with lithium batteries for a longer sustainable lifespan.
Despite the build-up of submarine fleets around East Asia, currently all the players in the region are rational. There are no apparent signals of resorting to submarine warfare to resolve maritime territorial issues. All countries are trying to rely on diplomatic means to resolve the tensions. Perhaps the most important task now is to avoid accidental clashes and submarine incidents. Having said that, an exception does exist in the region. One of the developments that has elicited concerns from the region is the North Korean development of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
In August 2016, North Korea tested an SLBM off a nearby submarine base in Sinpo and the ballistic missile flew towards Japan before plunging into the sea. Most media reports suggest that the missile flew around 500 km. The missile flight appeared to be the longest distance ever travelled by a North Korean test missile, signalling another significant increase in its capabilities. This development meant that what is viewed by many in the regional community as a rogue state now has mobile ballistic missile technologies and, if coupled with miniaturized nuclear warheads, the SLBM can strike with lethal consequences.
The missile was launched from a Gorae class submarine (also sometimes referred to as the Sinpo class submarine) with vertical missile launch tubes. Some analysts also suspect that the Gorae may be a modified Sinpo craft or a refurbished or reverse engineered Soviet Golf class submarine. North Korea currently has an aging fleet consisted mostly of Romeo class submarines.