Periscope Depth

This is an article published in our June/July 2017 Issue.

The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force
The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force has one of the largest submarine fleets in the Asia-Pacific region with 17 vessels, and five more to be commissioned in the coming years. An example from the ‘Oyashio’ class is depicted here. (US Navy)

Whether driven by direct threats to national security, or as a result of the submarine procurement race that is currently taking place in the region, Asia-Pacific waters are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of submarines patrolling their depths.

An article from Channel NewsAsia published on 21st May 2015 reports that during the 2015 International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC), held in Sydney, Australia, the chief of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Rear Admiral Lai Chung Han proposed the development of a regional framework for submarines operations safety. The framework would build on a memorandum agreement on Joint Standard Operating Procedures for mutual submarine rescue support the RSN signed with the US Navy (USN) on 19th May 2015, and would be modelled after the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) that was ratified in 2014 by 25 Asia-Pacific countries. The proposal for a set of protocols was tabled by the RSN in June 2016. Similarly, in January 2017, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) was finalising three Malaysia Submarine Exercise Areas (MSEAs) in the South China Sea to enhance submarine operating safety in the region.

These proposals come at a time when the Asia-Pacific region is witnessing a significant increase in the number of national submarine procurement programmes. From Australia to India, whether defence budgets have increased or are set to plateau due to national financial constraints, Stéphane Meunier, DCNS’ submarines marketing director indicated: “submarines represent an asset for countries willing to ensure their sovereignty and protected their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), as they play crucial roles such as surveillance and reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and patrolling and securing maritime borders and trade routes.”


Although Australia does not face any imminent threat to its security, its 2016 Defence White Paper which outlined the country’s strategic and defence procurement priorities stated that: “by 2035, around half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region where Australia’s interests are most engaged. Australia has one of the largest maritime domains in the world and we need the capacity to defend and further our interests from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans and from the areas to our north to the Southern Oceans. Submarines are a powerful instrument for deterring conflict and a potent weapon should conflict occur.” 

HMAS Waller
HMAS Waller is the third of the Royal Australian Navy’s ‘Collins’ class of SSKs. This fleet will eventually be replaced with the new SSKs which the RAN is acquiring from France. (US Navy)

In this context, in April 2016 the Australian government announced that DCNS of France had won the contract for the construction of twelve conventional hunter-killer (SSK) submarines under the Future Submarine Programme, also known as the Sea-1000 initiative. According to Mr. Meunier: “Australia’s future submarine will … share common systems with the ‘Barracuda’ class (nuclear-powered attack submarine) DCNS is currently designing and building for the French Navy.” Within the same programme, on 30th September 2016, Lockheed Martin’s Australian subsidiary was also selected as the future submarine combat systems integrator, while the combat system specification should be completed by the second half of 2018, AMR sources have stated.

The Future Submarine Programme is progressing at a healthy pace. On 30th September 2016, DCNS and the Australian government signed a design and mobilisation contract, which marked the start of the programme. An Australian defence spokesperson indicated that the design and mobilisation programme would include: “design, detailed programme planning, detailed planning for build, test and integration facilities and infrastructure, Australian industry involvement, ongoing identification, definition and development of transfer of technology to Australia, and development of further agreements and contracts”. In December 2016, the Australian and French governments also signed a framework agreement concerning cooperation on the Future Submarine Programme. The spokesperson continued that: “construction of the first submarine is expected to commence in the 2023 to 2024 financial year, with the first submarine expected to enter service in the early 2030s and construction of the twelve new submarines to continue into the late 2040 and 2050s”.

People’s Republic of China

In the past decade, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has adopted an increasingly robust military stance in the Asia-Pacific region. Both in the East China Sea, where it has ongoing conflicting territorial and maritime claims with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the South China Sea, where it has competing claims with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, and with Brunei-Darussalam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam over the sovereignty of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. To this end, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has intensified the number of ships patrolling the waters. Submarines are no exception. The PLAN continues to build ‘Type-093/Shang’ class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), of which there are five in service and two known to be under construction, and which are replacing the Cold War-era ‘Type 091/Han’ class SSNs. Collin Koh, research fellow at the maritime security programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, stated that: “the new ‘Shang’ class was thought to have incorporated insights gleaned from the Soviet/Russian ‘Victor-III’ class SSN and, compared to the ‘Type-091/Han’ class, it has better quieting characteristics and better combat systems.” Mr. Koh added that the newest version of the ‘Type-093/Shang’ class is said to possibly be capable of carrying long-range Submarine-Launched Cruise Missiles. The PLAN also continues to develop its ‘Type-095’ class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which is substituting the sole Cold War-era ‘Type-092/Xia’ class SSBN, and is building a newer ‘Type-095/Tang’ class SSBN. Mr. Koh indicated that this latest iteration of the ‘Type-096/Tang’ class: “is supposed to carry 24 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), as opposed to the ‘Type-095’ class’ twelve missiles, and might also be carrying the improved JL-2C/JL-3 SLBM, which would possibly allow it to launch from its safe sanctuary in the South China Sea that has long been speculated to have been designated by Beijing as the ‘SSBN bastion’.”

With fifteen already in service, the PLAN also continues to build ‘Type 039A/Yuan’ class SSKs. Little is known as to the developments of the latest iteration of this class, but Mr. Koh indicated that the propulsion is likely to be an indigenously-developed Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system. He specified, however, that there are indications that the indigenous AIP may not have yielded the desired results, in particular the fact that Beijing recently promulgated a nationwide blueprint to promote science and technology innovation, including in areas of propulsion for both air and sea platforms. He also indicated that: “it is possible that, instead of Stirling-type AIP, the Chinese are experimenting with fuel-cell technology and that … they might also seek to develop lithium-ion batteries for its future generation SSKs.” Basically, Stirling-type AIP burns a combination of fuel and liquid oxygen to drive and electric motor, whereas fuel cell AIP combines fuel with an oxidizing agent to convert chemical energy into electricity to drive an electric motor.


India’s growing security concern is the presence of PLAN submarines in the Indian Ocean. Indeed there are a number of key trade routes in the Indian Ocean on which India relies significantly for its economy, including routes heading towards the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important routes for seaborne trade. As such, in order to reassert its sovereignty over the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Indian government commenced the ‘Kalvari/Project 75’ class SSK initiative in 2005, which aimed to build six submarines. DCNS won the contract, in partnership with indigenous Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), to build six ‘Scorpene’ class submarines; the programme started in 2010 and all the submarines are being built in MDL through a transfer of technology. The first-of-class, INS Kalvari, is currently undergoing sea trials and should be commissioned in the next few months, according to Mr. Meunier. It successfully conducted its maiden firing of an MBDA SM-39 Exocet active radar homing anti-ship missile missile in the Arabian Sea in early March. Mr. Meunier added: “the second ship, INS Khanderi, was launched earlier in January and will undergo the same process of demanding trials at harbour and at sea,” he concludes: “MDL is expected to deliver them every nine months.”

The Indian Navy’s INS Chakra ‘Akula’ class SSN
The Indian Navy’s INS Chakra ‘Akula’ class SSN. Since 2008, she has been leased from the Russian Navy to the service, and was commissioned to this end in April 2012. (Ajai Shukla)

In 2008, the Indian government also issued a Request for Information (RFI) to a number of international shipbuilding firms for the construction of submarines equipped with AIP systems. This is known as the ‘Project 75I’ class initiative with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) selecting MDL to build three of these new SSKs, Hindustan Shipyard for the last of the six submarines, the foreign partner has yet to be selected.


While Indonesia has faces no direct security threat from the PRC, its main security challenge is the increasing level of maritime piracy witnessed in its locale. According to the Review of Maritime Transport published by the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD) in 2016: “The areas most affected (by piracy) were the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (134 occurred or attempted acts of piracy and armed robberies), the South China Sea (81) and the Western Indian Ocean with 38 in total.” As such, Indonesia’s 2008 Defence White Paper, outlining the government’s defence spending and strategic priorities, outlined a strategic shift for the Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Laut (TNI-AL/Indonesian Navy) from functioning within an army-centric paradigm to a more maritime-focused posture.

Within this context, in December 2011 Daewoo was awarded a contract to build, in partnership with indigenous PT PAL, three ‘Chang Bogo’ class SSKs. The first-of-class, built in the Republic of Korea (ROK), is currently undergoing sea-trials and was scheduled for delivery in March 2017, although at present there is no further news as to whether this has taken place. The second vessel was launched in October 2016 in DSME’s ROK shipyard. PT PAL, which received the submarine’s modules from the ROK in December 2016, will build the last vessel and is expected to have completed the work by the end of 2018, according to media reports.


Pakistan’s key security threat is its tense relationship with its Indian neighbour. In August 2016, Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune reported that the head of Pakistan’s submarine programme and senior naval officials confirmed to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Defence, which exercises parliamentary scrutiny on the government’s defence policy, that the PRC will supply eight modified SSKs to the Pakistan Navy (PN) by the year 2028. According to Mr. Koh, the future submarine is likely to be an export version of the ‘Type-039A/Yuan’ class SSK. The China Shipbuilding Trading Company (CSTC) will build the first four submarines, which are scheduled for delivery by the end of 2023 according to the article in The Express Tribune, while the remaining four will be assembled in Karachi, at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works by 2028. 

The Pakistan Navy’s PNS Ghazi ‘Albacora’ class SSK
The Pakistan Navy’s PNS Ghazi ‘Albacora’ class SSK was decommissioned in 2005. The fleet is now looking forwards the procurement of new SSKs which will be procured from China in the near future. (US Navy)

Republic of Korea (ROK)

With the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at its doorstep, the ROK’s main security concern is ensuring that it has an efficient and effective ROK Navy (ROKN). In this context, the ROKN has awarded contracts to both Daewoo and Hyundai for the construction of nine ‘Son Won-II/Type-214’ class SSKs. Hyundai delivered the first three submarines between 2007 and 2009, while all submarines are expected to be operational with the ROKN by 2019. In 2012, Daewoo also won the contract for the construction of the first two ‘KSS-III’ class submarines. These submarines will be 83m long and will be equipped with Sagem’s Series 30 Search Optronic Mast (SOM), which integrates four simultaneously operational sensors, image processing and operating modes, used for the advanced detection of airborne or surface threats. The state-run Agency for Defence Development (ADD) is also developing an SLBM to be deployed by the ‘KSS-III’ class submarines, according to media reports in June 2016. The first-of-class is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2020 and the second one in late 2022.

The ROKN Navy’s ‘Chang Bogo’ class SSK Choi Museon
The ROKN Navy’s ‘Chang Bogo’ class SSK Choi Museon. Commissioned since 1996, she will is the ninth boat in the ROKN’s class, and a similar design is being supplied to the TNI-AL. (US Navy)


Singapore shares the same concerns as Indonesia (see above) regarding the increase in maritime piracy in the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. As such, William Lambert, vice president for sales in the Indian and Asia-Pacific regions at Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), told AMR that: “The contract for the delivery of two ‘Type-218SG’ class SSKs to Singapore was awarded in 2013.” For confidential reasons, TKMS has shared very little information regarding the specifics of the RSN’s future submarine. Mr. Koh indicated that local specialists believe that: “the Type-218SG is neither a variant of ‘Type-214’ class or (the firm’s) ‘Type-216’ class design, it’s rather a crossbred of the two, fully customised to the needs of the RSN.”. An anonymous local expert also shared a couple of assumptions with AMR: “The ‘Type-218SG’ class is about the same size as the ‘Type-214’ class, maybe slightly larger, with better sea keeping, endurance and range than the existing old RSN ‘Challenger’ class or ‘Archer’ class SSKs, hinting at fuel-cell propulsion for enhanced submerged endurance.”


Although Thailand is not currently facing any direct security threats, the Asia-Pacific submarine procurement race has arguably prompted the government to revive plans to acquire three SSKs from the PRC. On 24th January, Thailand’s defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan confirmed the government has approved $380 million to acquire the first submarine, which Mr. Koh believes will be the export variant of the ‘Type-039A/Yuan’ class. According to the Straits Times, the total cost of the programme is expected to reach $1 billion and payments will be made under a ten-year instalment plan.

Looking ahead

According to Mr Meunier: “We believe that the rising number of maritime conflicts and increasing tensions in the South China Sea as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans, added to the need for resources supply security and civilian safety, will encourage countries in the region to develop and modernise their submarine fleets.” This article has made it very clear that, indeed, Asia-Pacific navies are not only seeking foreign partners to modernise and upgrade their submarines, but also to secure transfers of technology. In terms of features, AIP is clearly becoming a key element of the latest generation of submarines to ensure underwater endurance and stealth. According to Mr. Lambert, this could be achieved also by further developing high energy power sources like lithium ion batteries.

The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force
The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force has one of the largest submarine fleets in the Asia-Pacific region with 17 vessels, and five more to be commissioned in the coming years. An example from the ‘Oyashio’ class is depicted here. (US Navy)

by Dr. Alix Valenti