On 11 February 2009, Indian Defense Minister AK Antony announced that India’s programme to construct nuclear submarines was in its final stage. At the same time, the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN) first submarine was delivered from France. In spite of the changed international environment since the Cold War and the reformed maritime strategies, submarines are still the capital ships of the world’s main navies. What is the role of submarines now? Why do so many countries need submarines?
The area most eager to have submarines now is Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian countries have been trying to build up their navies since the superpowers’ withdrawal after the Cold War. The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) operates four Sjoormen-class submarines which were delivered from Sweden in the early 2000s. In 2005, the RSN purchased two Vastergotland-class submarines again from Sweden which will replace some of the Sjoormen-class submarines about 2010. It is reported that Vietnam got two North Korean Yugo-class submarines in 1997. The Indonesian Navy had several submarines bought from the USSR and Poland at the end of the 1950s but decommissioned all of them in the 1970s. It later bought two submarines from Germany in 1981. In 2007, Jakarta signed a US$1.2b billion defense deal with Russia that included the purchase of two submarines. The fact that these navies have submarines must be a powerful incentive for the Malaysian Navy to buy submarines. The RMN’s Scorpene submarines were ordered from France and Spain in 2002. The Royal Thai Navy too came close to joining the submarine club in the late 1990s. The navies in the region thus have several incentives to have their own submarines but the type and number purchased will be based on regional political and budgetary considerations.
Among the Asian Navies, the Chinese Navy has the most powerful submarine-fleet. According to the Military Balance 2008, China has about 70 submarines including three ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN) which are involved in conducting frequent patrols far from the mainland. Such operations have been a big concern of Southeast Asian countries and have spurred their naval build up. Though East Asian countries also feel anxious about China and also about North Korea, this area seems more stable than the Southeast Asian region. South Korea has kept improving its submarine fleet while Taiwan on the other hand has faced political problems in its decision to go in for submarines.
In South Asia, India’s submarine procurements have been in the spotlight. The Indian Navy has 16 submarines some of which are now under a modernization programme. The Indian government has also signed an agreement for licensed production of six Scorpene submarines with France in 2005. Furthermore, in addition to its indigenous nuclear submarine project, India has agreed to lease an Akula class nuclear submarine from Russia.
The submarine’s most important characteristic is stealth. It is able to operate even under the hostile command of the air. Although various sensor technologies including sonar have been improving, submarine stealth technologies have also kept progressing. The most effective anti-submarine weapon is, in fact another submarine. When you want to play at hide-and-seek with other navies’ submarines, you need your own submarines. Even as political ties have been improving between Asian countries, one country’s secretive behavior leads to anxieties for everyone.
What then, about nuclear submarines? Why does India need nuclear submarines? The most advantageous point of nuclear power is that it is not necessary to charge a battery and so it is able to operate limitlessly. However, in fact, it is difficult to remain submerged more than two months at a time due to issues of maintenance, food supply, and crews’ medical and mental care. In addition, a nuclear-propelled engine is noisy, expensive and hard to scrap. However, its survivability is a certain deterrent since nuclear submarines are known to be platforms for ballistic missiles. These naval platforms will be part of the triad of the Indian government’s minimum nuclear deterrent (MND) policy.
Discussions on India having nuclear-propelled submarines have been on since the mid-1960s. The Indian nuclear submarine project, known as the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) started in the 1980s. The Indian Navy already has experience operating a nuclear submarine, the INS Chakra, which was leased by the Soviet in 1988 and returned in 1991. Thus, China is the only country which has nuclear submarines in Asia. The Chinese navy’s expansion is one of the reasons why Indian Navy is keen to have nuclear submarines.
The role of submarines has been changed with the times and its technology has advanced rapidly. Until World War II, the most effective use of submarines was against commercial ships as German U boats and American submarines proved. With the commissioning of the first SSBN, the USS George Washington, the submarine was recognized as a platform for missiles to attack warships and the land surface. Of course, its sea-denial capability and surveillance roles are still important. In addition, like other weapons, submarines are also status symbols for the armed forces. And since such weapons tend to lead to escalation, submarines will likely be the standard armament of Asian Navies soon.