Southeast Asia | The myth of the submarine “arms race” in Southeast Asia

The myth of the submarine “arms race” in Southeast Asia

Richard A. Bitzinger October 19, 2016 8:59 PM (UTC+8)
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Every few months there appears in the media the story that the Asia-Pacific is in the “grip” of a regional arms race. Regional defense spending has been on the rise on years, and this in turn is fueling a veritable “shopping spree” for advanced conventional weaponry.

The premise of these stories, of course, is that acquiring such armaments is undermining regional stability. These purchases have unintended consequences of actually increasing regional insecurities and tensions, as countries view with alarm and suspicion the apparently aggressive arming by their neighbors and react accordingly. This phenomenon has been termed the “security dilemma” – a paradoxical situation whereby the actions taken by countries to “buy security” actually undermines it.

Simply calling something an “arms race,” however, is an intellectual cheat. In the first place, an “arms race” is instinctively internalized as something bad. An arms race is by definition an irrational, counterproductive, and even futile act. It has no absolute endpoint; it is by its very nature only detrimental to security and stability.

The problem with this, however, is that we habitually throw out the term “arms race” without really defining what it means to be in one. Too often, “arms races” are ascribed to any kind of active-reactive arming, without weighing whether such arming really undermines regional security. Who knows, such weapons purchases might actually benefit regional stability.

Second, arms races are too often seen as having a life of their own. They are seen as effectively running on autopilot. People and governments often argue that they “have to” acquire new or different weapons, since their neighboring countries are buying such armaments as well; to do otherwise would be irresponsible, in fact, since these leaders would be leaving their nations exposed and vulnerable to potentially more powerful neighbors.

But this is a conceit and, what is more, an abrogation of personal responsibility. Painting a cycle of active-reactive arming as an “arms race” makes it appear that governments are caught in an inescapable and irresolvable vicious circle that is beyond their control. The human element is effectively removed, since leaders have “no choice” but to match their neighbors’ arming.

The Proliferation of Submarines in Southeast Asia

A common meme of “arms racing in the Asia-Pacific” is the growing number of modern diesel-electric submarines proliferating throughout Southeast Asia. This proliferation is both quantitative and qualitative. Regional militaries have been acquiring subs at a reasonably steady state over the past two decades or so: more navies are buying submarines, and they are buying more of them.

Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, for example, never owned any submarines until a few years ago; now Malaysia has two submarines, Singapore has a fleet of four boats, and Vietnam is taking delivery of six Kilo-class subs from Russia. Thailand, which hasn’t operated a submarine since the 1950s, plans to buy three Yuan-class boats from China, while Indonesia is in the process of replacing its two obsolete German Type-209 submarines with three modern boats acquired from South Korea (one of which will be built in Indonesia).

What’s more, many of these submarines are among the most modern types to be had. Singapore, for example, is acquiring two Type-218SG submarines from Germany, equipped with fuel cells for air-independent propulsion (AIP), meaning that they can remain submerged much longer than most diesel-electric subs before they have to surface to recharge their batteries. Thailand’s new Chinese submarines could also be AIP-equipped.

Southeast Asia’s newest submarines are also equipped with advanced hull-mounted active and passive sonar, anechoic tiles and modern designs for improved quieting, more effective torpedoes, and even the ability to launch anti-ship cruise missiles. Subs are also versatile platforms for espionage, special forces operations, and minelaying.

But is it an Arms Race?

In a few years, Southeast Asian navies will be operating at least 18 modern submarines, and more may be on the way (Indonesia, for instance, has speculated acquiring up to a dozen subs). This means that regional waters will be increasingly populated with highly effective and very stealthy naval systems. This is particularly critical apropos the South China Sea, which is becoming a flashpoint for conflict, both involving Southeast Asian nations with each other, or against an increasingly belligerent China.

But are these numbers that really destabilizing? For one thing, most countries cannot maintain a large enough force to man all its submarines, and generally only half of a navy’s sub fleet is ever at sea at any one time; so countries like Malaysia or Indonesia are lucky to have one or two boats on patrol in any particular period.

Compounding these small number is the large maritime space that these few submarines must theoretically patrol. Malaysia runs nearly 2500 kilometers, east to west, with a coastline of over 4000 kilometers. Indonesia claims over 8 million square kilometers of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Even putting all their subs to sea would make little difference.

Keep in mind, too, that many Southeast Asian nations are staying out the game of submarine-buying: Brunei, Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos have no subs, nor any plans to acquire them (OK, a little joke there regarding Laos, which is a landlocked nation).

Moreover, submarines are terrible for most kinds of peacetime operations, particularly when it comes to “showing the flag” and reinforcing sovereignty claims. Sometimes a nation wants to be visible at sea. In this regard, long-endurance surface ships, such as offshore patrol vessels and coast guard cutters, or maritime patrol aircraft, make a much better impression. Better still, the fact that these platforms are usually lightly armed makes their presence much less provocative.

Finally, no matter how many submarines Southeast Asian navies acquire, it will never be enough to match the sheer bulk of forces that China can bring to bear. In particular, Beijing already has at least eight submarines and several dozen surface combatants in its South Sea Fleet, and more vessels could be easily transferred to the area. With the possible exception of Vietnam’s fleet of six Kilos, there is not much that Southeast Asian submarine forces can do to avoid being overwhelmed by the Chinese.

Submarines, of course do have their uses, even in Southeast Asia. But the kind of numbers we are talking about hardly constitute an “arms race.” Perhaps they serve more as a placebo, making Southeast Asian navies feel that at least they are doing something to address the submarine gap with China. But these submarines do not in and of themselves destabilize the region.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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