A number of Asian navies are planning to expand their submarine fleets but none appear more ambitious than those of Australia, which is seeking to acquire 12 new boats. Why learn from your own mistakes when you can learn from someone else’s?
This is a question Australia’s new Defence Minister, Mr Stephen Smith, may consider from following the example of his Pacific Rim neighbours, and also avoid the errors of the Collins programme.
The most important lesson is that once a design has been selected there must be a smooth path towards adaptation and then production while ensuring there is an infrastructure to produce and to support them. India demonstrates the problems all too clearly with programmes not only late but growing in cost while the existing submarine flotillas age rapidly.
India has a mixed force of 24-year-old boats; German-designed Type 209/1500s (Shishumar) class and Russian-designed Kilos (Sindhughosh) class. The latter are being upgraded with new electronics, many from Indian factories, and a land-attack missile capability but most of this work is being performed in Russian yards at a cost equivalent to US $30 million because there are serious questions over the Indian yards’ ability to cope.
The first two Type 209s were built in Germany within an average of 51 months from being laid down to being commissioned while the two boats produced by state-owned Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) took an average 74 months, although some Indian sources (possibly measuring from the cutting of steel) claim the figures were 56 months each for the European boats and 98-116 for the Indian-built ones. There also appear problems with supporting the fleet with the worse example being INS Sindhukirti which began her refit in the Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL), also state-owned, in January 2006 (according to Jane's Fighting Ships although Indian press sources claim it is 2004). Barely a third of the work has been completed and while officially she will rejoin the fleet in 2010, press reports suggest she may not emerge until 2015.
It is against this background that India’s Project 75 and Project 75I have developed. The idea was good: New Delhi would select a modern diesel-electric submarine design which could be expanded with air independent propulsion if necessary, and the DCNS/Navantia Scorpène (Stonefish) was chosen for Project 75. European yards were to produce components which would be assembled in Indian yards which, in turn, would gradually assume an ever-greater responsibility for construction.
Unfortunately, India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy caused execution of the first stage of Project 75 to be delayed with a three-year gap between the opening of negotiations and the signing of the contract - rendering the originally quoted prices obsolete. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) noted the delays and rising costs were due to “indecisiveness on part of the decision-makers'' as well as “systemic flaws” in the procurement. The Europeans refused to proceed without negotiating new prices and this has apparently been completed but the project’s price has risen 25% to the equivalent of US $5 billion or around US $900 million each!
Worse still is the delay for, under the original contract, the first of six boats would be delivered in December 2012 and thereafter one each every year till December 2017. Earlier this year Defence Minister Mr A.K. Antony dropped the bombshell when he confirmed to Parliament that delivery of the first Scorpène class submarine by MDL has been delayed not by 30 months, as many expected, but by three years! The impact upon Indian naval ambitions will be significant because almost half of the 14 submarines currently operational will be paid off by 2012 and by 2014 India may have only five submarines in commission.
During the summer the Indian Ministry of Defence approved the equivalent of approximately US $11 billion to build six Project 75I (India) submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems and land-attack capability at an anticipated unit cost equivalent close to $2 billion. Such is the concern of the naval leadership to rebuild its submarine fleet that it plans that the first two will be build abroad with private Indian yards having been rejected. The request for proposals will be issued to Rosoboronexport of Russia, DCNS/Armaris of France, HDW of Germany and Navantia of Spain and the first expected to be launched in 2016 or 2017 with three to be built at MDL and one at HSL. India is seeking an existing design into which may be set a plug with cells for vertically-launched BrahMos supersonic land-attack missiles.
None of these problems has proved the slightest hindrance to India’s nuclear submarine ambitions. A Russian Akula (Project 971) class attack submarine has been acquired as INS Chakra and the first Indian-designed and built ship, INS Arihant, has been launched and is a ballistic missile vessel. New Delhi plans a fleet of 14 nuclear-powered submarines of which five will be strategic vessels probably with cruise missiles similar to Tomahawk.
By contrast, neighbouring Pakistan appeared by the end of the northern summer ready to acquire three Type 214 submarines from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) - which also builds the Type 209. Islamabad may well have had to twist some arms to reach this stage and was making loud noises earlier in the summer of turning to France, Spain or even China for new boats. If the deal goes ahead then virtually all of Pakistan’s submarine fleet will be AIP for it is slowly converting all three of its Agosta 90B (Khalid) class boats using imported modules with the DCNS Module d'Energie Sous-Marine Autonome (MESMA) system. It is believed the next boat to be refitted will be PNS Khalid with work starting during 2011.
The summer also saw Tokyo spring a submarine surprise with the announcement that Japan is to increase its submarine fleet for the first time in 36 years. The decision apparently aims to counter China's naval build-up and will partially filling the void created by the US Navy’s cut in its Pacific submarine force. However, Washington is gradually increasing the size of this force, partly by transferring submarines from the Atlantic Fleet.
The Japanese government reportedly plans to increase the number of submarines from the current 18, including two boats for training, to more than 20 when it revises its Defence Programme Guidelines by end of the year - although the final figure has not been selected. Tokyo has maintained 18 submarines since it first formulated the guidelines in 1976, although it has strengthened their capability by replacing older vessels on a regular basis.
Partly this was to sustain submarine manufacture with a policy of providing alternate orders for one boat a year to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Shipbuilding. However, there was a prospect that one yard would lose out in the forthcoming year and the new policy will overcome this problem and maintain the industrial base. Japan is already building three Souryu class boats with Kockums Stirling AIP and the new boats will certainly retain this propulsion but may well be an evolutionary development of the Souryus.
The immediate cause for the decision was apparently China's plan to build an ocean-going fleet, which was revealed during a fleet review in Qingdao, Shandong Province in April. China currently has 62 Chinese submarines, of which seven are nuclear-powered and has built an underground submarine base on Hainan Island, in the South China Sea.
Chinese boats are certainly becoming more active and ranging further into the Pacific, although this has revealed problems. Before 2008 the fleet averaged only 1.2 patrols a year while the Xia (Type 92) ballistic missile submarine has never gone on patrol in its 23 years of existence. But since 2008 there have been a lot more days at sea, with some of these boats being spotted in the central Pacific.
But the crews discovered that due to the heat and high humidity their food supplies - mostly canned meat and rice with few vegetables and no fruit - rarely lasted more than a week. With so much of the food going bad, which was sometimes realised only after it was eaten, the crews were coming back sick and malnourished. The navy has now apparently developed new rations designed to survive shipboard conditions and keep the crew healthy.
In South East Asia there have been a number of developments n recent months. In December 2009 Hanoi ordered six Kilo (Project 636M) class boats from Russia for the equivalent of US $2.3 billion. The first of these appears to have been laid down in St Petersburg in August, although an announcement failed to identify the customer formally. The yard did say that the boat would be completed in 32 months, i.e. by May 2013, with subsequent deliveries at annual intervals and Moscow is also providing substantial in-country infrastructure.
So far, this activity has not caused any further developments in Thailand’s plans to acquire submarines. Thailand’s southern neighbour, Malaysia, is currently working up its small submarine force, two Scorpènes, into the navy. The first, KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, successfully test fired an Exocet anti-ship missile and then participated in a major exercise in East Malaysia’s Region 2 with 10 ships, the exercise being to help operations with submarines.
Jakarta has recently announced a five-year plan to modernise the Indonesian fleet by 2014. While attention has focused upon plans for a new class of surface combatants there are also plans for submarines. There has been considerable talk about acquiring two boats from abroad but Jakarta is also talking about two which will be built by PT PAL by 2014, although it remains unclear whether or not these will be instead of, or in addition to, the foreign-built vessels. Certainly, South Korea is likely to be well placed for either new boats or licence-built designs probably of the HDW Type 214 (Sohn Won-il) class, also known as KSS-2 (Second Generation Korean Submarines), which feature AIP.
Construction of six more KSS-2 boats for the South Korean Navy is anticipated to start this year at the Daewoo. The importance of submarines has been demonstrated by the sinking of the corvette ROKS Chon An and it is interesting to note that more information has emerged about the operation of North Korea’s min-submarine fleet. Apparently they are taken close to their patrol zone by a mother ship and will often exploit currents to begin the patrol and to conserve battery power. Once the mission or patrol is completed they return to the mother ship which picks them up and returns to base.
Singapore, as usual, is keeping its cards close to its chest while looking to successors for the Västergötland (A 17) boats from Sweden. It is generally anticipated that the Lion City will join Sweden in developing the latter’s new A 26 class submarine for which Kockums recently received a contract from the Swedish Defence Materiel Organisation (Försvarets Materielverk or FMV)
The A26 will be designed for operations in littoral as well as ocean waters - making it not only suitable for the domestic requirement but also a contender at the export market. The strengthening of the hull for ocean deep diving also means improved protection against mines and depth charges in the littoral role.
The diesel-electric propulsion system will include Kockums’ Stirling AIP system for prolonged submerged operations. An extreme modular construction will facilitate modifications and upgradings and improve the effective operational life of the boat which will have a flexible payload capability, including a modular payload lock system. There will be four torpedo tubes which will be of a new design to allow multiple uses, probably including subsurface launched missiles and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
Kockums has said the boat will be about 63 metres long; with a beam of 6.4 metres and a submerged displacement of 1,900 tonnes. The boat is expected to carry a crew of between 17 and 26 and will have a Saab Sesub 960C combat management system.
Australia’s SEA 1000 programme is at the early stages having begun in August 2009 with an AU $15.4 million allocated for the concept design stage (Phase 1A). The ambitious objective is to replace the six Collins by 2030 by up to a dozen large submarines – perhaps around 3,000 tonnes - and while Defence is understandably coy about the costs, the project has been put at about AU $36 billion. Canberra is seeking a boat with greater range, longer patrol endurance and improved capability when compared with the Collins including the ability for covert reconnaissance and Special Forces support.
Post election blues seem to be behind plans to oppose this grand design from some quarters. It is reported the Defence is especially reluctant to go ahead with SEA 1000 in its present form in order to save money or, more importantly, prevent the dilution of other projects. If a 12-boat fleet is approved it might be cheaper to buy all of the boats from abroad, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggesting that this would cost only AU $8.8 billion – obviously a massive saving
First pass approval is scheduled for next year and it is still anticipated that second pass approval will be in 2016 for Phase 1B, the preliminary design. It is anticipated the first-of-class will begin trials in 2022 and become operational in 2025 but the key question is how will Australia support a force of up to 12 boats when it has difficulty keeping a force half that size operational.
Although Canberra decided last year not to send a Collins to participate in the Rimpac 2010 exercise at around the time it was being held HMAS Collins, Dechaineux and Waller, completed a training exercise which involved a wide variety of anti-submarine warfare scenarios off West Australia. Yet the problem remains and the greatest hurdle to SEA 1000 will be manning an expanded submarine force. There is also the problem of what foreign submarine designs will meet the Australian requirement and the prospects are that Defence will have to make substantial changes to an existing design which could, in turn, drive up costs.
Whatever, the choices which are made in Australia and through-out the Pacific Rim where submarines are concerned we clearly live in interesting times, to paraphrase the Chinese curse.