The destruction of a South Korean corvette by a CHT-02D torpedo in March 2010 provided ample testament to the practicality of submarine warfare in this day and age. This incident is made even more dramatic when we consider the responsible party was an elderly North Korean mini-submarine. The Asia-Pacific is witnessing an explosion in submarine acquisitions, and indeed by 2025 the region could host as many as 150 diesel-electric submarines. This article provides a roundup of extremely buoyant regional submarine programmes.

27th Apr 2012



Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

The destruction of a South Korean corvette by a CHT-02D torpedo in March 2010 provided ample testament to the practicality of submarine warfare in this day and age. This incident is made even more dramatic when we consider the responsible party was an elderly North Korean mini-submarine. The Asia-Pacific is witnessing an explosion in submarine acquisitions, and indeed by 2025 the region could host as many as 150 diesel-electric submarines. This article provides a roundup of extremely buoyant regional submarine programmes.

A logical starting point is the region’s largest user, China. Traditionally a land-based power, China views its coast as vulnerable, especially since raw material imports and finished-product exports depend almost entirely on maritime transport. The traditional operating area of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, but it is steadily adopting a more aggressive posture. The submarine fleet, which has consistently been prioritised in the defence budget, is estimated at 60 boats, although the US Navy (USN) Office of Naval Intelligence expects it to reach 75 platforms. Chinese industry is producing an average of 2.5 boats per year, meaning older designs are rapidly being replaced by more capable platforms.

The most modern nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) is the Type 093 Shang class that entered service in 2006. A third vessel was launched in 2006 but is yet to be commissioned, the hiatus suggesting a modified Type 095 design is awaiting production. This newer SSN, which the USA predicts will approach the acoustic performance of the Russian Akula I, is likely to enter service in 2015 and up to five boats could be produced. The Type 093 and 095 are expected to be armed with modern land attack cruise missiles (LACM). With China intent on developing carrier battle groups, it will need more SSNs to escort them and so will probably keep the older Type 091/091G Han class in service for some time.

Based on the design of a solitary Type 092 nuclear-powered ballistic submarine, China’s second-generation SSBN is the Type 094 Jin class. The first boat was commissioned in 2007, while a second entered service in 2009. It is thought six will be built, each armed with twelve JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) to give China a reliable nuclear second-strike capability. This 8,000km-range SLBM with multiple warheads puts targets like Guam, Hawaii, India and Russia within easy reach. However, the 094 is in the awkward predicament of awaiting induction of this SLBM. The acoustic performance of the Type 094 is not exemplary, so the PLAN is developing a third-generation SSBN.

Diesel-electric patrol submarines constitute an important part of the PLAN submarine fleet too. The newest is the Type 041 Yuan class that debuted in May 2004. A second boat was launched in September 2010 and the current production schedule is estimated at up to 15 boats. Employing Russian Kilo technology, the 041 is fitted with a local air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. China relies on 13 older Type 039/039G Song-class boats as well as twelve Kilo-class submarines obtained from Russia since 1995.

Also in September 2010, an unidentified type of AIP-equipped SSK was launched in Wuhan. It is one-third larger than the Yuan class, suggesting it will undertake longer-range ocean interdiction missions beyond the First Island Chain. It has a larger sail that may accommodate a crew escape capsule and C-705 anti-ship missiles, although some defence analysts speculate this improved class could be used to fire the JL-2 before integration onto the Type 094 SSBN.

China is expanding three naval bases to support submarine growth. The South Sea Fleet is the most powerful flotilla, and it has underground submarine pens at the Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island. This base offers the most rapid access to Pacific deep-water trenches and the interception of South China Sea traffic. Satellite photos taken last November revealed construction of a fourth pier, suggesting more SSBNs will be based there in addition to two Type 093s.


The growing might of the Chinese navy has prompted Japan to expand its submarine fleet. The “National Defence Programme Guidelines, Fiscal Year 2011” outlined how the 16 diesel-electric vessels in the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) would dramatically increase to 22. This is the first time Japan has expanded its submarine fleet in 36 years, and it will be achieved by delaying the retirement of older platforms. The JMSDF uses its boats for surveillance and to defend the three strategic straits of Soya, Tsugaru and Tsushima. The 1st Submarine Flotilla in Kure contains Submarine Squadrons 1, 3 and 5. The 2nd Submarine Flotilla in Yokosuka possesses Squadrons 2 and 4, though one new squadron will be added as the fleet expands.

Japanese diesel-electric SSKs are quite large in size and they are among the world’s most advanced. The current fleet includes eleven 2,750-ton Oyashio-class vessels, which represented a complete departure for the JMSDF in terms of its ‘leaf coil’ hull form. JDS Oyashio was commissioned in 1998, and the last of class in 2008. The newest type is the 2,900-ton Soryu, its 84m length making it Japan’s largest submarine since WWII. The enlargement was needed to accommodate a Kockums Stirling 4V-275R Mk-III AIP system. The first boat was commissioned in March 2009 and a fourth was commissioned last month. Three more will be commissioned in 2013, 2015 and 2016 respectively. The Soryu requires a slightly smaller crew compared to its predecessor, although the sensor and weapons fit are similar.

To ensure a steady production stream, Japan has kept construction at a near-constant level of one vessel per year, with orders being alternately placed with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corporation. Decommissioned submarines are used as training platforms for around three years before being scrapped. Japan is not alone in its concern about the Chinese threat because the USN has positioned 60% of its submarine fleet in the Pacific theatre.

South Korea

The other major East Asian submarine power is South Korea, which employs advanced technology to counteract North Korea’s substantial underwater force. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has a three-phase programme to improve its subsurface forces, and the first step (KSS-I) involved nine license-produced Type 209/1200 (Chang Bogo) submarines. After an international competition, Sagem was selected last year to modernise them with Sigma 40XP inertial navigation systems.

These will eventually be replaced by the Type 214 under phase two (KSS-II). Three of these 1,860-ton Son Won-il-class boats were ordered as a first batch in 2000, with the first being commissioned in January 2008 and the third in December 2009. They are equipped with an Atlas Elektronik combat system and sonar suite. In addition Thales supply the SPHINX-D radar systems as well as X-band satcom terminals. In January 2007, the government announced it intended to buy six further Type 214 boats fitted with Siemens polymer electrolytic membrane (PEM) fuel cells that offer a three-week underwater endurance. Of this second KS-II batch, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) should deliver the first and third vessels by 2014, with Hyundai Heavy Industries constructing the second boat.

However South Korea’s pursuit of domestically designed 3,000-ton KSS-III boats has been impacted by budgetary restrictions. Design work on the KS-III that will carry vertically launched Cheon Ryong cruise missiles commenced in 2007, although first delivery has been put back till 2020. Samsung Thales has been tasked with developing its combat system. Although no KS-III design details have emerged, last year South Korea disclosed pictures of the 510-ton KSS-500A due to replace Dolgorae-class midget submarines for special operations. Its standard complement is ten crewmen, with space for seven passengers. The KSS-500A mini-submarine could serve as a useful test-bed for the much larger KS-III, and up to five could be produced beginning this year.


One other country worthy of mention is Taiwan, although the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) has only two Dutch-built Hai Lung-class submarines obtained in the 1980s. Threatened by a potential Chinese naval blockade, Taiwan is keen to expand its submarine and anti-submarine capabilities. The island wants up to eight new submarines, but this search is proving fruitless due to the threat of political and economic ramifications from an irate China. Whilst the USA would like to help, its shipbuilding industry has not produced diesel-electric submarines for more than 50 years. Domestic shipbuilder CSBC has offered to construct craft in-country if appropriate overseas technology is obtained, but a dubious defence minister called the proposal “bold and muddle-headed”. Thus, the ROCN should not expect new submarines this decade.


Bordering the Malacca Strait and contentious South China Sea, Malaysia administers an enormous exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) recently obtained a pair of Scorpène submarines built by DCNS and Navantia that are strategically based at Sepanggar Bay in Sabah. There have been teething difficulties – in particular, the high-pressure air-blowing system – although the country conducted its first subsurface test-firing of an SM39 Exocet in July 2010. Malaysia serves as a test case for any small nation considering the purchase of submarines, especially in the way just two vessels consume a large proportion of the navy budget. Their purchase cost MYR4.3 billion, but maintaining them for the first five years is budgeted at MYR3 billion. These figures demonstrate how it costs almost as much to operate submarines as it does to buy them! Furthermore, TRC Synergy won a 2007 contract to construct the new submarine base, but it has experienced difficulty in finding a foreign partner with the requisite infrastructure-building experience. It remains to be seen whether this acquisition will prove a suitable fit for the RMN.


The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) currently operates three Challenger-class submarines within 171 Squadron. Now more than 40 years old, these diesel-electrics were acquired from the Swedish Navy. They are being supplemented by two 1,500-ton Archer-class submarines, again second-hand Swedish Navy craft. RSS Archer was commissioned on 2 December 2011 and Swordsman is expected this year. Notably, they were retrofitted with Kockums Stirling Mk III AIP systems in a 12m plug in the hull. Their combat data, weapon control, flank array and mine/obstacle avoidance sonar systems are all modernised, and they are expected to serve for the next 15-20 years. The Archers will interoperate with the RSN’s six Formidable-class frigates and newly acquired SH-60B Seahawk helicopters. The Archer class will give Singapore parity with regional neighbours, but this acquisition might also be considered a stepping stone to even more modern boats in the future, with Singapore’s possible involvement in Sweden’s A26 programme. To serve its underwater assets, the Ministry of Defence has contracted ST Marine to operate the Swift Rescue submarine support vessel since 2009.


Following its trendsetting neighbours, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) is considering the purchase of submarines too. In March 2011, a navy officer spoke of purchasing two second-hand Type 206A submarines from the German Navy for a bargain price of USD220 million. Nonetheless, parliamentary approval was not forthcoming. Last October, the incoming RTN chief said the navy would continue to press for submarines. However, capabilities of the Thai military do not always match its ambitions, and the real danger is that any future submarines could end up much like its Spanish-built aircraft carrier tied up at the pier.

Another country striving to improve its subsurface fleet is Indonesia, which has two Type 209/1300 Chakra-class submarines purchased from Germany in 1981. In a major commitment, Indonesia signed a US $1.1 billion contract with DSME in December 2011 for three replacement Type 209/1200 boats. The trio is to be supplied by 2020, with the first two constructed in South Korea and the third being built locally by PT PAL. This deal makes South Korea the first Asian nation to export submarines. The archipelagic nation would like even more submarines – navy officials have mentioned twelve – but this requires more money than is available. Given the fact that Indonesia is located near the strategic Malacca Strait, this procurement gives Indonesia much greater regional influence. However, last month media reports speculated this contract could slip through Seoul’s fingers because Daewoo later inflated its quotation to US $1.4 billion.


Vietnam is a regional competitor to China, and although its military is dwarfed by the PLA, its geographic location is an historic irritant to China. Hanoi ordered six Kilo-class (Project 636) submarines, armaments and associated infrastructure in December 2009 for USD3.2 billion. The boats will be built in Russia at the rate of one per year with first delivery next year. The procurement of six platforms capable of firing LACMs will allow two to be on patrol at any one time. This is a major step forward for the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN), and will be particularly galling to China as it seeks to make the Gulf of Tonkin its very own. A new submarine base is being built at Cam Ranh on the southeast coast with Russian assistance.


On 23 January, India re-joined an elite six-nation club when it took ownership of a nuclear-powered submarine. To familiarise crews with SSBNs, the Indian Navy (IN) has leased the Russian 8,140-tonne Akula-class (Project 971) submarine for ten years for approximately US $1 billion. The commissioning of INS Chakra was delayed by technical problems and a 2008 accident that killed 20 Russians. Carrying Klub-S LACMs (a type also being fitted on Indian Kilos), INS Chakra was welcomed to its homeport of Visakhapatnam in early April. India is presently negotiating with Russia to lease a further Akula.

However, it will take at least another year before India is able to fire nuclear-tipped missiles from submarines, this capability coming with the future induction of the nuclear-powered INS Arihant. Relying on Russian technology, the first indigenously designed SSBN was launched on 26 July 2009 as part of the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) programme. The 6,000-ton Arihant is set to begin seagoing trials and it will carry twelve K-15 (with 750km range) or four K-4 (3,500km range) ballistic missiles based on the Agni-III. The Arihant and follow-on vessels will form a vital sea-based deterrent in India’s nuclear triad. India expects to be operating five nuclear-powered submarines by 2020, including two leased from Russia and three Arihant class.

India still has 14 ageing conventional submarines. India is modernising its ten Sindhughosh-class (Kilo/Project 877EKM) submarines introduced from 1986-2000 with a greater proportion of locally made components. The remainder of the conventional fleet comprises four older Type 209/1500 Shishumar-class vessels. However, the diesel-electric fleet is expected to dwindle rapidly over the next decade. In a modernisation drive, India ordered six Project 75 Scorpène submarines with MESMA AIP for manufacture by Mazagon Dock Limited in Mumbai. They will be equipped with Black Shark torpedoes and Exocet missiles. Initial delivery has been continuously delayed and the latest estimate is 2015. These Scorpènes are just a start, as India released a request for information last year to DCNS, Navantia, Rubin and HDW for six Project 75I submarines worth USD6 billion. It is expected supersonic BrahMos cruise missiles will be integrated into this type.


Arch-rival Pakistan established its Submarine Squadron in 1964. It has three Khalid-class (Agosta 90B) diesel-electric submarines, with the second and third vessels assembled in Karachi. The final 1,980-ton Agosta 90B has MESMA AIP, something that is being retrofitted to the first two boats. The Pakistan Navy also has two older Agosta 70 types and, in June 2010, DCNS received a contract to upgrade them with SUBTICS. These submarines were originally built for South Africa before a UN arms embargo was implemented. In 2006, Pakistan announced a requirement for SSKs to replace its Agosta 70s. Despite being on the verge of a deal for three German Type 214 boats, Pakistan has instead opted to cooperate with China in buying up to six AIP-equipped submarines. It is thought four will be built in China and the final pair in Pakistan. Given staunch Chinese and Pakistani military cooperation in recent years, this decision is understandable.


The final submarine power in the Asia-Pacific region is Australia. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) operates six Collins-class vessels and their shelf life expires in 2026. The RAN is seeking locally designed replacements under Project SEA 1000, and the 2009 Defence White Paper reaffirmed the intention to double the submarine fleet to twelve vessels from 2025. The new class will be larger, quieter, longer-ranged, faster and better armed than current Australian submarines. Rex Patrick has written a series of excellent articles about SEA 1000 in Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, so readers may refer to these for the options open to Australia.

The Asia-Pacific region is witnessing a number of major programmes that will expand submarine numbers and capabilities. The regional market is expected to be cumulatively worth US $44 billion between now and 2021 (23.6% of the international total). This ‘proliferation’ will obviously have knock-on effects for anti-submarine warfare in both ship and airborne platforms too, but that is another story altogether.



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