An important aspect of the changing strategic landscape in East Asia is the acquisition of the next generation conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), which are becoming ‘platforms of choice’ for regional powers, as force multipliers in diverse missions and against superior forces. This trend reflects East Asia’s emerging strategic template – characterised by a diverse spectrum of threats, including asymmetric anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and low-to-high intensity conventional threats, non-traditional security challenges, such as energy security and cyber-security, which all converge in areas such as the territorial disputes in the East China and South China Seas.
By acquiring new classes of submarines, East Asian navies seek greater operational flexibility, endurance, range and stealth, enabling them to conduct diverse missions, from anti-submarine warfare to force protection (in the form of close submarine escort), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to providing support for special forces, alongside other complementary deterrence and defensive tasks in support of territorial defence.
Submarines are thus becoming an increasingly valuable strategic asset, particularly those with installed AIP systems. For smaller, defensively oriented navies in East and Southeast Asia, these attributes enable a ‘sea-denial’ strategy – aimed at preventing an opponent from using the sea, rather than providing them with a degree of sea control that would facilitate their own power- or trade-projection via the sea. The stealth attributes of submarines also provide strategic advantages over surface ships vis-à-vis sea-based surveillance, particularly in the shallow coastal and littoral waters in the South China Sea and Java Sea. This means that, even if submarines are detected, it is not always possible to identify their type and nationality. This may consequently complicate an opponent’s ability to respond.
As with any military innovation, however, the overall military effectiveness of submarines, no matter how advanced, will be measured not only according to their technical specification. Rather, it will be determined by how well they are integrated with organisational structures, doctrines and operational concepts.
Operationally ready submarines require a long-term organisational investment, highly skilled workforce, infrastructure development and relevant doctrine in order to create a modern navy that can produce commanding officers with up to ten years of experience, and senior sailors, operators and engineers capable of managing and maintaining the submarines’ weapons, propulsion and communications systems. The key difference in the military effectiveness of the state-of-the-art submarines that are increasingly frequenting regional seas – and thus their strategic implications – will therefore be in the experience, training and skill set of their operators.
This article has been contributed by Dr. Michael Raska and the views expressed are his own.