Asian defence-procurement trends: action–reaction cycle of submarine and ASW acquisitions

Despite slower growth in defence budgets this year, Asian armed forces began to reap the benefits of past investments and continued to move forward with major equipment acquisitions. This was notably the case for submarine platforms.

Japanese submarine at Kure

By Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Research Fellow for Defence Economics and Procurement, and Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis

In the first half of 2017, three countries advanced new submarine acquisitions. Taiwan announced plans to indigenously build eight submarines and recently contracted the CSBC Corporation to begin design work, with an ambition to commission a first boat in 2027. Thailand finally signed a contract for its first S26T, the export version of the Type-039 Yuan Chinese submarine, becoming the second export customer for the Yuan. Pakistan ordered eight Type-039 boats in 2015 and is expected to build half in Karachi. Meanwhile, Singapore ordered two more German Type-218SG submarines, after a similar order in 2013. These contracts come after Australia’s decision to procure up to 12 French designed Shortfin Barracuda submarines in 2016.

While not new contracts, it is also worth noting that Japan’s steady build of Soryu-class submarines has continued, with the eighth of class commissioned in March 2017. Currently Japan has budgeted for 13 boats and recently announced plans to increase the size of its total submarine fleet to 22 boats. At the same time, South Korea is making progress with its 3,700-tonne KSS-III submarine programme. The contract for the third boat was awarded in November 2016, while the first two boats are already under construction. The KSS-III submarines are being built with a vertical launch system for cruise missiles.

Figure 1. Submarine acquisitions in Asia (Source: Military Balance+)

Asian submarine acquisitions

China has reportedly begun sea trials of a possible new Yuan-class conventionally powered submarine variant – the Type-039C. Meanwhile, following the completion of a fourth improved Shang-class attack submarine in 2015, Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Corporation (BSHIC) has not launched any new nuclear-powered boats. Satellite imagery suggests that BSHIC has been carrying out additional work on the improved Shangs but it is not known whether the yard is also working on the construction of new submarines – either more improved Shangs or a follow-on class to either the Shang or the Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine.

These various ongoing programmes show that all the major powers in the region are currently modernising and expanding their submarine fleets. At the same time, however, a number of countries are also receiving or looking to procure anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. Australia’s first P-8A Poseidon ASW aircraft was delivered in late 2016 and New Zealand is considering the procurement of the same system. Similarly, Indonesia is expecting the delivery of its first two AS565MBe Panther ASW helicopters by mid-2017. In Taiwan, two second-hand US Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates were commissioned in May 2017, with the aim of enhancing the island’s anti-submarine capability.

This action–reaction cycle in the field of submarine warfare suggests that, despite slower growth in defence spending, existing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region continue to influence defence-budget and procurement decisions in the region.

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