Australia-India-China: IOR Procurement Race for Submarines

As most of the international community focuses on maritime events taking place in East Asia, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has been witnessing its own naval arms race in recent years. Increasingly at the forefront of countries’ maritime procurement wish-lists, are improved submarine capabilities.
Owing to their ability to conduct multiple missions such as anti-ship warfare, intelligence gathering, and limited missile launches, submarines have long been a sought-after vessel for medium fleets. India and Australia, with the two largest resident submarine fleets in the Indian Ocean, have been looking to rebuild their fleet in recent years. Though initially prompted by the state of their rapidly aging fleets, both countries’ efforts to procure new submarines have been given new impetus by China’s recent assertive behaviour and forays in the IOR. With 2015 already shaping up to be an eventful year for both countries’ submarine programmes, it is prudent to investigate the intended composition of each country’s future submarine fleet and the problems that have been plaguing their procurement.

Australia is seeking to acquire 12 new conventional submarines to be in service by 2024, a majority of which are likely to remain stationed in the Indian Ocean, facing Western Australia. Its current fleet of six indigenously built Collins class submarines, the last of which was only commissioned in 2003, will be upgraded with modern systems to extend their lifespan to reach their planned retirement date. Clearly disillusioned by the Collins project, successive governments have sought to purchase the next generation, with the recent favourite being the Japanese Soryu class; although French and German designs too are being considered with a decision expected in mid-2015 to coincide with the new Defence White Paper.

However, the current government clearly favours purchasing these submarines ‘off the shelf’ rather than have them built or outfitted in Australian shipyards. Although an overseas purchase will likely need some modification, especially in range, to meet Australian requirements, the current government has refused to guarantee that this would be done by Australian shipyards. This has caused significant local backlash, especially in South Australia where the defence industry is strongest and the community, desperate to keep its diminishing manufacturing base after the last car factories closed. Nonetheless, in February, Australia’s defence force chief stated that there is more of an emotive instead of national security case for domestic construction of vessels as long as submarine maintenance remains in Australia.

Conversely, India plans to indigenously build at least three nuclear and 12 conventional submarines. These will replace the noticeably aging fleet of 13 conventional diesel electric submarines, including the one that sank at Mumbai harbour in 2013 after a series of internal explosions. India’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine is currently undergoing trials and is expected to enter service in 2016; but only if tests go smoothly. India currently leases one Russian nuclear submarine to get enough qualified crew to man the new submarines.

As part ofIndia’s ‘Project-75’, it also wishes to modernise its conventional submarine fleet, approving in October 2014 a $8 billion project to build six new conventional submarines locally. India has already purchased the rights to build and commission six Scorpène class subs from a French/Spanish shipbuilder, currently under construction in a Mumbai dockyard, the first of which is expected to undergo tests later in 2015. The project is currently running four years late and was again delayed indefinitely in February 2015. To make matters worse, construction has had ‘technical and equipment-related issues’ that will result in at least the first four submarines being deployed without an air-independent propulsion system that allows a submarine to remain submerged for longer periods of time, thereby increasing their covert utility.

Though China’s actions has provided the catalyst for the recent rigour in both countries’ efforts to establish their submarine fleet, Beijing has been relatively subdued in the face of these efforts. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a large submarine force with a current total of seven nuclear and 51 conventional submarines split across three fleets that are capable of long-range underwater operations and bearing capability to threaten both Australian and Indian interests.

Though yet to publicly criticise Australia’s and India’s submarine procurement efforts, China has been noticeably increasing its submarine presence in the IOR in what the Indian media has dubbed a ‘submarine noose’. While several of these deployments are likely primarily tests of its own capacities as well as protecting and monitoring its own maritime trade interests that pass through these seas, China is undoubtedly also demonstrating its resolve and abilities to resident militaries in the IOR. As well as utilising its own fleets, China has quietly been improving the capacities of its own allies in the region in an effort to mitigate any impact India’s fleet expansion would have on Chinese operations.

Recently, Beijing reportedly gifted Dhaka some of its older submarines and is training Bangladeshi submariners to operate them. Reportedly, China has also been assisting Pakistan develop its own missile-capable submarines and remains the most likely supplier for Pakistan’s ambitions to acquire six new submarines.

Though China has yet to issue any direct threat to any resident of the IOR, Australia and India remain committed to providing their navies with the most sophisticated submarines available so as to prevent Beijing from developing free reign over the seas.

However, with both countries handicapped by subpar and expensive shipyards, only time will tell if their different approaches will enable them to achieve their defence ambitions and whether it will elicit a stronger response from China.