FEATURE: Southeast Asian navies in race for submarines


By Out-crowd

THAILAND, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore have stood out among all other countries in the Southeast Asian region in terms of  upgraded naval firepower. They do not only have lengthy shores of the South China Sea and archipelagos but abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas and minerals undersea. That obviously poses a strategic regional security issue, thus prompting those coastal states to build up their naval strengths and capabilities to protect the maritime resources over which they may have lodged overlapping claims of territorial integrity.

Since the last decade, the Southeast Asian navies have gradually deployed and upgraded weapon systems as a pivotal part of their long-term defense plans with regards to their respective territorial waters. That practically does not only refer to surface ships but submarines.

Given such enormous maritime interests at stake, the procurement of submarines has been made or at least planned for by the Southeast Asian states with the refitting and modifying works, either at a shipbuilding yard in the supplying country or in the purchasing country, to make them a highly maneuverable stealth weapon system undersea. Militarywise, the mere existence of an attack submarine in the waters of a sovereign state could probably raise the eyebrows of its suspicious neighbours.

Thailand, which is yet to procure the first submarine in over 60 years, has long assigned its navy the tasks of maintaining the country’s maritime interests in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea.

A retired admiral concluded the Thai navy’s surface ships will not be enough to counter a potential sea-launched threat or to keep the neighboring states’ naval forces in balance. After years of contemplating the likes of a secondhand German sub, or a newly-built South Korean sub or a newly-built Chinese sub, Thailand decidedly picked the Yuan-class S26T sub, a Chinese derivative of the Russian-built Kilo-class sub with delivery scheduled for 2023.

Nevertheless, the Thai navy’s planned purchase of two other subs of the same type has been put on hold in the face of increased expenditure on measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

The S26T sub, armed with anti-ship guided missiles and other weapon systems, is designed to stay undersea without the needs to surface for a consecutive 21-days time, given an air-independent propulsion system aboard.

Strategically situated between the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, Singapore has upgraded its navy the furthest among the Southeast Asian states, given two secondhand Swedish-built subs and two German-built Invincible-class subs refitted with the air-independent propulsion.

Indonesia which consists of more than a thousand islands has purchased two secondhand German-built Type 209 subs and three secondhand Type 209 subs from South Korea. In addition, the archipelago state has planned to build nine subs as a derivative of the South Korean sub.

Vietnam which has engaged in chronic disputes with China over the territorial integrity of tiny islands and atolls in the South China Sea currently deploys six Russian-built Kilo-class subs to become the navy with the largest fleet of subs in the Southeast Asian region.

Myanmar has procured a secondhand Kilo-class sub from India and reportedly looked to buy four more of the same type for planned deployment in the Andaman Sea. Myanmar’s sought-after subs could practically keep a Chinese- built one deployed by the Bangladeshi navy at bay, noted the retired admiral. In the meantime, Thailand could no longer afford to remain idle in the wake of the western neighbour’s reported naval build-up.

Malaysia has purchased one French-built sub and one Spaniard-built sub and the Philippines has planned to procure three modified subs.

With respect to reported naval arsenals, Thailand currently deploys one aircraft carrier, nine frigates, seven corvettes, 33 amphibious assault vehicles and three sea patrol planes. That compares to Indonesia’s 12 frigates, 20 corvettes, two subs and 23 sea patrol planes.

Vietnam is reported to currently deploy six subs, two frigates and six corvettes, compared to Myanmar’s five frigates, two corvettes and one sub and Malaysia’s 10 frigates and four corvettes plus the planned procurement of two subs. Last but not least, Singapore is reported to currently deploy six frigates, six corvettes and four subs.

Given the volatile international geopolitical circumstances and potential maritime interests among the Southeast Asian countries, each has been evidently determined to build up its naval firepower with the highlighted deployment of a relatively small fleet of subs, either newly-built or secondhand, whereas the superior navies of the United States and China were ostensibly flexing muscles and raising tensions in their own front yard – the South China Sea.


Top: The first two Type 218SG submarines are expected to be delivered to Singaproe from 2021.Photo: Cyberpioneer and published by Straits Times

First insert: The Royal Thai Navy medium landing ship HTMS Surin transits the Gulf of Thialand. Surin was participating in Cobra Gold 2010, an annual exercise designed to train Thai, US, Republic of Korea and Singaporean task force personnel. Photo: US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Geronimo Aquino

Second insert: Indonesian Navy’s 6th Makassar-class LPD has been configured as a hospital ship. Photo:  Antara and published by

Third insert: Missile escort frigate HQ-016 Quang Trung of the Vietnam People’s Navy at the Vladivostok sea port as Vietnam takes part in a fleet review on the occasion of the 323rd anniversary of the Russian Navy. File photo:  VNA/VNS  published by

First below: Aerial view of the Royal Thai Navy His Thai Majesty’s Ship Chakri Naruebet (left), and the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, underway in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy

Second below: A26 type submarine. Photo: Kockums and published by

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