The Asia-Pacific Submarine Buildup; Do They Know Something We Don’t?

Naval strategist and historian Geoffrey Till, whose recent paper on the balance of naval power in Asia we linked to last week, notices a significant boost in Asia-Pacific submarine builds and buys. Total submarine numbers are expected to increase markedly over the next two decades in Asia-Pacific waters, particularly among smaller powers where small and stealthy submarines are seen as a “force equalizer,” he writes.

South Korea is buying six more of the medium sized KSS II/Type 214 Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) boats and plans to build a more capable KSS III type. Vietnam has ordered six Project 636 Kilo boats from Russia. Singapore bought two modern Vastergotland class subs retro-fitted with AIP systems from Sweden. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are all developing or enhancing submarines, Till writes.

Australia’s 2009 Defense White paper calls for doubling its sub fleet to 12 boats, all equipped with cruise missiles. India is building six Scorpene class subs under French license. The recent Pentagon assessment of China’s PLA Navy modernization says it may add up to five Type 095 nuclear attack boats and 15 more of the diesel-electric Yuan class boats in the coming years.

I asked a very smart naval strategist who works for the Navy for his take on what’s going on with the big submarine push in the Asia-Pacific. He said that the recent sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan reinforces the fact that the smart play in future naval warfare is to be under the water and shoot a missile, not above the water and take a missile hit.

India appears to have learned the lesson: the Indian Navy recently put in an order for midget subs.

— Greg Grant

  • Bob

    The aircraft carrier is obsolete. It is a big, expensive target, that is hard to hide, and easy to sink or disable. The submarine in one form or another is the capital ship of the future. It can deny use of seaborn transportation, defeat a surface naval force, and with cruise, or ballistic missles hit land targets. And best of all it is stealthy and hard to track. Subs are also cheaper and less manpower intensive. I just hope our naval aviator types who seem to run things learn this before it is too late.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    You need a new expert Greg, he missed that India is making their own nucs’ one already in the water, is “Leasing” two nuc’s from The Russian Federation and are in negotiations to buy four more.

    On the PRC last Fall they said they were building Yuan’s at the rate of five a year, it September and they have yet to out one in the water. On nuclear subs, the PRC is dead in the water. They are still having problems making reactors that don’t leak coolant.

    All that Mr. Till is giving us is personal speculation that is not backed by any evidence. While I will agree that there is some naval build up in Asia I would say its due to improved economies who feel the need for status symbols. The up side is submarines are cheap to buy and have small crews. The down side is that for a submarine to be effective in combat the boat needs a lot of time at sea and drills. So far none of the countries mentioned are BUILDING a Submarine force.

    Of course what Mr. Till omitted was the ASW efforts by these countries, in short these “naval powers” don’t have any. Other the the classic WW I Torpedo ambush like the North Koreans did on the South Korean Corvette, well that’s it I guess, they have nothing else.

    According to papers out of Newport RI and the USNI of recent months, one referenced by Greg Grant in March, clearly the USN’s view point on this, they are watching but are not concerned. The USN still owns the Blue Water.


    Byron Skinner

  • STemplar

    The aircraft carrier is far from obsolete and it is not easy to sink. It is a huge ship and can survive even a hit quite well. Consider the damage done to the USS Stark and the USS Samuel Roberts, far smaller USN vessels that survived what were considered crippling strikes. The ISR capacity required to track a carrier at sea is substantial, and even then without any sort of blue water navy there is no way to engage it. Couple that with programs like the X-47B giving a carrier s stealthy unrefueled strike radius of 1500 nmi, and carriers are far from obsolete. The mystery Chinese ASBM has yet to be test fired, and how precisely it would even operate is a very open question, as opposed to the X-47B, which is a program underway, that can fly, carry ordinance, has the range, and is about to begin carrier ops testing next year.

    Having said all that, I think we def need to expand our submarine force. The US SSGNs each carry 150+ Tomahawks, and they are a conversion. One has to wonder if a purpose built SSGN were designed, how many might it carry? The Sea Wolfs, while only 3, can each carry 50, so considering 7 US subs can deliver 750+ Tomahawks, that is an enormous amount of firepower.

  • BGrubbs

    Submarines have always been the quickest, cheapest way to counter a larger navy. Germany did it very well both World Wars, and immediately after Pearl Harbor, our submarine fleet was the most efficient wat to directly confront Japan. You’re not going to project power very far onshore, but you can prevent (or at least make him pay) if he wants to push into your backyard.

  • roland

    And we just need 1 long range cruise missile.

  • Ray

    It’s a matter, I think, of the role these nations expect their navies to play in their national defense. Most of these countries do not expect to need naval gunfire to support combat ashore, a major advantage of surface ships over submarines. These countries also do not expect to contest distant sea-lanes with likely adversaries; indeed, they’re likely to be confined to keeping aggressors out of their own home waters.

    The role described here is for the ability to deny a small patch of ocean to hostile ships. That is a role in which submarines excel, particularly diesel subs. We should not be surprised to find that’s what countries in Asia are buying.

  • Tad

    I’ve heard that these electric subs are quieter than the nuclear subs. That means they’ll control the sea lanes which is far more important than the ability to strike the land in this day and age.

  • mareo2

    “But Menon accepts that the Indian Navy would always need conventional submarines. India’s coastal waters are so shallow that SSNs, which typically weigh 4,000-5,000 tonnes, run the risk of scraping the bottom. Conventional submarines, which normally weigh around 1,500 tonnes, are needed for dominating the coastal areas.”

    N-subs: India debates, China struggles
    Business Standar - Thursday, Sep 09, 2010…

  • OIF_to_USC

    After reading these comments, I see an age old danger of assuming that naval warfare can be inherited by one type of ship at the expense of all, or most others. There will always be a place for aircraft carriers capable of maintaining an entire air wing on station for extended periods of time and even battleships, at least in the offshore fire support role that can maintain a sustained bombardment role at a fraction of the cost of cruise missiles. Nobody mentioned the role of amphibious warfare vessels with the capability of projecting an entire Marine Expeditionary Force ashore, essentially the size of a couple of Army heavy combat divisions with support brigades and and an air brigade attached. Submarines have their place in the total equation and their place just got bigger. In fact, submarines are America’s trump card in a shooting war with a technologically advanced maritime enemy, but rest assured the race to defeat or minimize their effectiveness continues. Submarine warfare, surface warfare with its ASW component, air power and amphibious warfare are ineffective in their individual capacities. They are all parts of a total force.

  • Bubblehead4ever

    Although OIF makes a very good point, there are a lot more “skimmers” and planes on the bottom of the sea than there are subs. ’nuff said…

  • STemplar

    Subs designed in traditional ways have limitations. As I already said, a purpose build SSGN could be a real game changer. Whether using existing Tomahawks or some new longer legged LAM option, a purpose built sub would allow us to strike hundreds of high value targets essentially with impunity. The converted Ohios have 152(4)? missiles, but that was fit into the SLBM tubes. Imagine how many more could be carried in some configuration purpose built, or the same amount in a smaller vessel.

  • hank

    It seems to me that we could outfit subs to carry and deploy in a stealthy manner nuclear armed drones which could then be refueled perhaps in the sky by tankers…such a application of submarines may well redefine the landscape a little and shake things up…(just like those missile launchers the Ruskies are placing in cargo containers)

  • tom343

    The Soviets had as their prime naval objective, neutralizing our carrier battle groups. They worked on this for decades, and still, along with their allies, work on this objective today. Knowing how capable these people had become, does anyone here assume these battle groups are not vulnerable? How can such big vessels hide from satellites, for example? From SOSUS-like systems we don;t even know about? Even from ordinary mercantile ships?
    A nuclear bomb can blow a huge hole in the oceans right under these groups.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    Since this discussion is about submarines I will ignore the foolishness about battleship and the like. Some who E-mail personally have wondered why I haven’t mentioned the USN and what they are doing to counter this, Well here goes.

    Like everything else in future defense its unmanned. Before I get started with the toys that are currently in various stages from conception to deployment to operational, I will apologize by skimping on the communications issue other then to say we have come a long way and a submerged platform is no longer alone.

    The new and developing jargon includes UUV “Unmanned Underwater Vehicle”, AUV “Autonomous Underwater Vehicle” and UMV “Unmanned Underwater Vehicle”.

    Missions of unmanned underwater vehicles to include but not be exclusive to:




    Mine/Countermine Warfare


    REA “Rapid Environmental Assessment”

    Amphibious Warfare

    Special Operations

    Port Defense

    Force Defense

    Convoy Escort

    Battle Group Escort

    Electronic Intelligence gathering



    Beach Reconnaissance

    Breaching Beach Obstacles

    Note: Supporting information on all the above is in open literature.

    Only a generalized statement can be made about the vehicles. They can be launched and recovered by a SSN or other underwater mother platforms and can operate for a few hours to much, much longer.

    The USN is not asleep on the underwater littoral mission. The above technologies are dominating and game changers, if you like the USN is several generations ahead of what is currently taking place in Asia.

    These platforms with combat systems and weapons are happening now, not on some five year plan or expectations that that the United States may buy a submarine or two. Re; “Seawolf”, in the future that can do these missions.


    Byron Skinner

  • Mastro

    When will the US navy wake up and build some 1500-2000 ton conventional subs to patrol the Persian Gulf and shallows off of China? We could team up with Australia/S Korea/Tawain/Israel .

    I guess it just makes too much sense- and threatens Rickover’s boys and their billion dollar toys.

  • Tim

    The only kind of sub that can seriously threaten a carrier is a modern nuclear sub, much like the ones the US and a very few other nations possess. The rest of the diesel/electric subs, while may have their advantages, still lack the range and the capability to deploy against a blue ocean carrier battle group. In WWII, the German U-boats were deadly until they had to surface to refuel and resupply. Then they became easy targets.

    Besides, unlike the Russian carrier, a US carrier doesn’t travel like a lone wolf that put itself in a situation to be picked on. The Russian carrier may well be obsolete, but a US carrier is a long way from it.

    • Guest

      Doesnt anyone remember that exercise the USN did together with that Swedish sub off San Diego? If I remember correctly, that humble little swedish boat pretty much sunk the the carrier while doing the exercise (several exercises if i remember correctly).

    • Aussie Observer

      If my memory serves correctly US allies diesel/electric boats have “sunk” carriers in the middle of battle groups on a number of occasions over the relatively recent past during major exercises.

      Reality is each class of vessel has its strengths and weaknesses and used to complement each other make lethal combinations against enemies. Imagine what could be achieved with conventional boats operating in an enemies littoral waters supported by nuke boats in deeper water nearby for support and greater “muscle”, all working with a carrier battle group further out?

      I know Aussie subs supported by US nukes with a combined battle group nearby would give pause to anyone in the shallow waters generally found in and around south east Asia!

  • longshadow

    Our battle groups are particularly vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. The classic ‘over under’ technique was designed to counter our Surface vessels (e.g., Aircraft carriers). The technique calls for a combination of satellites, awacs, etc, to track and target surface vessels (the over part) and bottom-rising propelled sea mines (eg., EM52s), supercavaitating rocket torpedoes (e.g., shkval’s) , etc to stall or destroy the targeted vessel. That doesn’t even include the C4ISR capabilities like anti-satellite technology, EMP, jamming, etc, cruise missiles, modified unmanned combat vehicles fitted with extra fuel tanks and stand-off antiship missiles.

    Long story short, aircraft carriers and large battle groups are quickly becoming obsolete in modern warfare.

    • blight

      Not obsolete, just vulnerable.

  • William C.

    Longshadow the Soviets developed much of the tactics we expect to be used against our CBGs, and we developed counters to all of that. The same applies to more recent developments.

    In my opinion the Chinese and other nations view submarines as more likely to succeed in sinking our carriers than swarms of anti-ship missiles launched via ship or aircraft that the Soviets focused much of their development in.

  • Tim

    I think we are comparing apples to oranges. The Asia-Pacific submarine buildup points to the fear of a future Chinese naval aggression against them more than anything else. These submarines are at best viewed as the first line of defense and are effective asset for patrolling the coastal areas. In other words, they are the new defensive shield.

    On the other hand, the aircraft carrier and the battle group is the sword, capable of not only regional defense but also force projection, deep into enemy’s territory. It is much more lethal and promote fears which targeted nation would take notice. In real battle, the battle group can, not only deny these diesel/electric subs their home bases by laying waste to them, but also hunt them at sea.

    As for using the so-called carrier-killer missiles, just the act of launching them against a US carrier would trigger other factors, which would be wise for China to contemplate. US nuke subs are still the most lethal force in the world and we haven’t mentioned the Air Force yet. Everybody should know by now that the US doesn’t go to war with just one carrier battle group.

  • Paralus

    Every one of the USN’s flatforms, be it carriers, submarines or DDG’s, have vulnerabilities. Carriers carry an amazing amount of striking power, but their size and that of their escorts make them a rather large target. The escorts can only carry so many Standard missiles and who’s to say that PLAN wouldn’t rely on massive salvos of anti-ship missiles until the escorts run out of missiles?

    The carriers are also limited by the range of their aircraft and even if the carriers are close enough to launch sorties against mainland China, they are going to be operating in an extremely hostile environment defended by SAMs and large amounts of fighters.

    Submarines have the advantage of stealthiness and being able to operate dispersed throughout an entire region, but once they’ve shot their load of cruise missiles, they revert back to relying on torpedoes.

    • blight

      Unless we look at concept UAVs like th Comorant that could operate from SSBN torpedo tubes, and then we’d have a submersible aviation force. It probably wouldn’t dump a great quantity of bombs though…

    • STemplar

      I have mentioned this before but it is worth re-mentioning. The PLA has not even test fired an ASBM yet. They do not have anti ship missiles that can hit our carriers at the ranges they can operate right now, certainly not when the F35C is online, and if the X-47B works, good night PLA.

      Hitting a moving target, even a carrier sized one, from a 1000 miles away is really really really hard. Particulary when that target is not going to be cooperative. In regards to salvos of missiles, long before the carriers are within range I would expect a large # of cruise missiles will be paying a visit. I would expect a host of other issues as a result of those preliminary strikes we will undoubtedly launch will be causing some distractions.

      To say nothing of the fact if you have say 4 surface combatants escorting a carrier that is roughly 300 SM-3 missiles. I bet they run out before we do.

      Having said all that I am all for expanding our sub force, but this ceaseless talk about how US carriers are toast just because allegedly the Chinese are developing some mystery missile is silly. Carriers are far more adaptable than any single other naval ship because of what they carry. The USS Midway was commissioned in 1946 and retired in 1992. Think about the difference in the capability and defensibility of that ship from prop driven Corsairs and Hellcats, to F-18s. Then consider were the Midway put back in service, she could launch F-35s, and then ask yourself just how obsolete a carrier is.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    This morning the WSJ weighed in on this with an op-ed piece by one of the Rock Stars of the right wing Andrew F. Krepinevich.

    Among the new items added to the list that Mr. Krepinevich adds is:

    The Chinese have tested anti-satellite missile(s) in 2007 true, they did it once
    May-be? Many in the DoD have serious doubts as to how this was done, think homing device in target.

    The Chinese have lasers that can blind US satellites, he fails to say when and where such a weapon has been tested and I can’t find any evidence that any ever has been tested.

    Frequent Cyber attacks origination in China. While I would assume that any solid information on this is Classified, the only public case of this happening that against Lockheed Martin and the F-35 software turned out to be a hoax.

    The Chinese have anti-access/area denial capabilities against Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and Anderson Air Base on Guam. Mr. Krepinevich stops here and says no more, like how? This has been brought several time and there is no evidence that China has operational missiles to do this. Of course Mr. Krepinevich assumes that the US and Japan would not use any defense measures or strikes to prevent such an attack.

    The PLA’s area-denial capabilities focus on restricting the US Navy’s freedom of action out to the “second line island chain”. a line that extends from China as far east as Guam. While such a line, first and second island does exist in PLAN propaganda literature nobody take it seriously especially the USN. Note during the big PLAN celebration last July three US SSGN’s surfaced in water near China (all with in the first island line of defense) and the crews of at least one had a steel beach party. It would seem that nobody told them that this was a denied area.

    My favorite. “China’s Navy (PLAN I assume) has launched submarines equipped with advanced torpedos and high speed sea skimming anti-ship cruise missiles. This is just blatant misinformation. As usual no evidence is advanced to support this statement.

    PLA is constructing over the horizon radars and deploying reconnaissance satellites. The PLAN wishes they were, but have yet to attempt this.

    I could go on and on with this silliness, but will spare the reader. If you want the whole nine yards go to todays WSJ 9/11/10 editorial section.

    Mr. Krepinevich is in some right win la-la-land. As with most military story tellers from the genre he is big on charges and very short on supporting evidence. The really sad thing is that there are those in policy making positions that take this stuff seriously and make decisions based on what the Krepinevich’s of the right wing have to say on issues.

    Byron Skinner

  • sgt lee

    Sgt Major Lee Ghost Troop 3Rd / 7Th Cavarly

    Iran has SUNBURN Missles That Can SINK ALL AirCraft Carrier’s Look It People
    IRAN Sunburn Misslies


  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Sgt. Major Lee,

    I wouldn’t be to concerned about the SS-N-22 “Sunburn” S/L/ALCM Sgt, Major, it is know that Iran has bought small numbers of SS-N-22’s from The Russian Federation (perhaps as long ago as during the Soviet era) and currently may be buying them from the Ukraine and perhaps a Chinese knock off. There is even some evidence that Iran is going into domestic production of an Islamic version of this missile. So what?

    In the conventional mode the SS-N-22 has a 300-320 Kg. warhead, 660-704lbs of explosives, the nuclear mode is a whole new ball game. We know that the Ukraine and Portugal are selling RDX in the area and Iran may even have domestic production of this explosive, so lets for worst case assume that the war heads of the Iranian SS-N-22’s are RDX. I will stop this line of thought here, assuming that you can look up the tables and determine the explosive power of this much RDX. vs. TNT or Symtex or PETN.

    Using the damage of the USS Cole as an example, again I won’t get technical here, but you have access to the information if you want to verify, that it would be near impossible for a single SS-N-22 to do much damage to a US carrier or for that matter any USN vessel FFG and larger. Even the “lucky” shot that would hit a magazine wouldn’t sink a modern US carrier.

    The “Sunburn” is rather old technology and although it is being updated by the Ukraine and China for export, the upgrades are mostly in increased range, it is unlikely that it would survive current missiles in place with CBG’s.


    Byron Skinner

  • PolicyWonk

    The conventional subs are great weapons systems when used as relatively small area denial platforms when under battery or AIP. Regardless, when operating under AIP or battery their range quickly becomes limited - so they are good for making a quick hit - but are not designed for a sustained campaign.

    Nuclear boats are - and we need to bolster our capabilities and the number of platforms in the Pacific to ensure potential adversaries that we remain interested.

  • matt

    You will be able to tap dance all the way to Beijing on sonar buoys.