Monday, March 17, 2014

Of submarines, SAR and the MH 370 incident

Since the day MAS’s MH370 airplane went missing, REFSA has prayed for the safety of the aircrew and passengers, and hoped that everything will be alright.

While we await for results from the Search and Rescue teams, it is timely for us to look into a question often asked by many – Why can’t the costly Scorpene submarine be deployed to assist in the SAR operations?

If the submarine is incapable of conducting an SAR mission, what is the purpose of acquiring the billion dollar baby?

There are many puzzles awaiting reasonable explanation and REFSA is more than willing to share these analyses with all Malaysians. It is worth noting that knowing the right scenario will allow you to ask the right questions.

Lam Choong Wah
Senior Fellow


Modern conventional maritime threats consist of two types, i.e. surface and underwater.
Normally, surface combatant vessels such as frigate and corvette perform anti-surface warfare,
while submarines perform underwater warfare.

Compared with surface combatant vessels, a submarine is harder to be detected via traditional
radar or sonar system. Submarines are an important military asset to neutralize surface and
underwater threats nowadays.

Revisiting the history of the Second World War, one can find that the South China Sea has always
been an important underwater battle theatre.

After the surrender of Japan in 1945, the submarine fleet from United States and others filled the
vacuum in the said area.

Indonesia was the first Southeast Asian country to enter into the exclusive submarine club in the
1950s. It possessed 12 submarines at the time but the numbers declined due to the high
maintenance cost. Nowadays, the Indonesian Navy only operates two submarines and three
submarines are scheduled to be delivered from 2016 to 2018.

Singapore has six state of the art submarines and started operating its underwater fleet since
1997. In the meantime, Vietnam had also ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Russia and the
delivery has been started since last year.

Having learnt that the underwater threat scenario would be intensified as more and more regional
countries decide to procure submarines, the Malaysian government made the decision to procure
two French submarines (Scorpenes) in 2002.

The Deployment Area

There are a few strategic choke points and interests that the foreign powers have been eyeing for
a long time, namely the Straits of Malacca and the oil reserve in the South China Sea respectively.
In order to safeguard the strategic interests in the region, the interested parties send naval vessels
to show their flags periodically. These parties are China, U.S, India, U.K, Australia, Japan and
neighboring South East Asian countries. Particularly, China has reportedly been using South China
Sea as the nuclear-powered submarine missile launch area.

However, the Straits of Malacca is not a suitable place to deploy underwater fleet due to the
shallowness of the straits, i.e. 25 meters depth on average. Therefore, almost all submarine fleets
are deployed in South China Sea which is a vastly larger area and has a deeper seabed.
One can see that the Malaysian Sepanggar submarine base is in Sabah. China is developing Hainan
Island as the strategic and aircraft carrier naval base, and Vietnam has reactivated its Cam Ranh
base, and Indonesia has built a new submarine base in Palu, Sulawesi.

The Roles of a submarine

Basically, a submarine has two advantages against surface combatants. First it is harder to be
detected, secondly it is the best vessel to search and destroy hostile submarine.

Therefore, it is usually being used as a deterrence asset against potential opponents. Moreover,
to train our naval force to detect and neutralize underwater threats, nothing is better than
deploying our own submarine as a hypothetical enemy in naval exercise.

In a combat scenario, submarines use its sensors such as active and passive sonar systems to
detect hostile targets and fire torpedoes to destroy it when necessary. However, combat-based
submarine sonar system is unable to differentiate big artificial parts from natural landscape when
in the deep sea, and it is unable to perform rescue mission.

This has been proven in the August 2000 sinking of the Russian Kursk nuclear submarine incident.
The submarine encountered explosion and sunk directly into the deep sea during a naval exercise.
There were other Russian submarines on the scene, but they were unable to locate the final
location of the wreck. Eventually, some special search and rescue vessels from the U.K and
Norway were deployed to locate and perform the rescue work though no survivors had been
found in this incident.

Furthermore, the French Navy had dispatched a nuclear-powered combat submarine Émeraude
to assist the Search and Rescue Mission for the Air France AF 447 airplane which crashed into the
Atlantic Ocean in June 2009. During its 30-day mission, the combat submarine was not able to
find the debris of the airplane or the “Black Box”.

Reasons why Scorpene is not suitable

In the incident of MH 370’s disappearance, the geographical conditions and strategic situation is
different from the 2009 Air France incident. Firstly, the Gulf of Thailand’s sea depth is shallower
than the Atlantic Ocean, with an average depth of 40m-60m against the latter’s 3000m-5000m
depth. Thus, it is not advisable to deploy submarines around the area to avoid it clashing with
surface vessels.

As a matter of fact, the submarine’s stealth ability is realised through hiding itself from hostile
sonar and acoustic detection. Thus, it is also not advisable to deploy a Scorpene submarine which
is deemed as a strategic asset for Malaysia in the particular area to avoid its acoustic signature to
be detected, especially when Malaysia’s potential strategic opponents like Vietnam, China and
Singapore have deployed numerous vessels equipped with state of the art sonar and acoustic
detection device.

However, in order to prepare for the worst case scenario, which is performing deep sea SAR mission, the nations which have submarine fleets began deploying Submarine Escape and Rescue Vessel (SSRV) to perform deep sea search and rescue mission. Malaysia had commissioned MV Mega Bakti SSRV  Malaysian SSRV in bound for MH370 SAR
in the last year, while Singapore
had launched its SSRV MV Swift in 2007.

Currently, the two SSRV mentioned have been sent to locate the missing MH 370 aircraft which
is suspected to have crashed into the sea.

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