Undeclared Submarine Arms Race Takes Hold In Asia


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Since its inception at the turn of the 20th century, the submarine has been the ace asymmetrical weapon. It has allowed smaller navies to stand up to the most powerful, and the powerful ones stay on top. Today, arguably, they are the most potent weapon platform on the planet. (Aircraft carrier fans may disagree!) And almost every navy in Asia wants them.

Chart showing how many submarines each Asian country has

The submarine fleets of Asian navies

When we talk about submarine arms races in Asia, the big players are China, Australia, Japan and India. And the list goes on: Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore all have high-tech submarine capabilities. But there is another less discussed submarine revolution taking place. Virtually all the smaller navies in the region are also building up submarine capabilities. This is the part of an undeclared arms race which is changing the shape of the submarine threat worldwide.

Myanmar is not a country which springs to mind as a submarine power, but its first submarine was commissioned in December. It is a secondhand Kilo class attack submarine supplied by India. Two newly built Kilos are expected to be purchased from Russia. Bangladesh also recently started an embryonic submarine fleet, purchasing two boats from China.

Asia has long been a hot export market for submarine builders. Naturally Myanmar and Bangladesh’s submarines will be imported. But one aspect of the growth in submarine forces in Asia is that many countries are looking to build locally.

Taiwan is one such country. Although it has in some respects a sophisticated navy, it suffers from aging submarines. Its two U.S. built Hai Shih class boats are the oldest submarines in service anywhere in the world. They are long overdue for replacement and there is now, finally, an indigenous program to build two new subs.

Vietnam also recently announced a project to build an indigenous submarine. The relatively small 100 ton boats will likely replace the two North Korean built Yugo Class midget subs in service. It’s a small but realistic start. The backbone of the Vietnamese submarine force are 6 larger Improved Kilo Class submarines built by Russia.

Taiwan and Vietnam are not alone in starting new indigenous submarine programs. Indonesia also aspires to join this elite club. In the meantime they are upgrading their capabilities with imported boats.

The Philippines has its own quest to build a submarine capability. It’s been a topic for the Philippine Navy since the 1990s but is only now gaining moment. Latest informationsuggests that they may go for a French built design.

Thailand is in the process of buying a single S26T Yuan Class submarine from China, and a second boat is planned. These will be the first submarines in Thai service since 1951 when the last of four boats purchased from Japan in the 1930s were retired.


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