Improving anti-submarine warfare capabilities is urgent

by  Gilang Kembara / Jakarta/ September 27, 2016 /  Originally posted at Jakarta Post

During a recent conference a distinguished scholar from Australia highlighted one of the risks that could possibly arise within the disputed waters of the South China Sea from the activities of submarines. Collisions between two submarines, or with a surface vessel, such as the Ehime Maru incident, could escalate tension within an already tense situation in the region.

The remarks made by this scholar came at a time when most Asian countries are in the midst of modernizing their military arsenals, to deter any foreign encroachments of national sovereignty. At the forefront of this arms race are the naval forces across Asia.

It is no secret that navies across Asia are competing to equip themselves with submarines and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. The desire to have the ability to be able to silently position oneself right under one’s enemy’s nose is too much for these countries to resist.

Currently, China is neck-and-neck with North Korea as the biggest submarine user in Asia (North Korea possesses mainly midget submarines). Deploying around 70 submarines (five of which are nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines), China now has the capability to launch a sudden attack from an undisclosed location beneath the waves, rivaling that of the US and Russia.

The PLA Navy (Chinese navy) operates a submarine base at Hainan Island, which gives it access to the open waters of the South China Sea. The artificial islands being built by Beijing in the disputed territories are believed to serve as a “defensive ring” for its fleet of nuclear submarines that is based in Hainan Island. China has built a vast array of facilities on the artificial islands, which it claims serve civilian purposes.

However, photographs of military aircraft, land-based missile systems and military barracks suggest that these islands will serve more than civilian purposes.

Furthermore, Southeast Asian states have started to acquire submarine capabilities. At the moment, four out of 10 ASEAN states have equipped their navies with submarines. If this situation was not volatile enough, Thailand’s former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, in charge of national security, once said that submarines were “necessary for the Royal Thai Navy because countries in the immediate region […] all have submarines.”

This signifies the level of mistrust that is present within the region, and the emergence of a security dilemma.

As the largest archipelagic state in the region, Indonesia is located at the junction of the Indian and the Pacific oceans, a perfect location for submarines traveling to and from both oceans. And as such, the need for Indonesia to improve its ASW capability is ever stronger to prevent any intrusion.

Indonesia has taken the right step in reactivating its ASW air squadron in recent times. The 100th Air Squadron will be equipped with 11 Eurocopter AS565 Panthers in the future, which are capable of detecting submarines up to 500 meters below the surface through the use of its helicopter long-range active sonar (HELRAS). In the future, these helicopters will be stationed over several of our surface vessels, including the Bung Tomo-class corvettes, and the SIGMA-class corvettes.

Such capabilities will be very useful in patrolling the nation’s 54,000-km coastline that stretches from Sabang to Merauke.

However, helicopters alone will not be enough to prevent any foreign intrusion in our seas. The military must also expand its maritime patrol aircraft. Such aircraft would have the advantages of longer range patrols as well as heavier payloads. As such, they could be posted in frontier military bases and to patrol key sectors of our territory as well as our exclusive economic zones.

Finally, the realization of the Minimum Essential Force (MEF), which calls for the deployment of around 12 submarines, must be expedited.

At present, the Navy possesses only two submarines, with three more under construction. As mentioned before, submarines serve as a perfect tool for deterrence, as they can strike at any target without being visibly detected.

Moreover, the Navy must consider equipping its future submarines, not only with torpedoes, but also with cruise missiles or anti-ship missile capabilities. This would greatly enhance their deterrent effect and would enable the submarines to strike at targets from longer distances.

Given the number of disputed territories around Indonesia, asserting sovereignty and territorial control remains crucial. Foreign intrusion by surface vessels and even submarines is highly likely, as several of these areas remain lightly patrolled. This possibility should prompt the government to realize that it cannot afford further territorial violations of the country’s territory. It must harbor the mindset of continual improvement in safeguarding the undisputed sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia.
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The writer is a research assistant at Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.

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