ASEAN navies ‘without joint defence strategies’

By Sarosh Bana*

THE 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), with a combined GDP of $2.56 trillion and population of 639 million, turned 50 on 8 August. This bloc of rich and poor nations, comprising Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, abuts on to a littoral rendered volatile by a confrontational China determined to dominate the South and East China Seas and beyond, and an intransigent North Korea that unreservedly flaunts its nuclear and conventional clout.

It is hence rather anomalous that while each of the 10 partners is independently modernising its naval defences to secure its sea lines of communication and safeguard itself from seaborne threats, the grouping itself has devised no strategy for joint defence, along the lines of a unified maritime alliance.

ASEAN navies – landlocked Laos operates only a Riverine Force under the Lao People’s Army – have never even exercised together until this November, when the First ASEAN Multilateral Naval Exercise (AMNEX) will be staged off Thailand’s Sattahip Naval Base to commemorate ASEAN’s 50th anniversary. It will coincide with the 11th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting at Pattaya, Thailand, and the International Fleet Review in and around Pattaya Bay.

The threat scenario and unpredictable geopolitical environment were anticipated to propel an arms race in the region, with the coastal states stepping up investments in naval upgrades. Besides, China is downsizing its 2.3 million People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – the world’s largest military force – to under a million so as to reinforce its PLA-Navy (PLA-N) and PLA strategic support and rocket forces.

However, apart from inductions of smaller platforms like fast attack, patrol and coastal surveillance craft, together with some emphasis on submarines, there has been no commensurate increase in larger surface combatants among the ASEAN forces. A survey estimates their patrol and coastal combat classes to have increased from 354 to 524 over 2008-2016, while their principal surface combatants have reduced from 84 to 44. Only Vietnam and Indonesia increased their numbers of naval personnel.

ASEAN navies have been characteristically compact, with dominant military rulers prioritising their armies above the navies for combating internal strife and trans-boundary challenges. Only Singapore exercises civilian control on its army. Indigenous warship production consequently remained largely weak, necessitating procurements through imports. One study shows these navies averaging about a fifth in size of their countries’ armies, while Western navies measure nearly half that of their land forces.

Whereas larger economies in the region like Japan and South Korea pursue robust naval agendas through their formidable warship building enterprise, though being closely allied with the United States, ASEAN countries were mostly content to shield themselves behind the extensive American naval presence in the region. The US Navy and Marine Corps regularly hold CARAT – Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training – exercises with friendly regional navies to ascertain maritime security priorities, enhance interoperability and strengthen naval partnerships.

The US prevails in the Asia-Pacific through its numerous military bases, including in Thailand, Philippines and Singapore, apart from its 17 bases in Japan and 12 in South Korea, as also in Australia, Guam and on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

ASEAN member states may now have a rethink, with the Trump administration committing to cut costs and making partner countries pay their share of joint security efforts, apart from abandoning the previous administration’s “pivot” policy that entailed the relocation of 60 per cent of the US’s naval assets – up from 50 per cent today – to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020.

Already, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia are gravitating towards China. Last November, Malaysia signed its first defence deal with Beijing, of $272 million, for the construction of four littoral mission ships (LMS), two at the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. (CSIC) and two at Malaysia’s Boustead Naval Shipyard. The two Chinese-made vessels are scheduled for delivery in 2019 and 2020 and the other two, by 2021. Malaysia will be building an additional 14 under transfer of technology.

Essentially a missile patrol boat with a helicopter deck, the LMS is one of five classes of vessels planned for the future Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), the others being submarines, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) and New Generation Patrol Vessels (NGPV). Resource-strapped Malaysia pared its defence budget by 12 per cent last October in consonance with its ‘Fleet Transformation Programme 15 to 5’ that aims at shrinking the RMN’s current 15 classes of vessels, of an average 30-year vintage and sourced from seven different countries, to just five categories.

The programme aims at strengthening and modernising the RMN fleet and making it more manageable and cost effective, with an impetus to building ships from the five classes indigenously by harnessing the abilities of the local industry. RMN also operates two Scorpene submarines contracted from France’s DCNS (renamed Naval Group on 28 June) in a corruption-tainted €1.2 billion deal in 2002, the boats being commissioned in January and November 2009. While there are reports of Kuala Lumpur considering the purchase of two more submarines, other reports discount such a proposal for at least the next five years.

Thailand is another major ASEAN power to have entered into a deal with Beijing, a recent one of $1.06 billion for the delivery of three Yuan Class S26T submarines to the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) over the next 11 years. Thai personnel will also be trained by the Chinese and a facility will be set up jointly in Thailand to manufacture and repair military equipment.

Beijing also recently offered the Philippines a $500 million line of credit towards defence procurement. Three PLA-N warships also called on the conflict-ridden Mindanao island on a goodwill mission, the previous such visit having been in 2010. Manila is simultaneously sustaining its ties with Washington, hosting a joint naval patrol in beginning July in the southern Celebes Sea that is prone to Islamist militancy and piracy. Incidentally, the US had provided $500 million in military aid to Manila from 2002 to 2011 towards sales, training and counter-terrorism.

Numerous platforms are being inducted under the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernisation Programme spanning over three horizons, 2013-2017, 2018-2022 and 2023-2028. The first horizon was budgeted PHP 85 billion ($1.7 billion), while the second has been apportioned PHP 100 billion ($1.97 billion).

Three of the 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters that served the USCG (US Coast Guard) from 1967 to 1972 were acquired by Manila, after upgrades, between 2011 and 2016 and are currently the Philippine Navy’s (PN’s) most capable warships. South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries has secured a $311 million order for delivering two new frigates starting 2020. These will be capable of anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and electronic warfare. PN deepened its sealift capability a year ago when Australia gifted it three Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) at a “friendship price” of $5.3 million, in addition to the two Canberra had donated to Manila the previous year. They will be used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and for troop transport during amphibious operations.

PN also commissioned in May three indigenous missile-capable multi-purpose attack craft (MPAC), the first-ever gunboats with high littoral combat capabilities to join the Philippine Fleet. They were built at a cost of $5.3 million by the Subic Bay-based Propmech Corp., which had also built PN’s logistic and supply ship BRP Tagbanua. Around the same time, the navy received the second of two Strategic Sealift Vessels (SSVs) contracted for $92 million from Indonesian shipbuilder PT PAL. These 11,583-tonne vessels too will be used for quick deployments such as in HADR, the first SSV having been recently deployed to conduct naval blockades against IS terrorists in the southern city of Marawi. Capable of transporting heavy equipment, supplies, and troops, each of the ships can also carry up to three naval helicopters apart from two “baby boats” in its rear hold. PT PAL is negotiating for the sale of two more such platforms. There has been talk of submarine acquisition under the third horizon, or even earlier, depending on the navy’s “immediate needs”.

After its unprecedented joint naval drill with China last year despite a prolonged territorial dispute, Cambodia in April ejected the US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, the Seabees, after the American aid unit had been there for nine years and also suspended joint military exercises scheduled for June. China had conferred seagoing capability to the Royal Khmer Navy when it handed over 15 fast patrol craft between 2005 and 2007 to counter piracy, transnational crime and smuggling, and to safeguard offshore assets. The navy also operates five torpedo fast attack craft and six patrol fast attack craft of Soviet vintage, as also around 170 motorised and manual canoes. Apart from increasing the number of sailors from 1,000 to 3,000 in 2007 and creating a force of 2,000 Marine Infantry, the impoverished country has made little progress on a Defence White Paper of 2000 that called for transforming the navy from riverine operations to patrolling of the coastline and nearby islands.

Even Brunei made overtures to Beijing when the Royal Brunei Navy (RBN) Commander made an “introductory visit” to China in April to discuss training exchanges, sea exercises and port visits, and to plan for a visit to Brunei in September by PLA-N ships. RBN was formed in June 1965 as the Boat Section and grew to be the First Flotilla to be renamed Royal Brunei Navy in 1991, with the reorganisation of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. It is a small but reasonably well-equipped force whose main responsibility is to conduct search and rescue missions and coastal defence.

With a massive coastline of 54,716 km – over sevenfold India’s – and the world’s largest archipelago of 17,508 islands that straddle the major sea lanes linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia is beset with non-traditional maritime security challenges like illegal fishing, piracy, and human and drug trafficking. The country is also the largest ASEAN economy, with GDP of $936.2 billion, and the foremost military power of the bloc, outranking even the Asia-Pacific power, Australia. Indeed, IHS Markit analysis foresees Indonesia becoming the fifth fastest growing defence budget in the world by 2025, spending over $20 billion until then.

Military modernisation was budgeted $8.28 billion for 2016 by Jakarta. Dutch DSNS (Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding) was contracted in 2012 for licence-building two of its SIGMA 10514 frigates by domestic shipbuilder PT PAL at its shipyard in Surabaya where Damen has also set up a centre of naval shipbuilding expertise. The first ship was delivered in January and the second is scheduled for October and these 2,365-tonne multi-mission frigates will be the most advanced surface combatants in the Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Laut: TNI-AL). TNI-AL is likely to call a tender for two follow-on ships, for which Naval Group is vying with its Gowind 2500 design, while CSIC is another contender.

The navy is seeking a similar arrangement for two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) capable of undertaking mission sets usually associated with frigates, such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW), unmanned air and surface operations, and extended patrols. Naval Group has offered its OPV 90 design. Indonesia’s National Naval Design Centre has signed an MoU with Denmark’s Odense Maritime Technology for cooperation in designing naval vessels. Denmark is also offering its Knud Rasmussen class OPVs, Iver Huitfeldt class frigates, as also Absalon class support ships. A sum of $216 million has been approved for procuring at least two new mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) to replace TNI-AL’s ageing Pulau Rengat-class minesweepers. The Indonesian Marine Corps, a service within TNI-AL, is also embarking on its grandest modernisation effort since its establishment in 1945.

Singapore, ASEAN’s wealthiest nation that is also its highest spender on defence, budgeting $9.7 billion in 2016, or 3.4 per cent of its GDP, and is also strong in military exports, is rationalising its naval force structure. The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) celebrated its 50th anniversary on 5 May, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officiating at the commissioning of the Littoral Mission Vessel (LMV), RSS Independence, the first of the navy’s next generation warships completely designed and built in Singapore. “The LMV represents the future of the RSN – a sharper, smarter, stronger navy,” said Loong. A total of eight LMVs will replace RSN’s 11 ageing patrol vessels by 2020.

From a constabulary force of just two wooden boats from the Royal Navy, RSN has evolved into a full-fledged third generation navy that has submarines, frigates, maritime patrol aircraft, and unmanned vessels and aircraft. The navy’s principal strike craft, the Victory class missile corvettes (MCV) in service since the 1990s, have been upgraded with a new suite of combat capabilities, including the unprecedented integration of the ScanEagle UAV system that was initially designed to be used on land. As the UAV is too large for the MCV, Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) innovatively fitted the UAV launcher on a turn-table, allowing the UAV to be launched at optimal angles while maintaining sufficient clearance from nearby weapons when not in use. The team also customised a Combat Management System (CMS) for the MCV.

RNS is working towards a fully autonomous Mine Countermeasure (MCM) Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) force by 2020, with two such craft undergoing operational testing. The MCMs are variants of the 22-tonne Venus 16 USV that is under production and which has a 36-hour endurance and maximum speed of 40 knots.

In addition to the two Type 218SG submarines projected for delivery from 2021, Singapore on 17 May announced the purchase of two more of this Type from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), together with a logistics package and crew training arrangements. The boats will be customised for RSN, incorporating advanced engineering concepts to optimise training, operation and maintenance costs and will be outfitted with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems.

Vietnam too has assembled a credible submarine force, comprising six Improved Kilo Class P-636 Varshavyankas in one of Russia’s largest naval export orders, of $3.2 billion. Considered the quietest diesel-electric submarines in the world, these P-636s entered service between January 2014 and January 2017 and will be armed with Klub land attack cruise missiles. These precision strike missiles can reach such strategic targets in China as in Guangdong province’s Zhanjiang, where the Chinese South Sea Fleet headquarters is located, and the Yalong Bay naval base in Hainan, where China’s nuclear submarines are based. Hanoi undertook its force modernisation from 2010 to 2015 when it received additional Tarantul 5 corvettes, two Gepard-class guided missile frigates and six Svetlyak-class missile patrol boats.

Jakarta’s $1.07 billion deal of 2011 with Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. (DSME) will have the South Korean shipyard supplying two Type 209/1400 Improved Chang Bogo class attack submarines, with a third to be built under technology transfer by PT PAL. A further $112 million was allocated to PT PAL for building the submarine facility, including hangars and floating equipment, and 206 of its technicians were sent for training to South Korea in submarine construction. TNI–AL operates two Type 209/1300 (Indonesia Cakra class) submarines acquired from HDW, Germany, in 1981. Refitted to modernise their propulsion, detection and navigation systems, and add new fire control and combat systems, the two boats will be decommissioned in 2020. The navy needs five to seven more boats to fulfill objectives under its Minimum Essential Force (MEF) framework.

Indonesia is reportedly considering the Improved Kilo Class P-636 Varshavyankas, while Naval Group is offering its Scorpene 1000 design. The government has allocated $1.6 billion for this acquisition. Turkey’s Golcük Shipyard and TKMS are also jointly marketing to Indonesia the Type 214 submarine manufactured under licence by Turkey as the Reis-class.

The modest Myanmar Navy (MN) is aspiring to evolve out of its coastal limitations into one of reasonable blue water credentials. It is essentially built round its flagships, the Aung Zeya class guided missile frigate F11, commissioned in 2011, built locally with Indian assistance, and the Anawrahta Class corvette UMS 771, commissioned in 2001 and built locally with Chinese assistance, with a follow-on joining service in 2003. Armed with eight Russian Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missiles, the Aung Zeya was followed by two Kyan Sittha class frigates, commissioned in 2014 and 2015 and built indigenously with electronic suite and weaponry system sourced from India, China and Russia. They too carry eight Kh-35s and have a helicopter deck, with plans to procure six more of them.

On 24 December 2016, MN commissioned several new vessels, including its third indigenous guided-missile corvette, a troop transport ship and six landing craft mechanised (LCM) capable of carrying two armoured fighting vehicles. A locally developed unmanned surface vessel (USV) was also displayed, appearing to be a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) from France’s Sillinger equipped with a remotely operated machine gun. MN also received two second-hand Chinese Type 053/Jianghu II-class light frigates in 2012, each of them armed with eight Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship missiles.

Though Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, its deputy defence minister, Maj. Gen. Myint Nwe, has announced a plan to buy one or possibly two submarines, if the State’s financial situation so permitted. “Our neighbours have submarines and we want them as well,” he mentioned at a press conference in May. Myanmarese naval officials have trained onboard Indian submarines in 2006.
ASEAN navies have refrained from intervening in any maritime disputes that have confronted their partner states. This approach is not foreseen to change even following this all-round naval modernisation, as it will likely remain “every navy for itself”.

* SAROSH BANA is Executive Editor, Business India

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