Tighter Budgets Limit Southeast Asian Plans - Philippines mulling acquiring a submarine

Vietnam shows its first Kilo-636 submarine on Jan. 3. (Agence France-Presse)

TAIPEI — In much of Southeast Asia, budgets are smaller and ambitions more limited compared with neighbors to the north, and many countries are trying to rid themselves of much older equipment. But Singapore and Vietnam are generally better equipped and have more extensive plans.

Malaysia: Shifting Plans

Tight budgets are forcing Kuala Lumpur to alter some planned procurements.

“One casualty was a program to purchase a batch of up to 18 multirole combat aircraft,” said Carl Thayer, a specialist on Southeast Asian security issues at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “Malaysia is reportedly considering leasing options.”

In another example, the planned purchase of stealthy DCNS-designed Gowind corvettes is now classed as “a long-term procurement plan due to near-term budget constraints,” said Tony Beitinger, vice president of market intelligence for AMI International, a US-based naval analysis firm.

Still, the Malaysian Navy is procuring new frigates under its Second Generation Patrol Vessel program, and its leaders have recently asserted that they need at least three new submarines to augment the two Scorpene-class subs acquired in 2009, he said.

Malaysia force modernization programs have a larger focus than just dealing with the “China threat,” Thayer said. “But deterrent capabilities being acquired can certainly be deployed in contingencies involving China’s military.”

Meanwhile, Malaysia is repositioning naval and maritime air assets to protect its offshore oil-production platforms and islands in the South China Sea, and recently set up a marine unit, he said.

Indonesia: Buying Subs

Indonesia is also repositioning naval and air assets to cover a disputed zone: the area where China’s “nine-dash line” claim cuts across Indonesia’s continental shelf and threatens offshore oil production near Natuna Island, Thayer said.

Meanwhile, Jakarta is gradually boosting its abilities to patrol and monitor its extensive maritime region.

It will acquire three Type-209 conventional submarines from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME).

“PT PAL in Indonesia is working with DSME to build the submarines, and will build hull No. 3 in-country to establish a submarine-building capability to construct up to nine more submarines as part of a major expansion of its submarine force,” Beitinger said.

He also said Indonesia is building a new class of frigates to the Damen Sigma 10514 design under the National Corvette Program, and is constructing three classes of fast attack craft to protect littoral waters.

In 2003 and 2007, Indonesia acquired Russian Su-27SK and Su-30 MKK fighter jets, and it has since acquired 24 refurbished US F-16s. The F-16s will go to the Indonesian Air Force base in Pekanbaru, home to Hawk 109/209 light fighters, Thayer said.

The Air Force recently announced plans to upgrade the air base on Riau Island for use by its Su-27 and Su-30 fighters in the area around Natuna Island, Thayer said.

“Considerable work has been completed at Ranai Air Base, including the installation of runway and taxiway lights, and integrated radar. The runway is to be extended and new hangars will be built,” he said.

Philippines: Modest Goals

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which is still wrestling with a largely obsolete arsenal, has modest near-term goals.

“Any modernization effort is arguably intended to improve the overall AFP, rather than focused on any specific opponent,” said Dean Cheng, a China military specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Since 2012, Manila has spent 41.2 billion pesos (US $920 million) on 36 military modernization projects. Another 40 billion pesos has been earmarked through 2017.

In March, President Benigno Aquino announced plans to buy several weapons, including 12 FA-50 dual-role fighter-trainer jets from South Korea, eight Canadian-built Bell 412 combat utility helicopters, and two or three anti-submarine helicopters. The fighters will revive the air combat wing disbanded several years ago, Thayer said.

The Philippines has released tenders for two new multimission frigates with anti-surface warfare and anti-ship warfare capabilities. They would patrol the Philippine archipelago and South China Sea to counter Chinese assertiveness in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Spratly Islands area.

“It will receive during this decade two Makassar LPD- [dock landing platform] type vessels for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. However, it is also feasible that these vessels may be used to support outposts in the Spratlys and other offshore territories,” Beitinger said.

Thayer said the Philippines is reportedly mulling acquiring a submarine.

But these efforts appear unlikely to deter Beijing. In March, China blocked Philippine resupply ships from reaching troops based on a rusted-out World War II-era vessel beached on the Ayungin Shoal (Beijing dubs it the Renai Shoal).

China also has roped off access to the Scarborough Shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ EEZ.

“The badly decayed status of the AFP suggests that Manila would be badly outmatched in any confrontation with Beijing, in turn highlighting who is more likely to be bullying whom,” Cheng said.

Singapore: Regional Champ

Singapore, which mounts its region’s most capable armed force, is hard to compare to its Southeast Asian neighbors. It has more in common with its sophisticated northeast Asian cousins: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Like these countries, it flies a competent force of fourth-generation fighter jets and wants the fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighter. Singapore plans to upgrade its F-16s and has delayed the purchase of the F-35B for several years due to budget issues and concerns about the F-35’s development.

Strategically, Singapore aims to deter would-be opponents with long-range strike capabilities by air, surface and submarines. Its airborne early warning and control aircraft could direct airstrikes at considerable distances, a capability that will grow with the planned acquisition of the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport, Thayer said.

Singapore recently announced it will acquire new Type 218SG submarines from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, adding to plans to develop a landing helicopter dock-type vessel to operate fixed-wing aircraft, possibly the F-35B, Beitinger said.

“The submarine procurement was part of an ongoing plan to replace Singapore’s Challenger-class submarines,” he said. “The sea service is also acquiring new corvettes to replace the Fearless class, and is also planning to acquire a replenishment ship to support sustained at-sea operations.”

Thailand: Tight Budgets

The Royal Thai Navy is continuing efforts to replace aging warships with new DW3000H frigates designed by South Korea’s DSME. It also plans to acquire a second Endurance-class dock landing platform.

Beitinger said tight budgets continue to thwart the desire of Thailand’s government and Navy to buy diesel-electric submarines. A proposed 2012 deal to buy used German Type-206A subs never came to fruition, he said.

Vietnam: Eyes on China

Vietnam is partway into a major fleet upgrade meant to produce a force that can carry out a strategy called “counter-intervention” by China and “anti-access/area-denial” by the Pentagon, Thayer said.

The timing of the upgrade, which was launched in 2009, suggests that it is a reaction to greater Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Cheng said.

The aim is to create a force equipped with maritime strike aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles, coastal anti-ship missiles, fast patrol craft with anti-ship missiles, stealthy frigates and conventional submarines.

Beitinger said the Vietnamese Navy is acquiring six new Russian Kilo-636 submarines, six stealthy Gepard-class frigates and a number of Damen Sigma 9815-class corvettes. It is also looking to acquire long-range maritime patrol aircraft, possibly refurbished P-3 Orions.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is getting Damen DN2000 offshore patrol vessels.

Cheng said Vietnam has purchased an additional dozen Su-30MKV fighter jets armed with anti-ship missiles to supplement the 20 Su-30s and about a dozen Su-27s already in the Air Force. Vietnam has also acquired Russian S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missile systems and has reportedly negotiated to purchase S-300PMU-2 systems. The modernization of Vietnam’s air defenses predates recent Sino-Vietnam tensions, but the expanded purchases may reflect growing concerns with the modernization of the Chinese air force.

“As important, Vietnam has also put in place repair and maintenance facilities for both Russian-made aircraft and ships,” Cheng said. “Not only does this ameliorate a longstanding shortcoming with Russian-supplied equipment, but also potentially improves the ability of the Vietnamese forces to sustain operations in the event of a conflict.” - Defense News Email: wminnick@defensenews.com


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