TAIPIEI — Submarine investment remains popular globally, with the Asia-Pacific region taking the lion's share of builds and programs, according to Tony Beitinger, vice president of market intelligence for AMI International Naval Analysts & Advisors.
Worldwide naval investments in submarines continue to outpace all other naval procurements, he said, with 34 countries procuring or planning to acquire submarines over the next 20 years.
There are 12 countries in the Asia Pacific region investing in submarines: Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh have publicly voiced the desire to acquire new or used submarines.
Submarines are a leading indicator of the larger pattern of naval spending in the Asia-Pacific region, said Bob Nugent, an independent naval analyst. Spending on submarines in the region, as with naval spending overall, is going up as a result of stronger economies for some countries and an increased sense of sea-based vulnerabilities and threats in the region for others.
"Submarines are the most expensive [ton for ton] naval platforms to acquire and arguably the most expensive to sustain in readiness from a broad perspective of resources needed to recruit, train, operate, maintain and modernize a capable submarine force," Nugent said. This raises the question of the fiscal constraints to growing and modernizing regional submarine fleets.
"This issue of affordability and tradeoffs of a submarine force is especially public in Australia right now, but likely also being heard in defense circles in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere in the region."
Despite high costs, technological improvements have made submarines more lethal and quieter, especially with air independent propulsion, and this has driven wealthy and poor nations alike to procure them.
"These types of submarines are becoming more capable and are beginning to carry more lethal weapons like submerged-launched anti-ship and land attack missiles, as well as reconnaissance systems such as unmanned underwater vehicles used to collect intelligence or deploy special operations forces," Beitinger said.
China's growing military force has pushed Taiwan's Navy into a corner. The service is in the midst of a major new submarine build program expected to produce four to eight submarines within the next 20 years. Taiwan naval officials said industrial interest has been expressed in Europe and the United States.
"Submarines are the key offset strategy platform for a strategic planner looking to counter the greater spending and greater numbers of naval platforms and systems fielded by future rivals," Nugent said. With China's naval spending outpacing that of Japan, Australia, South Korea and others in southeast Asia combined, submarines are likely to remain priorities for continued investment in the region, he said.
Nugent said he saw accelerating investment in some submarine-related force multiplier technologies, including unmanned vehicles, advanced energy and propulsion systems that reduce fuel use and improve range, stealth and weapons performance, and advanced undersea sensors for intelligence and surveillance.