ADECS 2018: ‘No naval arms race’ in Southeast Asia
It is ‘very hard to fit’ the Southeast Asian region into the definition of an arms race, according to discussions at the maritime security section of the ADECS 2018 conference in Singapore on 30-31 January.
Wu Shang-Su, research fellow of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, described Southeast Asia as a geographically diverse region in which a military confrontation is unlikely.
Instead, what we are witnessing is merely a modernisation of naval fleets within ASEAN. Wu described it as a ‘multidirectional expansion in quantity and quality’.
This modernisation of better-balanced navies is also heavily contingent on economic growth.
Wu told the audience that navies are taking a balanced-fleet approach that offers ‘flexibility between peacetime and wartime functions, but more for the former’.
The RSIS representative noted that one of the biggest changes in regional fleets is the addition of submarines. In 1991, when the Cold War ended, there were just two in ASEAN; now there are 14.
Nevertheless, submarines come with a high price tag and high operational and maintenance risks. Most countries have one, possibly two, submarine facilities, so it would be relatively easy to attack these to paralyse a nation’s underwater fleet.
Landing platform docks (LPD) have also been acquired, although these are designed more for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and transportation missions than true amphibious operations. There are 12 currently in service in ASEAN navies. Interestingly, shipbuilders in Indonesia and Singapore have been able to build them for domestic use and export.
Meanwhile, major surface combatants have risen from 45 in 1991 to 99 in 2017, indicating that this remains a major aspiration for navies. However, heavily armed frigates are not so common within the region with no in-service class possessing more than six hulls. Furthermore, such warships have a low margin for damage or loss in wartime.
Wu concluded that regional navies are employing a hybrid strategy that may incorporate elements of sea control, sea denial and post-modern navies. This is because no single strategy is suitable for Southeast Asia.
Consequently, some countries are putting more emphasis on nonconventional threats (e.g. anti-piracy, disaster relief, law enforcement), which may see them buying lighter-armed OPVs, for instance. Most navies have a very limited capacity to escalate a conflict because of their limited combatant numbers, plus they could quickly run out of imported munitions.
Additionally, further development of navies is contingent on funds. Wu therefore foresees that ‘the status quo of diverse capabilities will continue’ for navies within the region.