Oh, what a difference a year makes. This time last year it was almost inconceivable for the Philippines to consider getting weapons from Russia. And yet look at where we are now, under a new President with a radically new Foreign Policy, the Department of National Defense (DND) recently went out and announced that it was considering getting the Kilo-class Diesel-Electric (DE) Submarines from Russia for the Philippine Navy.1
’Submarines in Asia’
Now may be time the right time for us to seriously start thinking about getting Submarines because after Thailand solidified their deal of acquiring Yuan-class Submarines from China,2 the Philippines and Myanmar are about the only major countries left in Asia without Submarine capability. The other Asian countries with no subs are either smaller countries, or countries that are landlocked like Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, etc.
Of course, ‘sanay na tayo diyan’ (we are used to that already), we are used to being left behind. For a long time we were the only major Asian country also without Guided Missile capability for our Navy until Presidents Ninoy Aquino Jr. and Rodrigo Duterte corrected that with their purchase of the Multi-Purpose Attack Craft (MPAC) Mk 33 and the new Frigates,4 respectively. And now that we have Guided Missile boats and ships, it seems everyone is moving on to Submarines.
’The Kilo class’
The Kilo class Submarine is designed and built by the Russian companies “Rubin” and “Admiralty Shipyard’, respectively, and first entered service with the Soviet Union in 1980. Since then it and its variants has been one of the most commercially successful contemporary DE Submarine designs with over 60 built and entered service with at least eight navies around the world.
The Soviet and Russian designation system can be quite confusing at times as they don’t seem to necessarily follow a linear system, but what we do know is that the original Kilo class Subs are known as the Project 877 Paltus in Russia and its export versions are known as the Project 877E and Project 877EKM.5
In 1997, an improved version of the Kilo class was introduced as the Project 636 Varshavyanka in Russia or the Improved Kilo-class Submarine in the West. Externally the only difference of the I-Kilo from the Kilo is that it is longer by around 1.2 m in length.
Internally and in terms of performance, the I-Kilo has a more powerful Diesel Generator, longer Snorkeling Range and better Acoustic Stealth capability. The latest version of the I-Kilo is the Project 636.3 which is the same one sold to Vietnam in 2009 with even better stealth capability.6
The main, common features among the Kilo class versions are the following:
– Their engines are “Raft-Mounted”, or mounted on small platforms designed to isolate the engine’s vibration and noise;
– They have Anechoic (i.e., non-reflective, non-echoing or echo-free) Rubber Coating on the outside of the hull designed to reduce the noise coming from inside the sub;
– Six Torpedo Tubes at the bow with a combination of eighteen Heavy Weight Torpedoes (HWT) and/or Missiles as ammunition.
The Kilo is considered to be one of the quietest Submarines in the world, and the biggest endorsement of its capabilities comes from no less than the Western Navies it went up against when they gave it the nickname “The Black Hole” for its ability to evade tracking during the Cold War.
’Kilo Characteristics and Performance’
I am enumerating below the Physical Characteristics and Performance of the Kilos, and I thought it would be better to compare it with the other commercially successful DE Sub in recent times, the Type 209 Submarine, specifically its Type 209/1200 or Chang Bogo class variant:7 8 9 10 11
From the data, we can see that the Chang Bogo completely outclasses the Kilo despite it being a smaller sub, at least on paper as it has better performance and sensors. The Chang Bogo is faster, has a longer range, can dive deeper and its sensors has better range.
Plus it has flank sonar arrays which allows it to detect ships and other submarines more effectively from its sides. The only main advantage of the Kilos is that it has more weapons options and its Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM) have longer ranges than that of the Chang Bogo.
The Kilo can also carry short-range Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) while none seems to be available for the Type 209. Also note that the UGM-84 Harpoon Missile integration on the Type 209 is often cited as an option, but on the I-Kilo the AShMs are a standard feature.
Cost when Indonesia bought their Improved Chang Bogo class Submarines (a variant of the Type 209) was USD 373 million12 which I feel would be about the same as the Kilos if the need to spend for Submarine Infrastructure is factored in.
Despite it being a less efficient design than the Type 209, I think the Kilo is still competitive enough for our purposes, and the determining factor there could be which country will be willing to provide “Soft Loans” (i.e., loans with below-market Interest Rates and long Repayment Periods) to us for weapons, and so far only Russia (and China) has expressed that publicly.
In terms of cost, another thing for us to consider is the need to build Coastal Infrastructures for our Submarines since we have none at the moment. Thailand already has such infrastructure since they did operate subs in the 1950s, hence they may only need to update or refurbish it for their latest Submarine buy.
When Vietnam bought their Kilos, the price of each sub was at USD 350 million each. However, the addition of weapons and the need to establish a bigger Submarine Infrastructure increased the price of each sub by USD 183 million to USD 533 million.13 Since we are starting from scratch, we will also need to make similar investments, hence we can expect the price of these Kilos to be about the same, if not more if we are to buy less number of boats than Vietnam did.
That amounts to more than USD 1 billion for two subs, probably even more. Of course the Submarine infrastructure is a Fixed Cost, meaning once established we won’t necessarily have to pay the same amount again if we do buy more subs later. But some could argue that such a large amount of money will be better spent for Surface Ships instead.
’Submarine ASuW Effectiveness’
However, over the last few decades, Submarines have proven time and again their effectiveness against Surface vessels, like as I had blogged before14 when an Argentinian Type 209 Submarine, the ARA San Luis managed to evade the Royal Navy (RN) during the Falklands War while managing to mount attacks of its own on at least two occasions. The attacks though were unsuccessful due to technical issues with its Torpedoes.
Another Type 209 sub, the SAS Manthathisi of the South African Navy was able to “sink” an entire multi-national fleet during a Naval Exercise in 2007. Other accounts of how subs were able to best Surface Ships in recent times include like when a Song class Attack Submarine of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surfaced near the supposedly well-guarded USS Kitty Hawk Aircraft Carrier of the United States Navy (USN) in 2007.15
Or how a French Attack Submarine “sank” yet another aircraft carrier of the USN, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, during a Naval Exercise in 2015.16
’Operation, Maintenance and Training Problems’
The United States Naval War College (USNWC) though has issued a warning about DE Submarine ownership, painting a somewhat grim picture of it thru an article published in 2015. They cited problems in terms of Maintenance and Training which resulted in low availability and some accidents when in service with some navies.17
Argentina’s submarines, for example, reportedly only spent a total of 19 hours submerged for the entire year of 2011, while it took South Africa five years to put back one of its submarines into service. The same South African Navy also had problems finding enough qualified sailors to man all of their submarines, and inadequate training led to an accident when one of their subs collided with the ocean floor.
As for the reasons why these happened, one issue is costs, it takes a good deal of money to maintain a submarine. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) spent over USD 80 million to maintain each of its Scorpene Submarines in 2011 while the Canadian government needed to spend around USD 25 million a year for each of its Upholder class Submarines.
Another issue is Training and shortage of Qualified Personnel. Naturally the less time on Patrol a Submarine has, the less time for its crew to gain experience in running it. And since a high Technical Educational background is needed for Submariners, then this naturally narrows down the pool of qualified candidates.
Turnover among the crew also seems to be high because once they get experience, together with their high educational background they could eventually leave the service for better opportunities and thus the Training cycle needs to start all over again.
IMHO, I think that since we will never be able to match up in terms of number of ships with any of our more powerful neighbors, then we really should make all of our major combatants count as much as possible, and the best way to do that is not with Surface Ships, but with Submarines.
Ideally I think all of our vessels assigned to the Offshore Combat Force (OCF), the one likely to be dealing with external threats, should be composed either mostly or if not all DE and/or DE-AIP subs. Surface Ships could then be assigned for Amphibious Operations (meaning Troop and Equipment carrying ships and their Escorts) and for Internal Security Operations (ISO), meaning smaller but faster boats with Light Helicopters and/or Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) as Interceptors against Insurgents, Bandits, etc.
Despite the USNWC’s “Doom and Gloom” article, Asian countries have been moving forward with their Submarine acquisitions, I think mainly because they see its strategic value outweighing its issues. But we do need to take a careful note of the USNWC’s warnings in order for us to avoid the mistakes the other countries have made.
It will be useless for us to have equipment that are effective but aren’t available most of the time due to maintenance or other issues. If we are to buy subs, we will need to fully commit to it in terms of costs, and this means also buying a good maintenance package and maybe establishing an Submarine School with a Submarine Simulator to crew our ships.
’Submarine Build Up’
There are basically two ways that navies have used in terms of building up their submarine capability, and that is thru a “Slow Buildup” and a “Fast Buildup”. A slow buildup means acquiring simpler subs at first and then slowly working up to more advanced and sophisticated subs.
One example of this is Vietnam, who first bought refurbished, secondhand Yugo-class Midget Submarines (i.e., Submarines with less than 150 tons displacement) from North Korea in 1997. By 2009, they felt they were ready for more advanced subs hence they went on and bought their Kilo class subs from Russia.
Another example is Singapore who slowly built up their Submarine capability by buying used DE subs first in 1995, then moved on to more advanced, used DE subs with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) in 2005 before finally buying brand new DE-AIP subs in 2013.18
The alternative way is to do a fast buildup like what Thailand is doing. Instead of getting smaller, less capable used boats and slowly building it up from there, they opted to buy brand new of the most advanced DE-AIP subs in the world right now in the Yuan-class.
They did operate subs before, but that was over fifty years ago, so they will also basically be starting from scratch. But Thailand does have a more advanced Navy than ours, so it could be argued that they are in a better position than we are when using this “faster way”.
But the problem with the slow buildup is that it takes time, in the case of Vietnam more than a decade and in the case of Singapore almost two decades, and that is time we may not have with the continuing tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
If we go thru this, then we will have a safer buildup, but might end up with less capable subs to fight with when war does break out. A fast buildup will allow us to have very capable vessels to use in case of war, but at the risk of having a lot of problems like availability and even accidents.
But do take note that despite the problems with their submarines, Argentina and South Africa were still able to perform well in spots when their subs were available for use.
The Kilo class Submarine is one of the best DE Submarines in the world right now, with a very solid record of commercial success and service life in a good number of Navies around the world. If Russia will indeed give us Soft Loans for them, then they will be our best chance of getting Subs.
However, acquisition cost will likely be quite expensive, easily more than a billion dollars for two boats if we factor in the costs of:
– The Submarine themselves;
– Their Weapons
– Infrastructure for them
– A good maintenance package to keep them going
– Training facilities
Operating costs is also expected to be quite high, and a lot of careful planning and execution will be needed to run them properly. But even then I do expect it to be still fairly risky if we go and do a fast buildup, I think we will still end up with some mistakes, and hard lessons will still have to be learned.
But that is the nature of the beast, even if we go with a slow buildup, there will just be some other tradeoff that we will need to deal with. In the end, it may all boil down to whatever tradeoff we are willing to compromise with.
If we are buying submarines, not only the Navy but the government in general will need to step up its game if we are to overcome the challenge of funding and operating such vessels.
Let me end this blog with what the Thai Navy Commander Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich once told the Press as justification for buying their subs:
“If a war breaks out, nearly all of our surface ships will be wiped out. Submarines are what will survive”.19
Philippines evaluates Russian Kilo-class submarines,
Thailand to buy 3 Chinese subs for $1.3b,
ADAS 2016: Propmech to deliver first MPAC Mk 3 to the Philippine Navy in mid-2017,
Hyundai wins USD337 million frigate contract from Philippine Navy,
Project 877 Paltus / Project 636 Varshavyanka Kilo class Diesel-Electric Torpedo Submarine,
Project 636 Varshavyanka,
Project 877 Kilo class / Project 636 Kilo class / Diesel-Electric Torpedo Submarine Technical Data,
Type 209 Technical Specifications – Global Security,
291 Orzel [PL-877E Kilo] – 1987 Technical Data
PL-636.3 Kilo [Varshavyanka] – 2014 Technical Data,
061 Chang Bogo [Type 209-1200] – 2001 Technical Data,
Korea wins $1 bil. Indonesian deal,
Russian Subs in Vietnam,
Submarines for the Philippine Navy Lessons from the ARA San Luis,
The Uninvited Guest: Chinese Sub Pops Up in Middle of U.S. Navy Exercise, Leaving Military Chiefs Red-Faced,
In 2015, a 30 Year Old French Nuclear Submarine ‘Sank’ a U.S. Aircraft Carrier,
The Race to the Bottom,
Singapore Submarine Capabilities,
Thailand nears $1 billion submarine deal with China despite exclusive U.S. military training,