Scorpene class Submarines for the Philippine Navy? – Part One

A side view of a Scorpene submarine of the Chilean Navy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There was a lot of talk about the Philippine Navy (PN) finally getting Submarines last year (2018), but it sort of died out for awhile, then started up again recently around the middle of July 2019 when the Department of National Defense (DND) said they will be going to France to look at Submarines.1

More than a week later, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed that they are looking to possibly acquire the Scorpene Submarines made by France,2 so time to put it under the Microscope. This is the first of two blogs I made about the submarine.

’The Scorpene’
The Scorpene is a class of conventionally powered Attack Submarines made by the French company Naval Group (previously known as DCNS). The sub’s design is relatively new as it only first entered naval service in 2005.

As of now only five boats have been commissioned into active duty, two each with Chile and Malaysia and another one with India. The rest, five for India and four for Brazil are still being built. So in total around 14 boats are either already in service or will be service in four countries.3

In June 2019, the Indian Navy deployed its lone active Scorpene submarine to join the hunt for the Agosta 90B class Submarine of the Pakistani Navy, the PNS Saad. The Indian Navy lost track of the Saad which was sent out to sea after India’s Air Strike in Pakistan’s territory recently. The Saad was later found in Western Pakistan after a search that lasted three weeks.4

The main feature of the Scorpene often cited in articles is its “stealth” capability or low noise. The shape of its hull, sail, fins, etc. for example were reportedly designed to create minimal noise when moving in water.

All mechanical and electrical equipment inside the sub are also mounted on elastic supports to absorb noise and vibration that would’ve otherwise radiated out into the ocean.5

’Operational Reputation’
Since it went into service only in the mid 2000s, the Scorpene is not yet as successful commercially as much older submarine designs like Russia’s Kilo class Submarines6 (around 60 units sold in service with eight countries) or Germany’s Type 209 class Submarines7 (around 60 units sold in service with thirteen countries).

This is also the reason why it hasn’t established yet the operational reputations of those two subs. The Kilos for example has proven itself during the Cold War to the point that the United States Navy (USN) grudgingly called it “The Black Hole”, while the Type 209 has proven its effectiveness during naval wargames on a number of occassions.

The Scorpene’s manufacturer the Naval Group though has a lot of experience designing and building Submarines, having built all of the French Navy’s very formidable Submarine force now in service consisting of around eleven Submarines in three classes, all of which are nuclear powered.8

’Scorpene Models’
The Scorpene is actually a family of Submarines made up of different models which tended to be quite confusing at times to decipher, although recently the Naval Group has updated the designation of the vessels to try to simplify and reduce the number of models to just a few.

As per the latest documented material I could find, there are now two main models that the Naval Group is advertising, namely the smaller Scorpene 1000 and the bigger, more conventionally sized Scorpene 2000.9

All of the Scorpenes that have been bought so far are based on the Scorpene 2000, with the ones bought by India designated as a sub-variant called the P75 Scorpene10 while the ones bought by Brazil designated as the S-BR.11

No customer has bought yet the Scorpene 1000, but I find it to be very intriguing prospect for us as I will explain later in a separate section.

I thought a good way to look at the Scorpenes would be to compare them with some of the Submarines that the PN is also considering, namely Russia’s Kilo class and South Korea’s Chang Bogo class (a variant of the Type 209) Submarines.12 13 14 15 Here I will be mainly comparing only the Scorpene 2000 (S2k) to the other subs first.

SUBMERGED RANGE: One thing that the S2k excels at is its submerged range, which is at least 200 km+ more than the other subs. This is important since Submarines are at their stealthiest when submerged, so the longer and further they can stay underwater, the better are their chances of success and survival.

CREW SIZE: Another advantage of the S2k is in terms of crew size, which is much less than the Kilo and slightly less than the Chang Bogo. However, the manufacturer says that the crew size could even go down to as low as 25 due to the high level of automation of the sub.

In terms of Submarine Launched Anti-air Missiles (SLAMs), the S2k outclasses the Kilo because of its A3SM missile which can reach ranges of up to 20 km.16 The Chang Bogo as of now doesn’t seem to have any SLAM yet.

SLAMs though are last ditch weapons, meaning ideally they should only be fired when the sub has already been detected and tracked by aircraft as firing it also means giving away the sub’s position.

The Scorpenes are confirmed to have at least Flank Sonars,17 making them better than just the Bow Sonar on the Kilo and at least equal that of the Chang Bogo which has similar flank sonars.

The Indian and Brazilian Scorpenes have even better sonars since they have the Thales S-Cube Sonar Sensor Suite which includes Stern and Towed Sonars.18 All those additional sonars improve the sub’s ability to detect and track down enemy ships and subs at farther ranges.

As per the Command: Modern Air Naval Operations (CMANO) Warfare Simulation Game, the Scorpene has a better Bow Sonar range than those on the Kilo or Chang Bogo. Of course it’s just a game, but it is a pretty good, realistic one and I thought that they must have had good justifications for the figures they put out there.

If true, then the Scorpene’s Sonar can detect targets at more than twice the range of the Kilo and almost twice that of the Chang Bogo submarine.

’AShM Range’
Here I see what seems to be the main problem with the Scorpenes, and that is the low range of its SM39 Exocet Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM) which is placed at only 50 km.19 Compare this to the AShMs of the Kilo and Chang Bogo which have ranges of well over 150 km, with the Kilo’s 3M-54E1 Club-S missiles even reaching out as far as 275 km.20

But I think I understand the French thinking on the SM39’s short range which could be something like, since the sub’s sonars and radar only have ranges less than 100 km to detect and track targets, why then the need for AShMs to have such long ranges?

If so then they do have a point there, but then again there are some advantages also for having long ranged missiles. For one, it allows submarines to plot a non-direct route towards the target, potentially masking the direction of where the missile is coming from.

Another is that there may be situations where Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) are able to give targeting data to Submarines on targets over a hundred kilometers away. The SM39 with its short range won’t have the option to exploit such situations to attack targets that are that far.

’Land Attack Missiles’
I just wanted to dedicate a section on this as I feel this is very important for us also. The S2k is confirmed as can be fitted to use the Missile De Croisiere Naval (MDCN) – Naval Cruise Missile (NCM) Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM).21

The MDCN-NCM is thought to have a range of 1,000 km when in service with the French Navy,22 but its export version will have much less range to comply with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which limits the capability of exported missiles. France is a signatory of the MTCR, which may be one reason why some sources puts the range of the MDCN-NCM at only 250 km,23 this could be for the export version.

This is only slightly less than the 275 km range of 3M-14E Club-S LACMs (which are the export version of Russia’s Kalibr missiles) of the Kilo submarines24, but better than the 200 km range of the Chang Bogo’s Sea Dragon missiles.25 LACMs I feel are important for us because it gives us the ability to strike at any static or fixed target on our enemy’s mainland.

So for example, an S2k can station itself say 100 km from the shores of a country to have ample space to move around in, and in theory its MDCN-NCM missiles with its assumed 250 km range can still hit any target that is within 150 km from the shore. This would be an important deterrent, or if not then maybe just for “revenge” for us in case war breaks out between us and any country out there.

Cruise Missiles like the MDCN-NCM are harder to detect than Ballistic Missiles since they travel at low altitudes and over land they can follow the terrain to help shield themselves from radar signals. This makes them not easy to shoot down also.

However, the MDCN-NCM missiles did fail in Syria on their first ever actual combat use last June 2018, when two out of three Fregate Europeenne Multi-Mission (FREMM) Frigates of the French Navy failed to fire their missiles due to technical issues. This resulted in only three out of eight MDCN-NCM missiles to be successfully launched during the operation.26 Here’s hopingt that the French have solved by now whatever problems they had then.

’To be Continued’
I am cutting off this blog at this point since it is getting a bit too long to read and too unwieldy to edit also. You can access the next part of the blog here: Scorpene class Submarines for the Philippine Navy? – Part Two

Front view of a Scorpene submarine of the Royal Malaysian Navy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


4 thoughts on “Scorpene class Submarines for the Philippine Navy? – Part One”

  1. A most excellent article. It is refreshing to see the author proudly pushing French submarines for the Philippines.

    Although what of the inability of France to build modern, 2nd or 3rd generation, air independent propulsion (AIP) into its submarines? One would think TKMS and South Korea, building Type 214s, or SAAB building A26s with modern AIP, would have a big advantage over the French offer.

    1. Frankly I’m just happy that the Philippine is buying something, ANYTHING, LOL.

      But the Naval Group does build AIP subs, right? I mean there’s the Agosta 90B they did for Pakistan, which did well recently, with the Indian Navy only finding it after three weeks.

      I even suspect they only did after it ran out of fuel since three weeks is about the submerged endurance of those subs.

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