Last year, local press reports revealed that the Indonesian Navy was speeding up the development of a submarine base located in Palu, Central Sulawesi. With Asia’s underwater arms race accelerating, we’ve been monitoring the base’s construction. Indonesia, like many of the maritime countries in the region, is modernizing to maintain a credible naval force and safeguard the country’s interests.
Recent imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe shows that dredging and other clearing activity was complete on the new facility by May 2017. Imagery also confirms the presence of a new quay wall, which increases the berthing capacity of the base, as well as a new environmental shelter covering part of the recent expansion. Outside of additional support buildings, there was no new infrastructure, such as a synchrolift, that would enable out of water maintenance. Vessels requiring lengthy overhauls will need to relocate to other naval facilities. Indonesia’s existing submarines reportedly used the base as a forward deployment location.
Strategically located less than 12 nautical miles inside Palu Bay, the relatively small base cost the Indonesian Navy USD 1.5 million to expand. It provides access to the Makassar Strait, part of a shipping lane that some in recent years consider a replacement for the overcrowded Malacca Strait, the region’s main trading route. More importantly, the base is also near the Sulawesi Sea where Indonesia recently transferred the East Ambalat offshore oil and gas block to state-owned PT Pertamina. The block has caused much contention with neighboring Malaysia, a country with which Jakarta has been long in dispute. For example, Indonesia lost two islands to its neighbor in an International Court of Justice ruling in 2002 and continues to call Ambalat an issue of national integrity.
More broadly, Indonesia remains concerned about China’s nine-dash line, as it overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, but to date has not become a claimant in the South China Sea dispute. However in July, the Southeast Asian country renamed a resource-rich section around the Natuna Islands—an area centered between Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam—as the North Natuna Sea, putting it in direct opposition to China’s claims. The move represented the latest in a number of attempts to reclaim perceived maritime territory following the Philippines’ “West Philippine Sea” and Vietnam’s “East Sea”. Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the islands last October during which his government announced that it would increase patrols around the islands in order to keep Chinese and other foreign fishing vessels out.
With Indonesia focused on becoming a prominent maritime power in the region to support its national interests, the development of the base and the acquisition of new submarines remain top of the agenda.
Under Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force plan, part of the broader Strategic Defense Plan, the country is to have 12 submarines in inventory to meet its naval requirement by 2024. That means acquiring at least 10 new submarines if the two existing German-made Type 209s Cakra class remain in operation past 2020, their slated decommissioning date. The old 209s previously completed refits in 2006 and 2012 which included new propulsion, sonar, radar, and weapons systems. They were originally built by Germany’s Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft and commissioned in 1981, which puts their operational lifespan near 40 years. Several navies however, operate the Type 209/1300 beyond that period.
As far as new stock, Indonesia will take delivery of three larger Type 209/1400 Chang Bogo class diesel-electric SSKs from its main ASEAN partner, South Korea. The first two submarines, Nagabanda (403) and Trisula (404), commission in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Nagabanda recently arrived in Surabaya in late August. They were built by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) at South Korea’s Okpo-based shipyard. A third and potentially a fourth—as well as any follow-on orders—will be assembled locally at Indonesia’s state-owned PT PAL through a transfer of technology agreement. According to Indonesian Chief Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, PT Pal has sent 206 workers to South Korea to undergo training in submarine construction.
Apart from South Korea, Indonesia has also been in talks with Russia for its Project 636 Varshavyanka, an improved variant of the Kilo class diesel-electric SSK. While an official proposed number of Project 636 has not been disclosed, the Jakarta Post reported that they too would join the new 209s at Palu Bay. Russia meanwhile continues selling other high-value military equipment to the southeast Asian country. For example, Indonesia operates a number of older and more modern Flankers and has recently expressed interest in Russia’s latest fighter, the Su-35. Rumors have already surfaced that the two may have signed an agreement for the acquisition.
In addition to Russia, Turkey and Germany recently offered the Type-214 diesel-electric SSK at IDEF 2017. According to the signed letter of intent, the first pair of submarines would be built at a Turkish shipyard, likely Gölcük, with follow-on orders constructed locally in Indonesia. Gölcük is currently building six Type-214 submarines for the Turkish Navy with the first vessel expected to launch in 2019. Beyond the joint offer, PT Pal also signed an memorandum of understanding (MOU) with France’s DCNS during a visit to Jakarta by French President François Hollande in March 2017. The MOU supports collaboration with the domestic shipyard to build submarines and eventually other surface vessels, like corvettes and frigates.
Nevertheless, submarines in particular remain in high demand in the region with a subsurface capability on the minds of most military planners. At the opening of the International Maritime Security Conference in May, the Singapore Minister for Defence mentioned submarine acquisition as an area of increasing complexity in the regional maritime order. Noting that another 50 submarines would be added to the inventories of the Asia Pacific by 2025, the Minister foresees increasing naval capacity and substantial modernization efforts as the grounds to pursue further maritime rules and codes of conduct.
However, with increasing regional competition—which some see as a reaction to China’s rise—the shifting security environment may make more comprehensive, mutually agreed-upon rules, difficult to achieve–let alone enforce. In fact, states may be caught up in an “armaments tension spiral” where the introduction of more advanced tech into a regional setting affects a state’s threat perception, thereby provoking counter-moves or a bandwagoning effect to negate the advantage. This spiral often worsens when many of the technologies acquired, submarine or otherwise, cut down on tactical decision making time, creating opportunities for mistakes or costly escalation.
The big push for submarines in the region highlights the desire to raise the costs and risks to an adversary who wishes to project power too close to a competitor’s home. Equipped for multiple missions, submarines support regional navies in their goal of exercising sea control and denying its use to a potential adversary. With more states pursuing these weapons, particularly those equipped with sea launched cruise missiles, a much broader target set is at risk, potentially raising their deterrence value. However, as the spiral indicates, these acquisitions and capabilities can easily be misinterpreted, increasing regional tensions. Of course, acquiring the hardware is a low fidelity measure for actually acquiring the capability. Investment in training and infrastructure remain paramount to employing the new equipment effectively.
The potential for increased tensions represents an example of the importance of exploiting open source technologies like satellite imagery that lower barriers to help discern preparedness and intentions. The most recent and visible example has been China’s island building efforts in the South China Sea. Exploitation of imagery, when combined with other spatial data, can provide insights that organizations and analysts would otherwise miss. Watching how states in the region build, operate, practice, and forward deploy their naval assets helps establish a more complete picture for policymakers and researchers alike.
As developments across the region unfold, the hope is that open source imagery will provide a level of transparency to further inform the public debate.