Having to do more with less

This is particularly so for navies in the South-East Asian region As we approach the first decade of the 21st Century, it is clear that the maritime environment will continue to play an important role for not only nations but also people of the world, a large proportion who depend on maritime trade and activities.

6th May 2009


Having to do more with less

This is particularly so for navies in the South-East Asian region As we approach the first decade of the 21st Century, it is clear that the maritime environment will continue to play an important role for not only nations but also people of the world, a large proportion who depend on maritime trade and activities. where maritime trade and industry underpin much of their economies. Ensuring security for the maritime environment is thus the main goal for South-East navies - yet they face their own challenges in achieving and carry out their roles, particularly in a time of economic downturn and new challenges.

One of the chief issues facing most south-east Asian navies today is determining whether the maritime warfare role or the maritime constabulary role will be the focus for development plans. Traditionally navies have often focused on the maritime warfare role with constabulary ancillary to it. However, over the past two decades, the importance of maintaining and protecting economic exclusion zones (EEZs), domestic fishing grounds along with the need to curb criminal activities at sea such as smuggling of goods, drugs and people, piracy and illegal immigration has bought the need for navies to act in the maritime constabulary role to becoming as important as having the ability to conduct maritime warfare operations.

The problem that arises is the largely incompatible fleet and ship requirements for maritime constabulary and maritime warfare roles. A maritime constabulary role requires primarily a fleet of numerous ships to enable it to cover its patrol zones effectively and these ships are normally lightly armed and minimally equipped in terms of sensors and communications in order to make them cheap - thus enabling a navy to obtain the numbers required for effectiveness. But such traits naturally make such ships of limited use in warfare. In contrast, the ships suited for maritime warfare are of little or no use for maritime constabulary duties, as in the case of submarines, or even destroyers, frigates and corvettes, where the cost of such ships ensures that a navy will not have enough platforms to effectively cover the maritime constabulary roles. Additionally the fact that in such roles the potential danger of ship damage (i.e an illegal vessel ramming the navy ship) or wear and tear from such duties makes navies reluctant to employ expensive surface warfare vessels in this way.

Indeed the Royal Malaysian Navy learned an expensive lesson in such in the aftermath of the Sipadan Island kidnapping in 2000. After the kidnapping of 21 civilians from the beach resort by Abu Sayyaf militants from the Philippines, the RMN was ordered to establish a heavy naval presence and patrol the waters between the East Malaysian state of Sabah and the Philippines. This was to prevent further attacks and one RMN corvette sustained severe propeller damage owing to a floating log. This led to the RMN purchasing CB90 patrol craft for the purpose of patrolling those waters and thus avoiding using larger and more expensive ships.

In the 1970’s the Royal Navy was concerned over the potential damage that could occur via ramming to its frigates assigned to deter Icelandic ships during the cod wars. As both RN and Icelandic ships used ramming attacks during the confrontation, the fear was that not only would repairing the frigates be costly but also that the ships - which formed a key part of NATO’s surface fleet - would be unavailable if a conflict with the Warsaw Pact suddenly occurred.

Furthermore the problem with using a navy in the maritime constabulary role results in that navy having less time to focus upon maritime warfare training. Furthermore a hidden cost lies in the fact that those caught breaking the maritime laws of a nation have to be tried in court and would require the navy officers involved in arresting such persons to testify in the trial, and thus the navy ship involved may be unable to sail due to personnel having to attend court proceedings. Thus it is not surprising that many navies prefer to hand off the maritime constabulary role to coast guards. Yet coast guards create their own difficulties for navies, with countries now taking a 200 mile EEZ as the norm in contrast to the old 12 mile territorial waters limit. This means a coast guard would require ocean going vessels capable of policing an EEZ in contrast to the past where small patrol craft alone were enough. As a result a coast guard becomes a “mini-navy” and a country would have to support what would literally be two navy fleets, a constabulary fleet and a maritime warfare fleet. With the increasing cost of ships and the global economic situation, not many countries can afford a coast guard along with a navy. Some countries which have a coast guard, such as the UK, have this service focused on maritime search and rescue only while maritime law enforcement is handled by the navy or police.

Significantly though the major five South-East Asian nations, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines all possess a coast guard organization the EEZ patrolling is still conducted by the countries navies. Though it should be noted that in Malaysia, long-term plans for the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency calls for it to have vessels capable of conducting long-distance patrols. Thus Malaysia is the only country that has planned to hand off the EEZ enforcement role to a coastguard, though the RMN will continues to play a supporting role. The other four nations continue to rely upon their navies for varying reasons. Singaporean because her EEZ claims are not extensive and the Singapore Police Coast Guard has already an extensive task in ensuring security for ships plying the busy waters and ports - particularly with the country’s concern about maritime terrorism. Financial reasons alone ensure that Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia will rely upon their navies - though it should be noted that the Indonesian Coast Guard is part of the Indonesian navy anyhow. Thailand plans to build four new OPVs locally - though financing currently only permits one to be built. Meanwhile the Philippines is soliciting design proposals for an OPV that can be built locally.

The focus on locally built ships in not surprising given the global economic situation - logically one way of navies in South East Asia to procure ships cheaply and at the same time boost the domestic economy. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have built a number of ships in-country, with the Singaporean Formidable class frigates being the most sophisticated ships ever constructed in the region. Still this is not as straightforward as it seems, as the Malaysian Kedah class OPVs and the planned Indonesian Korvet Nasional (national corvette) program have shown. In the case of the Kedah class OPVs, mismanagement by the initial shipbuilders, PSC Naval Dockyards led to both cost overruns and a delay in delivery – something which forced the Malaysian government to intervene and appoint a new company to takeover the troubled program. The current global financial crisis also has resulted in Malaysia postponing plans to build two Batch II Jebat class frigates locally.

Meantime in Indonesia, financial issues and wrangling between the Indonesian government and local shipbuilder PT PAL as to the final costs of the ship has resulted in the Korvet Nasional program yet to begin and indications are that it may only begin in 2010. Similarly in Thailand plans for 4 locally OPVs to be built have been reduced to one OPV being given the go ahead due to financial shortages. Finance though is not the only problem the Royal Thai Navy faces in getting further ships with the ongoing political instability resulting in little government decision making.
The difficulties faced by most South-East Asian navies in getting new ships to carry out their missions comes at a time when security becomes increasingly challenging as the maritime domain is no longer restricted to a select few. In today’s world the oceans are readily available to those with the financial resources and will. No longer can the perception of maritime security threats be limited to just nation states. Organized crime or terrorist groups have to be taken into account. Threats may emerge from individuals or lesserknown groups or those with vested commercial interests in a particular area. This could include companies and corporations who may prefer to undertake their own private actions to protect their corporate interests.

Increasing accessibility to the maritime domain also means that more people use the sea as a form of recreation and personal activities and are not restricted to just the waters of their home nation. With technology enabling even the most amateurish of individuals to go to sea, the issue of safety arises with individual citizens in far flung waters becoming a concern, for example, recently French naval forces carried out the rescue of their citizens who were sailing in a yacht off the coast of Somalia on a vacation. They were taken hostage by pirates, whereas in the past most people who owned a yacht normally sailed it in home waters rather than thousands of miles away. And it is not just ordinary citizens at risk - commercial shipping has been vulnerable to pirates, yet in the past most countries have concerned themselves with preventing attacks in their home waters. However the recent piracy situation in Somalia has been such that both Malaysia and Singapore have dispatched navy ships to the region.

The RMN has been steadily maintaining a single ship presence to escort Malaysian ships traveling through the area while Singapore, which depends on the maritime shipping trade for it’s economy has dispatched a single Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) ship to assist in anti-piracy patrols. Thus the new challenge for South-East Asian navies is that they can no longer just prepare for operations in home or regional waters but must also sail in far-flung waters. Still, the successful mission by the RSN and RMN, coupled with the recent Indonesian deployment of a frigate to join the United Nations maritime task force off Lebanon show that the three countries have advanced to the stage of being able to conduct naval operations on a global scale.

Unlike land and air travel, which restricts individual travel via visas, passports and immigration, there is nothing restricting people from exercising innocent passage by sea along with traveling in international waters, all of which complicates jurisdictional issues and state responsibilities. This is particularly in the case of political activists. Activism on the high seas is not a new problem, for in the 80s the protest group Greenpeace used a ship for its anti-nuclear activities until French intelligence sunk it in New Zealand. More recently are the activities of harassment against whaling ships by the Sea Shepherd group. The likelihood is that such activities will increase simply because it becomes more easier for people to gain access to the maritime domain. The variety of protest groups that could potentially take to the sea is substantial, among potential future scenarios being anti-logging activists stopping or harassing cargo ships carrying timber products. Another possibility is groups protesting military exercises or presences.

The problem for South-East Asian navies is that in general, their countries have a tradition of robust enforcement and little tolerance for lawbreakers of any form. This of course contradicts with the notions of freedom to protest favored by Western countries. Australia’s announcement that it would protect the Sea Shepherd group during their protest activities has opened up an unfortunate dilemma by seemingly legitimizing protest groups in harassing ships on the high seas. Should such incidents occur in South-East Asian waters, there is a high potential for a dangerous confrontation.

The recent announcement that Vietnam will purchase up to 6 Kilo class submarines is a reminder that their presence in South East Asia is increasing - with Indonesia operating two, Malaysia to be also soon operating two and Singapore operating four. Thailand also has plans to purchase submarines in the future. Both India and China are strategic competitors and both are seeking to expand their reach in areas regarded as exclusive territory by their rivals. Indian is seeking to expand in the South China Sea while the Chinese are looking to expand in the Indian Ocean. It is expected that submarines from both countries will make covert deployments to these waters - which will further increase numbers of submarines in South East Asian. Added to this will be the presence of US and Australian submarines, particularly given the fact that the Australian government plans for 12 long-range submarines to replace the existing 6 Collins class. Thus there is the potential for friction to occur either in the form of a collision or confrontation. There is therefore a need to ensure confidence building and transparency in the region with regard to submarine operations - a situation which is difficult to achieve, given that most countries consider submarine operations something which has to be shrouded in secrecy.

Clearly what can be seen it that for South-East Asian navies the number of tasks they face continues to grow rather than diminish. Conversely the cost of meeting such challenges, be in purchasing ships and equipment, training or conducting operations also continues to increase while the global financial crisis is ensuring that governments will have less to spend. The challenge will be for South-East Asian navies to ensure that they can continue to safeguard their nations’ maritime interests while working with less.

APDR at a glance