Chinese Submarines for The Bangladesh Navy An Assessment
Commodore Gopal Suri

The Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in December 2015, announced that ‘two submarines would be added to Bangladesh Navy by the middle of the next year’, i.e., 20161. The Prime Minister was speaking at the passing out parade of midshipmen at the Bangladesh Naval Academy at Chittagong. She also added that setting up of a submarine base and associated infrastructure was underway. News of this submarine deal with China has been reported since 2013 with delivery expected by 2015. However, it now appears that the submarines are likely to join the inventory of the Bangladesh Navy this year. The Bangladesh Navy, in the recent past, has bought frigates, corvettes and patrol craft from the Chinese. However, the buy of submarines is worth pondering over since submarine operations, especially in their infancy, have to be nurtured and supported extensively by the supplier, i.e., the Chinese, till the buyer navy gains sufficient expertise to overcome the inherent dangers involved in undersea warfare. This essay will attempt to examine the rationale of the Bangladesh Navy to buy submarines, the likely involvement of the Chinese in their operation and future implications for the region.

Maritime Geopolitics. Bangladesh has resolved long standing maritime disputes with India and Myanmar in the past few years. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) passed its final verdict in the dispute between Myanmar and Bangladesh on 14 Mar 12 wherein it awarded 111,000 square kilometres of exclusive economic zone waters in the Bay of Bengal, almost the same size of Bangladesh, as also a 12-mile territorial sea around St. Martin’s Island2. In another maritime dispute with India, the ITLOS awarded Bangladesh 19,467 sq. km of the 25,602 sq. km sea area of the Bay of Bengal on 07 Jul 143. Consequently, Bangladesh has a fairly large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where it can carry out commercial activity to further its economic interests. Bangladesh also enjoys cordial relations with India, its largest neighbour. It also has stable relations with Myanmar, its other neighbour, though the festering problem of Rohingya refugees does continue to persist. The country, however, does not face any threats which could lead to conflicts in the immediate future. The country has maintained a steady GDP growth of about 6 % which has helped bring about much needed economic development in the country. This growth coupled with the recent settlement of its maritime disputes has allowed Bangladesh to focus on development of its maritime capabilities, both commercial and naval.

Modernisation of the Bangladesh Navy (BN). The BN has witnessed rapid growth in the past five years as part of the Forces Goal 2030 long term modernisation plan of the Bangladesh armed forces initiated in 2009. Military expenditure has more than doubled from $ 916 million in 2004 to about $ 2 billion in 20144. The Prime Minister has also repeatedly asserted her government’s commitment to the development of a modern navy on numerous occasions. The vision statement of the Chief of Naval Staff of the BN says that he “envision(s) Bangladesh Navy to evolve into a three dimensional navy acquiring such capacity and capability so as to be able to maintain a deterrent posture across the full spectrum of conflict”5. The growth of the BN has largely been in consonance with this vision as it continues to add not only platforms but also new capabilities to achieve its goals. The BN vision statement also specifically mentions gradual development of undersea capabilities to enhance its sea denial posture around Bangladeshi shores. Considering the absence of any real threats to Bangladesh, especially in the maritime domain, the aspiration towards acquisition of a submarine capability may not be warranted. The real requirement for submarines stems from the need to “maintain a deterrent posture”. However, who is to be deterred in the Bay of Bengal is yet to be clearly defined. It is worth bearing in mind that Bangladesh has had strained relations with India in the past, especially during the regime of begum Zia. The “deterrent posture”, therefore appears to be an insurance against any adversarial relations in the future.

Submarine Acquisition by BN. Bangladesh had finalised a deal with China for supply of two Type 035G or Ming class export version submarines along with training at a reported cost of $ 200 million6 by end 2013. These types of submarines have been in service with the Chinese navy for nearly forty years since the early 70s though the Type 035G entered service in 19907. This class of submarine has its origin in the Soviet Romeo class design of the 50s which has been extensively modified by the Chinese. These submarines, in all likelihood, are ex-Chinese navy which were either decommissioned or placed in reserve since the Chinese navy itself is going through a modernisation phase. These diesel-electric submarines displace 2110 tons and have a surfaced endurance of 8000 nm allowing them to stay at sea for about 60 days. They are manned by a crew of 57 personnel and carry 18 torpedoes with an option for carrying 32 mines also. Considering the vintage of the design, the sensors may not be state-of-the-art though modern fire control systems may have been installed. The torpedoes are also likely to be early Chinese designs with ranges of about 20 - 25 km. The crew for these submarines is also be undergoing training in China since the BN has yet to set up training facilities. Moreover, submarine acquisitions the world over normally have training provided by the supplier built into the contract. Considering the timeline of mid-2016 indicated by the Prime Minister, the crews would have been undergoing training in China for at least the past year so that the submarines can be inducted by the BN according to this timeline. These submarines will allow the BN to gradually find its feet in the undersea domain without spending top dollar for modern European or Russian boats. The buy of two boats itself suggests that the BN wants to gradually build up its undersea capability in a phased manner without committing too much of its limited resources, both in terms of men and money. There have also been reports of the BN being interested in Russian Kilo class submarines though there has been no perceptible movement on this front with the Russians. It is pertinent to note that Russia had extended a loan of $ 1 billion in Jan 2013 for purchase of seven types of arms and equipment that include anti-tank missiles, air defense systems, armoured vehicles, automatic grenade launchers, radars and four types of armament for the air force including conversion of fighter jets and Mi-17 transport helicopters8. It is therefore quite likely that Bangladesh may seek out Russian help in procurement of future submarines considering the cost as also the available modern technology of Russian submarines.

Deployment of BN Submarines. Induction of submarines and their subsequent integration into the operations of a navy takes quite some time depending upon the skill of the crews and the material state of the platforms. The BN is taking baby steps, and rightfully so, into the domain of undersea warfare. The initial phase of induction of these submarines will involve extensive trials for the personnel to gain confidence in their operations and put in place Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This will involve joint operations with various types of naval platforms and exercise the Command and Control structure which is absolutely imperative for submarine deployments. Procedures for establishing escape and rescue methodology would be another step to ensure safety of these operations. Considering the limited resources of the BN, it is quite likely that these issues will require at least a 2 - 3 years before the BN is able to conduct submarine operations across the entire spectrum of undersea warfare. Future deployment of these submarines in the vicinity of sensitive establishments of India and Myanmar cannot be ruled out considering their proximity to BN bases. These bases are just about 500 nautical miles from sensitive Indian coastal establishments in the Bay of Bengal and are well within the range of these submarines. Hence, it would be prudent to expect the deployment of BN submarines in the proximity of these establishments, especially in the light of the influence that the Chinese are likely to wield with the BN with regard to this realm of naval warfare.

Implications for the Region

Long Term Program. Acquisition of submarines is quite different from acquisition of other naval platforms since it involves setting up extensive infrastructure for support and training. Supporting operations of submarines requires a host of equipment like compressors, battery charging facilities, specialised mooring equipment, tugs, etc. and also special repair facilities. The cost of such equipment is almost equal to the cost of a submarine itself. Training of personnel is also very elaborate wherein a vast array of equipment like simulators, models and escape/rescue facilities are required. Suffice to say, investment in such facilities is economically worthwhile if it is intended for the long term and not as a one-off measure, especially for a poor country like Bangladesh. The fact that Bangladesh is setting up these facilities implies that the submarine program is a long term one and will surely expand beyond the current buy of two submarines.

Chinese Presence. The BN would have already commenced the training of its initial crews with the Chinese navy for manning and operation of the two submarines. In all likelihood, Chinese crews, albeit in a small number, will also be borne on these submarines to guide the BN crew through the initial stages of operations. This will ensure a smooth handing over of, not only the submarines, but also that the BN crew transition into independent operations without any untoward incidents. Whether these Chinese crews would continue to sail on these submarines after they have arrived in Bangladesh is a moot point though it is quite likely, considering the infancy of undersea operations in the BN. The Chinese are also likely to be deeply involved in setting up the shore infrastructure like repair yards, training facilities and operational support establishments for smooth conduct of submarine operations. All this implies that the Chinese naval presence, in terms of personnel and possibly ships, in the Bay of Bengal is here to stay at least for a couple of years.

Intelligence Gathering. The continued presence of the Chinese along with the learning curve of the BN in undersea warfare will present China with a golden opportunity to garner a vast amount of tactical intelligence, both of the area of operations as also about merchant and naval shipping. This can be used to supplement the data gathered by deployment of Chinese submarines into the IOR in the past and aid future planning. While the BN may not provide any direct intelligence, the presence of the Chinese personnel is sufficient for gathering critical data. This factor cannot be ignored by India as the Bay of Bengal is the home to a number of strategic and sensitive establishments.

Conclusion

While Bangladesh is entitled to operate its armed forces and acquire platforms as it deems fit, increased Chinese presence in our neighbourhood is a matter of concern, especially in a sensitive domain like undersea warfare. It is therefore in our interest to chalk out a strategy to mitigate this influence, especially when we have fairly close and cordial relations with Bangladesh. India can reduce the Chinese presence by offering facilities which the BN may not have but will need for the development of its submarine arm. For starters, basic training for personnel can be offered since India has established training facilities in this domain. India can also extend its expertise to the BN in setting up operational and shore support infrastructure. Undertaking repairs of these boats and provision of aid in this aspect of submarine operations will also go a long way in building up a long term relationship, especially when considering the possibility of the BN buying Russian submarines in the future. Setting up a mechanism for carrying out joint submarine rescue and salvage operations, on the lines of the NATO, with not just the BN but also Singapore and other likely future submarine operating nations would build up tremendous confidence amongst the nations of the neighbourhood. All these initiatives require further study but would be worth the while since they will reduce Chinese influence in the Bay of Bengal. However, we require to initiate these steps with some urgency so that the Chinese, who have already stolen a march on us with the Maritime Silk Road initiative, do not gain further ground in our own backyard.

Endnotes

  1. Bangladesh Navy to add submarines by mid-2016, Wednesday, 23 December 2015. http://newsnextbd.com/bangladesh-navy-to-add-submarines-by-mid-2016/. Accessed on 02 Feb 16.
  2. Bangladesh and Myanmar resolve longstanding maritime dispute, 26 April 2012, Pranab Kumar Panday. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/04/26/bangladesh-and-myanmar-resolve-longstanding-maritime-dispute/. Accessed on 08 Feb 16.
  3. Bangladesh wins maritime dispute with India, Haroon Habib, 09 Jul 14. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/bangladesh-wins-maritime-dispute-with-india/article6191797.ece. Accessed on 08 Feb 16.
  4. SIPRI Military Expenditure database 2015.
  5. CNS's Vision Statement. http://www.navy.mil.bd/vision.php. Accessed on 06 Feb 16.
  6. Depth: Chinese warships propped Bangladesh Navy submarine mention deterrent 035G
    At 10:30 on January 7, 2015. https://translate.google.co.in/translate?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2015-01-07/1030817276.html&prev=search. Accessed on 08 Feb 16.
  7. Type 035 Ming-class conventional submarines.
    http://www.haijun360.com/news/XGBD/2013/72/1372143854HE84J50FJJK2DHFCI168.html. Accessed on 02 Feb 16.
  8. Russia, Bangladesh Seal $1 Billion Arms Deal, 15 Jan 2013. http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-russia-bangladesh-seal-1-billion-arms-deal-1789229. Accessed on 06 Feb 16.

Published Date: 13th April 2016, Image Source: http://www.navy.mil.bd/
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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