May 24, 2015

Singapore Recommends Submarine Safety Regime - Exercise with India

Malacca Strait - narrow and many rocks, islands and shallows. Its at its narrowest just south of Singapore. A ship and submarine captain's nightmare (Map courtesy IMO).

About one third of oil carried by sea (worldwide) is moved through the extremely congested Malacca Strait. Large tankers and other subs can accidentally collide with subs. (Map courtesy US Energy Information Administralian (EIA))

I have reproduced an excellent commentary by Prashanth Parameswaran who wrote for The Diplomat, May 21, 2015. I have added some links bolded and some comments, bolded in [...] brackets. The link is

"A New Plan to Manage Asia’s Submarine Race?"

"This week, Singapore co-hosts the Asia Pacific Submarine Conference (APSC) with the United States. Founded in 2001, the APSC has established itself as a major forum dealing with submarine rescue, and this year reportedly saw the highest attendance with 23 navies and organizations.
At the conference, Chief of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Rear-Admiral Lai Chung Han delivered a speech, seen by The Diplomat, outlining how Asia should take multilateral submarine rescue cooperation [see last para of a 2014 Diplomat article]  “to the next bound.” More specifically, given the busyness and shallowness [eg. 20meters to 50meters in some parts of South China Sea] of some of the Asian waters as well as the rapid rise of submarines expected in the region over the next few years, Lai suggested that Asian nations should enhance submarine operational safety and proactively minimize the risk of incidents by developing a regional framework.
Such a framework, Lai argued, would comprise four elements. The first would be better information exchange. This would not involve sharing sensitive information about submarine positions and movements, but other sorts of information like the real-time movement of fishing vessels and very large crude carriers. He suggested that the effort could be supported by the Information Fusion Center (IFC) at the Changi Command and Control Center through a dedicated Submarine Safety Information Portal. In his view, the information platform, along with the extensive network of International Liaison Officers [most probably including US and Australian] at the IFC and the information technology and command and control support of the Multinational Operations and Exercises Center, would provide robust infrastructure for this information exchange to occur.
The second element would be the sharing of best practices. While he acknowledged that some of this is already being done at APSC, he encouraged such exchanges to extend beyond just submarine rescue to encompass best practices, certification, and training to enhance the safety of navies and submarine operators.
The third element, Lai said, would be the setting of common standards. For instance, he recommended leveraging an established material safety standard, such as the United States Navy’s SUBSAFE regime, to ensure that submarines are in the best technical condition for safe operations.
The fourth element, and the most ambitious one, is coming up with a Code of Conduct for submarine operations or underwater “rules of the road.” He noted that given the confined and congested waters in some parts of the Asia-Pacific, there is a need to develop regulations for the underwater domain to help avert catastrophic incidents should submarines encounter each other unexpectedly underwater.
The challenges to such a regional framework are clear, and Lai acknowledged some of these himself. First, even the more basic elements of such a framework, such as information sharing, are hard to accomplish fully because of a classic catch-22: more information is required to build greater trust, yet it’s precisely the lack of initial trust — rooted in a range of factors including history, current geopolitical competition, and unresolved disputes — that often makes parties unwilling to share that information in the first place. While that does not make this an unworthy goal to strive for, it does mean that achieving it will not be as easy as it looks, even though the infrastructure exists and it makes sense to do so.
Second, although the sharing of best practices and the adoption of common standards may seem like no-brainers, they may take time to implement fully in practice. In reality, the speed through which practices are shared and standards are harmonized is the product of a variety of factors, including the extent to which there is similarity in capabilities; the degree to which different countries exercise with each other to facilitate interoperability; and, of course, the level of willingness of the different actors to make this a priority.
Third and lastly, the wide divergence in the experience of Asian states — both in terms of operating submarines as well as cooperation on submarine safety — will likely make the specifics of a regional framework more complicated. [Singapore's suggestion might particularly be aimed at other sub owning ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam) also at China] While some countries have robust submarine fleets, other major states have just acquired them within the past few years and still others have plans in the pipeline to get them in the future. That has significant implications for designing a regional framework, including the dilemma usually inherent in such arrangements about how to balance inclusivity and high standards.
Given these challenges as well as others, Lai was right to note that Asia has a long way to go before getting anywhere near the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) preventive system for submarine operational safety, which has the [NATO Submarine Movement Advisory Authority] deconflicting underwater activities as well as endorsed procedures and standards by NATO’s International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office. But he was also right to stress that while this is probably a bridge too far, that should not stop countries from taking small steps now. Otherwise, as he gloomily suggested, it may not be a matter of whether, but when, a submarine-related crisis occurs in the future in the Asia-Pacific."

Meanwhile Times of India, May 23, 2015 reports "NEW DELHI: India has dispatched four warships, including a frontline destroyer and a stealth frigate, on a long overseas deployment to the South Indian Ocean and South China Sea in consonance with the country's "Act East" policy. As part of the endeavor, two of the warships -- stealth frigate INS Satpura and anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kamorta [against the sub RNS Archer] also kicked off the four-day SIMBEX exercise with the Singaporean Navy on [May 23, 2015]..."


Vigilis said...

Hi, Pete.

I believe P. Parameswaran's article, "A New Plan to Manage Asia’s Submarine Race?", overstates Admiral Lai's expressed intent, which is submarine operational safety. With submarines safety has to be a no-brainer, and Lai is not naive enough to believe otherwise.

However, the article understates Lai's overriding intent, which is "better information exchange" for matitime security.

This could be a potential trap for Australia's largest trading partner: Failure to contribute timely, accurate and complete ship movements to the IFC could invite regional scorn, while significant omissions could reveal patterns of evasion useful during a future conflict.

I rather doubt the trading partner in question will be an early adopter of sharing real-time movements of much besides actual fishing vessels any time soon, but let's see what happens. - Very intriguing, Pete.

Regards, Vigilis

Peter Coates said...

Hi Vigilis

Yes Lai's messages were so wide ranging its difficult to know which message(s) he most emphasised.

I'm pretty confident Chinese tankers would observe some international (perhaps IMO backed?) regulatory control when transiting the Malacca Strait. Conflicts of territorial-ADIZ interest in the South China Sea gets more problematic.

As to submarine position and patrol area info sharing - probably the US and NATO share in the Atlantic but not with Russia.

I'm not holding my breath for China and Russia sharing submarine info with Western countries (including Singapore) when their subs transit the Malacca Straits.