Thursday, 4 March 2010

Malaysia's Submarine Woes

Malaysia's Scorpene SSK are also known as the Perdana Menteri ( Prime Minister ) class. Photo : LIMA 


 Keeping Up With The Joneses?

Ever since Singapore's acquisition of the Challenger-class ( Ex-Sjoormen-class SSK ) diesel-electric submarines from Sweden beginning in 1995, Malaysia has been dying to lay her hands on a couple of submarines too. It might have something to do with the fact that Malaysia does not want to be seen to be inferior in terms of military hardware and capability compared to her much much smaller but far richer neighbour Singapore. But really, to be beaten to anything by a tiny nation which one had evicted out of the Federation ( of Malaysia ) 45 years ago can be very hard to palate if not down right humiliating, especially with an ego as big as Malaysia's.

Need For Submarine

To be fair, Malaysia does have very long coastlines and many islands and maritime interests to patrol and protect. The Straits of Malacca on the west coast is one of the world's busiest sea lanes and a pirate hotspot. There are disputes with Indonesia over gas fields in the Anambas Islands and sovereign issues over the diving paradise Sipadan Island. Submarines will definitely be a valuable asset to any navy required to oversee all that territorial waters. In fact, one can argue that two submarines can hardly be considered adequate to patrol such a large expanse of ocean, even when manned by competent submariners.

Money, The Root Of All Evil

The main reason for the near decade delay in Malaysia's submarine buy was insufficient funds. Well, maybe I have to qualify by saying insufficient to pay for the arms and at the same time fill the pockets of middlemen, admirals and politicians. You see, Malaysia has one of the oddest way to purchase military weapons. It has to go through middlemen from state approved companies. These middlemen are usually good-for-nothing cronies of powerful politicians who earn millions of dollars in commission in each arms deal.

So instead of getting the best weapons platform for the country, the typical deal would go to the supplier would pays the most bribes.

The Scorpene Deal

The submarine contract was awarded in a non-competitive tender to DCNS of France in 2002, for two Scorpene diesel-electric submarines plus one refurbished Agosta-B submarine for training purposes. The total cost of the contract was estimated to be worth USD972 million or MYR3.68 billion ( MYR = Malaysian Ringgit ) . The boats were to be partially constructed by DCNS in France and partially by DCNS's now estranged Spanish partner Navantia.

From the Malaysian side, negotiations were made through a company known as Perimekar Sdn. Bhd., for which it was paid a commission of €114.96 million, approximately 11% of the purchase price of the submarines. Interestingly, this commission was paid by the buyer, the Malaysian government, and not the seller, DCNS/Navantia. Was the Defence Ministry so inept that it cannot even carry out a tender evaluation and perform its own negotiations??

Officially, the Defence Ministry stated that the money was paid to Perimekar Sdn. Bhd. for providing " support and coordinating services " over a period of 6 years. But what services can a civilian company provide that the Defence Ministry cannot provide for itself?

Now Perimekar, as far as anyone knew, is a subsidiary of another company KS Ombak Laut Sdn Bhd., which is wholly owned by a well connected political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda. In fact Baginda is a close friend ( read crony ) of the then Minister for Defence ( now Prime Minister cum Defence Minister ) Najib Razak. The problem was, both Perimekar and Ombak Laut do not seem to have any expertise in the area of defence equipment. So one wonders how on earth they could provide any form of support and coordination services to the Defence Ministry.

Malaysia's Scorpene submarine KD Tunku Abdul Razak arriving at the naval Base at Klang, 3rd Sep 2009. Source : Wikipedia.

More Scandals

To make matters worse, Abdul Razak Baginda was charged with abetting the murder of his assistant and lover, the French and Russian speaking Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaaribuu who was directly involved in the negotiations for the Scorpenes and the Sukhoi Su-30MKM multi-role fighters. Altantuya allegedly tried to blackmail Baginda for US$500000 but was murdered by members of the Police anti-terrorism special unit and her body was blown into bits by C-4 explosives, probably from the Police arsenal. Welcome to Bolehland, the country where the police can be instruments of murder and where the majority Bumiputera population needs and receives special privileges and protection from the minority races. The scandal itself can be the basis for many independent blog entries but I digress.

The Scorpene SSK

The Scorpene is a conventional diesel-electric hunter-killer submarine or SSK. Nuclear powered hunter-killers are designated SSN. It is a joint project by the French and Spaniards. It comes in three flavours - Basic, Basic-AIP and Compact. It can be fitted with the MESMA (Module d'Energie Sous-Marine Autonome ) air-independent propulsion system ( AIP ) to increase the underwater endurance of the submarine. The ones selected by Malaysia are the Basic versions and do not have air-independent propulsion technology incorporated in them. They are still quiet and capable contemporary designs despite the lack of AIP and are armed with 6 533mm bow torpedo tubes with 18 torpedoes or 30 mines and the submarine launched SM39 Exocet anti-ship missile.
According to Wikipedia, the MESMA system costs US$50-60 million each. Now if only the Malaysian politicians were an honest bunch and did not try to pocket the €114.96 million ( currently equivalent to US$158 million ), the Royal Malaysian Navy could have had 2 Scorpene Basic-AIPs PLUS a spare MESMA engine!!!!

Imagine what two new build AIP Scorpenes could do. They would probably thrash the 2 Singapore Navy rebuilds, the Archer Class AIP submarines. In case you did not know, the Archer Class of the RSN started life as the Vastergotland Class SSK of the Royal Swedish Navy. They were non-AIP and had to be literally cut into two and then lengthened mid-ship to accommodate the Stirling AIP engine during refurbishment. I am not even certain if the Singaporean submarines have the sub-Harpoon anti-ship missiles, but it is highly unlikely. But Nooooooooo .... 3 MESMA engines stolen from under the noses of the RMN, not a surprise at all after news broke out that 2 spare F-5 Tiger II jet engines worth RM50million each were smuggled out of a RMAF base and were sold to some South American Banana Republic now thought to be Uruguay.

From the pages of DCNS's Scorpene 2000 brochure.

Defects! Defects! Defects!

The first Scorpene, KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, was delivered to Malaysia in 2009. It has been reported that shortly after the welcoming ceremony at Port Klang on 3rd Sep 09, defects have already been discovered. Some of these have been played down by Royal Malaysian Navy Chief Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar as "teething problems" and included a defect in the submarine's Forward Sea Water Cooling System ( discovered on 17th Dec 09 ) and the High Pressure Air Blowing System ( detected on 17th Jan 10). Teething or not these defects have prevented the brand new submarine from diving for the past three months until they have been recently rectified by DCNS. They have forced the RMN to delay the tropical waters sea trials of KD Tunku Abdul Rahman which were originally scheduled to be completed in Jan 2010. This will also delay the achievement of IOC ( Initial Operational Capability ). DCNS even had to extend the warranty which was due to expire in Jan 2010 as a result. The delivery of the second Scorpene KD Tun Abdul Razak has also been postponed by a few months presumably as a result of the defects discovered in the first Scorpene.

Malaysia's Scorpene SSK underway. Source : LIMA

Lack Of Submarine Rescue Capability

In addition to all those high profile teething problems highlighted by the media, the RMN has another less obvious woe - lack of a submarine rescue vessel with a DSRV. DSRV is the abbreviation for Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle - a sort of mini-submarine capable of docking with a downed submarine underwater and off-load the trapped sailors. The DSRV type vehicle is usually small and portable and can usually be air-lifted if necessary. They should be standard inventory for any modern Navy with a submarine force.

Typical of any Malaysian venture which tends to be executed without much careful long term planning or sensible calculations, the procurement of the most modern submarines came without the consideration for submarine rescue capabilities. Total cost of ownership? What's that? Economy of Scale?? Never heard before. Insurance ? Hedging?? For what Ahhh??

Maybe that was the real reason why the KD Tunku Abdul Raman cannot dive after just "teething problems" affecting the high pressure air blowing system - if the submarine cannot surface after a dive, the RMN will have no choice but to beg the RSN to save their submariners, since the RSN is the only regional navy with a submarine rescue ship and submersible rescue vehicle. Something which the Malaysians would loath to do. It is all about "Face".

Final Words

Malaysia finally acquired a modern submarine force, after a prolonged period of delay. However, the choice of the platform is less capable than what could have been possible if not for unscrupulous channeling of funds into the hands of private companies and individuals. The non-competitive nature of the tender could also mean that Malaysia probably paid much more for the submarines when it could have been cheaper in an open tender. The lack of Air-Independent Propulsion and Submarine Rescue Capabilities could well be the Achilles' Heel of Malaysia's Silent Service. The imminent introduction of RSN's Sikorsky S-70B anti-submarine helicopters onboard the RSS Formidable-class stealth frigates would make life even harder for the Malaysian submariners in the near future.

Malaysia's Scorpene SSK and the visiting Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine SSN-721 Jacksonville at Sepanggar Naval Base, Sabah, 2010. Photo : RMN / USN