India transfers Myanmar’s first submarine amid tensions with China – the Diplomat
The long-awaited transfer of Russian-made Kilo-class submarine from India to Myanmar took place last week during the Bandoola Fleet Exercise in Myanmar. The decades-old diesel submarine UMS Min Ye Thein Kha Thu is just one vessel, but it has significance in Myanmar’s immediate vicinity and is also indicative of the growing strategic competition in the area. ‘Indo-Pacific.
Obtaining the submarine is the fulfillment of a long-held dream for the Burmese Navy. There are reports that Myanmar was in talks to acquire submarines from the North Korean regime before 2002. Pakistan would have provided Burmese officers who received underwater training in 2013, and the purchase of submarines was reportedly a topic of discussion when a high-level military delegation visited Russia in 2013. It might sound strange to hear that a Navy without submarines receives training on them, but this wouldn’t be the first time that a submarine force has started forming without actually having any submarines. Thailand has maintained a submarine unit for years and will likely receive the first of its Chinese-built submarines in 2023.
At the highest level, this delivery highlights the competition for influence that is playing out at the confluence of South and Southeast Asia. With China supplying submarines to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand, India is seeing pressure on its periphery. The supply of military equipment, especially sophisticated systems such as submarines, is not normally a one-time transaction. This is a long-term relationship that typically involves additional sales, training, and exercise, and can often include long-term staff exchanges. With its sales of equipment to India’s neighbors, China has secured lasting military access to India’s maritime borders.
Today, China, long the main supplier of military equipment to Myanmar, has to reckon with an expanding Indian workforce. Indian trainers and maintenance personnel will need to travel to Myanmar, and Myanmar will need to send sailors to India for further training. Sailors in the submarine program will need training in English, which India will provide and which will link the two nations more closely. An English-trained submarine corps will likely continue to seek training opportunities from English-speaking navies, especially with the navy which provided their equipment and tactics.
On a more local level, Myanmar shares a hotly contested maritime border with Thailand, which is made up of several overlapping claims and has erupted more than once in gunfire. This dispute gives particular importance to the balance of maritime forces between the two neighbors. Originally committed to the purchase of three Yuan-class submarines, Thailand seemed to have gained the advantage in the competition between the two until the COVID-19 pandemic massively undermined the supply plans of Thailand. Steel had already started to be cut in China for the first boat, but the purchase of the two additional submarines was delayed indefinitely following public outrage over the priority given to the new submarines over public health and pandemic resilience. Now Myanmar has turned the tide and Thailand will be eager to restore balance with the delivery of its first Yuan-class submarine in 2023.
Internally, the implications for the Burmese Navy could be serious. A submarine is almost certainly an expensive misstep that will strain the Navy’s budget for years to come. With a fleet of only half a dozen surface fighters, freeing up enough sailors and maintenance personnel to properly operate and maintain a sophisticated submarine will be a heavy burden. It must be remembered that a single boat is not a reliable operational capability. At best, it is useful as part of a “Current fleet” strategy, in which the submarine’s potential threat, rather than its actual operational impact, creates shifts in an adversary’s perception of the tactical landscape. In reality, this submarine is probably designed as a training platform, the first step towards functional capacity.
As this is a refurbished vessel, its expected operational life will likely not exceed 15 years. This means that the Myanmar Navy would have to acquire more of the same, or at least similar, designs before this deadline expires, otherwise the whole project would be wasted. Vietnam’s acquisition of six Russian Kilo-class boats was finalized for more than $ 2 billion, or nearly one the budget for the whole year for the combined branches of the armed forces of Myanmar. At a time when many regional defense budgets are under pressure from the demands of public health systems and recovery efforts related to COVID-19, it is hard to imagine that even Myanmar is mustering the political will to do so. commit to such an extravagant short-term purchase.
Operationally, this submarine will have a negligible impact on the region, although it does invite a conversation about water space deconfliction and risk management. Having multiple Marines with nascent submarine programs and low levels of technical proficiency increases the likelihood of a collision or other catastrophic accident. Another consideration is the scarcity of submarine rescue facilities in the region, and to whom the Burmese navy will turn in the event of an incident requiring the rescue of their sailors from a submerged vessel.
In the navies of Southeast Asia, submarines have long been the “new bling”, as Dr Bernard Loo said. Myanmar’s acquisition follows the regional trend, but carries a significant risk to the navy’s future that could be fatal to its long-term goals of modernization and expansion. As for the scramble between India and China, this transfer is just a data point, but it is certainly indicative of how long India is willing to go to ensure that China does not is not allowed to gain unchallenged access along its eastern border.
Blake Herzinger is an Indo-Pacific Defense Policy Specialist and Reserve Officer in the US Navy. Follow him on Twitter at @BDHerzinger.