A just completed biennial naval exercise between Thailand and Singapore saw for the first time the participation of a submarine from the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). Codenamed Exercise Singsiam, this year marks its 18th iteration since first being held in 1981. Thailand and Singapore hold long-standing close relations both economically and militarily. This exercise is but one example of the closeness of the relationship which has endured.
This Year’s Exercise
Singsiam this year ran from November 2 to 12 in the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. Intended to increase interoperability and develop and promote strong maritime partnerships between both countries, Singsiam has so far been quite successful. The primary focus of the exercise this year was on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and gunnery activities. Four surface ships, one submarine, and several aviation assets took part. In addition to the first introduction of a submarine, this year’s exercise also saw the first joint deployment of helicopters in ASW drills.
The RSN contributed the Formidable-class frigate RSS Intrepid, the Victory-class missile corvette RSS Vigour and the RSS Archer, an Archer-class diesel-electric submarine. In addition there was an S-70B naval helicopter embarked on the Intrepid. The Archer is an extensively upgraded Västergötland-class submarine formerly of the Swedish Navy and commissioned into the RSN in 2011.
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) contributed the Naresuan-class frigate HTMS Naresuan, a Chao Phraya-class frigate HTMS Saiburi, two S-70B naval helicopters and one Dornier-228 maritime patrol aircraft. The Naresuan and Saiburi are both Chinese built warships with the former being perhaps the most advanced surface ship of the RTN.
Speaking on the use of a submarine and helicopters, Edwin Leong, commanding officer of the RSN Missile Corvette Squadron said at the opening ceremony “The inaugural participation of these assets, made possible by the conducive conditions and vast expanse of the Andaman Sea, will open up a whole new frontier for mutual learning and cooperation. This augurs well for the future of Exercise Singsiam”.
Thailand and Singapore: Submarines
The RSN currently has four diesel-electric submarines, two Archer-class and two Challenger-class. The Challenger-class like the Archer’s are extensively modified former Swedish submarines. In December 2013, Singapore signed a contract with German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) for the construction of two new Type 218SG diesel electric submarines to replace the Challenger’s. This June, construction began on both in Germany. The Type 218SG is substantially larger than submarines of the Archer and Challenger-classes and will allow the RSN to conduct long-range oceangoing missions. The current fleet is optimized for operations in littorals and shallow waters.
The RTN does not field any submarines though has been trying to acquire them for some time. This June it seemed that Thailand had finalized a deal with China for the purchase of three Type 039B Yuan-class submarines at a total cost of US$1.1 billion. In the weeks that followed though, questions over the planned purchase arose that put the future of the deal in question. Politically, some saw the move by Bangkok as an attempt at deepening the relationship with Beijing at the expense of U.S.-Thai relations. On the other hand, financial issues in a country with relatively conservative levels of defense spending put negative pressure on the deal. For now it seems that the deal is temporarily suspended pending further review by the government and military.
Exercise Singsiam has endured for over three decades in a region where defense relationships are often difficult to manage. For Thailand and Singapore, beyond the military benefits of holding the exercise, an atmosphere of collaboration is created and promoted. Arguably, Singapore has one of the most technologically advanced navies in Southeast Asia while Thailand is slowly upgrading its own though financial issues are impeding it. The introduction of a submarine to the exercise this year highlights the growing importance of submarines in the region.
Vietnam is expanding its submarine fleet, Indonesia is looking to Russia for new submarines, and Australia is looking to Japan for new submarines. With the critically important Strait of Malacca which is vitally important to international trade, the importance of submarines cannot be understated in the region. As a result, the incorporation of a submarine into this exercise and the conducting of ASW drills reflect a new defense reality that Southeast Asian countries must contend with.