Malaysia Submarine Capabilities

Scorpene Tunku Abdul Rahman, Source: WikiMedia Commons

With a coastline of 4,700 km, an exclusive economic zone covering an area of 598,540 km, and a geostrategic location overseeing the sea lines connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Malaysia has extensive political and economic maritime interests. Owing to its critical geostrategic position bordering the northern reaches of the Malacca Straits, security analysts consider Kuala Lumpur as "the most important player in the multi-national effort to keep the waters of the Straits of Malacca open for safe-passage." [1]

Additionally, with claims over neighboring islands and perennial piracy problems, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) has an overarching imperative to develop a "flexible and balanced naval force to provide Malaysia with the widest range of power projection options," [2] an objective that led to the development of a small submarine force. In explaining the rationale behind the program, then Malaysian Defence Minister Najib Razak noted in 2002, "We (Malaysia) have such a large body of water to police. We need submarines because it is a force multiplier. They can appear anywhere and because they are stealth, they are hard to detect. That makes our deterrent value much higher." [3]

Malaysia's Submarine Table

In 2002, Malaysia signed a contract with France for acquisition of two Scorpène-class submarines; additionally, since 2005 Malaysia has been using a refurbished Agosta 70-class boat (ex-Ouessant) based in France for training purposes. The RMN operates seven operational commands, including one fleet and two regional commands (to oversee the four naval areas). The two Scorpènes are stationed at the newly constructed submarine base in Sepanggar, Sabah. [4] The first boat, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was launched in October 2007 and commissioned in January 2009. The second boat, Tun Abdul Razak, was launched in October 2008 and commissioned in November 2009. [5]

In Malaysia, the Scorpènes are classified as Perdana Menteri-class submarines. [6] This class of boats emphasize underwater maneuverability and stealth, with design features including a teardrop or "Albacore" hull form (with fin-mounted hydroplanes and cross-configuration tailplane), and very low acoustic, magnetic, electromagnetic and infrared signatures. [7] Other than "tropicalisation," of the boats involving installation of additional systems to enhance the submarines' ability to operate in the warmer and more saline waters of Southeast Asia, the Malaysian submarines include many of the same features of the earlier boats of this class, though without AIP systems. They are fitted with SUBTICS integrated command and UDS International-supplied weapons control and sonar systems. Another feature that makes these submarines a potent weapons platform is their ability to launch anti-ship SM 39 Exocet missiles (with a range of 50 km/27 n miles) from the 533 mm torpedo tubes while staying submerged.

Malaysia has multiple territorial disputes, most of which are in the maritime domain and bilateral in nature. Malaysia's relations with Singapore-its former province-have been characterized by mutual animosity and suspicion. The islands of Pulau Batu Puteh (Singaporean name is Pedra Branca); Middle Rocks; and South Ledge; which are located at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait, have been a further issue of contention. In 2008, the International Court of Justice declared that Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia. [8] Over time, however, economic interdependence has tempered the relationship. Singapore relies on Malaysia for basic resources such as drinking water, and Malaysia is seeking to profit from Singapore's economic successes. Territorial differences with Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei have also been peacefully resolved. However, Malaysia's claims over the small islets/reefs within the Spratly Islands region are a potential 'flashpoint.' [9] The Spratlys are a group of small islands, coral reefs, and shoals covering 250,000 square kilometers (155,000 square miles) in the southern part of the South China Sea. [10] These waters are home to some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world, and the seabed is believed to contain massive reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources.

Similar to most Southeast Asian countries, currently the main security concern for Malaysia emanates from piracy. [11] The 2012 Q3 International Maritime Bureau report codes the Southeast Asia region and the South China Sea as 70 and 1 for piracy incidents in 2012 (January-September), compared to 54 and 13 incidents in 2011 (January-September). [12] Similarly, another report published by ReCAAP noted that "piracy has tripled in the South China Sea, reaching 30 attacks in the first nine months of the year (2010)." [13]

Apart from France, Malaysia also evinced interest in cooperation with submarine forces of other major navies. In September 2007, RMN held talks with the U.S. Navy for possible cooperation in advanced submarine training and participation in future exercises. The head of the Malaysian delegation First Admiral Dato Jamil Osman noted that RMN is also conducting separate talks for cooperation with the Royal Australian Navy. [14] Further, in January 2008 during the visit of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony to Malaysia, the two countries deliberated on the possibility of extending the bilateral naval cooperation to include submarines forces. [15] The RMN is keen to engage India in submarine operations and training given the Indian Navy's vast experience operating the Scorpène-class boats.

In October 2012, RMN announced that it was building a second Scorpène simulator training facility at the Kota Kinabalu Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) base, which would be open to foreign military personnel to use for training. The new facility is in part a way to reduce costs, since the RMN will no longer need to send its sailors overseas for submarine training. [16]

Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar of the RMN stated that "the focus of the RMN is to ensure that [Malaysia's] existing assets maintain its high degree of readiness in performing its operational duties in protecting the sovereignty of the nation," specifically by upgrading the Service Life Extension Program of existing frigates and corvettes. [17] Admiral Aziz added that the RMN is considering surface missile corvettes and an ASW helicopter to fill in capability gaps. [18]

Future plans for the RMN include extending the life of its four Laksamana-class corvettes, upgrading the ships' weapons systems and sensors, and implementing a refit program for the KD Lekiu and KD Jebat. [19] The RMN estimates that it will not be able to plan for more submarines for at least five more years. [20]

[1] Keith Jacobs, "Royal Malaysian Navy: Central Role in Southeast Asia," Naval Forces VI, 2007, p. 75
[2] "The Royal Malaysian Navy: Prevalence over the Malaysian Maritime Interests," Naval Forces II, 2008, p. 102.
[3] "Malaysia seals US$972 maiden deal to buy submarines," Agence France-Presse, 5 June 2002,
[4] "Malaysia Submarine forces," Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems, 30 March 2010.
[5] "Malaysia Submarine forces," Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems, 30 March 2010.
[6] Marhalim Abas, "Defect found on Royal Malaysian Navy sub," The Malay Mail, 10 February 2010,
[7] "Scorpene," Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems, 10 March 2010.
[8] "Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia/Singapore) Summary of the Judgment of 23 May 2008," International Court of Justice, 23 May 2008,
[9] Joe Havely, "Asia-Pacific Analysis: Flashpoint Spratly," BBC News, 14 February 1999,
[10] To understand the complexity of various countries' territorial claims in the region refer to: Interactive Map of the Spratly Islands, South China Sea,
[11] For more information on maritime security issues in Southeast Asia, refer to "Maritime Bulletin," Maritime Security Programme, Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,; Joshua Ho, "The Security of Sea Lanes in Southeast Asia," Military Technology, volume 29, number 5, May 2005; and J. Ashley Roach, "Enhancing Maritime Security in the Straits of Malacca & Singapore," Journal of International Affairs, volume 59, number 1, Fall 2005.
[12] "Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships," Report for January-September 2012, ICC International Maritime Bureau, October 2012, p. 5.
[13] ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia). For ReCAAP reports see:, "Piracy Spikes in South China Sea," 25 October 2010,
[14] Dzirhan Mahadzir, "Malaysia, USN discuss submarine force co-operation," Jane's Defence Weekly, 26 September 2007.
[15] P. S. Suryanarayana, "India, Malaysia to step up defence ties," The Hindu, 4 January 2008,
[16] "Sabah navy base to be 'world's first' Scorpene training centre," The Malaysian Insider, 15 October 2012,
[17] "Malaysian Naval Chief Says Priority Is Upgrades, but ASW Helos, Corvettes on Shopping List." Jane's Navy International 120, no. 5 (2015), Accessed 30 October 2015,
[18] "Malaysian Naval Chief Says Priority Is Upgrades, but ASW Helos, Corvettes on Shopping List." Jane's Navy International 120, no. 5 (2015), Accessed 30 October 2015,
[19] "Malaysian Naval Chief Says Priority Is Upgrades, but ASW Helos, Corvettes on Shopping List." Jane's Navy International 120, no. 5 (2015), Accessed 30 October 2015,
[20] "Malaysian Naval Chief Says Priority Is Upgrades, but ASW Helos, Corvettes on Shopping List." Jane's Navy International 120, no. 5 (2015), Accessed 30 October 2015,

April 7, 2016
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