Bangladesh Navy begins its journey as a “three-dimensional force” as two submarines were commissioned on March 12 at a special ceremony in the area adjacent to Chittagong naval jetty. Inaugurated the two submarines — BN Nabajatra and BN Joyjatra — at the ceremony, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the government has already taken various short- and long-term plans to build Bangladesh Navy as a three-dimensional force by 2030. “The day is very much special day, not only for Bangladesh Navy or Bangladesh Armed forces but also for entire Bangladesh,” Sheikh Hasina said.
The strategic allure of possessing a submarine is not difficult to understand. A navy that can field a subsurface capability wields a powerful deterrent against any foe that might seek to deploy maritime forces against it. Even the dated Ming can be a lethal and stealthy asset in Bangladesh’s congested littorals in the Bay of Bengal. However, the Bangladesh Navy’s limited maintenance capability and low enlisted technical education almost certainly doom these submarines to pier-queen status. Perhaps the best way to achieve the strategic effect desired would be for Bangladesh Navy to construct covered submarine pens, employing a sort of fleet-in-being strategy in which Bangladeshi submarines in the Bay of Bengal are always possible, but not necessarily confirmed or observed.
Maritime Strategy of Bangladesh
MARITIME strategy is the set of principles that govern a maritime war, in which the sea is a substantial factor. Naval strategy is but that part of national strategy which determines the movement of the fleet, in time of war. Maritime strategy determines how and what part of the fleet must be engaged in relation to the land and air strategy.
Bangladesh is a maritime country with 711 KM of coast line at the vertex of the Bay of Bengal with India and Myanmar on her three sides. It is a country of 150 million people living in an area of 56,000 square miles, making it the world’s most densely populated area. The land mass is not sufficient to provide food and wealth for this vast population so the Bay of Bengal is very vital for providing protein and natural resources for this huge nation. On the other hand, 20% of the entire living resources and 80% of non-living resources are available at the bottom of the sea. The scientists have discovered half a million various types of living and non-living resources under the sea. Therefore, there will be ever-increasing dependence on the seas. The geologists found out that the most valuable assets are all under the sea – two billion tons of fish are being consumed by human beings every year. We can foresee that the powerful maritime countries would most likely entangle themselves in maritime conflict for controlling the vast seas in the near future.
In 2012 and 2014, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunals handed down rulings on maritime boundaries that stood as points of friction between Bangladesh and its neighbors, Myanmar and India. The rulings affirmed Bangladesh’s claims to over 111,000 square kilometers of sea, as well as contested areas of the continental shelf. Had the disputes not been settled in a legal forum, Bangladesh would have had no reasonable expectation of contesting India’s claims at sea, and might have even struggled against the constabulary navy of Myanmar. Even with the awarded maritime area, Bangladesh’s access to the high seas does depend largely on its good relations with its neighbors, and its geography makes it highly vulnerable to blockade from the sea, as was evidenced in the 1971 war against Pakistan. Prime Minister Hasina’s 2016 call to “believe in the spirit of the Liberation War” could be equal parts patriotic exhortation and call to establish a developed naval deterrent force to protect its waters and rapidly expanding maritime trade.
Given the peaceful resolution of the previously existing maritime disputes, the Ming acquisition may have been made simply out of desire for an improved navy to support Bangladesh’s burgeoning maritime trade. It is unclear what, if any, perceived threat might be prompting the Bangladesh Navy’s push for submarine capability. Given the overwhelming relative strength of the Indian Navy, it would seem that if these submarines were a strategic signal to a regional navy, it would have to be Myanmar, which has also obtained its more modern naval platforms from China and has previously alarmed Bangladesh with large military build-ups along their shared border. Alternatively, the purchase may have been pushed from the Chinese side, given PLAN interest in increased engagement in Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean writ large.
In order to further intensify surveillance in the Bay of Bengal and enhance the force’s combat capability, Bangladesh Navy on December 22 received the two China made submarines. Earlier on November 14, Rear Admiral Liu Zizhu on behalf of the Chinese government handed over the submarines to Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Mohammad Nizamuddin Ahmed at a ceremony held at Liaonan shipyard in China. Both the submarines are 76 metres long, 7.6 metres wide and are equipped with torpedoes and mines which are capable of attacking enemy warships and submarines.
Bangladesh acquired the Chinese submarines in a 2013 deal valued at $203 million. Unable to afford more advanced Chinese Yuan– and Russian Kilo-class vessels, Dhaka opted for the Type 035Bs at a discount. The 1970s-era submarines were primarily used by China as training vessels in the 1990s and “were considered not to be successful,” though they’ve subsequently been outfitted with more advanced torpedoes and sonar.
How Effective Type 035 Submarines?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh must have the preparation to give a befitting reply if it is attacked by anyone although it is a peace-loving nation. “We never want to get engaged in any war with anyone, but if anyone attacks us we want to give them a befitting reply…we must have the preparation all the time…we’re doing whatever necessary keeping that in mind.” But how are these submarines effective to fulfill the purpose?
The Type 035 submarine (NATO reporting name: Ming-class) is a class of diesel-electric submarines of the Chinese Navy. The Type 035 is a heavily improved redesign of the older Type 033 Romeo-class submarine, which were built in China from 1962 to 1984. In 1963, under the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, the Soviet Union passed to China the necessary design details in order to produce Romeo-class submarines. The Chinese variant became known as the Type 033 Romeo-class, of which China built a total of 84 between 1962 and 1984. During 1970s, China’s ambition to create an indigenous submarine industry lead to the commissioning of Wuhan Ship Development and Design Institute (701 Institute) to design and build an improved submarine based on the Type 033 hull, named the Type 035 Ming-class. Two Type 035 boats were complete by 1974. Yet further improvements were deemed necessary and by the early 1980s a new and improved design, named the Type 035A Ming-class were produced. The first of these improved “A” models entered service in 1982, with three more under construction. The latter three boats were completed and commissioned by 1990.
The Type 035G Ming-class is the most numerous variant. A total of 12 were built and commissioned between 1990 and 1999. They were built with further improvements, especially in terms of noise reduction, weapons, sensors and crew living standards. The PLAN refer to this sub-class as, “new wine in an old bottle”. Two boats of the Type 035A were upgraded to same standard as the Type 035G. The most modern design variant is the Type 035B Ming-class, which features a redesigned conning tower and portions of the hull, giving it a very similar appearance to the newer Type 039 submarines. Type 035B are capable of launching land attack cruise missile from their torpedo tubes. A total of four boats were commissioned between 2000 and 2003.
However, Bangladesh’s geography is one of the reasons why questions and speculations have been raised regarding this purchase. Bangladesh is almost entirely surrounded by the territory of India and has only a small border with Myanmar. A number of Indian observers have interpreted the Chinese supply of submarines to Bangladesh as part of China’s policy on “encirclement” of India.
Russian military expert, Vasily Kashin said, the two submarines purchased by Bangladesh are modernized 035 project version subs. They were constructed in the 1970s and were considered not to be successful. After modernizing the 035G project subs were equipped with new torpedoes and sonar stations copied from the French sonars. The expert further said that lack of experience of the Bangladesh Navy and their possession of the obsolete 035G submarines make them an easy target for a more advanced Indian Navy in case such a situation arises. Thus, the Indian discontent is not due to the supply of this particular submarine, but it is due to the fact that Bangladesh is strengthening its military using Chinese weapons. In addition to the submarines, Bangladesh had also purchased Chinese project 056 corvettes. The expert also added that there are reports that they had also purchased frigates and there are numerous contracts in recent years for the supply of military equipment to the army and the air force. Kashin also said that perhaps acquisition of the submarines was done out of prestige considerations. In recent years, many ASEAN countries have purchased submarines. At some point, Myanmar also considered buying them but abandoned the plan due to the lack of funds. “However, a number of other ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia have already formed their submarine fleets, or like Thailand are planning to create one soon. Perhaps, Bangladesh does not want to stay behind them too much,” the expert concluded.
What is political strategy?
Unlike India’s better-sheltered neighbors, Bangladesh has enjoyed strong ties with Beijing for decades. In 2005, China overtook India as the country’s top trading partner while Bangladesh accounted for 96 percent of the more than $1 billion in remittances China received from South Asia in 2014. A 2015 Pew survey showed 77 percent of Bangladeshis polled with a favorable view of China. Arguably the most robust area of cooperation has been defense trade. Between 2011 and 2015 Bangladesh was the second-largest recipient of Chinese arms in the world (following Pakistan), with Beijing supplying over 80 percent of its arms imports over the past decade. In late 2015, Bangladesh took delivery of two Durjoy-class large patrol craft, scaled-down versions of China’s Type 056 corvette. Two more are under construction in China, which has pledged to help build up an additional four in Bangladesh.
Yet, there are two reasons the submarine sale stands out. First, after decades of operating as a localized force largely limited to the Western Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has begun spreading its wings in the Indian Ocean. In January 2016, a Bangladesh official told Reuters “Bangladesh has never hosted a naval ship from China and has no plans to.” Weeks later, two Chinese guided-missile frigates and a supply ship docked at Chittagong before conducting drills with the Bangladesh Navy. In just the past five years, Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines began their first regular patrols of the Indian Ocean. Their relevance to the PLAN’s rotating anti-piracy deployment in Indian Ocean, begun in 2008, has been questioned by Delhi, as has their peculiar schedule of port calls.
Second, with China outmaneuvering India in several regional capitals in recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to retake the initiative in India’s backyard, as evidenced by his signature “Neighborhood First” policy. Amid reports Beijing has offered to train Bangladesh submarine crews at its base on Hainan Island, last week we learned Delhi is trying to persuade Dhaka to instead send them to its premier submarine academy at Visakhapatnam.
In a sign of the growing importance Delhi attaches to bilateral relations, Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar traveled to Bangladesh in 2015 and 2016. The exchanges were required to keep pace with Beijing, which welcomed Bangladesh’s prime minister and president in 2015. More significantly, in October 2016 President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader in 30 years to visit Bangladesh.
Writer: Journalist and geopolitical analyst.