Submarines: Stuck On The Surface


February 25, 2010: Five months ago, Malaysia received the first (the "Tunku Abdul Rahman") of two Scorpene class subs it purchased from France. This was supposed to be followed by some more testing. The "tropical water trials" were to have been completed last month. But shortly after the Scorpene boat arrived, several defective components were discovered (in air conditioning and diving equipment). It took over three months to get that fixed, and during that time, the plumbing problems prevented the boat from submerging. The tropical water trials are to begin before the end of the month. If the trials are successful, the sub will enter active service in May. The second Malaysian Scorpene boat will undergo initial trials in France this year.

The Tunku Abdul Rahman already has plenty of experience with long voyages, just getting to Malaysia. The voyage from France was 54 days long, with several stops along the way. Not all 54 days were at sea, but 42 (32 submerged, ten on the surface) were, and that's an extraordinary long voyage (over 10,000 kilometers) for a sub of this size (under 2,000 tons). The stress of this trip apparently led to the problems discovered when the boat arrived in Malaysia.

These are basically coastal subs, built to defend local waters. In peacetime, these boats rarely stay at sea for more than a week at a time. These boats have only one toilet, and limited fresh water supplies. Thus the sailors got about one shower a week. There is also no proper kitchen, and the crew subsisted on prepared meals, that were boiled before eating (sort of super MREs). Thus, after passing through the Suez Canal, the "Tunku Abdul Rahman" stopped at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and then Djibouti. The longest stretch was from there to Cochin (Kochi) in southern India, where there was a three day layover. From there, the boat made the final leg of its voyage straight to Malaysia.

The Scorpene is a modern French-Spanish diesel-electric submarine (a variant uses air-independent propulsion) that displaces 1,700 tons, has a top speed of 37 kilometers per hour, and is armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes with eighteen torpedoes or SM.39 Exocet anti-ship missiles. Each sub has a crew of 31. The boat is 66 meters (205 feet) long and 6.2 meters (19 feet wide). There are two decks, with the bottom one used for fuel, batteries and stores. Scorpenes are built to handle a 50 day cruise, but that's the max, and it takes a lot out of the crew, and the boat.

In a similar situation, a Swedish Gotland class (1,500 tons, 200 feet long, crew of 25) boat had to travel from Sweden to San Diego, California (via the Panama Canal). Instead of sending the sub across the Atlantic (a nastier stretch of water than the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean), the sub was loaded on a semi-submersible (so the vessel being carried can be "floated" aboard) ship transport, and carried to California. The Gotland stayed there for two years to help train the U.S. Navy to better cope with diesel-electric subs.