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Chinese Submarines Are Giving The Bangladesh Navy A Boost

February 12, 2018

Archival photo of a Romeo-class submarine, a vessel that was subsequently copied by Chinese shipyards. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As advanced weapons continue pouring into South Asia one local naval arm just acquired a modest undersea warfare option. Bangladesh, with its confusing borders and sweatshop fueled industrialization, has finally caught up with its embittered neighbors India and Pakistan when it comes to submarines. But in a small way.

When Dhaka commissioned its two Ming-class boats last year these represented an improvement of its maritime firepower. The submarines it got from China are old, however, although enhanced with modernized systems. The regional consequences of having these are far from worrisome.

Reports of a possible submarine sale to Bangladesh first emerged in 2013. These were confirmed by 2016 when two Type 035G’s were delivered and subsequently commissioned in March 2017 as the BNS Nabajatra and the BNS Joyjatra. The models are Ming-class submarines manufactured in northeast China for the past 40 years. According to a dossier published by Forecast International, the Mings are reverse engineered from Soviet Project 633 or Romeo-class submarines sent to Beijing before the 1962 split. But the Chinese only succeeded in copying them by 1971 and production continued for decades after. The completed Mings could have numbered more than a hundred.

During the Cold War Bulgaria, Egypt, and Syria received a few Romeos each while North Korea became its most prolific operator. The Ming-class formed the bulk of China’s underwater navy and soon fell behind the curve as its domestic industrial base stagnated. By the 1970s these were considered obsolete compared to Western European and Soviet designs. But the years of experience from assembling them in state-owned shipyards meant new Mings were still being launched until the 1990s and the last were reportedly completed between 1996 and 2001.

The acquisition of Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines coupled with the steady modernization of the entire PLAN forced the Mings to be retired. Apparently, these were made available for paying customers on a tight budget who can order an export variant called the Type 035G carrying French engines, sonar, and possibly armaments–or Chinese copies of these. It’s claimed the Type 035G is capable of launching anti-ship missiles, although this was never proven. Its armament is modest, with six torpedo tubes on the bow and two more on the stern, and its vulnerability to current ASW systems are a serious concern.

The Bangladesh Navy’s current assets are made up of small littoral warships and the institution exists to police the vast Bay of Bengal. Although Dhaka and New Delhi enjoy warm ties, Bangladesh’s geopolitics are defined by an unwillingness to join India’s orbit, hence it often seeks arms from China. This policy remains in practice even if Dhaka also nurtures military ties with Russia and Turkey. Another underlying motive for a stronger naval fleet isn’t to confront India, but deter Myanmar’s encroachment on its exclusive economic zone or EEZ.

Yet the two Bangladeshi submarines won’t pose any direct threat to either India or Myanmar and imagining such is foolish. Even the choice of Mings is quite suspect. Pakistan and Thailand are acquiring their own Chinese-made submarines but these are newer models. What Bangladesh might be aspiring for are budget options for policing its own waters and to nurture a small batch of experienced submariners who may then operate more capable models in the mid-to-late 2020s.

It’s interesting to imagine how the Bangladesh Navy upgrades its submarine fleet and whether it will choose another Chinese diesel-electric or go for a foreign model–the suppliers in Asia and Europe are plentiful anyway. For Bangladesh to try and assemble these in a local yard shouldn’t be ruled out.

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