Malaysia’s subs for combat, not rescue vessels, says expert

Local residents ride a fishing boat past navy search and rescue ships before the ships depart for the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at a port on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island March 9, 2014. — Reuters pic
Local residents ride a fishing boat past navy search and rescue ships before the ships depart for the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at a port on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island March 9, 2014. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, March 9 — Amid public curiosity and ridicule, a defence expert explained today that the Royal Malaysian Navy's submarines are fitted for combat and could not perform a search and rescue role.

In comparison, the submersible sent by Singapore to help search for the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 is a support-and-rescue vessel.

“Submarines are for warfare, can’t see underwater, can only detect sonar,” the expert told The Malay Mail Online on condition of anonymity.

“Sonar” refers to a method that uses sound waves to navigate, communicate with or detect objects on or under the surface of the water.

There are two types of “sonar” technology: passive sonar that listens for the sound made by other vessels and active sonar, which emits pulses of sounds and listens for echoes.

“The vessel Singapore is sending has equipments to search underwater. It is a relatively new technology that we don't have,” he explained.

According to Singapore's Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen last night, the republic will send the vessel to help find the missing aircraft.

“We have a vessel which is equipped to perform underwater search and can assist in the search and locate operations. It also has divers on the vessel,” Ng told reporters yesterday.

The Navy has two Scorpene class submarines in its fleet, dubbed KD Tunku Abdul Rahman and KD Tun Abdul Razak that cost over RM2 billion each.

The diesel-electric attack submarines can dive to a depth of up to 350 metres and carry a 31-man crew each.

At over 60 metres long, they are also equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.

Meanwhile, Singapore Navy's submersible is attached to the search and rescue vessel MV Swift Rescue.

At only 9.6 metres long, it is operated by a two-man crew and can dive up to 500 metres.

“US vessels that are being deployed could also have the similar technology,” the defence expert added.

“We don’t have the technology to look deep under water, maybe the US does.”

But he also pointed out the challenges in deep-sea searches, noting that the Royal Malaysian Air Force had lost a SkyHawk fighter jet at the South China Sea in 1980s that was never found.

MH370 has been missing for over 40 hours and its location continues to remain a mystery despite a massive search and rescue operation jointly conducted by Malaysian and foreign militaries.

A total of 22 military aircraft are currently retracing the route taken by the Malaysia Airlines plane and a fleet of 40 ships are also plying the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, according to Malaysian Armed Forces.

The craft are mostly Malaysian military, but also include ships and aircraft from the US Navy, the Royal Thai Navy and Air Force, as well as vessels from China and Indonesia.

The search scope was widened further after the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) confirmed its radar sighted a possible attempt by MH370 to turn back midflight.

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