Freedom of navigation and ‘presence’ missions in response to territorial disputes with the Peoples Republic of China, fishery patrols and interdiction of migrants at sea are among the operational requirements for Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and corvettes in the Asia-Pacific.
Asia-Pacific navies and other maritime forces assign their OPVs to missions in territorial/brown waters and beyond; well into the blue water domain. A New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) spokesperson provided AMR with one unique insight of recent and planned OPV operations, from the perspective of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s HMNZS Otago and HMNZS Wellington ‘Protector’ class OPVs. From June 2016 to October 2016, HMNZS Otago conducted two separate fishery patrols and went on a re-supply mission. The spokesperson added: “From 3rd February to 20th February 2017, (she) re-supplied the Campbell and Auckland islands in the sub-Antarctic, in support of the Department of Conservation and MetService (the New Zealand meteorological service). (She) also helped the Defence Technology Agency launch a wave buoy to gather data on the characteristics of Southern Ocean waves to support operations in the area and (in the) Ross Sea.” Concurrently, HMNZS Wellington was deployed to the Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia during July 2016 and August 2016, and was tasked with supporting the NZDF’s response to the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016. “(She) patrolled the Southern Ocean and New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone between November 2016 and January. Throughout February and March, HMNZS Wellington conducted patrols along the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island,” the spokesperson noted.
On 22nd June HMNZS Otago was scheduled to depart on a seven-week deployment into the Pacific: “Operation CALYPSO is the overarching mission name for operations in support of our Pacific neighbours and often involves sub-operations and missions. This deployment will include providing support to the Ministry for Primary Industries; Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Forum Fisheries Agency. During the deployment HMNZS Otago will conduct port visits to Nouméa (New Caledonia) and Port Villa (Vanuatu), and will participate in the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal,” the spokesperson added. Reflecting on the operating tempo and scope of missions, of this regions’ OPVs and even corvettes in the adjacent maritime space, Dirk Malgowski, the managing director of Lürssen’s defence division, noted the driving demand for any naval vessel user is to fulfil the needs and missions in the dedicated sea area they are presented with: “We consider this demand is strong.” Mr. Malgowski noted technical trends have emerged for OPVs, as well as corvettes, including, “value-for-money solutions, seaworthy platforms, effective mission equipment, and reliable, flexible and durable designs with lifecycle support for professional users.” He continued that: “Lürssen has proven very capable of delivering on these requirements and this is something we know is appreciated by the entire cross section of users of our ship designs.”
One of the major regional programmes in the OPV and corvette domains is Phase I of the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) Sea-1180 programme. Under this programme twelve new OPVs will replace and improve upon the capability delivered by the service’s 13 ‘Armidale’ class OPVs. According to the Australian Department of Defence, the primary role for the new OPV will be “to undertake constabulary missions, with the vessel serving as the primary Australian Defence Force asset for maritime patrol and response duties.” Three prospective designers for the OPVs were shortlisted as of April 2016 namely: Damen, Fassmer and Lürssen.
While European shipbuilders are competing to lead the build of the twelve new OPVs, the programme is also strengthening Australia’s naval shipbuilding sector. Accordingly, Lürssen is working with two experienced Australian companies; ASC Shipbuilding and Forgacs/Civmec, as its partners. Mr. Malgowski, pointed out “that in co-operation with the major subcontractors L3 Australia, Penske Power Systems and Saab Australia, they will construct the twelve vessels in Australia and will maximise the participation of Australian suppliers at all times.” He further noted that, with this approach, “Lürssen combines its proven, ready-to-build design with a local construction and industry development programme and maximises involvement of Australian companies for the benefit of the RAN. (The company) will strengthen the Australian naval shipbuilding sector by transferring Lürssen’s skills to Australia and investing in a regional export base to service growing demand in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Fassmer and Austal have joined as AustalFassmer to compete to deliver Australia´s future OPVs. The AustalFassmer team expects to provide the well-proven Fassmer OPV-80 design tailored to RAN requirements. Simon Riddle, the general manager for marine solutions, and navy and water jet sales at Wärtsilä, noted: “We are following this programme with AustalFassmer.” The Competitive Evaluation Process for the Sea-1180 Phase-I initiative commenced in late 2015 and will conclude with second pass government approval expected in the third quarter of this year. This will also announce the contract down selection to one industry designer. The winning team is expected to commence construction in Adelaide in 2018 for the first two OPVs, with first vessel delivery forecast for 2021, according to the Australian Department of Defence.
Also in the planning phase, the government of New Zealand has announced its intention to add an ice-strengthened vessel to its two-strong fleet of OPVs (see above). This will provide an enhanced capability to conduct sea patrols in the Southern Ocean. The NZDF spokesperson continued that “acquisition of an ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel for Southern Ocean operations will take place in the early 2020s.” Beyond plans on paper, and elsewhere in the region, another OPV supplier, BAE Systems, is slowly expanding its presence in the Asia-Pacific OPV market with its 90 metre/m (295 feet/ft) long vessel offering. The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) accepted its first such OPV, the HTMS Krabi, from state-owned Bangkok Dock, built under a licensing agreement with BAE Systems, in 2013. In January 2016, BAE Systems signed a new contract with Bangkok Dock to assist in the licensed construction of the second ‘Krabi’ class OPV for the Royal Thai Navy. Under this latest agreement, BAE Systems is providing engineering support and advice during construction of the vessel in Thailand. The keel laying ceremony for the second OPV was held on 23rd June at the RTN’s Mahidol Adulyadej Naval Dockyard in Sattahip, southern Thailand, a facility managed by Bangkok Dock. This second OPV will be equipped with Thales’ Tacticos combat management system. Furthermore, Thales is responsible for integrating the ship’s subsystems including its Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon family active radar homing Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs).
The RTN’s equipping of this OPV with the RGM-84 is of interest from two perspectives: Firstly, this weapon bolsters reinforces the notion that these ships can also fight at sea when necessary. Next, was the selection of the venerable AGM-84, compared to perhaps a more current SSM offering from MBDA or another supplier. Indeed, Katie Kelly, a spokesperson at Boeing’s global strike weapons and missile systems business, and Jamie Cosgrove, a spokesperson at the US Naval Air Systems Command, stated that “the Harpoon weapons system has received ten tactical upgrades. The Harpoon is currently on its fifth-generation seeker.” Furthermore, the missile’s capabilities include a handsome range in excess of 67 nautical miles/nm (124 kilometres/km).
Nevertheless, there is a blurring of lines between ship classes and designations in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. The eight vessels of the Royal Singapore Navy’s (RSN) ‘Independence’ class Littoral Mission Vessel, closely mirror the characteristics of other navies’ OPVs. According to the RSN the LMV displaces 1250 tonnes, closely mirroring the ships of the ‘Krabi’ class. This March, ST Marine launched the fourth ‘Independence’ class vessel on order for RSN. The ship will be the future RSS Justice and is part of a contract for eight LMVs signed between ST Marine and the Singapore Ministry of Defence in 2013. While the lead ship of the class, RSS Independence was commissioned on 5th May , her sisters the RSS Sovereignty and RSS Unity are undergoing sea trials. The RSS Justice is expected to be fully operational by 2018, and the RSN is currently scheduled to operate all eight ‘Independence’ class ships by 2020.
Below the Waterline
Significant trends are occurring in the propulsion and engineering sectors for regional OPV and corvette fleets. Mr. Riddle, observed that “navies and coastguards are adjusting their requirements for speed in order to meet lower power (requirements) and lower capital expenditures for OPVs with displacements of between 500 and 3500 tonnes. Guaranteed availability and lower operational costs are starting to become prevalent for the OPV market.”
George Awiszus, the director of military marine marketing at General Electrics’ marine solutions business, also commented on the maximum speed differences between most OPVs and other classes, in particular corvettes. He noted that his division’s “value proposition is aligned in good part with the need for speed, power density and proven global experience and region support. The OPV opportunities in (the Asia-Pacific) seem to presently be for lower speeds. However, things do and often change. In periods of potential conflict and tension, such is the case now in the Asia-Pacific region, I have seen navies look at all vessels to have some form of lethality and need for speed to support challenging maritime objectives; so things may change.” Anticipating change, and opportunity, in the region’s propulsion market, Mr. Awiszus added: “We are watching the (Republic of China) procurement of follow-on and upgraded ‘Tuo Chiang’ class corvettes which have a need for a maximum speed of greater than 30 knots (55.6 kilometres-per-hour) for their larger follow-on units.”
Construction and other contracting activities are similarly brisk in the corvette sector. Western nations are increasingly designing corvettes with their sight on exports, with these ships being built in part, or in whole, in their customers’ home nation shipyards. At the same time, regional customers are receiving ships from emerging suppliers, including the People’s Republic of China.
Corvettes in service in the Asia-Pacific, in planning or under construction tend to be between 500 tonnes to 2500 tonnes displacement; another instance of blurring the lines between some larger, more expensive ships such as frigates or destroyers, but with an important performance discriminator from OPVs and other ship classes, chiefly their increased maximum speed. For instance, the first Republic of China Navy (ROCN) ‘Tuo Jiang’ class corvettes of an expected class of twelve 500-tonne displacement ships, has a maximum speed of 43 knots (79.6km/h). What these smaller corvettes provide in terms of increased speed and economy (smaller size and decreased displacement) they lose in station keeping other capabilities needed for blue water scenarios.
A twist on one existing corvette design is evident in the first two ships of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) Second Generation Patrol Vessel/Littoral Combat Ship (SGPV/LCS) class. This February Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS) laid down the keel for a second SGPV-LCS on order for the RMN. The vessel is the second of six 3000-tonne displacement ships ordered under a $2 billion contract. The programme’s first-of-class was laid down in March 2016. The SGPV-LCS is derived from the French shipbuilder DCNS’ ‘Gowind 2500’ class corvette. In another representative regional development, Bangladesh received two ‘Swadhinota’ class corvettes, BNS Shadhinota and BNS Prottoy, from China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation in December 2015. Media reports confirmed that Bangladesh has ordered an additional two ‘Swadhinota’ class corvettes, and that construction of these ships commenced in the PRC last August.
In 2015, the Strategic Defence Intelligence consultancy stated corvettes will account for the largest spending in the naval surface combatants market, holding 27 percent of this total over the next ten years. The ability of both OPVs and corvette to perform many valuable roles will help in no small measure to propel this demand. Much as the region has demonstrated to date, a high demand for these vessels has been witnessed in the Asia-Pacific, and this is a trend which looks set to continue in the coming years.