Not all naval ships have to be big to be useful. Home waters maritime security can be adequately prosecuted by smaller, yet increasingly more capable vessels.
While Europe has woken up relatively recently to the resurgence of state-versus-state naval activity, the Asia-Pacific region has for some time been developing into a major maritime theatre. Analysts have often spoken of the 20th century being the era of the Atlantic Ocean and the 21st century being that of the Pacific. Certainly, since the turn of the century, maritime matters in the Asia-Pacific theatre – and their implications for regional and wider global security – have become a central element of the international strategic balance.
Depending on the geographic perspective taken, the Asia-Pacific region is dominated by the Pacific and Indian oceans, with areas of land (ranging from islands of all sizes to the littoral regions of major continents) fitted around the fringes. Within this maritime mass are key international access and choke points and sea lines of communication, sea spaces ranging from vast oceans to intricate littoral waters, critical natural resources, and economic and territorial assets that are subject to disputes between indigenous states.
Alongside the need to bolster national prestige and international standing, disputes over resources and territories have perhaps been the principal driver for a number of countries in the region to seek a substantial uplift in their naval capabilities.
At the high end of the operational scale, the region’s major and medium navies – including Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea (the United States, as the major global naval power, is considered here as a global actor rather than a standalone regional one) – have all been developing complex naval capabilities for deterrent effect and to play a part in contributing to international stability at both regional and global levels. Indeed, some analysts have referred to the existence of a naval arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. However, in the light of the region’s economic significance, at the lower end of the scale there is a requirement amongst these and other navies to also develop constabulary maritime presence to (amongst other things) protect economic and territorial interests.
In this context, navies have been seeking to develop patrol capabilities which offer endurance, extended range, good seakeeping, reliable communications, and capable sensors, along with weapons system fits that are robust, low key, and interchangeable. While destroyers and frigates remain the preserve, in the region, of those navies seeking to operate at the higher end of the spectrum, for other navies seeking to boost constabulary presence corvettes and, especially, offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) are increasingly coming to be a platform of choice.
What’s in a name?
Writing in his book The Future of Sea Power in 1990, as the strategic focus shifted from the European theatre to other parts of the world, Professor Eric Grove defined a corvette as a “small sea-going combatant of 500 to 1,750 tons of limited endurance and capability; best employed in coastal escort and patrol work and relatively low-level operations, although with some potential for higher endurance operations in the absence of more capable units; not usually air capable.”
It is widely recognised that different ship types, across many navies, have shown a trend generally for increasing in size as new classes are introduced. Moreover, writing in his 2004 book Seapower: a Guide for the Twenty-First Century, Professor Geoffrey Till noted that many navies, including those in the Asia-Pacific region, had seen step-ups in force structure composition as (for example) fast attack craft fleets were replaced with corvettes or frigates.
It is notable that OPVs per se were missing from such discussions. Indeed, OPVs seem to be a relatively new concept in terms of typology, capability, and operations. Grove’s definition arguably covered in large part the role and capabilities of patrol vessels. However, today – as high-end naval capabilities have become more expensive and have limited the number of such platforms as a result – a requirement has emerged to support constabulary tasks at distance with a lower-end platform. This has mandated a need for patrol vessel capabilities with offshore or even oceanic, rather than coastal, range and endurance.
Grove also argued that, for navies seeking constabulary capability, small but relatively high endurance vessels with very limited armament and probably some helicopter capability were the best solution. This hinted at the emergence of a requirement for offshore patrol capability. Today, such vessels require: greater endurance; organic aviation (currently a helicopter, but increasingly likely tomorrow an unmanned aerial vehicle?) to conduct maritime security operations. They can be supported by large, robust sea boats for at-sea interdiction; and perhaps slightly greater high-end sensors and weapons, as the platforms’ extended reach and the blurring of lines within both tasks undertaken and risks faced at sea means that the possibility of confrontation is slightly higher. Grove added that such vessels required toughness, sea-keeping, and manoeuvring capability in particular to be able to deal with clashes over fisheries. This comment remains very relevant for naval – and coastguard – forces operating today in the Asia-Pacific region, given the persisting disputes over conflicting resource and territory claims.
Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Asian Military Review (AMR) that the increasingly complex maritime environment is seeing Asia-Pacific navies – like those in other regions – having to balance requirements and resources. “Larger navies with more blue-water ambitions are inevitably focusing on more capable platforms,” he said. “Some, like the South Korean navy, with both long-range ambitions and a very particular challenge closer to home, are trying to do both.”
“The smaller navies,” Childs continued, “with fewer resources, but still with significant bodies of water and dispersed territories to patrol, need affordable platforms in sufficient numbers.”
Increasing the capabilities of an OPV causes an interesting conundrum as, of course, a primary driver for many navies investing in OPVs has been affordability when compared to corvettes or frigates. Maritime surveillance and security tasks are core business for OPVs, but if regional capability build-ups encourage navies to consider larger gun or even compact anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability fits for their OPVs, then this drives up cost as well as blurs lines between ship typology and task.
What’s in a navy?
When talking about the low-end constabulary presence provided by OPVs in particular, it is notable that many of the higher-end Asia-Pacific navies do not possess OPVs. In terms of Japan, for example, the surface fleet of its navy – the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) – is dominated by destroyers. However, Japan’s coastguard operates several different classes of large patrol vessel. One of the most recent to arrive is the Taketomi class: this programme has delivered 10 of these 1,700-tonne vessels to date, with more understood to be planned. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a number of the Taketomi ships are dedicated to patrolling waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) force structure similarly is full of surface escorts such as destroyers and frigates. However, it also operates the 1,500-tonne Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette. With the first ship commissioned in March 2013, reports in late 2017 suggest that more than 35 are now in service.
Patrol vessel classes are found within China’s coastguard inventory. Of particular note here is the programme to deliver 10,000-tonne cutters. The first ship deployed on operations in 2015, and build on the second-in-class finished in early 2016. As has been noted in analytical commentary, these coastguard cutters are similar in size to the US Navy’s CG 47 Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers and DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
While the US Coast Guard (USCG) is one of the most widely deployed maritime forces in the world, its eight Legend-class National Security Cutters, which began entering service in 2008, displace at full load only 4,500 tonnes. Builder Huntington Ingalls Industries reported that the last-in-class Legend cutter, Midgett, was launched on 22 November 2017.
Western navies are increasingly having to blur the boundaries between ship types as reduced force numbers drive the development of more multipurpose vessels (which in turn drives up cost, drives down numbers, and places even-greater emphasis on multi-role requirements). Yet in the Asia-Pacific region, it seems that the overall build-up in naval and coastguard capabilities is enabling countries to draw clear differences between platforms acquired for higher-end operations and those procured to provide constabulary patrol capability. However, while deploying coastguard – rather than naval – platforms in waters where tensions exist over territorial rights could be seen as part of risk reduction strategies, it seems possible that some smaller regional coastguard – and naval – forces would be deterred by the presence of a 10,000-tonne coastguard platform.
In terms of both corvettes and OPVs, India is a prominent example of an Asia-Pacific country developing several new programmes. The Indian Navy operates five classes of corvette, the newest being the 3,500-tonne Kamorta class. Four have been built to date by Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (RSE), with third ship Kiltan commissioned in October 2017. Reports suggest the class is focused on ASW activity.
The Indian Coast Guard operates at least five different OPV classes. One of the most prominent developments here is the Sankalp-class programme. At least eight of these 2,350-tonne OPVs are to be delivered, with the most recent – ship seven, Shaurya – commissioned in August 2017. India’s focus on developing constabulary platforms with a bit of punch was sharpened by the 2008 sea-based terror attack on Mumbai.
Singapore’s latest corvettes – its planned class of eight Independence littoral mission vessels (LMVs) – will help meet what is a significant patrol task for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). As well as Singapore sitting alongside the strategically critical international chokepoint of the Malacca Strait, the LMVs’ patrol capacity will be required in the Singapore Strait, which remains a source of counter-piracy concern for regional security stakeholders. However, the fact that the LMVs will carry MBDA’s VL MICA surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and a 76mm Leonardo/Oto Melara gun demonstrates their ability to contribute to higher-end tasks, too. Defence minister Dr Ng Eng Hen has stated that the LMVs, built by Singapore Technologies Marine (ST Marine) provide “a quantum leap” in capability for the RSN. November 2017 saw ships two and three (RSS Sovereignty and RSS Unity) commissioned into service. According to Singapore’s defence ministry, the other five ships are expected to be operational by 2020.
Indonesia sits in a strategically significant position in the southeast Asian region, and is seeking to strengthen its naval capability to increase its regional influence and global standing. Of note here are its Damen-designed four Sigma 9113 Diponegoro-class and four Sigma 10514 Perusak Kawai Rudal (PKR) corvettes. Fitted with several higher-end systems, such as the Thales Tacticos combat management system (CMS), the Thales Kingclip hull-mounted sonar, and (in the case of the PKR platforms) the Thales SMART-S Mk2 3-D air/surface search radar, these platforms seem focused towards frigate-type operations, including ASW. According to Damen, for the PKR frigates: “Their primary mission is anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. However, they are also equipped for maritime security, search and rescue, and humanitarian support tasks.”
More is more?
In terms of Asia-Pacific platforms growing in size and numbers, two examples are notable.
First, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is procuring 12 new 80m, 1,800-tonne, steel-hulled OPVs to replace its 13 in-service 57m, 300-tonne Armidale-class ships. Particularly to meet a requirement to manage maritime migration in traditionally heavy seas off northwest Australia, the Armidales have been worked very hard. The new platforms will bring more flexibility, improved sea-keeping, and scope for a greater range of capabilities, with such a step-up in capability enabled in large part by the larger size.
With the OPVs to be delivered under Project Sea 1180, the Australian government announced in November 2017 that German shipyard Lürssen would be the prime contractor.
The co-operative nature of maritime security operations is reflected in the OPVs’ build programme. The programme will use Lürssen’s OPV 80 design. The ships will be built at two sites in Australia: Adelaide, South Australia (by state-owned company ASC shipbuilding); and Henderson Maritime Precinct, Western Australia (prospectively using the facilities and capabilities of Austal and CIVMEC).
In announcing Lürssen’s downselection, defence minister Marise Payne said the OPVs would provide a “significant capability leap forward”. The ships “will conduct enhanced patrol and intelligence and surveillance missions, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and border protection missions,” the minister stated.
An Australian defence department spokesperson told AMR that the new OPVs will be “capable of extended operations”. The ships also will boost Australia’s capacity to conduct border security, maritime resource protection, and military patrol and response operations, the spokesperson continued. “Although primarily focused on border security missions, these larger vessels will have enhanced range and endurance for more extended operations across Australia’s demanding maritime environment, incorporating the Australian Search and Rescue Region, Exclusive Economic Zone, and further abroad if required.”
In terms of meeting maritime security requirements, the OPVs will carry a 40mm gun and three 8.4m sea boats, and will also embark a range of aerial, surface, and sub-surface unmanned systems. Many navies today are seeking to improve capability and reduce cost by increasing system commonality across their respective platforms. This trend is reflected here, with the RAN’s new OPVs to receive the Saab 9LV CMS that is already fitted to other RAN platforms, such as its eight MEKO 200 Anzac frigates and two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships.
Lürssen’s OPV 80 design has already been used for the Royal Brunei Navy’s four Darussalam-class PV 80 OPVs. According to reports, the design will be adapted to meet Australian requirements. The nature of such adaptations, though, has yet to be revealed. The defence department spokesperson told AMR that “The details of the tendered OPV design are part of ongoing contract negotiations between the Commonwealth of Australia and Lürssen and as such, it would be inappropriate for Defence to disclose this information at this time.”
Production work on the first OPV will commence in the fourth quarter of 2018, with the ship entering service in 2021. “Further schedule details are still under negotiation,” the defence department spokesperson added.
Childs referred to the Sea 1180 Project as delivering “perhaps the most significant OPV programme” in the region. What he sees as “a step-change in sea-keeping and endurance” will provide “increased persistence, [and] greater … physical presence and situational awareness”.
Second, in terms of increasing platform numbers, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) is reflecting a trend growing steadily amongst other Western navies. Across the world, navies from countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all looking to increase platform numbers for certain programmes, recognising that current force levels offer insufficient capacity to meet growing tasks. In Australia’s case, this is in its future frigate programme, where its eight Anzac ships will be replaced by nine new platforms. For New Zealand, its navy is considering procurement of a third Otago-class OPV.
A New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson told AMR that “[the] possible project to acquire a third OPV is in the very early stages of capability definition. The government is yet to be presented with any options or proposed timeframes for delivery.”
“However,” the spokesperson continued, “the intent would be to increase New Zealand capability for maritime patrol tasks in the Southern Ocean.” According to its 2016 defence white paper, New Zealand could give this third ship ice-strengthened capability, which would help support presence in both Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters.