Several diverse security threats have formed a catalyst for unprecedented naval expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. These threats include proactive action by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in support of its maritime claims, piracy and the smuggling of narcotics and people.
Steve Vickers, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong-based political and corporate risk consultancy SVA, emphasises the risks posed by resurgent maritime crime in the waters of the Asia-Pacific. Mr. Vickers says that concerted action by well-equipped maritime forces is a proven effective countermeasure. “It is clear that there is a notable up-tick of piracy in this region. The situation, though not unprecedented, is similar to piracy levels witnessed in the 1990s, prior to the co-ordinated crackdown by regional navies.” Twenty years ago Asia-Pacific navies still relied mainly upon foreign shipyards for the supply of new warships, but nowadays it is regional shipbuilders which are both boosting regional naval orders of battle and, increasingly, scrutinising overseas markets for customers.
Singapore’s ST Marine provides a range of very modern surface platforms to the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), and is currently working on the first two of a projected eight new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) which have been designated as the ‘Independence’ class Littoral Mission Vessels (LMV) by the RSN. The declared prime role of these ships is the protection of Singapore’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), a task that entails sustained patrolling of sea areas out to 869 nautical miles (1069 kilometres) from Singapore, according to the RSN. The LMVs will be far larger and more capable than the eleven ‘Fearless’ OPVs currently charged with the security of the Republic’s SLOC. The LMVs will displace 1200 tonnes compared to the 500 tonnes of the ships that they will replace.
Twin MTU diesel engines will enable a top speed of 27 knots (50km/h) and a range of 5000 nautical miles (9260 kilometres) at a cruising speed of 15 knots (27.8km/h). The planned armament of the LMVs is an OTO Melara Super Rapid 76mm gun, two 25mm Rafael Advanced Defence Systems’ Typhoon remote-controlled weapon systems, and a pair of OTO Melara Hitrole remote-controlled 12.7mm machineguns. Air defence will be facilitated by a twelve-cell vertical launcher for the MBDA Mica Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system aided by a Thales NS100D naval surveillance radar. Unlike the ‘Fearless’ class OPVs, the LMVs will feature a large flight deck with helicopter refueling facilities. This will enable them to act as force multipliers for Singapore’s ship and land-based Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk naval support helicopters. The first LMV Independencewas launched in July, and all the vessels of the class are due to be in service by 2020.
ST Marine is currently working on an order for four OPVs, based on the ‘Fearless’ design, for the Royal Navy of Oman. The first of these ships was delivered to the Omanis in April this year with all due to be in service by the third quarter of 2016. It is possible that ST Marine will offer a derivative of the LMV for export in due course. Meanwhile the Singapore company is in talks with KBR of the United States over a joint venture to supply 22 large patrol craft for Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement programme. A tender notice has recently been issued with the successful bidder required to complete delivery of the vessels between 2017 and 2024.
Malaysia is mindful of growing tensions in the South China Sea given its disputes with the PRC regarding the size of the latter country’s maritime Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ). It is acquiring new ships as well as upgrading current platforms. The country’s shipbuilding capacity is currently focused on the construction of six Second Generation Patrol Vessels, which are now being referred to as Littoral Combat Ships by Kuala Lumpur. These vessels are based on the Gowind 2500 corvette design from French shipbuilder DCNS. The first example of this new class is now under construction at Boustead Naval Shipyard in Perak, northern Malaysia. The 3000 tonne ships will have a heavy armament including the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile, MBDA MICA vertically-launched SAMs and a BAE Systems 57mm cannon. Current plans call for the first-of-class to be delivered in April 2019, with delivery of all six vessels to be complete by mid-2023.
The Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM/Royal Malaysian Navy), meanwhile, in response to the regional proliferation of submarines, plans to upgrade the anti-submarine capabilities of four of the lightly-armed ‘Kedah’ class corvettes. The intention is to provide them with torpedo launchers, a towed sonar array and hull-mounted sonar. The remaining two ships of the class are to be optimised for anti-surface warfare, and will be equipped with anti-shipping missiles, SAMs and an organic helicopter. Funding has been requested to this end, but no information is yet available on the weaponry and sensors which are likely to be selected for these upgrades.
The expanding paramilitary Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) is planning to acquire larger vessels, a requirement which BAE Systems is seeking to meet with a version of the 90-metre (292-feet) ‘River’ class OPV, variants of which currently serve with the Royal Navy, the Royal Thai Navy and theMarinha do Brasil (Brazilian Navy). These ships are likely to be built locally. While the Malaysians have yet to indicate how many larger ships they will require, recent reports that Kuala Lumpur intends to double the size of the MMEA, which currently operates about 240 vessels, indicates that there might be a significant order to bid for.
Ian Marchant, BAE Systems’ overseas development executive, points out that the ‘River’ class is a proven platform for coast guard operations. “We would be very happy for a Malaysian company to consider building it,” he said. A modified ‘River’ class OPV, mounting an OTO Melara 76mm. gun, has already been constructed in Thailand by a BAE Systems/Bangkok Dock joint venture. Further construction of such vessels in Thailand, possibly including examples for export, is under consideration with discussions over the construction of another example by Bangkok Dock having commenced in 2014.
With an eye on the festering dispute with the PRC over the sovereignty of the strategically important Natuna Islands, Indonesia is rapidly upgrading its large naval force, and it is now national policy to construct as many of its warships as possible indigenously. The nation is already a prolific producer of coastal and littoral water patrol craft, but local shipbuilders PT PAL, with much assistance from the Netherlands’ Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, is constructing a pair of Dutch-designed ‘SIGMA’ corvettes.
Based on the four Netherlands-built ‘Diponegoro’ class corvettes already in Indonesian service, the indigenously constructed ‘SIGMA’ versions will be heavily-armed ships for their size, with a 76mm gun, MBDA MM-40 Exocet AShMs (Anti-Ship Missiles), MBDA Aster 15 SAMs and a Rheinmetall Defence Millennium 35mm Close In Weapons System (CIWS). There will also be a flight deck for a naval support helicopter. Construction of the first of the corvettes commenced in January 2014, but a service date has yet to be announced. Another possibility, reportedly at an early stage of discussion, is the indigenous construction of a derivative of the recently-acquired ‘Bung Tomo’ class corvettes, originally built by BAE Systems for, but never commissioned by, the Royal Brunei Navy.
Indonesia’s arms industry is also gathering momentum and the nation might be on course to become an exporter of modestly-priced warships. Some confidential sources explained to AMR they believe that a likely customer is fellow Muslim country Iran, which in February this year established official naval agreements with Indonesia during the course of the deployment of an Iranian naval task group to Jakarta.
The Indonesians are also upgrading their 15 ageing 850-tonne ex-East German corvettes of the ‘Kapitan Pattimura’ class. They are being fitted with AShM defence, in the form of the PRC’s Type-730 CIWS. Command and control systems from the PRC are also being installed, with the upgrade work being carried out in-country by Indonesian engineering outfit PT Len. The upgrade work commenced in late 2013; no completion date for this programme has been revealed.
These ships feature MGK-32 bow sonars and RBU-6000 multiple anti-submarine rocket launchers. The rocket launchers are basic weapons, but can produce multiple underwater explosions, constituting a powerful, and audible, response to underwater incursions into Indonesian waters. The Indonesians therefore still see the corvettes as valuable assets at a time of rapid growth in regional submarine forces.
It has very recently been confirmed that the Tanod Baybayin ng Pilipinas(TBnP/Philippine Coast Guard) is to receive ten new patrol vessels, to be designated as Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRV) which are to be constructed in Japan, under arrangements which were agreed between Tokyo and Manila in 2013. The contract to build the vessels, which will be derivatives of the Japan Coast Guard’s (JCG) 40 metre (131 feet) long ‘Bizan’ class, has been awarded to the Japan Marine United Corporation. The project is being financed largely by a loan extended to the Philippines by Japan under overseas aid terms, with the ships being due to be delivered to the TBnP by 2018. They will most likely have a lighter armament than the 30mm gun fitted to the ships from which they derive.
The roles of the MRRVs, which will have a range of 1500nm (2778km), will be search and rescue, disaster relief, maritime law enforcement, pollution prevention and control and logistics missions. It is very likely that the class will be deployed to the South China Sea in support of the Philippines’ maritime interests, which include claims to sovereignty over ten islands in the Spratly archipelago.
There is little doubt that politics is an important driver of this scheme. Japan is one of a number of Asia-Pacific nations which are seriously concerned about the PRC’s proactive stance over regional maritime sovereignty, and Tokyo actively contests control of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Beijing and Taipei. It would therefore be a logical strategy for Tokyo to demonstrate solidarity with Manila over the latter’s maritime disputes with the PRC.
Hanoi has in recent years relied heavily upon Moscow for the supply of naval craft, but the warship construction industry of Vietnam, the PRC’s main rival for domination in the South China Sea, is surging ahead. Its focus is on corvettes and OPVs. The Vietnamese People’s Navy (VPN) has this year commissioned two licence-built ‘Molniya’ corvettes, built in Vietnam with the assistance of Russia’s Vympel shipbuilders. These craft mount a very powerful main armament of a battery of 16 Tactical Missiles Corporation Kh-35 AShMs. Two further examples of these ships are due to be commissioned in 2016.
Other modern, indigenously-constructed warships in service with the VPN include four ‘TT-400-TP’ class OPVs constructed, with Russian assistance, by the Hong Ha Shipbuilding Company in Haiphong. These ships are based on the Russian ‘Svetlyak’ class OPV and are armed with a Gorky Machine Building Plant AK-176 76.2mm gun and an AK-630 30mm CIWS.
In 2013 Vietnam signalled that it was diversifying its sources of surface combatants by ordering four ‘Sigma’ class corvettes from Damen Shelde Naval Shipbuilding. Two are being constructed in the Netherlands; the follow-on pair will be built in Vietnam under Dutch supervision. Hanoi has yet to reveal the projected in-service dates for these ships. Furthermore, some recent reports indicate that India has agreed to supply new-build ‘Surya’ class OPVs to Vietnam, although this has yet to be confirmed.
The Vietnam Coast Guard, likely to take an increasingly important role in reinforcing Hanoi’s claims in the South China Sea is being equipped with more capable OPVs. At least two of the 2500 tonne ‘DN 2000’ class vessels are in service, constructed by the Damen-affiliated Song Thu Ship Building Company in Haiphong. The 21 knot (38.9km/h) vessels are equipped with two 14.5 machineguns, surveillance radar and command and control facilities, while a helicopter deck aft enables operation of a Kamov Ka-28 naval support helicopter.
Republic of Korea
For many years the Republic of Korea Navy’s (RoKN) smaller surface combatants, including ‘Ulsan’ class frigates and ‘Pohang’ class corvettes, operating with ship and land based AgustaWestland Super Lynx Mk.99/A naval support helicopters, have confronted aggressive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) coastal incursions. Now, a major upgrade of coastal and littoral water capabilities is in hand with the phasing in of newly-constructed ‘Incheon’ class frigates. The first three of the class are in service, with three more due to be commissioned in 2016. It is planned to build up to 24 of these ships, fitted with Agency for Defence Development/LIG Nex1 SSM-700K Hae Sung AShMs. A BAE Systems’ Mk.45 Mod.4 127mm gun is also mounted, primarily for the support of amphibious operations around the Korean littoral.
The PRC relies heavily upon the patrol ships of the China Coast Guard (CCG), formed two years ago from the merger of five agencies, to enforce its will in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The thousands of vessels in the CCG fleet range from small coastal craft to the two new 10000 tonne ships. The first of these ships, the class name of which is not yet known, was observed on sea trials this June. A possible China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) H/PJ-26 76mm gun was visible on its deck. Several ‘Jiangdao’ class corvettes are currently under construction for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the CCG. The armament of the naval version includes a CSIC H/PJ-26 76mm gun and Norinco YJ-83 AShMs. About 20 ‘Jaingdao’ class are in already in service with the PLAN and as many as 60 of the type might be built; the CCG variant, at least one of which has been completed, is expected to have a much lighter armament. An export derivative, designated as the P18, has been supplied to Nigeria and Bangladesh, and Beijing and Buenos Aries are reportedly negotiating the construction of five of the ships for the Argentine Navy, although nothing further has been heard of this project since the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Argentina and the PRC in October 2014.
Taiwan is seeking political leverage over the PRC by placing renewed emphasis on offshore territorial claims, namely to Taiping Island and the Pratas Reef in the South China Sea, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (see above). To support this initiative Taipei is radically upgrading the capabilities of the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration (TCGA) by bringing into service seven new OPVs of various dimensions, and 28 littoral water patrol craft of 100 tonnes displacement. Five of the OPVs have so far been completed, the most recent additions to the TCGA inventory being the 3000 tonne OPVs ‘Kaohsiung’ and ‘Yilan’, constructed by Kaohsiung Shipbuilding and accepted by the TCGA this June. These ships can reach 24 knots and operate a Sikorsky S-70C/M1/2 Thunderhawk naval support helicopter. One major Taiwanese constructor, Lung Teh Shipbuilders, has discreetly supplied small naval and paramilitary vessels to Hong Kong, Macau and The Philippines in recent years. It remains to be seen whether Taipei will attempt to enter the export market for larger craft such as these new OPVs. More information regarding Taiwan’s sea power can be found in Alex Calvo’s ‘A Strait Story’ article in this issue.
Increasing regional tension over maritime sovereignty issues is likely to be the prime driver for long-term expansion of regional naval and maritime paramilitary forces. Other security concerns will also have increasing influence, notably the mass movements of migrants by sea, the impacts of illegal fishing, and environmental degradation, such as that being caused in the Spratly Islands by PRC construction work. It is very likely that demand for littoral and deep-sea patrol vessels will continue to gain momentum, with indigenous construction of foreign designs being the most promising business area for overseas companies.