A number of simmering naval tensions exist in the Asia-Pacific region, with the most obvious ones being the Korean peninsula, Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and South China Sea. Naval confrontations have occurred, and in the worst case a South Korean corvette was sunk last year. This article examines the important topic of regional surface warship programmes.

14th Nov 2011


 Surface ships


 Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

A number of simmering naval tensions exist in the Asia-Pacific region, with the most obvious ones being the Korean peninsula, Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and South China Sea. Naval confrontations have occurred, and in the worst case a South Korean corvette was sunk last year. This article examines the important topic of regional surface warship programmes.

Chinese expansion
On 10 August, China’s first ever aircraft carrier slipped its moorings and headed out to sea for trials. This ex-Soviet carrier has not yet been named, but it will be the pride of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China has said the former Varyag will be used as a training and evaluation platform, but the sheer amount of yuan invested in this project suggests it will have a combat role as well. Fit-out accelerated in January 2011, with work proceeding day and night. In fact, China did in months what it took Russia nearly five years to do! Next year is important for China as a new Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman will be selected. Observers predict this carrier will be commissioned before this event as President Hu Jintao will wish to leave a lasting military legacy. Although shrouded by typically oriental inscrutability, China’s carrier programme is likely to produce two new indigenous vessels resembling the Varyag, with the first to be constructed in Shanghai. Multiple carriers could be in existence by 2020. However, it should be noted that China is going-it-alone in its carrier construction and operation plans, so a steep learning curve is predicted.

The creation of a carrier fleet is symptomatic of the PLAN’s ongoing modernisation drive and desire for a blue-water force. China needs to protect its future aircraft carriers with capable surface warships, and in recent times, modern Type 052B Luyang I-class, 052C Luyang II-class and 051C Luzhou-class destroyers have all been produced. The newest are armed with long-range air defence missiles such as the HHQ-9A. Future-generation designs are predicted to be the large Type 052D as the main surface fleet combatant, and parallel production of the Type 051D (an upgraded 051C). So far China has produced eleven modern Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates that have stealth characteristics and medium-range air defence missiles. Observers have identified an improved Type 054B version that is under construction.

China is also enlarging its amphibious warfare fleet with the 20,000-ton Type 071 Yuzhao class, each vessel capable of carrying an entire battalion of marines. The first was commissioned in 2007, and two more were launched in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Others are likely to follow, as is the future Type 081 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). These kinds of assets would give China a powerful expeditionary capability against dissenting voices in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait.

East Asia responds
The rapid growth of the PLAN surface and underwater flotilla has created consternation in neighbours like Japan, with whom China has locked horns in a deep-rooted dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands to the Japanese). The collision of a Chinese fishing trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels in September 2010 caused intense aftershocks in the two capitals. The largest warships in the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) are two 13,950-ton Hyuga-class helicopter carriers commissioned in March 2009 and March 2011. These are the largest warships Japan has built since the end of World War Two. However, Japan plans to build two even larger 248m-long helicopter carriers to help secure its distant maritime boundaries. The 19,500-ton 22DDH helicopter carrier will be the first non-US ship to carry Raytheon’s 11-cell SeaRAM short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The US $1.04 billion 22DDH will operate nine helicopters. IHI Marine United commenced construction this year with launch scheduled for 2015. A budget request for the second ship will proceed, and these vessels will replace two Shirane-class destroyers.

Japan will also swell its Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet from four to six. Four Kongo-class guided-missile destroyers with ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability will be joined by two similarly equipped Atago-class destroyers. All will eventually be armed with SM-3 Block IIA missiles capable of intercepting North Korean missiles. Four new 5,000-ton Akizuki-class destroyers shall be commissioned from 2012 onwards, and they will help protect these Aegis ships that gobble up a significant portion of the JMSDF budget. In late December 2010, the JMSDF and US Navy (USN) announced they had succeeded in deploying a fully certified sea-based theatre BMD capability.

The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) is growing in its blue-water capability. Its most advanced warship, Sejong the Great, “flawlessly” tested its combat system and fired SM-2 missiles in recent trials near Hawaii. Two of these 8,500-ton KD-III destroyers with SPY-1D(V) radar are already in service, and a third was launched by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) on 24 March. These Aegis-equipped ships are crucial to South Korea’s BMD system, plus the country is to build six 5,600-ton KDX-IIA destroyers fitted with Aegis from 2019 onwards. They will reinforce six existing KD-II destroyers that displace 4,500 tons.

The workhorse of the ROKN fleet is destined to be the Inchon-class frigate, with this type to replace Ulsan and Pohang classes. Up to 15 of these 2,300-ton stealth frigates will be constructed. HHI launched the first of a batch of three in March, and it should be commissioned in 2013. With its military reeling after recent North Korean provocations, the South is also seeking 24 Gumdoksuri PKG-A 500-ton missile patrol boats, with one already commissioned and six under construction. They will be supplemented by 18 lighter PKG-B boats that carry guns but no missiles. Amphibious operations figure prominently in US-South Korean plans to combat any North Korean aggression, so it is appropriate that the ROKN operates Asia’s largest landing platform helicopter (LPH). The first 14,300-ton Dokdo-class ship was commissioned in 2007. Three more ships will be built and the second is already under construction.

Taiwan’s elusive pursuit of new diesel-electric submarines is proving fruitless, so it continues to depend on its surface fleet. Recent activity has seen the installation of Hsiung Feng III (HF-III) anti-ship missiles on some Kee Lung-class and Cheng Kung-class destroyers. Delivery of the thirtieth and final locally produced Kuang Hua VI missile boat armed with HF-II missiles occurred in October. Older Ching Chiang-class patrol boats are being upgraded to carry four HF-II/III missile launchers too.

Southeast Asian tension grows
The South China Sea is proving an intractable issue, with China at odds with fellow claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. In May, Chinese vessels cut cables of a Vietnamese seismic survey vessel, causing a flurry of diplomatic activity between Beijing and Hanoi. The Philippines has had its own confrontations with Chinese vessels this year as well.

In addition to procuring six Russian-built Kilo 636 submarines that will arrive in the latter half of this decade, the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) surface fleet is expanding too. In 2005 it procured two Russian Tarantul V corvettes armed with 16 SS-N-25 Switchblade anti-ship missiles each, and there are plans to construct eight more corvettes in Vietnam. Russia delivered the first 1,500-ton Gepard-class frigate in 2009 and a second in 2010. The contract allows for two more frigates, possibly via licensed production in Vietnam. The country is also building 500-ton Pauk-class BPS-500 missile boats under license. In a coup for the Dutch Schelde shipyard, the VPN ordered four Sigma-class corvettes this past October. The first two will be constructed in the Netherlands, and the latter two in Vietnam.

The Philippine Navy (PN) continues to struggle for funding, and it relies heavily on hand-me-downs from allies like the USA. In May the PN took delivery of an ex-US Hamilton-class high-endurance cutter, and two more transfers are expected. The newly named BRP Gregorio del Pilar will serve as the navy’s flagship, with protection of the nation’s western extremities seen as crucial. The Philippines desperately needs a multirole vessel that could be used for disaster relief-type missions, and while reports have linked a deal to South Korea, this has not been officially confirmed.

The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) has been bolstered by delivery of two Scorpéne submarines, even though they consume a significant amount of the naval budget. Two German-built Kasturi-class frigates are undergoing a service life extension programme (SLEP) at the hands of Thales, and they will receive updated radar and fire control systems. Malaysian shipbuilding has had its share of crises as illustrated by the Kedah-class Next-Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) programme. Kicking off in 1996, there was an ambitious plan for 27 vessels based on the Meko 100. The third 1,850-ton vessel onwards was constructed locally, but a batch of only six was built, the last being commissioned in December 2010. A second batch of six could be ordered under the Tenth Malaysian Plan (2011-15) and these slightly larger 2,200-ton craft could be configured for anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

KD Inderapura was destroyed by fire in October 2009, and this has made Malaysia’s need of a multipurpose support ship (MPSS) all the more urgent. Malaysia requires an MPSS in the 12,000-15,000-ton class that could be used for the peace-support and humanitarian assistance roles. Chinese, Dutch, French, Italian, South Korean and Spanish shipbuilders are seeking a potential contract.

Thailand does not have competing territorial claims with China, so the country enjoys warmer relations. Indeed, Thailand operates two Chinese-built Type 25T Naresuan-class frigates, and these are undergoing a US$73.5 million midlife upgrade by Saab. They will receive a 9LV Mk4 combat management system, Sea Giraffe AMB surveillance radar, CEROS 200 fire control radar, EOS 500 optronic director and tactical data-link that enables communication with newly delivered Saab aircraft. Their weaponry will comprise RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). Similarly, a pair of Chao Phraya-class frigates will undergo a midlife upgrade that includes a Chinese Type 360 radar system, new combat management system, 100mm naval gun, TR47C tracking radar and eight C-802A missile launchers. ST Marine of Singapore is currently building an LPD for the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), and it is similar in construction to the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Endurance class. Christened HTMS Angthong, it was launched in March 2011 and should be commissioned next year.

Bangkok Dock is constructing a first-of-class offshore patrol vessel (OPV) based on a BAE design, after an order was placed in late 2009. With a displacement of 2,000 tons, the OPV will feature an Otobreda 76/62 Super Rapid Gun and two DS 30M 30mm cannons, plus missiles could be retrofitted in the future. It should be completed next year and there is an option for three further OPVs that would enhance local shipbuilding industries.

The Indonesian Navy would like to clamp down on crime, especially in its western extremities. The navy has a grand vision of a 274-vessel green-water fleet, the heart of which would comprise corvettes and fast missile boats. A fourth Dutch-built Sigma 9113-class corvette was commissioned in March 2009, while the National Corvette Programme was resurrected by a contract on 16 August 2010 for four larger locally built 2,400-ton Sigma 10514-class corvettes, which PT PAL should deliver within four years. Local content will represent around 35%. South Korea produced the first two 7,300-ton Makassar-class LPDs for the Indonesian Navy, and PT PAL launched the third and fourth in 2008 and 2010 respectively. These four craft are vital for responding to the type of disasters that regularly strike this archipelagic nation. Indonesia will also fit Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles onto its fast patrol boats and Van Speijk-class frigates.

Singapore boasts Southeast Asia’s most technologically advanced military, and the island enjoys a close relationship with the USA. In fact the latter hopes to base Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) there in the future. The strength of the RSN rests in six Formidable-class frigates based on the French La Fayette design. The first was built in France while the remaining five were constructed under license by ST Marine. The same company is also responsible for maintenance and will undertake the eventual mid-life upgrade of these 3,200-tonne ships. They feature Thales Herakles phased-array multifunction radar connected to MBDA Aster 15 and 30 SAM systems. The frigates also carry Harpoon missiles, an Oto Melara 76mm gun and EuroTorp lightweight torpedoes.

Southeast Asia’s smallest country is Brunei, and it possesses a coastline only 161km long. The Royal Brunei Navy (RBN) had ordered three 95m-long F2000-class vessels from BAE Systems, but Brunei refused to accept them, claiming they failed to meet required specifications. Instead, the sultanate latterly ordered three 80m-long Darussalam-class OPVs from Lurssen in Germany, with the trio of 1,625-ton vessels delivered this year. They carry Exocet MM40 missiles, and it is planned they will later receive an ASW or air defence role. For inshore patrol and interdiction, Brunei received four 264-ton Itjihad-class patrol boats from Lurssen last year.

India thinks big
The Indian Navy (IN) has a large number of projects on the go, the largest being the refurbishment of the 45,000-ton Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier in Russia. The cost of the project multiplied from US$800 million to US$2.35 billion, but India hopes INS Vikramaditya can be delivered next year. MiG-29K fighters will operate from this new asset that is reportedly 90% complete. Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) designed, and is building, the first of two indigenous Vikrant-class carriers. The first of class will have a 40,000-ton displacement, and reports suggest it will be launched later this year with commissioning in 2015 at the earliest. The second vessel, INS Vishal, will be larger at 65,000 tons and it will feature a catapult launch system.

The third indigenous Kolkata-class guided missile destroyer, INS Chennai, was launched by Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) in April 2010. With a length of 163m, Kolkata destroyers carry a pair of eight-cell BrahMos vertical missile launchers as well as Barak 8 SAMs. Four more destroyers armed with the supersonic BrahMos II will be built under Project 15B. Three existing 4,000-ton Talwar-class frigates, plus three further ships to be commissioned from 2012 onwards, will also be equipped with BrahMos launchers. The Shivalik-class multirole frigate is India’s first stealthy warship, and it will form the backbone of the IN’s surface fleet. The first of twelve vessels was commissioned in April 2010, and a second followed in August 2011. A follow-on programme will see seven even stealthier Type 17A foreign-designed frigates being ordered. It is possible this class may even feature the Aegis combat system when the first vessel is commissioned in 2015.

The indigenously built 3,000-ton Kamorta-class corvette will be India’s next-generation ASW platform. The first of four should be commissioned next June. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami showed the practicality of ships capable of helicopter and landing-craft operations. In February, India issued a request for information for four such LPDs. They are to be 200m long and will be license-built in India.

The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) has grown stronger under the NZ$500 million Project Protector. It offered up the Canterbury multirole vessel, two 1,900-ton OPVs and four 340-tonne inshore patrol vessels (IPV). However, remediation work cost BAE Systems NZ$84.6 million, with HMNZS Canterbury being the most problematic platform. Remedial work is currently about 25% complete, and should be finished by the end of 2013. The two Anzac-class frigates are undergoing upgrades. Phase II of the Platform Systems Upgrade (PSU) covers the integrated platform management system and work commenced on Te Mana in early 2012. The Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) on HMNZS Te Mana has been upgraded to Block 1B configuration and accepted, while Te Kaha is undergoing acceptance testing about now. A combat system upgrade should be approved early next year, with Thales appointed lead contractor. It will improve combat management and provide new electro-optic sensor and radar capabilities.

Australia has a capable navy, although a lack of foresight resulted in it temporarily losing its amphibious warfare capability. This capacity will be completely restored when the first of two 27,400-ton Canberra-class LHDs is commissioned around 2016. As a stopgap measure, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had to purchase Largs Bay from the UK, and it was officially handed over on 14 October.

Under Australia’s most recent Defence White Paper, where China was highlighted as a source of “concern”, the RAN comes out a winner in terms of new equipment. Uppermost is the Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) programme under SEA 4000, designed to give Australia a maritime air defence capability. The three 6,343-ton ships will sport Raytheon SM-6 long-range missiles. Its combat system is based on Aegis and includes SPY-1D(V) radar. BMD is not a specified role although this could be added in the future. HMAS Hobart is due for commissioning in December 2014, followed by Brisbane in 2016 and Sydney in 2017. Their induction will coincide with the retirement of four Adelaide-class frigates that have been upgraded to fire SM-2MR and ESSM weapons. The navy’s eight Anzac-class frigates are to receive the Anti-Ship Missile Defence (ASMD) package, with HMAS Perth being the first to trial the upgrade before it is rolled out to the remaining frigates. The Anzac vessels will eventually be replaced by the Future Frigate at around the 2025 mark.

As this summary demonstrates, there is significant forward momentum in regional surface-warship programmes, with projects that range all the way up to new aircraft carrier fleets. Bilateral tensions, and the proliferation of submarines, are fuelling this growth. Another important aspect is that many Asian countries are also developing the industrial base to construct, if not design, vessels domestically.


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