Recent Trends in Naval Procurement

By Antony Preston

The need for forces capable of rapid intervention also is driving the major navies to modernize their amphibious forces. Starting with the U.S. Navy's San Antonio amphibious transport dock (LPD-17) program, we have the belated British decision to order two new LPDs. the French expediting completion of the LPD Siroco , and the Dutch-Spanish collaboration on the design of the LPDs Rotterdam (to be completed by the end of this year) and Galicia (to be launched in June).

The drive to upgrade amphibious forces also is reflected in the eagerness of so many navies to acquire the U.S. Navy's Newport (LST-1179)-class tank landing ships as they become available.

Apart from the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class, very few navies are willing or able to fund large air-defense ships. Many large frigates, on the other hand, now have potent short-range missile systems capable of providing limited area defense. Notable exceptions are the tri-national Horizon program, the Indian Navy's Delhi class, the Japanese Kongo class, the Dutch-German bilateral program, and the new Spanish F-100 Aegis frigates.

Prophets who for years predicted a decline in escort construction have been confounded; last year, more than 70 frigates were under construction or projected. Further embarrassing the prophets is the continuing decline of the classic missile-armed fast-attack craft in favor of the larger corvette. The gap between the fast-attack craft and the corvette has narrowed to meet the demand for defense against antiship missiles. Margins of stability must be increased to offset the introduction of hard- and soft-kill systems, and the need for better sea-keeping also is forcing up size. Today, the fast-attack craft faces a number of serious threats, from long-range antiship missiles launched by major warships and aircraft, and shorter-range light missiles launched by helicopters.

Clearly, such craft still have a role in defending restricted waters, but their shortcomings are now all too evident. Their comparatively low acquisition costs masked the realities of through-life costs. The light hulls require intensive maintenance, and their operational availability is circumscribed by heavy weather. As a result, very few of the navies operating them appear to be contemplating replacing them by similar types. The Qatari Emiri Navy's new Barzan patrol boats are an excellent example of the upward trend; on a 56-meter hull, the designers have managed to squeeze in a 30-mm Goalkeeper close-in weapon system and a light Sadral infrared-guided missile system in addition to the usual mix of missiles and a medium caliber gun.

Much has been written about stealth, but very few navies seem ready to embrace the concept totally, despite a great deal of hard selling by the world's shipbuilders. The French Navy's La Fayette design has attracted considerable attention; Saudi Arabia and Thailand have bought similar ships. The Swedish Navy laid down the Visby last December, the first of the revolutionary YS-2000 design, with very advanced stealth features. In contrast, the rest of the world seems content to adopt only as much stealth as its missions dictate. The problem is that stealth can be very expensive if carried too far, and situations can be envisaged in which it would inhibit operational effectiveness.

When exclusive economic zones (EEZs) were created in the late 1970s, some analysts predicted a boom in offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), with up to 1,200 built by the early 1980s. The boom never materialized, but in the mid-1990s it is clear that many navies finally have recognized the value of such vessels, whether a dedicated EEZ patrol ship with virtually no wartime role or a one that can be upgraded in time of crisis to serve in low-intensity conflict. Ships of both types are being built around the world, all characterized by light armament and small complements. The reason is, of course, the need to safeguard valuable offshore resources, but the current surge of interest also reflects the need to keep numbers of ships as high as possible. More hulls in the water means more personnel retained, and better use of scarce funding.

Submarine Developments

Despite regional aspirations, only five nations operate nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines (SSNs and SSBNs): the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China. However tempting the prestige of SSNs may be, the development costs for countries like Brazil and India are unbearably high, and rumors of imminent membership in the nuclear club are wildly optimistic.

Even conventionally powered attack submarines have proliferated rather slowly. The Republic of Singapore has yet to show its hand, presumably preferring to digest the lessons learned from its solitary ex-Swedish boat bought in 1995. Neither the Malaysian nor the Thai submarine programs have progressed to the point of firm orders, and Indonesia has not yet implemented plans to double the size of its force. The Republic of Korea is the only nation to have taken the initiative, and when its current construction program comes to an end next year it is likely to build a larger design, possibly with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) plant.

Germany continues to dominate the export market with derivatives of the IKL 209 design, but Sweden's success in Australia has given a boost to Kockums' prestige, particularly in South East Asia. The Russians are marketing the new Amur design assiduously as a smaller successor to the Kilo family—so far without success. Existing submarine operators such as Chile and South Africa are looking for affordable replacements for obsolete boats, but money is short.

Every submarine design bureau is offering boats with AIP systems, but to date only two such systems are in service: the German proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell and the Swedish Stirling-cycle engine. The fuel cell system has completed sea trials in the German Navy and is being installed in the new Type 212 boats under construction, while the Swedish Navy has three Stirling AIP systems in service. Pakistan has the privilege of being the guinea pig for the French MESMA system when its third Agosta-90B type goes to sea after the turn of the century. Russia's Rubin Bureau is offering an AIP submarine but little information is publicly available about any Russian Navy trials of the system. The Thyssen-Cosworth closed-cycle diesel (CCD) plant has been installed in a trials submarine, but neither the team nor its Dutch partner RHEUM has succeeded in selling it.

There is no doubt that the world's attack submarine operators would like to have the benefit of AIP, but they seem to be deterred by the higher cost and the technical risk. For the next few years, Kockums will have an undoubted edge in the market because the Swedish Navy has put the Stirling engine into operation in its current Gotland class. The German Submarine Consortium does not appear to be offering the PEM fuel cell for export (apart from a collaborative deal with Italy), but it is investigating a cheaper Canadian alternative.

Mine Countermeasures

Although mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) are ton-for-ton extremely expensive, so many navies are at risk from offensive mine warfare that the market is more buoyant than many predicted. The Australian program is now well under way, and the choice of a modified Italian Gaeta design undoubtedly influenced the Royal Thai Navy in its choice of a similar design for its own program last year. The Belgian, British, Spanish, and Swedish programs all are making progress, and the last three of the U.S. Navy's Osprey (MHC-51)-class mine-hunters will be in service by the end of next year.

There is a growing consensus that expensive MCMVs should not be needlessly exposed to mines, but should act as control ships for remote systems. All modern mine-hunters use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to classify and identify objects detected by high-frequency sonars, but current thinking goes further in suggesting that the detection function can also be entrusted to the ROV. For some years, the German Navy has successfully operated the Troika system, using a modified mine-hunter to control three drones equipped with influence sweeps. China has a similar system, and the Danish Stanflex multirole ships use a pair of SAV drones to tow side-scan sonars. The Dutch have selected an updated version of the Troika system for their mine-hunter modernization program.

Many in the community feel that ROV technology has advanced to the point at which the expendable ROV is feasible, but this concept has not yet won acceptance. Mine clearance by helicopter is being looked at with greater interest by navies that previously have ignored it. For the time being, most navies maintaining MCM forces are content with conventional solutions, but this is likely to change in the near future.

Weapons and Sensors

The U.S. Navy remains the world leader in antiair warfare systems, with the result that Standard SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow are the most sought after air-defense missiles around the world. No Western navy has produced a rival to the Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM). The Harpoon, however, in spite of its success, faces competition from a number of locally developed systems—including several upgraded versions now becoming operational.

Many of the ships coming into service are equipped with up-to-date electronic warfare systems, reflecting a greater awareness of their importance in naval warfare. Even navies that previously were content to have elderly secondhand systems are buying the latest systems from the world's leading manufacturers.

The same can be said of antisubmarine warfare. Once the preserve of the world's major navies, ASW today is seen as important by countries whose neighbors are talking about buying submarines. Such systems tend to be optimized for shallow-water targets, to deal with conventionally powered submarines rather than SSNs. The systems include active towed arrays as well as hull-mounted sonars, and the importance of helicopters for ASW is unchallenged.

If there is a lesson in all this, it seems to be that yesterday's luxuries are becoming today's necessities. As regional tensions grow so does the determination of local navies to defend themselves with effective weapons. Navies may be smaller than they were but they are not in decline.

Antony Preston , a distinguished naval correspondent of long standing, writes from London. 

 

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