While the budget for large capital ships is hard to find in the Asia Pacific region, the market for cheaper ‘workhorse’ frigates and corvettes is growing.
Frigate and corvette shipbuilding programmes in the Asia-Pacific region are moving at difference paces across the various sub-regions. There is a mix of countries that have their own naval manufacturing base and are building their own surface combatants and others that either buy ships from abroad or are attempting to develop the capacity of their own shipyards. The scale with which frigates and corvettes are being built and the capability that these ships have reflects the better share of budgets that navies are attracting.
The maritime threats to the Asia-Pacific are increasing. A spokesperson from French shipbuilder Naval Group told AMR: “In the Asia Pacific region, the navies are facing both traditional threats (other navies, missiles…) but also a resurgence of asymmetric threats (mine warfare, piracy, cyber threat…).”
The rapid expansion of the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been the catalyst for a number of frigate and corvette programmes. Dr Collin Koh Swee Lean, from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore told AMR that although the PLAN has grown it has focussed on larger ships like the Type 055 destroyer, aircraft carriers and submarines rather building large numbers of frigates and corvettes “because the PLAN does not have infinite funding so has to prioritise.”
But despite this, the PLAN does have one frigate programme for a larger Type 054B Jiankai III-class, potentially up to 4,500 tonnes which Collin said appears to be an anti-air warfare (AAW) optimised version of the 4,000t Type 054A Jiankai II-class anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and general purpose (GP) frigate. The new ships are being built by China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and will have more vertical launch cells for surface-to-air missiles and long-range land attack or anti-ship cruise missiles. The first units are under construction and are due to enter service soon.
In terms of corvettes, Collin said that the PLAN only has the Type 056GP and Type 056A ASW vessels that are “geared towards littoral operations in the South China Sea”. He added that serial production of the ships has been stable with deliveries undertaken since 2013 and any further corvette classes or sub-classes they can be expected to be based on the Type 056.
Meanwhile the Republic of South Korea Navy (RoKN) has been taking delivery of its FFX-II Daegu-class frigates. The first-of-class was built at Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) and commissioned in March 2018. A further six ships are expected as part of a long-term programme to replace older frigates and corvettes with a total of 22-24 new ships. Collin said that the Daegu-class are larger and capable of blue water operations compared to the FFX-I Incheon-class that came before, which is more akin to a light frigate or corvette.
Like the PLAN, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is focussed on building helicopter carriers and destroyers, but there are plans to build a new 3,500t destroyer – known as the 30DX – but is in fact a frigate-sized vessel. This is intended to replace the Abukuma-class and Asigiri-class light destroyers. A contract for the first two ships has been awarded to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (MSE), which will delivery the vessels to the JMSDF from 2022. A total of eight ships are expected.
Meanwhile Collin said that the JMSDF are looking to build a new class of 12 ships displacing about 1,000t that will be “optimised for surveillance in the South China Sea”. He expects it to be a naval Offshore Patrol Vessel more heavily armed than similar ships in the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG). “It highlights that the JCG is stretched and the JMSDF has to step in to support it with vessels in this category that can sustain the presence in the South China Sea to counter the PLAN and Chinese Coast Guard presence in these areas,” Collin said. A final design is expected to emerge it the next couple of years and it is estimated a new ship will enter service in the 2025 timeframe.
In South East Asia, the encroachment of the PLAN means that states are putting some resources towards renewing major combatant ships. Although efforts are mixed across the sub-region and restricted by budgetary issues it is where there is the most business potential for international shipbuilders and designers.
According to Enrico Bonetti, senior vice president of international naval business at Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, prospects in SE Asia have led the company to establish an office in Singapore where it is interested in the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.
“We see trend for naval vessels starting from 2000t displacement up to about 4,000t displacement,” he said. “There is a desire for flexibility in designs that are modular and adaptable, particularly for the combat system, with the possibility to upgrade the life of the vessel when the budget is available.” He added: “The concept of fitted for but not with is something that is inherent in the proposals that we are required to provide.”
The Philippines is sourcing its new combatants from South Korea and has bought two ships from Hyundai Heavy Industries to the HDF-3000 design and called the Jose Rizal-class. Steel was cut on the first vessel in October 2018 with delivery expected in 1Q 2020 and ship two will follow by September 2021. Like the RTN the Philippines Navy wants more ships and there are plans for a corvette-type vessel. A Request for Information (RFI) was released in September 2018 but according to Collin the current state of funding “remains a perennial problem” and it is likely to be some time before further ships are ordered. Bonetti confirmed that Fincantieri had responded to the RFI. Dutch shipbuilder DSNS has also responded.
In Indonesia Collin said that funding is still an issue and that any further developments in shipbuilding programmes are unlikely to take place until after the Presidential Election in April 2019.
“The priority now is that much of the focus is to convince voters they are keen on projects for social and economic uplift and the need to control inflation. So there is little focus on defence spending right now which would be sensitive,” he explained. The Indonesian Navy recently commissioned two new PKR frigates called the Martadinata-class in 2017 and 2018. The pair are based on the SIGMA 10514 design from DSNS and were built in modules. In each ship, two modules are built at DSNS with the remaining four at PT Pal in Indonesia.
However, Bonetti said that Indonesia is looking for more frigates that “the budget is available”. Fincantieri can offer larger vessels like heavy corvettes or light frigates in excess of 3,000t similar to that being built for Qatar or more typical corvette-sized vessels around 2,000t based on the Abu Dhabi-class ships built for the UAE Navy. But Collin believes that if there is any progress in shipbuilding it is likely that it will be for further four ships in the Martadinata-class.
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has bought a ship based on the DW3000 design from DSME, which is a variant of the Daegu-class FFX-II for the RoKN. Named Tachin, it was handed over to the RTN in December 2018 and will be commissioned in 2019 for use as a carrier escort. There is an option for a second ship to be built locally under a technology transfer agreement but this has not been exercised therefore it is likely that Tachin will remain the only new ship in the RTN for some time.
Malaysia is suffering from financial constraints and apart from its six new Maharaja Lela-class frigates there are unlikely to be any further frigate or corvette programmes forthcoming. The frigates could be classed as light frigates or corvettes and are based on the Gowind 2500 design from French shipyard Naval Group but built under technology transfer agreement by Boustead Naval Shipbuilding in Malaysia. The first-of-class is due to be commissioned in 2019 with all six in-service by 2023 although delays are expected.
“In all these countries there is conflict as the navies are pushed from one side from a matter of urgency to get new ships and improve the fleet and that would privilege a direct procurement from a foreign country to provide a turnkey solution,” Bonetti said.
“The other side is the strategic need to increase autonomy and capability in-house. Naval shipbuilding activities are a labour intensive business that can provide a lot of jobs in-country so there are political issues driving this matter,” he added.
The two countries that are developing serious naval capabilities are Vietnam and Singapore that are providing the budgets and political commitment to procuring surface and sub-surface platforms. The Vietnamese Navy is receiving six new Gepard-class (Project 11661E) frigates from Russia. Built at Zelenodorsk Shipyard the first four have been delivered and a further two were ordered in 2014 but construction has yet to start. Alongside its six new Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines, also delivered from Russia, the Vietnamese Navy has become one of the strongest maritime forces in the region. Collin said that the Kilos are fitted with the Klub anti-ship and land attack cruise missile and it is possible that the new Gepards could be fitted with them too. However, the Vietnamese Navy is also facing funding constraints and it is unclear when construction will start on the final two ships.
Under the Singapore Armed Forces modernisation plan 2020-2030 there are plans for a new class of corvette known as a Multi-Role Combat Vessel (MRCV) for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) that will replace the Victory-class missile corvettes from about 2025. According to Collin the ships will be much larger than the 600t Victory-class, networked and have an emphasis on unmanned vehicle operations. He believes it will be a smaller version existing RSN frigates and will be built by ST Marine in Singapore with weapons and sensor procured from overseas integrated into a locally developed combat management system.
In South Asia the main rivals are India and Pakistan. The Indian Navy has the Project 17A frigate programme for seven ships that will be delivered by 2025. These are being built to an Indian design by Garden Reach Shipbuilding and Engineering (GRSE) and Mazagon Docks (MDL) and follow on the from the Project 17 Shivalik-class frigate. This programme is being used to enhance India’s shipbuilding capabilities.
Fincantieri is supporting the P-17A programme and Bonetti said that it has teams located at both GRSE and MDL. “We have been contracted to provide expertise in modular construction and improving the production capability of the yards by improving the process in shipbuilding. The yards in Mumbai and Calcutta have a very conventional approach to shipbuilding and we suggest some initiatives and we support them in construction, monitoring the process from the detailed design and starting of production – the whole process,” he said.
Meanwhile the IN is receiving an additional batch of two Talwar-class (Project 11356) frigates from Russia that are based on the new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates. The pair will be commissioned after 2022. A further two ships are slated to be built by Goa Shipyards to the same design and will be commissioned after 2027. To increase its corvette capability the IN has plans for a new corvette class to follow-on from the four Kamorta-class (Project 28). The Anti-Submarine Warfare Shallow Water Craft (ASWSWC) programme is for 16 hulls with production split between Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) and GRSE. The companies are calling for international shipbuilders to assist with design work and engineering studies to help develop their designs. Bonetti said the corvettes are “peculiar designs” and Fincantieri was not involved in the programme as its company strategy is to provide existing designs for modification rather than develop new designs for the IN. He said the “appetite is much less” for design work because “development costs are barely covered by the contract”.
In Pakistan because of recent tensions with India, Collin said that the focus will on the Air Force and Army with the Navy “likely to remain the poor cousin to the other two services.” Despite this it has a frigate programme for Type 054A ships from China and has ordered four ships that are due to be operational by 2021. For corvettes the Pakistan Navy has ordered four Ada-class corvettes from Turkey. The first pair will be built by Istanbul Naval Shipyard in Turkey with the following two to be built at Karachi Shipbuilding and Engineering Works (KSEW) under licence with a technology transfer agreement. Delivery is expected from 2023.
In Oceania, only Australia is building new frigates for the Royal Australian Navy under its SEA 5000 Hunter-class frigate programme that will see nine new ships delivered from the late-2020s through the 2030s. The ships will be built to the Type 26 ASW frigate design from BAE Systems in a new shipyard being constructed at ASC Shipyard in South Australia under the government’s Continuous Shipbuilding Programme. ASC will be tutored by ship designer BAE Systems on how to build complex warships and learn from the mistakes experienced from the earlier Hobart-class destroyer programme.
As the requirements for more frigates and corvettes grows in the Asia-Pacific countries are adopting different strategies for the development and procurement of new ships. Whilst countries in North East Asia will continue to design and build its own high-end warfighting ships, the other regions will have to decide what kinds of ships they need quickly and what programmes can be used to enhance in-country shipbuilding capability for the long-term.