21st-CENTURY GENERAL-PURPOSE SURFACE COMBATANTS

1 Construction split between Riva Trigoso and Muggiano yards.

2 Italian ships are being built in general-purpose and anti-submarine variants; data refers to the GP type. Eight broadly similar vessels have been built or are building for France, which has also sold a ship to each of Morocco and Egypt.

3 Orders have been placed for additional ships of modified variants.

4 First of class.

Multi-Mission Frigates: The completion of the air-defence ship projects initiated in the 1990s has allowed the major European navies to contemplate renewal of their fleets of general-purpose surface combatants, most dating back to the Cold War era. Many of these programmes remain in the pre-production phase, notably the United Kingdom’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship, Spain’s F-110 frigate and a proposed joint project between the Netherlands and Belgium to replace their remaining multi-purpose ‘M’ class frigate fleets. Germany is somewhat further advanced, being in the course of constructing four large c.7,500 ton F-125 stabilisation ‘frigates’. These are optimised towards undertaking lengthy peacekeeping duties in low threat areas, a specialisation that appears something of a luxury given renewed tensions on European borders. The following MKS-180 design will have more of a combat orientation.

The most significant programme to deliver ships to date has been that for Franco-Italian FREMM multi-mission frigates, which followed on from Project Horizon. Again, this has produced ships of c.6,000 to 6,500-ton destroyer size. However, in contrast with Project Horizon, the participating countries have been given considerable flexibility in adjusting the design to meet national military and industrial requirements. This has resulted in national variants of significantly different appearance in spite of a basically common design approach. Whilst, therefore there has been considerable pull through of equipment from previous designs – for example, Aster missiles – to reduce costs, equipment outfit differs significantly. For example, the Italian ships use an upgraded active version of the EMPAR phased array whilst the French FREMMS are equipped with the less capable Herakles radar previously used in the Formidable class frigates exported to Singapore. The original programme called for no less than ten Italian and seventeen French ships. Whilst Italian numbers have been maintained, the French requirement has been steadily cut back to just eight units. By way of compensation, France has managed to export single ships to both Morocco and Egypt Export Designs: The success of the French FREMM variant in export markets reflects the fact that European warship construction has traditionally extended beyond the requirements of its own fleets. In comparison to the Cold War years, export contracts were less than plentiful in its immediate aftermath, largely because of the availability of surplus but still relatively modern tonnage from shrinking NATO fleets. However, markets have improved in recent years and have undoubtedly help secure the future of some facilities in the absence of domestic orders.

In addition to its recent successes with FREMM sales, France had previously achieved considerable exports based on its associated La Fayette class stealth frigate design. The first of these was laid down just as the Cold War was ending. Six modified versions were subsequently sold to Taiwan as the Kang Ding class in 1992, marking one of the few major contracts of the immediate post-Cold War era. Further success was achieved with the somewhat larger Al Riyadh design for Saudi Arabia under a programme confirmed in the mid-1990s but not formally commenced until the first of three ships was laid down in September 1999. An order for six Formidable frigates from Singapore – five to be assembled locally – was placed in the following year. These c.3,500-ton ships resemble miniature versions of the French Aquitaine class FREMMs but have a simpler diesel propulsion system and a lower missile capacity.

Although the United Kingdom has also achieved exports of major surface combatants through the Royal Malaysian Navy’s two Lekiu class frigates that were delivered in 1999, it is Germany’s modular MEKO series that has been the principal rival to France in the twenty-first century. These have previously been detailed in Chapter 5. Earlier ships closely resemble the first MEKO – Nigeria’s Aradu commissioned in 1992 – but the more recent A-200 series exhibit considerable stealth characteristics. Four of these were commissioned by South Africa as the Valour class between 2006 and 2007. A pair of similar vessels will soon be delivered to Algeria.

The collapse of the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War brought an effective end to the construction of new Russian major surface combatant designs for a number of years. In addition to a severe lack of funding, the dispersal of naval shipbuilding infrastructure across the union’s various republics caused significant dislocation once these republics became independent. This legacy of the Soviet era continues to cast a shadow to the present time, not least in the cessation of supplies of marine gas turbines from Ukraine following Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and intervention in the Donbass region. When naval construction did resume, the immediate priority was modernisation of the nuclear deterrent and the assets needed to protect it, the latter including the Project 2038.0 Steregushchy class corvettes/light frigates.

Project 2235.0 Admiral Gorshkov Class: Russia, did, however retain a significant warship design capability after the Cold War in the form of the various research institutes and design bureaux established in Soviet times. This had two important consequences. First it has allowed Russia to recommence major warship construction as greater stability and economic prosperity has returned. The foremost example of this is the new Project 2235.0 Admiral Gorshkov class, the first of which was laid down in February 2006 and is currently running final trials. The new 4,500-ton general-purpose design has a much greater emphasis on stealth than seen in previous Russian ships but retains the Soviet-era propensity for a heavy weapons outfit. This includes the ‘Poliment-Redut’ air-defence system that benefits from a four-faced phased array and a thirty-two cell VLS, believed to be for the 9M36 surface-to-air missile that is derived from the S400 (NATO: SA-21 ‘Growler’) land-based weapon. This is supplemented by sixteen additional strike-length cells for long-range surface-to-surface missiles, as well as anti-submarine torpedoes and a flight deck and hangar for a Ka-27 Helix sea-control helicopter. A total of four of the class are currently under production and an extended series is planned. Nevertheless, the ten-years taken to complete the first ship is an indication of the difficulties of restarting warship production once key skills are lost.

India: The availability of warship design expertise in Russia was also significant in that it was drawn upon heavily by both India and China to develop their own indigenous warship building capabilities. This has typically taken the form of limited acquisitions of entire warships, supplemented by larger purchases of equipment and associated technical know-how. In India’s case, a total of six Project 1135.6 Talwar class frigates, a significant enhancement of the Cold War ‘Krivak III’ design, were commissioned between 2003 and 2013.8 The principal rationale behind the acquisition was to make good a shortfall in warship procurement during the 1990s. However, the experience gained from the possession of modern warships will undoubtedly have helped indigenous programmes. So far, as major surface combatants are concerned, these have been focused on two main series of warships; the Project 15 and successor destroyers and the Project 17 series frigates. Both series display the heavy influence of Russian design principles in their basic design but incorporate a bewildering mix of Russian, Western and indigenously-designed equipment. The reliance on Russia has had an unfortunate side-effect in so far as the disruption of equipment supplies that has impacted the Russian fleet has also been felt by Indian shipbuilders. This has been a significant factor in producing extended construction times, which have averaged around nine-years or more.

The most modern designs currently in service are the 6,200-ton Project 17 Shivalik class generalpurpose frigates and the larger 7,400-ton Project 15 Kolkata class destroyers, the latter having a heavy emphasis on anti-air warfare. Three of each type have been – or are close to being – commissioned and improved variants are planned. The former class were ordered at the end of the 1990s and commissioned between 2010 and 2012. They incorporate some stealth features and a Western propulsion system. However, enhancements to automation are not fully reflected in a crew of c.270 once a helicopter is embarked. The main weapons systems are of Russian origin. Whilst the ‘Klub’ export variant of the SS-N-27 ‘Kalibr’ cruise missile provides a powerful anti-surface punch, the Shtil-1 (SA-N-12) medium-range surface-to-air system – with just a single launcher – does not have the capability of more modern Western designs to combat saturation attacks. The use of the vertically-launched Israeli Barak 1 surface-to-air missile system for point defence may reflect its limitations. The Indo-Israeli-developed Barak 8 medium-range missile, which is deployed in conjunction with the EL/M-2248 MF-STAR active phased array on the Kolkata class appears to be a far more potent system. The Kolkata class also carry the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which will be retrofitted to other types.

The drawings represent four of the PLAN’s most important surface combatant classes. The Type 022 missile-armed fast attack craft and larger Type 056 corvettes have both been built in large numbers and play an important part of China’s A2/AD strategy in littoral waters, where they would likely be used to swarm opposing surface forces with their powerful batteries of surface-to-surface missiles. The Type 056 also offers a more balanced range of general-purpose capabilities, with the Type 056A variant (not depicted) fitted with a towed array for a more potent anti-submarine capability. The significantly larger Type 054A frigates and Type 052C destroyers benefit from possessing area air-defence capabilities and can support the PLAN’s ‘near seas’ defence concept at greater distance. They are also increasingly being used in support of the PLAN’s growing interest in blue-water operations

China: China’s naval construction programmes have followed a slightly different track than India’s in so far as the Western ban on imports of military systems following the Tiananmen Square massacre has resulted in a rather less diverse approach to procurement. This appears to have accelerated a transition from imported, largely Soviet-era technology, to the deployment of designs fielding almost entirely indigenous weapons and sensors. The extent to which the underlying technology has been acquired by entirely legitimate means has divided the opinion of commentators.

Direct imports of Russian surface vessels were limited to two pairs of Project 956E/EM Sovremenny class destroyers commissioned between 1999 and 2006. However, these acquisitions appear to have been supplemented by additional purchases of entire systems, such as the Shtil-1-based air defence system used in the Type 052B ‘Luyang I’ destroyers, the Rif-M (SA-N-20) missiles of the Type 051C ‘Luzhou’ class and the Fregat MAE (Top Plate) search radar found on many current surface combatants. Russian influence remains particularly strong in the Type 054A ‘Jiangkai II’ or Xuzhou class frigates, which have been in series production from 2005 onwards. Over twenty of these ships have been commissioned to date and they provide the mainstay of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s blue water deployments. However, the larger Type 052C and Type 052D destroyers that form the ‘high end’ combatant force use largely indigenous equipment, including the Type 346 (Dragon Eye) series phased array and the vertically-launched HHQ-9 surface-to-air missile.9 Interestingly, however, HHQ-9 reflects Russian practice in being derived from a land-based system and has been reported to rely heavily on technology found in the ‘Luzhou’ type’s Rif-M.

In contrast to India, China appears to be able to produce its warships at considerable speed. Build times for major combatants of around three years are comparable with the most productive Western and Japanese yards. It is also starting to enter the market for exports of major surface combatants. Pakistan’s F-22P Zulifiqar class possibly represents its most important export success to date.

Japan: Elsewhere in Asia, China’s principal naval rival, Japan, has long-established warship design and build capabilities. Whilst Japan’s most advanced surface combatants – notably its Aegis-equipped ships – have been heavily influenced by overseas designs, it has otherwise built a series of anti-submarine optimised surface escorts that reflect local operational requirements. These tend to use a mix of Western – largely US Navy but some European – weapons and propulsion systems that are then integrated into Japanese platforms that benefit considerably from local electronics ‘know-how’. Orders have been purposely placed to a regular ‘drumbeat’ of one to two major units each year. This protects the industrial base and facilitates incremental improvement.

The latest surface escorts to be commissioned are the Akizuki (DD-151) class. Four of these were brought into service between 2012 and 2014. Displacing some 6,800 tons in full load condition, the class is derived from the previous Takanami (DD-110) and Murasame (DD-101) classes but exhibits a general enhancement in stealth features and has an upgraded propulsion system. Most notably, however, the class has enhanced air-defence capabilities based on the indigenous Melco FC-3 phased array. This was first installed in the ‘helicopter-carrying destroyer’ Hyuga and incorporates some elements of APAR technology. The incorporation of more sophisticated air-defence equipment reflects the class’s primary role as general-purpose escorts for the helicopter carriers and Aegis-equipped destroyers, particularly when the latter are carrying out BMD taskings.

South Korea is also a major shipbuilding nation and its KDX-I and KDX-II series destroyers are another important example of Asian designed major surface combatants. The subsequent Aegis-equipped KDX-III series was heavily influenced by the DDG-51 class. However, a planned second batch will probably incorporate more local ideas. Local industry is also heavily involved producing the new FFX Incheon class littoral combatants. These approach major surface combatant status in terms of size and capability.

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