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World Naval Developments 2012

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The Republic of Korea Navy amphibious landing ship ROKS Dokdo (LPH 6111) under way in the Sea of Japan with the guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG 82) and USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas

What follows are only highlights of world naval developments and programs for 2012. They are restricted to a few navies, and within those navies to a few high-profile programs.

Surely the most spectacular naval developments this year were the latest installments in the continuing sagas of the Chinese and Indian aircraft carrier forces. The Chinese finally commissioned their carrier as Liaoning, having decided not to name it Shi Lang, after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan centuries ago. Reportedly they were responding to Taiwanese entreaties, and probably to renewed promises that the island would not declare independence. The chosen name is the province in which the ship, formerly the Russian Varyag, was refitted and modernized. The ship has run repeated sea trials.

By November, after trying touch-and-goes, the Chinese had accumulated enough experience to make arrested landings and ski-jump takeoffs using two J-15 (reverse-engineered from a Russian Su-33) carrier-based fighter/strike aircraft. They had not yet operated multiple aircraft simultaneously.

This year the Chinese also announced that they would produce the Russian TU-22M Backfire bomber under license, specifically as a maritime strike aircraft. During the Cold War, missile-bearing Backfires were the single-worst threat faced by U.S. carriers. Reportedly the Chinese have been trying to acquire these aircraft since 1998.

A People's Liberation Army Navy J-15 Flying Shark traps aboard the carrier Liaoning.  Xinhua photo

A People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15 Flying Shark traps aboard the carrier Liaoning. Xinhua photo

The carrier is the most spectacular part of a long-running modernization and expansion of the PLAN (the People’s Liberation Army Navy). Reportedly, outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao favored navy and air force modernization over army modernization, presumably as part of a turn toward the sea (the air force would support offshore operations). This year’s crop of new ship types includes a new destroyer (Project 052C) with more vertical launchers (of a new type, suitable for hot and cold launches), and two helicopters rather than one, as well as a new corvette (Type 056). The great question is whether the carrier and the big missile destroyers indicate a shift away from the earlier coastal emphasis and toward a blue-water posture. Some Chinese naval officers have written that the country should adopt a blue-water posture because the most vital naval task is not coast defense, but rather the defense of Chinese sources of raw materials and energy, on which the country’s prosperity depends. The subtext is that the Chinese Communist Party often justifies its continued dictatorship on the basis that it ensures prosperity – a weirdly capitalist justification for communist power, but important all the same.

A blue-water Chinese navy can also be an expression of Chinese nationalism, another important Party theme.

This year Chinese and Japanese forces almost came to blows over the ownership of the tiny Senkaku Islands south of Japan. The islands are uninhabited, but they lie in an area of the South China Sea that China first claimed in 1947, before the current Communist regime took power. The area is generally believed to be mineral-rich, hence well worth disputing. It is known to be a rich fishery, and for years it has been assumed that there are huge undersea oil and gas reserves (as yet unproven, however).

The emergence of Type 056 might be read as part of the move toward blue water, although this ship is hardly likely to be part of a future Chinese carrier task force. Type 056 may have been conceived as a far less expensive alternative to the earlier Type 054 frigate, leaving more money for battle group types. The Chinese do continue to produce coastal missile boats, but Type 056 could also be seen as an offshore alternative to these craft, much as the German Braunschweig-class corvettes were conceived as blue-water alternatives to fast missile boats.

This November, the Chinese Communist Party carried out a scheduled leadership change. Reportedly Hu’s replacement, Xi Jinping, favors the army over the navy and air force. If that is true, then the recent surge in new construction may have been an attempt to place a large program in place before naval funding was cut. It is also possible that the Chinese naval leadership will feel that it has to demonstrate its value to a skeptic, in which case we can expect further clashes in places like the South China Sea.

    Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus tours the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy Jiangkai II-class ship Xu Zhou (FFG 539), Nov. 29, 2012. Mabus was visiting China to discuss the new U.S. defense strategy, deepening our military-to-military engagements, rebalancing toward the Pacific and fostering a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) ongoing modernization program has drawn the attention of many nations in the region. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers

Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus tours the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Jiangkai II-class ship Xu Zhou (FFG 539), Nov. 29, 2012. Mabus was visiting China to discuss the new U.S. defense strategy, deepening military-to-military engagements, rebalancing toward the Pacific and fostering a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) ongoing modernization program has drawn the attention of many nations in the region. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers

If the Chinese navy is now justifying its program based mainly on guaranteeing access to vital resources, that would seem to place greater emphasis on the sea lanes crossing the Indian Ocean from the oil sources of the Middle East (development of oil in the South China Sea would, of course, change matters). In that case, the Chinese will see the Indian navy as more and more of a problem.

For their part, the Indians have justified increased naval expenditure by arguing that the Chinese are moving into the Indian Ocean. The centerpiece of their program is a plan to build or acquire three carriers: the rebuilt ex-Russian Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov) plus one or two to be built in India.

By this year, the cost of the ex-Russian carrier had already escalated spectacularly. The latest news was serious machinery trouble. Although the ship’s boilers performed properly when tested ashore, once on board ship only one of the eight produced enough steam, and the ship could not make her designed speed. That was particularly unfortunate because the ship has no catapults; she relies on a ski-jump (and wind over the deck) to launch her aircraft. If she is not fast enough, she cannot operate at all.

The problem seems to have been asbestos insulation. The Indians wanted it removed as a health hazard, and they had to back down in order to achieve the desired performance. Like many other Russian warships of her vintage, Vikramaditya has pressure-fired boilers, in which a turbocharger feeds high-pressure air into her boilers. The insulation was presumably required in order for the boilers to burn at the necessary high temperature.

Vikramaditya is to enter service late in 2014. She is older (and smaller) than the Chinese carrier, but considerably newer than the existing ex-British Vikrant, and can accommodate a much more powerful air wing.


United States

Meanwhile, the United States is building the far larger nuclear carrier Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class. Major new features include a redesigned flight deck (the island is moved well aft) intended to speed flight deck turn around, a one-shot reactor, and electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear (and other electric rather than hydraulic or steam systems). The emphasis for several years has been on the number of separate sorties, hence the number of individual targets, a carrier can handle per day. That contrasts with an older emphasis on mass strikes assigned to a single target. The difference is modern precision munitions, launched from a distance at targets designated by position (using GPS and its relatives). For such tactics, what matters is how quickly a few aircraft can be turned around, not so much how quickly a mass of aircraft can be prepared to take off together. The new emphasis long predates the Ford-class design, but the new carrier is the first to be shaped by it.

A conceptual rendering of CVN 78, the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new-generation carrier design for the U.S. Navy. Innovations for the aircraft carrier include an enhanced flight deck with increased sortie rates, improved weapons movement, a redesigned island, a new nuclear power plant, electro-magnetic catapults, and allowance for future technologies and reduced manning. Northrop Grumman photo

A conceptual rendering of CVN 78, the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new-generation carrier design for the U.S. Navy. Innovations for the aircraft carrier include an enhanced flight deck with increased sortie rates, improved weapons movement, a redesigned island, a new nuclear power plant, electro-magnetic catapults, and allowance for future technologies and reduced manning. Northrop Grumman photo

The single-shot reactor, an idea also being applied to submarines, is a reactor designed to function through the life of a ship without refueling. Refueling is the single-most expensive event in the life of a nuclear carrier or submarine; it is also when major changes are made in the ship. Eliminating it ought to make a dramatic reduction in the ship’s lifetime cost.

The new carrier introduces an electromagnetic catapult as part of a shift away from hydraulics and steam auxiliaries and toward electric power. For example, as in a hybrid car, the braking action of the arrester gear will generate some electric power. Some of that power will be available to the catapult. Another advantage of a powerful electric plant is that it can power electric lasers for close-in defense; reportedly the Navy has been pleased with recent experiments with such weapons. Alternatively, electric (rail) guns may be adopted for close-in defense. The electromagnetic catapult itself is advertised as more flexible than its steam predecessors, and it is reportedly better adapted to launching unmanned aircraft.

The ship and her successors will also have a new phased-array radar (SPY-3), a greater degree of automation (which may be made possible by internal electric sensors and controls), and a degree of stealth. Clearly it is impossible to make a 100,000-ton ship disappear. However, if the ship’s radar signature can be changed, she may be made to resemble either another large ship (say a bulk carrier) or she may be made to look more like her escorts (and signature control on those ships may bring them up to the carrier’s signature). Signature control of this type would enormously complicate any attempt to target the carrier within a formation, for example, in support of long-range missile attack (by bombers or by the new Chinese ballistic missiles).


United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, work continues on the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. Both had been designed to operate the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) version of the U.S. F-35, using ski jumps. However, the plans reportedly made provision for the alternative of catapults and arresting gear – “cats and traps.” The British Conservative government reviewed the program and decided that it would cut its costs by withdrawing from the expensive STOVL program, completing the second ship with cats and traps, and leaving the first ship with a ski-jump bow – and without any fixed-wing aircraft. The force of Harrier STOVLs, which might have operated from the ships upon completion, was disbanded and sold off (to the U.S. Marine Corps). The government then discovered, thanks to operations in Libya, that it had not been so good an idea to disband its carrier air arm – land-based aircraft were hardly the same thing.

An artist's conception of the Royal Navy's two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers in operation. They will be fitted out as STOVL carriers operating F-35Bs, after a change of heart by the U.K. government.

An artist’s conception of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers in operation. They will be fitted out as STOVL carriers operating F-35Bs, after a change of heart by the U.K. government. U.K. MoD photo

Now the government reversed itself. It claimed that the cost of the cat and trap version of the carrier had been badly underestimated; it would be less expensive, on the whole, to stay with STOVL aircraft. The advantage was that they would have an operational carrier about two years earlier. The great disadvantage was that, having happily disposed of the Harriers, they would have nothing at all until the STOVL F-35s became available – which might not be nearly as soon as imagined. In effect, however, the British about-face saved the STOVL F-35 (at least for now), something for which its main user, the U.S. Marine Corps, must be very grateful.

Other navies, which have built small carriers that cannot operate anything except STOVL aircraft, are probably even more grateful – no other STOVL attack aircraft is either in production or anywhere near it. The main navies currently involved are those of Italy and Spain, although it is quite possible that Japan and Australia will later feel similar relief. Japan has two 13,000-ton helicopter carriers (designated as helicopter destroyers), and plans to build a 19,000-ton follow-on, which would be a natural STOVL ship. Australia is building two large amphibious ships very similar to the Spanish “projection ship” – a dual-purpose STOVL carrier and large amphibious ship. Neither the Japanese nor the Australians currently plan to buy naval STOVL aircraft.


Europe

The FREMM frigate Aquitaine undergoing sea trials off of Brest, France, Sept. 23, 2011. DCNS photo

The FREMM frigate Aquitaine undergoing sea trials off of Brest, France, Sept. 23, 2011. DCNS photo

European navies continue to suffer from the economic disaster. For example, this year the Spanish found themselves laying up their carrier, plus frigates and submarines. It seems unlikely that Greek plans for a FREMM frigate (the Franco-Italian Aquitaine class) and for more Type 214 submarines will materialize, and Portugal has again slowed its only naval program, for offshore patrol vessels. Italy cut plans for FREMM (Bergamini class) frigates from 10 to seven under a 28 percent defense cut. It also announced mass decommissioning of existing ships: a 2012 list of ships to be placed out of service by 2016 included three submarines, eight frigates, eight corvettes, and three minehunters. France did increase its military budget slightly, but it cut its own FREMM program from 17 to 11 ships in 2011, the army being given priority. The situation was dramatized at the Euronaval show in October 2012, when there were no major announcements of new construction contracts. The main current French export deals are the Mistral-class helicopter carrier for Russia (with more to be built in Russia) and the FREMM-class frigate for Morocco.



Middle East

The two hot areas for naval growth are now, as for some years, the Middle East and the Far East. 

In the Middle East, the main driver is probably the continuing threat posed by Iran, which often threatens to use submarines, small fast combatants, and mines to close the vital Straits of Hormuz to oil shipping. Iran is also developing ballistic missiles that can hit the entire Middle East, and is nearly universally believed to be developing an atomic bomb suitable for those missiles. Several countries with active naval programs changed government during the Arab Spring. To the extent that the Arab Spring put the needs of the population ahead of those of the military (which had buttressed the previous regime), it seems likely that military and naval spending will be cut dramatically in favor of urgently needed public spending. Egypt is probably the main case in point. The question will be whether the new governments will feel that foreign threats (usually perceived as Iran and Israel) require that previous spending levels be maintained. In the event of drastic cuts, it seems more likely that naval than ground forces will suffer, because the latter will be perceived as instruments to maintain public order. Particularly in Egypt, the new popular governments are finding it difficult to meet public expectations. Saudi Arabia is largely immune from this force because it has not yet experienced an Arab Spring revolt, and because its resources are so huge that it appears to be able to avoid painful choices, at least for now.

The Indian navy carrier Vikramaditya moored in Severomorsk. Far over budget and behind schedule, the carrier has been dogged with various problems associated with its refit and reconstruction. Oleg Filonok via Wikimedia Commons

The Indian navy carrier Vikramaditya moored in Severomorsk. Far over budget and behind schedule, the carrier has been dogged with various problems associated with its refit and reconstruction. Oleg Filonok via Wikimedia Commons

The largest navy in the area is that of Saudi Arabia. Announced Saudi programs include a sea-based ballistic missile defense capability (inspired by the U.S. naval ballistic missile defense program) and (a much lower priority) up to four diesel-electric submarines (presumably to counter the Iranian craft). The ballistic missile defense program was reflected in this year’s Euronaval show, when one builder (Fincantieri) displayed a model of a ballistic missile defense surface combatant equipped with the U.S. Aegis system. Up to five ships may be involved, the most likely candidate being the Arleigh Burke class. The Saudis have also shown interest in the fastU.S. littoral combat ship, and at EuronavalLockheed Martin displayed an enlarged version carrying Aegis. Other navies in the area are building new larger corvettes, but nothing so spectacular.

The Israeli navy has concentrated on buying German-built Dolphin-class submarines, which are now being presented as a deterrent to the Iranians, possibly armed with cruise missiles (a third submarine of the current [second] series was ordered this year). The first of the series, Tannin, was delivered in May. As it is generally believed that Israel has a substantial nuclear arsenal, and as the Iranians would find it impossible to deal with the submarines at sea, the hints of deterrence seem credible. Note, however, that the missile in question has never been identified; the United States, for example, never sold Tomahawk to Israel. Meanwhile a projected Israeli frigate program (at one time transmuted into a program to buy a large amphibious ship) has stalled, the Israeli navy apparently being unable to decide just what it wants.



Far East


In Asia, Indian naval modernization continues, with Russian-built submarines being fitted to fire land- and ship-attack cruise missiles, while the Indians are building French Scorpene-class submarines as replacements. Other Indian submarines are to be modified to fire U.S. Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The Indian navy is buying both locally built destroyers and frigates and Russian-built frigates – and it is also continuing both its domestic carrier and domestic nuclear submarine programs.

In April the Indian Navy took delivery of a leased Russian Akula class nuclear attack submarine, with another on the way. The submarine was named Chakra II in memory of a Russian nuclear submarine previously leased to India, and returned in 1991. Meanwhile India is building a nuclear submarine (to be armed with, among other things, ballistic missiles), christened Arihant.

INS Satpura

The Indian navy frigate INS Satpura (F48) under way with the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) in formation with other U.S. and Indian navy ships during Exercise Malabar 2012. The Indian navy continues to procure both foreign and domestically-built frigates and destroyers, the Satpura being an example of the latter. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans

South Korea’s growing strength not only as a naval power but also as a shipbuilder is reflected in a recent order from Indonesia for three Type 209/1400 submarines, the German-designed type that has been built for some years for the Korean navy. In winning the contract, Daewoodefeated French, German, Turkish, and Russian builders; note that the Turkish vessels would also have been German-designed submarines. The first of the three will be built in South Korea, the others in Indonesia (the first with many Korean-built components). Reportedly a key advantage of the Korean offer was technology transfer to Indonesia, which would mean the transfer of technology originally transferred from Germany to Korea. Korea is currently building Aegis destroyers, and this fall announced that it would extend the program from the original three hulls to six. The current Korean plan calls for a total of 18 modern destroyers, including the Aegis ships. The Koreans have already built helicopter assault carriers (Dokdo has been completed, and three others are building), and a fleet like this one could well be envisaged as escorts for a true carrier, perhaps with STOVL aircraft. As it is, Dokdo is as large as the existing Spanish STOVL carrier, and the Koreans are considering buying the STOVL version of the F-35to equip it. The current Korean plan is to deploy two or three “rapid response fleets,” each consisting of one carrier (Dokdo-type), two Aegis destroyers, five other destroyers, two or three submarines, and possibly some frigates. It is not clear how the current non-nuclear submarines would be integrated into such formations.

The Royal Malaysian Navy's second Scorpène-class submarine, KD Tun Abdul Razak, docked at its naval jetty in Awana Porto Malai, Langkawi, in 2011. The procurement of submarines by countries such as Malaysia may be explained as a response to the People's Liberation Army Navy. Photo by Mak Hon Keong

The Royal Malaysian Navy’s second Scorpène-class submarine, KD Tun Abdul Razak, docked at its naval jetty in Awana Porto Malai, Langkawi, in 2011. The procurement of submarines by countries such as Malaysia may be explained as a response to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Photo by Mak Hon Keong

Increased Chinese naval activity and the escalating tension over the South China Sea have convinced Japan to authorize a larger fleet, the first increase being in submarines (the current 22-boat force is to grow to 24). The 24-boat force would provide two task groups, one facing south into the East China Sea and one facing east into the Sea of Japan.

However, the great question is when and whether Japan moves from the current large “helicopter destroyers” to true carriers equipped with STOVL or even conventional aircraft – with the announcement of the current 19,000-ton ships pointing that way.

To the extent that the Chinese writings stressing the need to safeguard access to raw material reflect actual Chinese thinking, they provide regional navies with a way to apply pressure: They can threaten that access, probably most effectively using submarines. This possibility may well explain the growth in local submarine forces, in many cases in navies that had never previously operated submarines – such as those of Malaysia (French-built Scorpenes) and Vietnam (Russian-built Kilos).

China surely also explains the Australian decision to double the size of the current submarine force. The obvious point at which pressure can be applied is the funnel of the Malacca Straits, through which ships pass en route from the Middle East to Chinese ports. Chinese interest in Burmese ports (and in modern roads through Burma) may also be explainable in these terms: the Chinese may hope to unload ships before they have to pass through the choke point of the straits.