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Surface combatant development trends in Asia

Recently, as the regional stability and maritime security face emerging challenges and threats, Asian nations, especially coastal countries have been increasingly putting their resources and efforts into developing naval combat capabilities. Due to their diversity in models and versatility in combat, surface combatants have gained special attention from naval powers in the region.

Recent investment, development and acquisition initiatives for surface warships in Asia have shown revolutionary ideas in naval capability building. Basically, there are 3 main types of surface combatants: destroyer, aircraft carrier and frigate. Surface warship development projects vary between nations due to the differences in each nation’s naval strategy and economic power.

Destroyer

In some Asian defense forces, destroyers are considered as the backbone of the navy. In fact, after more than a century of development and operation, modern destroyers now have enormous displacements, ranging from 5000 to 10000 tons. Today, large destroyers are essential assets for regional naval forces to maintain command of the sea. From global powers’ perspective, the combat capability of this ship type is only eclipsed by aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. To protect its naval interests and maintain its technological superiority in military systems in Asia, Japan is currently the regional leader in developing large destroyers. Its primary destroyer project is the Atago-Class. Each ship of this class costs over 1.5 billion USD and has a displacement of over 10,000 tons. With Atago destroyers, Japan Ministry of Defense seeks to establish the most powerful seaborne ballistic missile defense network in Asia. To achieve this goal, Japanese naval air defense assets will be highly integrated by upgrading warships with Aegis Combat System. Furthermore, all Atago destroyers will be equipped with state-of-the-art multirole missile systems and anti-submarine helicopters, capable of intercepting enemy ballistic missiles from land and sea. As the tension in Korean Peninsula is likely to be escalated, and Pyong Yang missile tests threaten to further destabilize the situation, Japan has decided to upgrade 6 more navy ships with Aegis systems. This plan has raised serious concern among other nations in the region.

Japan’s Atago-Class destroyer (photo: military-today.com)

Sharing the same security environment with Japan, South Korea considers the enhancement of naval assets, especially destroyers, to be extremely important and one of the most effective measures to ensure their abilities in amphibious, air defense, anti-surface and anti-submarine operations. However, unlike Japan, South Korea aims for building a blue-water navy, with Sejeon the Great-class destroyers as its backbone. This project is seen as a confident move and a response to security threats posed by North Korea. Currently, to enhance the offensive and defensive capabilities of its destroyers, Seoul is pushing for quick acquisition and deployment of Aegis systems on Sejeon the Great-class destroyers, and further contracts may be planned as well to equip other ship classes with the system. With Aegis, South Korean destroyers will be able to launch strikes against air, land and sea targets, not only with intermediate-caliber naval guns but also with advanced missiles.

Aircraft Carrier

Due to their high costs in construction and maintenance, there is only a few nations can afford to acquire aircraft carriers for their navies. In Asia, the construction and initial sea trials of the first Chinese-made aircraft carrier (designated as Type 001A) have drawn special attention from observers. This is an important milestone in the evolution of Chinese aircraft carrier program. With the ambition of possessing powerful naval task forces, Beijing has been placing emphasis on developing carrier capabilities step by step from basic levels. In 1985, China spent 2 million USD to purchase HMAS Melbourne aircraft carrier from Australia to study the ship design. Additionally, in 1998 and 2000, it procured two more decommissioned carriers, namely Minsk and Kiev, to use as training facilities and tourist attraction. Notably, in 2002, Beijing spent nearly $ 200 million to acquire Varyag aircraft carrier, which has a 300-metter runway, capable of carrying 24 MiG-29L or Su-33 fighters and 32 Ka29/31 helicopters. Recently, it began to construct a new aircraft carrier named Beijing with a displacement of 70,000 tons. However, many military experts believe that China still has a lot of work to do to compete with global naval powers in aircraft carrier capabilities.

Besides China, India is one of a few Asian nations has its own aircraft carrier program. The first Indian-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, whose construction started in 2004 and was launched in August, 2013. The ship is 206 meters long and 60 meters wide, capable of carrying MiG-29K fighters, Kamov helicopters and many other types of light aircraft. However, it will not be ready for commissioning before 2023 due to delayed construction and the lack of funding.

Although Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has not possessed any aircraft carrier yet, it is still capable of conducting power projection operations with Hyuga and Izumo-class helicopter destroyers. Hyuga-class ships have a displacement of 19,000 tons, larger than Italian and Spanish carriers. Even bigger, Izumo-class displacement is 27,000 tons (equal to the scale of Invincible-class aircraft carrier of British Royal Navy). With the current configurations, Izumo-class ships are not able to carry fixed-wing aircraft; however, they can be refitted with minor modifications to serve as light carriers. The introduction of this ship class is a significant enhancement for Japanese naval power.

Frigate

Medium and light frigates have become more and more popular in the region due to several upsides such as: high automation, small crew size, low acquisition and maintenance cost. Moreover, frigates can be easily upgraded with advanced technologies to improve stealthiness, digitalization, mobility and multi-role characteristics. This ship type will be the center of procurement initiatives for navies all over the world in general and Asian naval forces in particular, especially navies of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN).

Currently, light frigates, corvettes and patrol boats account for a large proportion in naval forces of ASEAN countries. At present, Singapore navy is operating 17 frigates out of 50 surface combatants. Similarly, this ratio in Indonesia and Malaysia navy is 36/48 and 47/52 respectively. ASEAN navies are defensive in nature. Their areas of operation are territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and shelf seas, which are suitable for most light frigate classes to operate. In addition, the maneuverability and ease of access to ports of this ship type make it easily adapt to typically long coast lines of ASEAN countries.

Due to potential challenges to maritime security in East Sea (South China Sea) and emerging demands of protecting naval national interests, some ASEAN members are accelerating their frigate projects. For example, Indonesia, with the geopolitical doctrine of  gaining global political leverage, has introduced an extensive program to procure 6 Damen Sigma 10514 frigates, which will be constructed at PT PAL shipyard, Surabaya, Indonesia; the first ship of the batch was already commissioned in April 2017.

In Malaysia, the country’s Ministry of Defense announced a plan to reduce their fleet from 15 to 5 ship types, including: littoral combat ships, off-shore patrol vessels, littoral mission ships, multirole support ships and submarines. Although the service vessel types will be reduced, the number of ships for each type will be increased. In 2015, Royal Malaysian Navy signed a 2.2-billion USD contract with Boustead Naval Shipyard to build 6 littoral combat ships. These ships are based on an enlarged version of Gowind-class frigate, designed by DCNS of France, which will have a displacement of 3000 tons.

To sum up, due to potential risks and challenges against maritime security and naval national interests in Asia, countries in the region are accelerating extensive naval power enhancement projects, and surface combatant development programs are core elements in these initiatives. Certainly, employing advanced technology to improve defense capabilities to maintain stability and protect sovereignty is the rightful need of every nation. However, if this trend is not properly restrained, it may lead to a new arms race, which potentially causes unpredictable consequences and pose serious threats to regional stability. Thus, enhancing naval capabilities in general and surface combatants in particular needs to be implemented under international laws and regulations to create a peaceful and stable security environment for Asia.

Snr. Col. Dang Dong Tien, General Technical Department 

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