Naval orders-of-battle are on the rise in the Asia-Pacific. Mounting tensions over territory, resources and state-on-state rivalries at sea are prompting Asia-Pacific navies to boost capability to support higher-end operations. Frigates and destroyers sit at the centre of these developments.
In late 2015, a small flotilla of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, the ‘Type-054A/Jiangkai II’ class frigate Yiyang and the ‘Type-052C/Luyang-II’ class destroyer Jinan, supported by the ‘Type-903/Fuchi’ class oiler and replenishment ship Qiandao Hu , completed a round-the-world voyage. The deployment began in the Indian Ocean, with a rotation as the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Naval Escort Flotilla, supporting counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. The ships then headed west of the Suez Canal to undertake a number of port visits in the Mediterranean, and into northern Europe and the Baltic. They then headed home via trans-oceanic crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific (the former including North American port visits).
The PLAN’s ‘Jiangkai’ frigate family has become arguably one of the most ubiquitous warships in the world, being seen in different theatres and undertaking a range of different tasks, much as the US Navy’s ‘Arleigh Burke’ class destroyers do. This 2015 PLAN deployment demonstrated the navy’s emerging ability to use escort platforms to both conduct task group operations and generate sustained presence at distance. The PLAN’s destroyers and frigates are playing a key role in working up task group capability to support the PRC’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. According to The Guardian, the Liaoning was accompanied by two destroyers and a frigate when it called in to Hong Kong in early July 2017. Other reports noted that the two destroyers were the Jinan and the ‘Type 052D/Luyang-III’ class destroyer Yinchuan, with the ‘Type-054A/Jiangkai II’ class frigate Yantai completing the group. In May 2017, the ‘Arleigh Burke’ class destroyer USS Dewey became the latest USN warship to conduct a freedom of navigation passage through disputed waters and territories in the South China Sea, sailing within twelve nautical miles (22.2 kilometres/km) miles of Mischief Reef.
This April and May the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) combatants including the ‘Atago’ class destroyer Ashigara and the ‘Murasame’ class destroyer Samidare, deployed to participate in lengthy exercises with the US Navy off the Korean peninsula. Elements of the exercises saw the involvement of two USN ‘Nimitz’ class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan.
Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region between the US Navy and a number of littoral states on the one hand, and the PRC on the other, over competing maritime and territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, and between the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the international community as a whole over Pyongyang’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme highlight the increasing role of, and requirement for, higher-end naval platforms in the region. The examples noted thus far are just a few of many that reflect this growing emphasis. As well as the higher-end focus, there is growing emphasis in the region on tasks across the spectrum of operations. This includes using lower-end ships to secure maritime territories, fisheries and resources; to tackle piracy and other forms of maritime criminality, and to meet humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and search-and-rescue requirements.
In today’s security environment, the requirement for navies to address a greater number of tasks across the spectrum has seen the development of platforms more flexible in their design, capabilities and outputs. For Asia-Pacific navies, their frigates and destroyers are both required to deliver more flexibility and more capability. Arguably, however, the higher-end tasks are garnering greater strategic attention, and are underscoring the case made by many navies to bolster their escort platform capabilities, including destroyers but perhaps, most notably, frigates.
Around the world today, the frigate is returning to the strategic fore. It is seen not only as the workhorse for many navies, but also as a key factor in addressing high-end operational risks that include, in the Asia-Pacific region, a recent and rapid rise in the requirement for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). Many Asia-Pacific countries see the development of a submarine capability as central to supporting national status and securing strategic interests such as territory and resources; witness the Royal Thai Navy’s planned acquisition of submarines from the PRC. As a direct consequence, many navies are investing in frigates to counter the submarine threat. The ASW requirement, a comparatively new task for Asia-Pacific navies, when set alongside experience in Europe goes a long way to explaining the increasing emphasis on frigate procurement across the region.
Globally, the frigate’s recent resurgence has seen subtle changes in its role, in particular highlighting both its flexibility and its warfighting capability, compared to how it was defined at the end of the Cold War. Writing in 1990 the naval expert Professor Eric Grove defined a frigate as a “combatant of about 1750 to 3000 tons usually optimised for ASW but with general purpose capability; essentially intended for the escort of non-combatant shipping, although useful for patrol and limited offensive operations.” Today, frigates are increasingly used to contribute to lower-end tasks. However, ASW remains a core capability output; there also seems to be a growing requirement for more robust capabilities, in particular in terms of escort operations for higher-end platforms (such as carriers) as well as the ability to conduct land-attack strikes (as demonstrated by both US Navy and Russian Navy frigates). Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told AMR that there is a general increase in interest in frigates and other platforms, such as offshore patrol vessels in the region due to increasing defence outlays, a significant number of regional maritime disputes and issues; growing maritime ambitions, and general growth in sophisticated maritime capabilities: “The maturing of the programmes of major navies in the region is itself resulting in a larger number of capable frigates … and is driving up the general requirement for more capable platforms among other navies,” he said.
The requirement for frigates to do more is driving an increase in frigate size and capability across the Asia-Pacific region. Reflecting a common trend in Europe, for example, larger frigates in the region are displacing over 6000 tonnes. Prominent examples are the Indian Navy’s ‘Project-17/Shivalik’ and planned ‘Project-17A’ class ships (displacing 6300 tonnes and 6600 tonnes respectively) and the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) forthcoming 6000 tonne frigates to be procured for the RAN’s Sea-5000 programme. In the mid-range, capable platforms include the Republic of Korea’s 3250 tonne ‘Incheon’ class and planned 3600 tonne ‘FFX-II’ class frigates, and the Republic of Singapore Navy’s 3250 tonne ‘Formidable’ class frigates. Furthermore, Indonesia’s ‘Bung Tomo’ frigates are very capable platforms, even displacing 1950 tonnes.
Much of the increased offered by these comparatively larger displacement frigates is being devoted, in a number of cases, to the addition of air defence and surface-to-surface missile capabilities. It is interesting to note that the RAN’s nine new frigates being procured under the Sea-5000 imitative are replacing its eight ‘ANZAC’ class frigates. While Western naval force levels have generally been following a downward trend since the 1990s, the RAN’s future frigate programme is one of several examples across Western navies where platform numbers are increasing again, if only slightly. The use of larger frigates also has enabled a number of Asia-Pacific navies to take on extra-regional deployments as routine. The PLAN is beginning to develop this capability, especially through its counter-piracy rotations (see above). The RAN has been doing so for some time, sending its ‘Adelaide/Oliver Hazard Perry’ class and ‘ANZAC’ frigates to the Middle East region to support Operation MANITOU; Australia’s contribution to international maritime security, stability, and prosperity efforts in this locale: HMAS Arunta recently completed a nine-month deployment, handing over to HMAS Newcastle in July 2017. A number of other Asia-Pacific navies have supported the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF)/Coalition Task Force-151 (CTF-151) counter-piracy activity in the Indian Ocean; including the navies of Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. The JMSDF recently handed over command of CTF-151, and various ships including the ‘Takanami’ class destroyer Suzunami have supported the operation in recent years. Such deployments underline the requirement within a number of Asia-Pacific navies to generate presence at distance. As well as to make a political contribution to the international counter-piracy campaign, a number of these navies will have been keen to demonstrate such presence to secure Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and the trade that flows to and from the Asia-Pacific region along such SLOCs.
Building frigate fleets is not without its challenges for Asia-Pacific navies. The requirement to develop multipurpose platforms can come with a cost that is significant, even at a time of increasing strategic focus on, and budgetary support for, naval operations. Some regional navies are attempting to balance the capability and affordability equation by acquiring second-hand vessels from Western countries. For example, the Philippines’ two ‘Del Pilar/Hamilton’ and ‘Hero’ class frigates were purchased from the US Coast Guard (USCG).
While the use of frigates in the region demonstrates their flexibility in supporting various tasks, the region’s destroyers enjoy a similarly high profile with albeit a perhaps more limited role. There are fewer navies in the region possessing destroyers than there are frigates, largely because of the higher-end and more bespoke nature of the destroyer’s role. Prof. Grove defined a destroyer as a “medium-sized combatant of between 2750 and 7000 tonnes with the speed and capabilities of the most demanding combat operations, including participation in fast carrier battle groups.” He argued that even the larger platforms in the size range would not have the area air-defence capability of, for example, a cruiser-sized platform. The air-defence task is certainly one where global destroyer capabilities have increased in recent times. With destroyers being larger and more sophisticated platforms associated with high-end air-defence capabilities, said Mr. Childs, “they tend to be the preserve still of navies which have more serious ambitions for independent blue-water operations at range, including with task groups.” He noted too that Asia-Pacific destroyer numbers and capabilities are growing. The focus of the PLAN’s forthcoming ‘Type-055’ class destroyer is very much on carrier task group operations. Within this context, its 10000 tonne to 12000 tonne design again demonstrates the flexibility of a large platform: the ship is intended to provide anti-ship, land-attack, and surface-to-air capabilities, and a comprehensive sensor suite.
Another notable regional destroyer programme is the RAN’s ‘Hobart’ class Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD). According to the RAN’s website, the three 6350-tonne ships “will provide air defence for accompanying ships in addition to land forces and infrastructure in coastal areas, and for self-protection against missiles and aircraft.” It will do this through a combination of its Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat Management System (CMS), Lockheed Martin AN/SPY-1D(V) X-band (8.5 gigahertz/GHz to 10.68GHz) naval surveillance radar and 32 Raytheon RIM-66 Standard Missile-2 Block-III missiles. The “accompanying ships” will include the RAN’s two ‘Canberra’ class amphibious assault ships. With these latter vessels and the ‘Hobart’ class ships, plus new frigates, submarines, and support ships to come, the RAN will in due course be able to deploy a potent task group capability. Given the region’s growing ASW challenge, protecting this task group will be a primary future focus for the RAN. As noted in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, which outlines Canberra’s strategic and defence procurement priorities, the new frigates will be optimised for ASW. This includes the ability to embark the Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk naval support helicopter. The frigates will begin entering service in the late 2020s.
The Indian Navy also has a growing carrier presence to protect. The navy has one carrier in service, the ‘Project-11430/Modified Kiev’ class INS Vikramaditya, and is building up to two more under the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) programme. The navy is planning up to seven ‘Project 15A/B/Kolkata’ class destroyers, the first of which entered service in 2014. The destroyers will likely have a role in defending the carriers, and the deployment of ships with a prominent ASW capability comes at a time of increasing levels of PLAN nuclear-powered attack submarine activity in the Indian Ocean.
The region’s most prominent destroyer navy arguably is the JMSDF. The service currently has eight operational destroyer classes, and is introducing improved variants of the in-service ‘Akizuki’ and ‘Atago’ classes. In terms of standard displacement, the different classes cover a broad range of tonnages, from the 3000-tonne ‘Hatsuyuki’ class to the 8000 tonne-plus forthcoming ‘Improved Atago’ class ships. Japan’s focus on destroyers is driven by its strategic circumstances, namely its rivalry with the PRC and the DPRK in particular: this has seen the JMSDF seek to stay in step with the US Navy’s area and ballistic missile defence developments through the use of the Aegis CMS on its four ‘Kongou’ class and two ‘Atago’ class destroyers. With strategic circumstances mirroring those of Japan, the Republic of Korea’s three ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyers are fitted with both the Aegis CMS and AN/SPY-1D(V) radar.
Other major navies are likely to have a prominent presence in the region. To what extent Russia’s growing levels of naval activity will see a greater Asia-Pacific presence is not clear just yet. All of Russia’s current destroyers are ageing, and it is not known when its planned new destroyer class will arrive. Russia is clearly feeling the numbers pinch, with Pacific Fleet units often required to boost its task group presence off Syria in the Mediterranean. However, Russia has been using its Pacific Fleet destroyers where it can to boost national interests. November 2014 saw the ‘Project-1155/Udaloy’ class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and three other ships conduct exercises in the Bismarck Sea, in the southwest Pacific Ocean in advance of the Brisbane G20 summit. In April 2016, the ‘Project-1155/Udaloy’ class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov joined a multinational naval flotilla for the Indonesian-led ‘Komodo’ exercise. In September 2016, the Admiral Vinogradov and her sister ship Admiral Tributs took part in the Pacific element of the annual Sino-Russia ‘Joint Seas’ bilateral exercise.
In terms of the frigate market, the Asia-Pacific region seems to be busy. Navies are interested in buying Western frigates off-the-shelf, working with Western companies to build ships in-house, or seeking second-hand sales. Navies are also investing in a range of ASW capabilities, from helicopters to sonar to torpedoes. The desire to secure territorial and resource interests is also driving a significant focus on surveillance capabilities. The destroyer market is more limited. There are less navies building destroyer fleets; moreover, the capabilities delivered by a destroyer, while numerous, largely support higher-end operations. Nonetheless, such navies are looking to improve their punch in ASW, land-attack and, particularly, local and area air-defence with both weapons and sensors.