National and International Issues

Reconfigurable Warships – A Step Towards Building Pakistan an Affordable Navy

For Pakistan a powerful navy is an essential guarantor of its seaward defence and prosperity. Its economy relies overwhelmingly on the sea as some 90 percent by volume and 70 percent by value of its trade is seaborne. This will only increase in importance when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) becomes fully operational. However, though balanced and capable, the navy is presently understrength, and cannot meet this requirement without expansion and considerable modernization. This may appear daunting as out of the three services the navy is the most expensive in terms of unit/running costs of its platforms, and expansion/modernization will require tens of billions of dollars. Achieving this critical requirement need not be a quandary though. A base-line multi-role platform (reconfigurable from Offshore Patrol Vessel to fully armed warship) to be operated by Pakistan Navy and Maritime Security Agency (MSA), to replace a range of vessels operating in territorial waters and Extended Economic Zone (EEZ), will deliver long term lower operational costs and guarantee a credible conventional deterrent against aggression.

The workhorses of the Pakistani fleet are the destroyers and frigates that operate on the outer periphery of the EEZ and beyond. However, Pakistan Navy and MSA also operate a larger number of smaller vessels that can be replaced with a single multi-role design to lower long-term operational costs and increase Pakistan’s defencive capabilities. When the need arose to maintain operational requirements within restricted budgets, some countries examined more affordable multi-role platforms (generally corvettes/OPVs or light frigates) to sustain numbers/presence in less threatening environments. Unfortunately, a true multi-role capability is expensive, leading to acquisition of lightly armed patrol vessels for fisheries’ protection, search and rescue, pollution control, EEZ policing, and other coastguard type duties. However, though more affordable to acquire/operate they have limited war fighting capability. Consequently, when purchased instead in place of fully capable warships, the navy will probably not be able to fulfil its main role of national defence due to being inadequately equipped. Under these circumstances a resource constrained nation essentially cannot 'afford' a ship that cannot fight, as necessity dictates every ship be able to defend itself and actively participate in wartime operations. This is especially true for Pakistan Navy, which faces threats having to undertake anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare in a heavy electronic warfare measures and high air/missile threat environment, (and expect saturation missile attacks under these conditions). This, therefore, requires an affordable design that can replace a range of vessels and perform the full spectrum of roles, but still be credibly armed for wartime.


‘Affordable’ can be defined in terms of acquisition or operational costs. Low acquisition costs generally mean higher through-life operational costs. The formula is generally reversed when considering high acquisition costs mainly due to the cost of advanced technologies that help reduce operational/through-life expenditure. An affordable warship today could be powered by an integrated electric or combined diesel propulsion system, be highly automated to reduce manning levels, and be equipped with sophisticated radar and other sensors in an integrated mast for air and surface search, acquisition and fire control. Weaponry would consist of a package to deal with the conceivable spectrum of threats, such a ship would be expected to act alone or in conjunction with other warships. However, the physical footprint of some weaponry and sensors could dictate the feasibility of their inclusion on smaller vessels such as corvettes, requiring dedicated space for mission dependent modules. Consequently such designs may have common baseline weaponry such as a medium calibre gun, remotely operated small calibre guns, a gun and missile CIWS, and possibly ASW rocket launchers. There can be a temptation to only rely on a gun CIWS for air defence, but they are not (and never should be) the first line of defence against air threats, especially not in the environment Pakistan Navy operates. ASW rockets like the RDC-32 can be used against unmanned underwater/swimmer delivery vehicles. Further weaponry, such as varying anti-ship missile loads, ASW torpedoes, and mines, can be installed as and when required. Advanced air/surface search radar, electro-optical sensors, and hull-mounted sonar, would be pre-requisites on a baseline design, with additional modular sensors such as active towed array sonar for example, installed as and when required. However, even with this ability to swap or leave out equipment, including the previous list of characteristics in a ship design will see its cost rapidly escalate, therefore making a low tech single role vessel more attractive despite its inferiority.


However, meeting the expense of a multi-role capability can be mitigated by the modular concept of retaining dedicated space for mission dependent modules, but choosing not to include systems until they become affordable under the 'fitted for but not with' concept. This allows for systems to be installed when they become available, but does not delay service entry of the vessel itself, therefore having a reduced impact on operational availability especially at the lower end of the threat spectrum. Such a design could also have a dedicated reconfigurable stern compartment able to accept mission dependent equipment. For example, in the OPV role for the MSA this may include an 11m RHIB; for MCMV missions it could include a dedicated counter mine module to locate, classify, and destroy mines; or an active towed array sonar package for ASW operations. This space could also accommodate anti-ship/land attack missiles if they could be raised and fired through the flightdeck. Additionally space could also be used for containerized mission payloads. Such flexibility would allow one baseline design, configurable per mission requirements, to replace a range of vessels usually tasked with patrol and defence of territorial, EEZ and adjoining waters.


Additionally, propulsion options can further reduce costs. Gas turbines have high fuel consumption and are thus expensive to run, contributing to high operational costs. However, integrated electric propulsion has the benefit of reducing operational costs due to the lower levels of maintenance required. It also frees up internal space for other use due to the ability to place the diesel or other engines/generators in alternative areas, and the electric motors thereby reducing the length of the drive shafts. Acquisition costs are high however, but propulsion costs can also be reduced if alternative fuels are considered. Research is ongoing into various possibilities including organic biofuels such as biodiesel or that derived from plants such as camelina, organic derived additives such as ethanol, or even breaking down sea water. Pakistan’s sugarcane industry can produce ethanol in quantity, and this plus other biofuel alternatives such as biodiesel must be explored. At the very least, diesels are an affordable, economical, and reliable propulsion option that considerably reduce operational costs.


Including or excluding helicopters (the most powerful and flexible weapons on any warship), can also reduce costs as they entail added expense of acquisition, maintenance, and operations through fuel and expandables, plus crew training. However, a modular design, allowing vessels to be built with or without a hangar will allow operations requiring longer range/endurance to be handled by vessels equipped with a hangar to embark a helicopter. Missions closer to shore could be handled by those only built with a flight deck to allow resupply, plus refuelling and rearming shore-based ASW helicopters. Alternatively, operating rotary UAVs could keep overall costs down, but still maintain a larger operational footprint.


Warship designers presently offer platforms configurable to customer requirements. However, these are commonly built to certain specifications, and generally not reconfigurable once in service. The Danish STANFLEX system achieves this to a large extent as it allows mission specific modules and equipment to be included as and when required. Newer (some as yet un-built) warship designs have incorporated such concepts to achieve multirole flexibility. Of note in this regard is the U.S. experience of the Littoral Combat Ship Programme and its efforts to achieve this level of reconfigurable flexibility. Despite the programme’s teething troubles the concept is still the way forward. Unfortunately, most western designs are generally quite large, and have excessively high acquisition and operational costs, especially for Pakistan which needs such vessels in volume. However, such a concept is still a realistic option for Pakistan, one that features the above characteristics that will enable it to be fully multi-role, able to undertake the full spectrum of peacetime patrol to ‘hot’ conflict operations. This may require a tailor made solution with maximum public/private industrial involvement, but lacking the necessary domestic design experience Pakistan’s naval planners will have to seek foreign co-operation, which, due to financial and geopolitical reality narrows the field down to China and Turkey. China is an increasingly capable warship designer and its Type-056 corvette/OPV could form the basis for such a design. As a source of affordable technology co-operation with China would make such a programme feasible.


Whereas navies can be convinced of the need to spend money to save it (and lives) though, high acquisition costs may potentially deter decision-makers, (who generally think short term). However, the prospect of affordably delivering a credible defence capability at lower operational cost, (plus a steady work for KSEW that ultimately benefits local industry and the national exchequer), is a powerful counter argument. A reconfigurable family of corvettes that can replace a range of less capable vessels and provide a more credible and robust defence during wartime will certainly allow Pakistan to efficiently and cost effectively safeguard CPEC and its EEZ as well as Extended Continental Shelf from aggression.


The writer is currently Chief Analyst for the British-based naval news monthly, Warships international Fleet Review. He is also Pakistan’s correspondent for the U.S.-based Defence News and has contributed in various international defence publications.

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