Monday, 23 February 2015

The combined naval strength of Sweden and Finland

Earlier this week both Sweden and Finland agreed to cooperate together on a military level. Central in this cooperation is the creation of a joint naval task force and mutual access to each other’s naval bases. Aside from the Russian navy, the Swedish navy is already the most powerful in the Baltic Sea and yet, by teaming up with the Finnish navy it would further strengthen the Swedish navy as well as the Finnish.
The Baltic Defence blog made a more detailed overview of how the strength of both the Swedish and Finnish navies will evolve in the next decade as well as a discription of the strategic and tactical implications of this joint naval cooperation.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Improvements on China's Type 093 nuclear submarines

Over the past years the Chinese Navy (PLAN) underwent a major change. As the Chinese economy rose, so did China’s standing in the world. In order to project China’s new power across the region the PLAN made a transition from a coastal defence force into a powerful navy. At the moment the PLAN is a green water navy centred around diesel-electric submarines, corvettes and frigates. The primary goal of the PLAN is to gain naval superiority within the First Island Chain, a line running from Japan over Taiwan and the Philippines towards Singapore.
As China keeps becoming a more important player on the global stage it finds the need to project its power and influence beyond the First Island Chain. In order to accomplish that China needs a blue water navy with a true global reach. The PLAN already made the first steps in this new transition. Aircraft carriers, a new cruiser design and destroyers are a part of the blue water navy that China needs. Now the PLAN made improvements in a field it ignored for a long time, its Type 093 Shang class nuclear attack submarines (SSN).
The SSNs that the PLAN operates are old and outdated. They are reported to be loud and noisy and are thus easy detected by other modern navies. The Type 093 Shang class is reported to have similar capabilities as Soviet Victor III class submarines. Still, these submarines are the only tools the PLAN can employ at the moment to project power on a global scale. Although China plans to build new modern nuclear attack submarines these projects are still far away from completion. The PLAN thus upgraded its existing Type 093 SSNs to increase its combat capabilities.
Type 093 Shang class submarine before modernisation
The upgrades done to the Type 093 SSNs focused on the instalment of a vertical launch systems as well as the capability to fire the YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles. The instalment of a vertical launch system on board of the Type 093 gives the PLAN the same capabilities as US Navy Los Angeles class submarines. In general, the new Type 093 SSNs are now comparable to the Los Angeles class submarines of the 1980s.
Aside from being an anti-ship missile, the YJ-18 is also capable of attacking land targets, making it an equivalent to the US Tomahawk missile.
The implications of these new submarines are important to notice. The PLAN now has a platform capable to station weapons everywhere around the globe. Given the fact that China is an assertive player on the world scale it is very likely that it will deploy these Type 093 on patrols in the areas it deemed vital to project force. China’s main areas of interests are the East and South China Seas but its green water navy assets are more than capable to project power in these areas. Beyond this area China needs to be able to project power further in the Pacific Ocean to confront the US Navy.
A second area where these new submarines will be deployed is the Indian Ocean. PLAN nuclear submarines already patrolled this area last year. China has several economic projects in Africa and relies on oil from the Middle East to support its economy. China has made trade agreements with several nations that are not liked by Western nations. This made sense as these countries had resources but were unable to trade them on western markets, an opening that China was happy to exploit.
China will at some point in time find the need to deploy military power in order to safeguard its economic projects. The new Type 093 SSNs will be in the forefront, capable and ready to intervene when the need arises, similar to how US Navy Los Angeles SSN supported US interventions in the past

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Russia's future aircraft carrier is taking shape

The Naval Report already mentioned the state of the Russian Navy in two older posts. In the first one we talked about how Russia is looking for the 2050 timeframe to rebuild its blue water navy capabilities and to become a navy with global reach. In a more recent post we talked about how Russia is struggling to build large surface combatants and that in the next decade we can expect the Russian Navy to become a navy without aircraft carriers and cruisers as a result of the loss of both economic means and technical know-how.
This does not mean however that Russia is not planning to build new large surface combatants. When we take in account that Russia is looking for the 2050 timeframe it means that it is giving itself another 35 years to find the means to build a new blue water navy. Russia keeps developing new warship designs even though these designs will not translate themselves in new warships any time soon.
Mock up model of a potential future Russian aircraft carrier
The very latest of these warship designs is the design of what could be Russia’s future aircraft carrier. At the moment Russia has only one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. This vessel dates back from 1985 and is in poor shape. The current maintenance and modernisation period of the Admiral Kuznetsov might well be the last one before the ship is no longer capable to carry out its functions. Aircraft carriers are seen as the capital ships in any blue water navy and only a handful of nations have them in their naval forces. If Russia wants to become a true blue water navy capable of challenging the US Navy then it will have a need to operate aircraft carriers.
Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is showing some interesting capabilities. The first feature to notice is the presence of a ski-jump instead of catapults. This tells us a lot about the type of planes Russia will be using for its future carrier air wings. Russian jets are built with manoeuvrability in mind and most Russian jets are lightweight interceptors. Because they are lightweight they cannot handle the stresses of a catapult launch as this would risk having the aircraft being snapped in half. Russia’s carrier aircraft are capable of launching without the need of a catapult but need the assistance of a ski-jump ramp on the bow of the carrier to take off. In order to take off these aircraft need to be light and as such they cannot carry a large amount of fuel or weapons with them, compared to catapult launched aircraft. Russia’s carrier aircraft will therefore serve mainly to provide air superiority above a Russian naval task force. Compared to their US counterparts, these aircraft are not suitable for carrying out long range strike missions. There are ways to compensate for this deficiency. China’s J-15 carrier aircrafts are able to refuel each other in mid-air. The two aircraft take of each, one filled with fuel, the other armed with the maximum weight of weapons. Once in the air the first aircraft transfers its fuel to the second one. The second aircraft then has a maximum weapons load and the necessary fuel to perform a long range strike mission. It is unknown if Russia will follow this Chinese example but it is a possible way to operate its carrier aircraft.
Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is slightly larger than a US Nimitz class carrier. A Nimitz class carrier has the capability to carry 90 aircraft while this Russian design can carry up to 100 aircraft. Exact dimensions of this new carrier are unknown but it would be similar to a Nimitz class carrier, meaning a displacement of about 100.000 tons. This tells us a lot about how this new carrier will be powered. Conventional power systems such as on board of the Admiral Kuznetsov are capable of moving an aircraft carrier of about 75.000 tons against a speed sufficient to launch aircraft. Once above 75.000 tons the ship is just too big to be propelled against a sufficient speed. Only a nuclear reactor can deliver the amount of power needed to move an aircraft carrier bigger than 75.000 tons. If this new design is similar to a Nimitz class carrier it will have nuclear propulsion. Depending on the size of the reactors installed and the amount of nuclear fuel it can be predicted that these aircraft carriers will operate between 40 to 50 years with one mid-term refuelling period that will last somewhere between one to two years, depending on other modernisations that will be done during this maintenance.
Another view of the mock up model
Although Russia has unveiled a new aircraft carrier design it is still a long way from building one. At the moment Russia lacks the capability to build large surface combatants and it will take several years before it reacquires these skills. The current design is still just a design and further study and testing will be needed. If this phase is completed successfully than a 1:1 scale model on land will be built for further development of the design. This is similar to how China is building its ships. Large models on land have appeared of China’s carrier and the Type 055 cruiser.
We at the Naval Report would like to add some closing remarks. It is mentioned that Russia’s new carrier design is to be translated into a real warship in the 2030 timeframe. This seems to be possible depending on how fast Russia can acquire the skills to build large surface combatants either on its own or with the help of other nations. A lot will also depend on the financial situation. Aircraft carriers are very expensive weapon platforms and only nations with a stable and sufficient large enough economy can afford them. Of all the nuclear carriers in existence today only one does not belong to the US Navy and that is the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. It is believed that China is developing a nuclear powered aircraft carrier as well and that this aircraft carrier will be joining the PLAN in the next five to ten years.
It is unknown how many of these aircraft carriers Russia will be operating. Several plans regarding Russia’s intentions to build aircraft carriers have been made public in the past. The returning numbers in those days were that Russia would build somewhere between three to six nuclear aircraft carriers to challenge the US Navy. Once again, a lot will depend on the financial capabilities of the Russia economy and one also has to take in account that Russia also needs a large army and air force to defend its territory.
It is also unknown where these aircraft carriers will be stationed and where they will operate. The 2030 and 2050 timeframe are too far ahead in the future to make a reliable assessment of Russia’s geopolitical aims and strategic aims for these periods. But it is safe to say some of these aircraft carriers will operate in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans where they can contest the superiority of the US Navy.
A last remark is that the news of Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is the last one in a long set of similar press articles that stretch back from 2000. What is different is that this is the first time a model exists of a future Russian aircraft carrier. This indicates Russia has been developing its future aircraft carrier design all along. Russia still has a long way to go to build and operate this new carrier and a lot of things can change in the meantime. The economic downfall that Russia is facing right now might even prevent this carrier from ever being build. The incorporation of new technology might happen at any point and as such it might even see its ski-jump replaced with catapult but then Russia would need to develop new carrier aircraft.  What is important to remember is that Russia will always try to build a blue water ocean in order to project power on a global scale.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Vietnamese Navy competing against the PLAN

The People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) or Chinese Navy has been making a major transition in the past two decades. It transformed from a coastal defence force into a naval force that is developing blue water navy capabilities. Confident with its new naval capabilities and the means to project military power through the region, China become more assertive, especially regarding the South China Sea.
The South China Sea contains large deposits of oil and gas and the several islands and reefs are all claimed by different countries. China doesn’t have large oil and gas deposits of its own and needs to import these. China’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) stretch all the way from the Chinese coast to the Middle East and are vulnerable to blockade and interdiction. Having access to oil and gas deposits closer to home will secure China’s energy dependency and keeps it economy running.
Thanks to a powerful economy, the PLAN has been expanding greatly in the past decade and improved qualitatively. The PLAN is by now the biggest naval player in the South China Sea and outnumbers every other country that claims the South China Sea. However Vietnam has managed in the past years to expand and modernize its naval forces as well. Although the Vietnamese Navy still dwarfs the PLAN it is capable of deploying modern warships, especially submarines in a sufficient number to cause concern for the PLAN.
Strength of the Vietnamese Navy
Vietnam lacks the huge economy that China possesses. Because of that it will never have the kind of funding to expand its navy at the same pace China does. But what Vietnam is lacking in numbers, it makes up with quality. China has a large fleet but it still is running behind technologically compared to other modern nations. Although China is closing this gap it allows Vietnam to deploy modern warships to counter China’s numbers.
Most of the Vietnamese warships are supplied by Russia, a country that also supplies military technology to China. This means that Vietnam has access to the same modern technology as China, allowing it keep pace with China’s maritime developments.
Vietnams main surface units are two Gepard class frigates build by Russia with two more under construction. These ships are each capable of firing SS-N-25 Switchblade anti-ship missiles. These are modern subsonic missiles that entered service in the Russian armed forces in 2003. It is designed to attack vessels up to a tonnage of 5.000 tonnes. A  SS-N-25 Switchblade missile is thus created to take out frigates, the main type of surface warship in the PLAN.
Gepard class frigate HQ-011 Da Nang
Vietnam also ordered four Sigma class corvettes at the Dutch frim DAMEN of the Sigma 9814 design. It is unsure what weapon systems Vietnam will be installing on these ships but it is likely that Vietnam will look once again to Russia to supply the weapon systems. More important is that the first two frigates will be built in the Netherlands and the last two in Vietnam. This allows Vietnam to learn how to build these kinds of ships on their own and thereby developing their shipbuilding capabilities.
Vietnam greatest strength however lies in its modern fleet of six Russian Kilo class submarines. Already three of them are in service. These submarines are often described as being a “black hole” because they are very quiet. China already acquired Kilo class submarines and used the design to develop its own domestic build diesel-electric submarines like the Type 041 Yuan class submarines.
Even with the PLAN vastly outnumbering in submarines one has to take into account that China has to face several rivals in this area as well as the US Navy. Even with superior numbers a lot will come down on how well submarine crews are trained and ready to operate in the waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam as a strategic partner
Vietnam is developing a modern navy and in fact it is the only modern navy in the South China Sea to challenge the PLAN, or at least to let China be concerned about the Vietnamese navy strength. It is this naval strength that makes Vietnam an interesting strategic partner for both India as the US.
India is a main rival of China and both countries still have border disputes on their common borders. China’s support for countries as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar give India the feeling that China is trying to surround and contain India. The presence of PLAN naval units in the Indian Ocean to patrol and protect the Chinese SLOCs as well as several economic projects in different ports throughout the Indian Ocean create the idea that China is developing the means to maintain a continuous naval presence in the Indian Ocean. These projects, called the String of Pearls span all the way from Myanmar over Sri Lanka to Pakistan and do surround India.
It is vital for India to look for means to keep PLAN naval units out of the Indian Ocean and Vietnam seems like the logic partner for it. If the Vietnamese Navy can tie as much PLAN naval units down in the South China Sea then there are less PLAN warships to patrol in the Indian Ocean. Vietnam gains from this as well. The backing of the Indian Navy, another emerging large naval power, makes Vietnam a more serious player and it allows Vietnam to take a more assertive stance against China.
Vietnam and India already have been developing their military cooperation that includes mutual exercises in order to learn how each of these two navies operate and how they can operate together.
Vietnam can even be a strategic partner for the United States even if it is only in an indirect way. Any conflict in the South China Sea will see multiple nations being involved, including the Philippines. The United States already supports the Philippines even to the point of using naval bases and selling coast guard cutters to modernise the navy of the Philippines.
The presence of the US Navy supporting the Philippines on one side of the South China Sea and Vietnam operating on the other side of the South China Sea will mean that China will have to divide forces to cover all areas. Thus the presence of the Vietnamese Navy will dilute the PLAN naval strength in this area in case of a conflict.