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World Naval Developments 2009

This is necessarily a highly selective tour of world naval developments, covering only a few navies. At least for Western navies, the primary issue during 2009 was how badly they would be hurt by the world economic crisis. Navies are particularly vulnerable because their major capital programs, their ships, cannot easily be shaved down as budgets decline. Greece has been particularly badly hit; even before the crisis, the country was finding it difficult to recover from the high cost of the Olympics. Greece refused delivery of German-built Type 214 submarines, ostensibly on technical grounds (but, it is said, because they were no longer affordable). These submarines are now being marketed. In mid-year, Greece was negotiating with France for six FREMM frigates (to be built in Greece with French help), but given the Greek financial crisis, this program may well die. Germany continues to sell Type 214 submarines with air-independent propulsion; in July 2009 Turkey contracted for six of them. Other countries that have bought this type of submarine (Type 212/214) are Germany, Italy, Korea, Pakistan, and Portugal (under the designation Type 209PN); the Israeli Dolphin class is related.

Overall, there is considerable overcapacity in world warship building. At one time, only a few countries could build sophisticated warships. Although many export programs included local production of later units of a class, often they did not lead to the desired creation of local high-tech industry. That is changing; more and more countries have shown that they can produce the necessary hulls. At the same time, individual warships are becoming more expensive (hence less numerous) as their weapon and sensor content becomes more expensive. Yards supply a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall value in a ship. The solution for several U.S. yards has been amalgamation with the system producers that provide so much of the overall value of the ship. When that does not happen, shipyards find themselves badly squeezed. In Germany, Blohm + Voss tried to maximize its share of ship value by designing ships (MEKO frigates) that could accommodate a wide variety of weapons and sensors, which did not have to be designed anew for each customer. Even it is now in trouble. In Denmark, the decline of orders for large new ships is almost certain to close Odense, the country’s only yard capable of building frigates, despite its success in building the innovative Absalon class. The Dutch de Schelde yard has been kept alive mainly by contracts for large corvettes (OPVs) for the Indonesian and Dutch navies, incorporating Dutch-made electronic systems produced by Thales Nederland (formerly Signaal). Many other European warship yards seem to survive on subsidies.

Intense interest in small carriers, which by their nature are unlikely to operate anything but short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, continues, with Japan likely to join with its next-generation helicopter destroyer. At present, the only new STOVL aircraft on offer to equip such vessels is the U.S. F-35B, an increasingly expensive version of the Joint Strike Fighter. In the United States, the F-35B is essential to maintain the current Marine Corps vision of an integral air capability based on large-deck amphibious ships. As the cost of the entire Joint Strike Fighter program escalates, due in large part to demands for extremely sophisticated computer-based systems, it seems at least possible that the F-35B will become vulnerable to budget cuts. It is not clear what happens in that case to ships like the Italian Conte di Cavour and the Spanish strategic projection ship.

United States


The keel of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) was laid on Nov. 14, 2009. Two more units are planned; this class is seen as the second phase of a three-phase program leading to an entirely new 21st-century carrier (CVN-21). New features include the dual-band radar planned for the Zumwalt-class destroyer and electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear. The ship is to have a new one-shot nuclear reactor that will require fewer personnel. The one-shot (no refueling) feature is important because so much of the lifetime cost of a nuclear warship is spent at the time of refueling, and also because avoiding refueling makes the ship available for more of her lifetime. Associated with the power plant is a new electric system, the ship being more electric, like the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Presumably she will use turbo-electric drive integrated with her auxiliary system. One object of such an arrangement is to provide sufficient power for future electric weapons, such as electric lasers for self-defense.

The new administration and the economic problem offered opportunities to rethink the naval program. The controversial Zumwalt class was capped at three units (not all of which may be built), and the decision taken to restart production of the Arleigh Burke class; 12 more ships are envisaged. The new CG(X) cruiser is being rethought. Originally it was to have been a unit of the Zumwalt class. The 2010 purchase of littoral combat ships (LCSs) is being increased from two to three, and the plan to build 55 such ships has been reaffirmed, but it is still not clear whether they will be monohulls or trimarans (or some new design), and Congress remains skeptical due to gross cost escalation. Reportedly, the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) for 2011-2015 shows 14 littoral combat ships, down from the 29 previously programmed. Foreign interest in export versions of the LCS seems to have evaporated. The 11th San Antonio-class LPD is being delayed until 2011. The POM shows one rather than two new America-class LHAs (replacements for the earlier LHAs). Virginia-class attack submarine construction is cut from 10 to nine, the strength of the program presumably reflecting the understood value of the submarines in littoral warfare, e.g., as reconnaissance assets.

The United Kingdom

Imagery of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers now building for the Royal Navy. With aircraft for only one air group likely to be bought, this image will probably remain a fantasy. Image courtesy of Royal Navy

Reportedly enough aircraft will be bought for only one of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. Cancellation of either carrier was rejected on the ground that the existing contracts would make it an extremely expensive option. Reducing the aircraft purchase would be much simpler; the British press reported that the second carrier would be used as a helicopter ship. However, since only one of the two would usually be operational, it is not clear that two ships’ worth of aircraft were ever entirely necessary. Aircraft for the second carrier can be bought later, as the British economy recovers. It is also possible that air group costs will be cut by modifying the ships for conventional carrier operation (catapults and arresting gear) and adopting less expensive aircraft, such as the French Rafale. The ships were designed with that option in mind, the elimination of “cats and traps” offering a limited saving on construction but carrying a greater aircraft cost (with loss of performance). There was also a report that one of the two was being offered to India, but purchase is unlikely given ongoing work on the ex-Gorshkov.

Conceptual work on three types of Future Surface Combatants continues, effort apparently concentrating on a small, simple, low-performance unit to replace minehunters and survey ships, using containerized systems and presumably exploiting unmanned vehicles to make up for limited signature reduction.


The Horizon-class frigate Forbin. Two of the class have been cut in favor of the cheaper FREMM frigates. U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Rafael Figueroa Medina

The French military buys its equipment under multi-year plans, the current one covering 2009-14. The first group of eight Aquitaine-class multi-role frigates (FREMM) was bought under the 2004-2008 plan, with three more projected for the current plan period. Given the economic problem, the French had cut the program by six units. Plans currently call for nine anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and two anti-aircraft warfare  (AAW) units. Originally eight ASW units and nine land-attack units were planned; now all 11 ships will be able to launch the Scalp Naval (roughly equivalent to Tomahawk) missile. The two AAW ships replace two canceled Horizon-class AAW frigates intended as carrier escorts. In February 2009, FREMM was included in a naval program France proposed to Kuwait.

To provide work, France also brought forward the planned second batch of Mistral-class helicopter carriers; steel was cut for the first of the pair in 2009. A second major program is the six Barracuda-class attack submarines, the contract for the first of which was awarded in December 2006; the first was laid down in 2008, and is to be completed in 2016. The second unit was scheduled for a 2009 contract.


The F125 multi-role frigate program is being accelerated. Image courtesy of ARGE 125.

Germany is accelerating the planned F125-class frigate program to support its shipbuilding sector. Eighty percent of Blohm + Voss, which conceived the successful MEKO frigate, was sold in October to the Abu Dhabi MAR shipbuilding group. A new joint venture owned 50/50 by ThyssenKrupp (parent of Blohm + Voss) and MAR will be created to build naval vessels. ThyssenKrupp will retain control of German and NATO projects; MAR will be responsible for projects in the Middle East, as well as mega-yachts. At the time of the sale, ThyssenKrupp was expected to sell MEKO (A100) frigates to Israel, but it is not clear what the status of that project will be. ThyssenKrupp is also trying to sell its Greek shipyards, which had been responsible for the abortive Type 214 deal and for modernization of Greek Type 209 submarines; both were canceled in October, the shipyard claiming that the Greek government owed it substantial amounts (the Greeks claimed that the submarines had failed their tests).


The Italian carrier Conte di Cavour reached full operational capability in 2009. Photo courtesy of Marina Militare.

The carrier Conte di Cavour reached full operational status in 2009. The main, current building program is the Franco-Italian multi-role frigate (Bergamini class), the first two units of which are now under construction, for completion by 2013. Four more were ordered in January 2008. Nine in all are planned. Two (of four) Type 212A submarines were ordered in 2008, and are now under construction, the first pair having been commissioned.

The Italian government announced that it planned to move procurement of two projected large (approximately 20,000 tons) amphibious ships up from 2014 to 2010 to sustain Italian shipbuilding. In mid-August, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ordered an Italian Commandante-class corvette, the first of two, with two more planned. The Italian ships are offshore patrol vessels, but the UAE units will be oriented toward ASW.


The Russian Neutrashimy during BALTOPS exercises in 2009? She is one of the few newer ships of the Russian Navy.

The Russian navy talks about building a force of six carrier battle groups, but it seems unlikely that the badly shrunken shipbuilding industry can produce anything remotely like that. As an indication of how much has been lost, during 2009 the Russians appeared to show considerable interest in buying a French Mistral-class helicopter carrier to be built in France, with successors to be built in Russian yards. Although the new ballistic missile submarine Yuriy Dolgorukiy began sea trials in June, her main armament, the new Bulava missile, is not yet close to operational, most trials having failed. There is pressure to drop this project in favor of a revived liquid-fuelled missile, but a new submarine design would be required. The new strategic submarine, moreover, was derided as “frankensub,” because she clearly incorporated so many components from earlier submarines, presumably left over after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ships surviving from that collapse, such as the second Neustrashimy-class frigate, continue to appear, more than two decades after having been laid down. In the spring of 2009, it appeared that the Russians would have nearly to halve their fleet by 2016.

Russia continues to sell “Kilo”-class attack submarines, but reportedly some or all of those recently ordered will incorporate major components produced during the Cold War, hence more than 20 years old. This year’s new customer was Vietnam. Venezuela, whose head of state, Hugo Chavez, continues to claim that the United States plans to invade his country, is reportedly negotiating for such submarines. Given the poor state of the Russian defense industry, it is by no means clear that new orders can be fulfilled. Russia may also find it difficult to compete with China, which now produces, in the “Yuan” class, something very similar to a Kilo, perhaps with a better combat system. Existing Kilo-class submarines, supplied mainly during the Cold War, are now aging, and it is not clear that the Russians have much hope of replacing them. Like the Kilos, the two “Akula II”-class submarines, which the Indians paid to complete and lease, are of Cold War construction, modernized to some limited extent. Since it was Russian practice to turn on a submarine’s reactor while she was on the slip, it is not clear how much reactor life they have.



Visible work on the carrier ex-Varyag has finally begun, the top of the ship’s island being cut down so that, probably, a new phased-array radar, probably like that aboard two destroyers, can be installed. This year there were finally official statements that China will have aircraft carriers, and some spectacular land sites suggest intense interest. It is not clear how such statements square with continuing claims that Chinese land-based weapons (such as the new version of the DF-21 ballistic missile) are effective carrier-killers, since the U.S. Navy obviously could produce its own equivalents.

Current Chinese surface combatant ship construction concentrates on frigates (Type 054 and derivatives) and on large amphibious ships. The recent destroyer classes, apparently no longer being built, all employ at least preliminary designs by the Russian Northern Design Bureau. The relationship with the Russians has since frayed; presumably work is under way on an indigenous missile destroyer design. The Russians have been outraged that the Chinese in effect copied without license their Kilo submarine design and their Su-30 fighter aircraft. The Russians may also suspect that the movement of Chinese settlers into Siberia presages eventual detachment of that territory.

In August, China ordered two Zubr troop-carrying air-cushion vehicles from a Ukrainian shipyard; in 2006, China tried to buy all eight existing Zubrs, but the deal was not consummated. Further Zubrs are to be built under license in China. A Zubr carries up to 500 troops at 60 knots, hence might be useful in a future assault on Taiwan – or in a flanking movement against Siberia (these craft were apparently designed by the Soviets with a Far Eastern war in mind).


The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force DDH 181 Hyuga. A much larger “helicopter destroyer” is planned for the future. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Reann S. Mommsen.

A sketch of the next-generation helicopter destroyer (or cruiser), planned for the 2010 program (19th defense five-year program), shows something even more like a small carrier than the current Hyuga class (the first of which was commissioned on March 18, 2009). The new ship will displace about 19,000 tons standard (like the British Invincible) and has a ski-jump deck and deck-edge elevators. The ship is 246 meters long (806 feet). Both the ski-jump and the deck-edge elevator (allowing the ship to fly aircraft while bringing others up from the hangar deck, and also allowing for larger aircraft on the elevator) suggest that ultimately the ship is expected to operate STOVL aircraft, which almost certainly means F-35Bs. For some years, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force tried to gain approval to build a small carrier that would operate Harriers, but that was denied, and the Hyugas have a Phalanx forward, which blocks any rolling takeoffs by such aircraft. The sketch of the new ship shows no such feature. There is also a 19th program destroyer class (formerly DDX), currently under construction. This year Japan commissioned Soryu, the first of a class of AIP submarines (with Swedish Stirling engines).



The Korean (ROK, not North Korean) navy continues to expand. There may be current interest in a large-deck carrier (preliminary discussions took place in 2004) to operate conventional aircraft including the E-2. Three large-deck amphibious assault ships are being procured. Presumably the structural engineering involved would contribute to the design of a carrier. Three classes of missile destroyers, the latest using the Aegis system, are either built or under construction. The first Aegis ship, Sejong the Great, was commissioned in December 2008, and two more are being built, together with a planned 12 KDX-2. A new KDX-2A destroyer would be about the size of KDX-2 (about 5,600 tons) but would incorporate some form of Aegis system. It will replace the planned second batch of larger (9,500 tons) KDX-3 Aegis ships. New frigate (FFX) and fast missile attack craft (PKX-A) programs are under way. There are plans for a 3,000-ton submarine (KSS-3) with air-independent propulsion.


A White Paper (review of defence policy) issued mid-year proclaimed a maritime strategy. Its most striking proposal was that Australia build a new class of 12 submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles (to replace the current Collins class), the idea being that they would in effect replace the country’s FB-111 bombers (which are no longer usable). Critics argued that Australia is finding it difficult to man the current fleet of six submarines, and that any new ones would have to be considerably larger.

One of the two major Australian naval projects, the Hobart-class air warfare destroyer will be based on the Spanish F100 class. Image courtesy of AWD Alliance.

The two main new construction programs, both ongoing, are the three Hobart-class Aegis destroyers (contract signed 2007) and the two Canberra-class amphibious ships (contract signed 2007). The amphibious ships duplicate the Spanish strategic projection ships, with ski-jump flight decks. The Royal Australian Navy has never described them the way the Spanish do, as dual-purpose amphibious ships and STOVL carriers, and the Royal Australian Air Force has steadfastly refused to buy the STOVL version of its future aircraft, the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter.


The most spectacular development was the launch of the first Indian nuclear submarine Arihant in July. It is to be armed with short-range K15 ballistic missiles. Begun in secret as the Advanced Technology Vehicle, the submarine had not been seen as of the end of 2009. Typically submarine launches coincide with the release of launch photographs. Their absence prompted skeptics to suggest that whatever was launched was too incomplete to show, and that the announcement was made mainly because the program was so badly delayed. One report had Arihant launched without her reactor. Early in 2009, when the program was officially announced, it was given as three submarines. By September, however, the reported program was nine attack submarines and five ballistic-missile submarines.

Work on the rebuilt Russian carrier Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) continues, with the ship in the water and being readied for trials. The asking price had risen from the original $675 million to $2.2 billion. The Russian reaction to periodic Indian complaints was that the ship might be retained in Russia, but that seems to have been no more than a negotiating ploy. Presumably, the Indians will pay because they want other Russian naval products, including the two leased Akula II-class nuclear attack submarines. The indigenous carrier Vikrant (the Project 71 Air Defense Ship) was laid down at Cochin Shipyard on Feb. 28, 2009, first steel having been cut on Nov. 16, 2006. A second ship is planned.


An Israeli Dolphin-class submarine crash surfaces. A deployment into the Red Sea fueled continuing rumors that the Dolphins constitute an Israeli nuclear deterrent. Photo courtesy of Israeli Defense Force.

Israeli interest in buying the U.S. littoral combat ship has apparently evaporated. There was considerable interest in buying two ships as follow-ons to the existing force of three Saar V corvettes, in conjunction with plans to buy either an Israeli or a U.S. phased-array air defense radar. It now seems more likely that the three existing ships will be upgraded. Two more Dolphin-class submarines have been bought from Germany, and there are continuing rumors that they are associated with an Israeli seaborne nuclear deterrrent. During 2009, submarines were transferred to and from the Red Sea to bring them within supposed missile range of Iranian targets; this may have been no more than a series of moves in the current war of nerves with the Iranian government, as it moves to acquire nuclear weapons of its own. Some Israelis have long suggested that, given the limited size of their country, any enemy posessing nuclear weapons would imagine that there was a real possibility that it could make a successful first strike, hence the interest in moving some of the (unacknowledged) Israeli deterrent to sea.


Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...