Because this overview is limited in length, it includes only highlights, and it cannot cover even most of the world’s navies. Many navies continue to be involved in anti-piracy operations off Somalia; for China, this has been the first extended out-of-area deployment, hence has probably been quite significant for further Chinese naval development.
Probably the most important naval development of the year was the outcome of the British Strategic Defence and Security Review. Faced with a need for drastic economies, the British government canceled plans to procure a vertically launched version of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35). It also abandoned the Joint Harrier Force (Royal Navy and Royal Air Force). Without a fixed-wing airplane it could operate, the newly refitted fleet flagship, HMS Ark Royal, was ordered decommissioned and scrapped. However, plans for the two big new carriers are to go ahead, nominally because their contracts have been written in such a way that they are more expensive to cancel than to complete. The first ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will have no fixed-wing strike aircraft (because she has no catapults and arresting gear); her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales will have catapults and arresting gear, hence will be able to operate either the carrier version of the F-35 (F-35C) or some existing carrier fighter, such as the U.S. Super Hornet (F/A-18E/F) or the French Rafale.
The British decision matters because the U.S. Navy is also under intense budget pressure. Of the three versions of the F-35, the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B is by far the most expensive. In the past, international involvement has saved many U.S. programs from cancellation, despite their high costs. With the major foreign participant gone, the only significant customer left is the U.S. Marine Corps, which badly wants the F-35B to supply direct support ashore, and which cannot rely on more conventional naval aircraft because they cannot operate from its big amphibious ships. Several foreign navies want F-35Bs to operate from their small carriers, but they are also being squeezed, and they would probably welcome an escape from the escalating cost of the airplane.
Ironically, there may be a relatively inexpensive way out. Many modern aircraft have such high thrust-to-weight ratios that they can fly off a long flat flight deck unaided by a catapult, or else off a ski-jump (if they are properly stressed). The Russians currently operate that way (using a ski-jump), and as long ago as the late 1970s, the U.S. Navy experimented with its own ski-jump for conventional fighters. Given a long enough takeoff run, such aircraft may even be able to fly from a flat deck (but their takeoff runs would interfere with deck stowage of aircraft). Any such aircraft would need arrester gear, but installation of such gear would be easier than cutting down a ski-jump and installing a catapult on a half-built ship. The flat-deck or ski-jump solution is not nearly as efficient as the usual combination of catapults and arresting gear, because it requires a relatively long deck run, and because the run-out of the necessary arresting gear would probably interfere with takeoffs. This solution was probably omitted from British calculations because its presence might have led to earlier withdrawal from the F-35B program. Now that the British have withdrawn, the ski-jump or even flat-deck solutions may become attractive.
At present, no STOVL attack airplane other than the F-35B is in prospect. The British Harrier is no longer in production, and development of its engine ceased some years ago. Engine work might of course be restarted, but the market is probably too small (without the British) to be worthwhile.
Several navies either currently operate ski-jump ships (and Harriers) or appear to be vitally interested in doing so. India, Italy, Spain, and Thailand operate STOVL carriers, although the Indians are likely to progress soon to ski-jumps using non-STOVL Russian aircraft (the Chinese are apparently following that path). Australia is building two large amphibious ships with ski-jumps to a Spanish design, but the Royal Australian Air Force some time ago ruled out buying the F-35B. That is likely to be unfortunate for Australian troops needing close air support.
Both Japan and South Korea seem to be close to building carriers that would have been suitable for the F-35B. Japan announced a pair of 19,000-ton ski-jump ships as successors to the two Hyuga-class “helicopter carrying destroyers,” which are actually small helicopter carriers. During 2010, there was a report that the 19,000-ton design (248 meters [813 feet] long) is being scrapped in favor of a 30,000-ton design, quite suitable for F-35Bs, which could be modified to take catapults. South Korea has built the big amphibious carrier Dokdo, and two more ships are planned. There is a report that the third ship will be stretched into true aircraft carrier capability. Some reports credit the design for the third ship with two catapults and a displacement of 35,000 tons.
With the demise of the Zumwalt class (DDG 1000), the U.S. Navy plans to order the first Flight III version of the Arleigh Burke class under the FY 16 program. This version will provide the anti-ballistic missile capability formerly associated with the abortive CG(X) cruiser. The Flight III designation was formerly associated with a stretched version of the Arleigh Burke incorporating a larger helicopter hangar.
Early in November, the U.S. Navy ended speculation about its choice of a littoral combat ship by announcing that it was buying 10 ships from each of the two contractors. There was speculation that the administration was reluctant to announce rejection of either contractor, for fear of the political consequences of deep job cuts at either yard. The Navy justified its announcement by claiming that both yards were offering exceptionally favorable prices. However, the real cost of the program will be known only once the mission modules – most of which either do not currently exist or are not yet satisfactory – have been bought. There must also be a real question as to whether it is economical to buy two quite different combat systems, the contractors having had complete authority over that choice. The true cost of this choice will be clear only when the Navy faces the cost of duplicate logistical and training pipelines. Also, as of late 2010, neither prototype had run anything like complete sea trials. It is not therefore entirely clear that either is altogether satisfactory. A cynic would conclude that the decision to order the ships now is an attempt to avoid admitting that the program is badly behind schedule.
The Halifax-class Modernization (HCM)/Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) officially began late in September when work began on HMCS Halifax. The program is to be completed in 2017. It includes a new command and control system and sensor upgrades, such as installation of the Sirius infrared search-and-track device. This program does not include the expected conversion of some units to an anti-air warfare (AAW) configuration to replace the aging upgraded “Tribal” class (TRUMP), and construction of new ships is planned.
The British Defense and Security Review continued the trend toward a smaller Royal Navy without announcing any dramatic change in the service’s direction. Thus the Royal Navy continues to have some ability to show presence abroad, but with fewer destroyers and frigates (19 instead of 24 operational ships); the numbers are to be made up by a new Type 26 low-end frigate. Type 26 is the Future Surface Combatant, which has been under development for some time. It will probably be a modular ship, produceable in high- or low-end versions, and upgradeable.
The future attack submarine force will comprise seven Astute-class boats. Replacement of the four existing Vanguard-class strategic submarines is being deferred, and the choice to continue building Astutes for the moment is probably necessary to provide work for the Barrow yard where British nuclear submarines are built.
Perhaps the most striking outcome of the review was a new government policy that seeks economies by sharing assets and efforts with France; in November, the British signed a 50-year military alliance with France. The loss of the fixed-wing carrier capability was excused by claiming that the French would provide their Charles de Gaulle in an emergency. Critics pointed out that joint programs with France have generally ended with French companies taking over the technology in question (the current British government has said that it wants to reverse British de-industrialization) and that French and British foreign policies often do not coincide – as in Iraq.
With its single aircraft carrier, the French navy lacks carrier capability about half the time, and there has long been interest in building a second ship. A French firm designed the new British carrier, and it was long expected that the same design would be adapted to French requirements. However, at this year’s Euronaval show in October, the French displayed their own carrier design, at least externally very different from that which the British have shown, with a single island rather than the two islands of the British ship.
This April, the prototype of the future French naval strike missile, Scalp Naval, flew for the first time. The missile will provide future French Aquitaine-class frigates and Barracuda-class attack submarines with a Tomahawk-like land-attack capability, albeit in far smaller numbers (per ship) than the U.S. Navy currently employs. Unlike Tomahawk, Scalp Naval uses terrain-matching midcourse guidance, on the grounds that the United States controls the GPS technology that Tomahawk uses for the same purpose, hence can exercise a veto over French use of the missile. The French expect their partners, such as the Italians and perhaps the British, to adopt Scalp Naval.
The first FREMM frigate, Aquitaine, was launched on May 4, 2010; she is to be completed in 2010. Two AAW versions of the class were included in the second batch (three ships) ordered this year. Of the 10 ships planned by industrial partner Italy, the first six have definitely been funded, but the last four may be delayed or even canceled (a decision is due after 2013). No new export customers were announced at Euronaval, but several countries, including Greece, are reportedly interested in buying FREMMs.
Under severe budget pressures, Germany is reducing its fleet, eliminating units developed for Cold War service in the Baltic. Thus the submarine force has decommissioned the remaining Type 206A submarines, leaving only the longer-range Type 212As, and it is to dispose of its remaining fast-attack craft (Gepard class), leaving the big K130 corvettes (designed mainly for distant-water service). The frigate force is likely to remain more or less intact, because it is useful in the distant waters in which the navy now operates.
Work is proceeding on the F125-class frigate, envisaged as a long-endurance ship for tasks such as countering pirates off the Horn of Africa. F125 is to have a fixed four-antenna version of the TRS-3D radar, which currently exists as a rotating single-antenna radar. Construction of the four F125s is to begin in 2011. Armament will be quite limited, the object being to produce a very long-endurance ship. Thus it will comprise a lightweight 5-inch gun (with guided ammunition) plus light guns, Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) close-in anti-aircraft missiles, Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles, and probably lightweight torpedoes. The planned follow-on is the future frigate, concept work on which is to begin in 2011.
The K130 Braunschweig-class corvettes have encountered serious gearbox problems, but the decision has been taken not to rebuild them. They are to enter service as designed, presumably with some surveillance to avoid catastrophic failures (one of which has already occurred). Reportedly an alternative follow-on design (K131) is being considered. Work on K131 began in 2007 as a replacement for the surviving Gepard-class fast-attack craft; as of 2010, six units slightly smaller than the K130s were planned.
For some years, Denmark has been moving from its Cold War coastal orientation to an oceanic orientation suited to crises such as those in the Middle East. This year the Danes announced that they were retiring the last of their Flyvefisken-class STANFLEX corvettes, the ships that first demonstrated the way in which modern digital command and control made modularity an attractive option. The Danes continue to demonstrate the same kind of modularity in their current multipurpose frigates and amphibious/command ships.
Through 2010, the Russians continued to test their Bulava (SS-N-X-32) submarine-launched ballistic missile, usually with disappointing results. Bulava is essential to any continued Russian underwater deterrent, because existing strategic submarines are rapidly wearing out, and the new ones built and building cannot readily be rebuilt for alternative weapons. For some years, Russians have charged that the choice of design for the new missile was corrupt. Late in 2010, after a successful test, Bulava was declared operational, but the run of failures suggests that this was only public relations.
The Russians continue to negotiate with the French over construction of a modified Mistral-class amphibious ship (the expected four-ship order did not materialize at the October 2010 Euronaval show). In theory, the Russians want to have one ship built in France and three more built in Russia with French assistance. However, during 2010 they issued specifications, some of which suggested something more sophisticated and more suited to a flagship role. The circulation of new specifications during 2010 can be interpreted differently: The Russians are interested mainly in gaining access to Western designs and technology.
Overall, the Russian fleet continues to decline, the Black Sea Fleet having been demoted to a naval division rather than a full fleet. There is no sign that the Russians can resume construction of large warships.
During the year, considerable publicity was given to the Chinese DF-21D ballistic anti-carrier missile, which carries a bomblet warhead. The missile featured in the parades celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic (late 2009) and there was speculation that it would be declared operational during 2010 (that had not happened by early November). There must be some question as to whether the Chinese can track U.S. carriers precisely enough to attack them with such missiles, and the Chinese may see DF-21D more as a spectacular move in their war of nerves against Taiwan than as a real combatant capability. Moreover, the U.S. SM-3 anti-ballistic missile version of the Standard Missile, which the U.S. Navy currently deploys (and with which it shot down a satellite) would seem to be a realistic counter. The Chinese are continuing to build up a force of attack aircraft armed with missiles, including the supersonic Russian AS-17 (Kh-31), which is probably their main anti-carrier arm.
As of November 2010, it appeared that the first Chinese carrier, Shi Lang (the former Russian Varyag), would be ready for sea trials in 2012. Reportedly metal was cut in June 2009 at Shanghai for the first carrier of Chinese design (reportedly Project 048 or 089), which may be launched as early as 2015. As for aircraft, the Russians have been unwilling to provide carrier-capable aircraft, but reportedly the Chinese have their own carrier fighter, designated J-15, which made its first takeoff from a simulated carrier ski-jump on May 6, 2010. A concrete version of a carrier flight deck (with ski-jump) and island has been built atop the 711 Institute at Wuhan. J-15 is apparently very similar to the Russian Su-33 (the Russians have protested Chinese copying of their designs for aircraft and for submarines). A 20,000-ton helicopter carrier (Project 081) is being built at Shanghai. She supplements the existing series of dock landing ships (Project 071).
The Chinese have been building Yuan-class submarines, apparently very similar to the Russian Kilo, but in September they suddenly launched a new submarine that has been described as a bulked-up Kilo copy. Some observers thought that it rode much higher in the water than a conventional submarine (others disagreed). The submarine may be a Chinese redesign of the Yuan/Kilo design using Chinese sensors and perhaps Chinese diesels. It is also possibly a one-off, intended to replace the old Russian-supplied Golf-class missile submarine, which the Chinese had used as a test platform for their ballistic missiles (the Golf has now been refurbished, apparently for museum display).
For many years, China has been unique in retaining a large force of coastal missile boats. As of mid-2010, 81 of the new Houbei-class (Project 022) catamaran missile boats were reported built and building.
Only in 2010 were details of the Indian deal for the ex-Russian carrier Vikramaditya finalized: The price is likely to be $2.3 billion, and the ship is to be delivered four years late, at the end of 2013. Her MiG-29 aircraft are currently being delivered. Meanwhile, work is proceeding on the indigenous Indian carriers.
Work on the Indian nuclear submarine prototype Arihant continues, and after sea trials the Russian Akula-class submarine Nerpa is to be transferred to India, probably in March 2011. This submarine suffered a deadly accident last year when firefighting gas was accidentally released during initial trials.
In August, the Japanese announced that they would be expanding their submarine fleet in response to the growth of the Chinese navy. Since 1976, the Japanese submarine force has numbered 18 units, standard practice being to retire aging submarines as new ones are built. The future force will include more than 20 operational units plus the usual two for training.
On March 26, 2010, the ROK corvette Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, probably fired by a small submarine. Forty-six Korean sailors were killed. It appears that the sinking was in connection with a special operation the North Koreans were mounting near the border between the two Koreas. Initially there was speculation that the South Korean ship had been mined, but eventually large parts of a North Korean torpedo were recovered.
In July, the Argentine minister of defense announced plans for a nuclear submarine, based on the TR1700 hull and a reactor developed by an Argentine company that currently designs and builds nuclear research reactors. He stated that the reactor would be installed on board an existing TR 1700 (Argentina has two in service, plus four incomplete hulls) in 2013 and that tests would be complete by 2015. The reactor involved (a type that currently exists) can generate 27 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to 36,000 horsepower (not nearly all of which would go into propulsion). The Argentine announcement was seen as a reaction to the current Brazilian program to develop a nuclear submarine, which has been ongoing (without much visible progress) for many years. The Argentine military services have faced severe funding problems for years, and the stated schedule is unlikely to be met.
This article first appeared in The Year in Defense, 2010 Review, Winter 2011 Edition.