Defense Media Network

Small Craft for Patrol, Riverine, and Special Operations Tasks Come to the Fore in Littoral Warfare

Shallow waters, special craft

In ensuring maritime security in the littorals, most navies and coast guards have to counter a wide range of asymmetric, often transnational threats from non-state actors. Piracy, terrorism, insurgencies, narco-terrorism, and illicit trafficking in arms, drugs, and humans, as well as illegal fishing, smuggling, and pollution at sea exemplify these threats. There’s also the potential threat from swarms of fast inshore attack craft (FIAC) in places like the Persian Gulf and off the Korean Peninsula.

To counter these threats and operational challenges, large numbers of small, relatively inexpensive, high-speed craft working in tandem with fewer but larger, more expensive ships and aircraft are effective as they provide a larger presence (and deterrence) as well as the ability to respond rapidly.

Yonca Onuk MRTP 22U SAT Turkish navy

The MRTP 22U SAT is the Turkish navy’s SOC. The Royal Malaysian Navy is interested in a version of this craft. If selected, they will be built at Yonca Onuk’s joint venture company, BYO Marine in Malaysia. Turkey’s defense procurement agency, SSM, recently issued a request for information for unspecified numbers of SAT craft. Photo courtesy of Mrityunjoy Mazumdar

Moreover, for smaller navies and coast guards in developing nations, small craft are often the only deployable assets, since larger, more complex warships are often nonoperational for want of maintenance.


Unique Operational Requirements for Littoral Warfare

Littoral warfare craft can be broadly classed into riverine (operating in the brown waters) and inshore/coastal (green water zone) types. Riverine warfare craft are unique. Smaller craft usually tend to be high speed, flat-bottomed, or very shallow-draft vessels powered by outboards or waterjets. They are usually heavily armed, able to put down large volumes of suppressive fire, and most have ballistic protection for vital spaces. They are usually air and land transportable for ease of deployment.

Colombian PAF-P

Colombia’s third generation of Riverine Support Patrol Vessels (PAF-P in Spanish) was built by COTECMAR. The 40.3-meter, 370-ton vessel has a draft of only 1 meter and a beam of 9.5 meters, is heavily armored, and has withstood RPG-7 hits. Though the top speed is only 9.5 knots, independent waterjet control confers these vessels with exceptional maneuverability in terms of ease of turning and course changes – a key tactical advantage during combat for aiming weapons on the appropriate flank. Another improvement was the addition of a helicopter deck. These ships act as motherships to smaller riverine assault craft. COTECMAR photo

Larger riverine warfare vessels tend to be slower, heavily armored, well-armed vessels. The Colombian navy, with a long history of riverine warfare, has a large fleet of specialized and well-regarded riverine combatants and floating bases. Operationally, larger vessels act as “mother ships” to larger numbers of smaller, heavily armed assault craft.

Monitors are another class of riverine craft in service with the navies of Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Romania, Russia, and others, usually of shallow draft, heavily armed, and often heavily armored as well.

Not all riverine warfare craft are sophisticated. Several navies have also adapted indigenous craft for riverine operations. They are very inexpensive and blend in with local shipping.

Special Operations and Fast Craft – Robust Growth

The expansion in naval special operations forces (SOF) globally has sparked a growing demand for small, well-equipped, and exceptionally fast special operations craft (SOC) with top speeds approaching 70 knots. Higher-end SOC tend to be highly specialized and expensive, often built of advanced composites, with advanced sensors and communications suites as well as remote-controlled stabilized weapon systems (RCWS) – essential to fire effectively at high speeds. These new-generation “high-value” fast craft like the Turkish MRTP series, French CMN DBV 15, or designs like those from British XSMG or Abu Dhabi Ship Building (ADSB) increasingly blur the capability line and cost differential between surface and helicopter platforms. They are designed for missions where speed, connectivity, and stealth are “must-have” requirements – including insertion and extraction and visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) missions.

A recent AMI International market assessment on small combatant, patrol, and special operations craft (10- to 90-meter range) for the 2013 IMDEX Asia Maritime Expo and Conference (Singapore, May 2013) notes a strong future market for these types of vessels and craft. AMI forecasts that over the next 20 years, some 2,100 corvettes, fast attack craft (FAC), offshore patrol vessels (OPV), and patrol/special operations craft will be acquired globally. This represents a total investment (acquisition cost) estimated at $61 billion (2012 exchange rates).

The report highlights that this represents significant growth for the segment compared to AMI’s forecasts of even five years ago. “The small combatant and fast craft segment future market has doubled compared to AMI 20 year forecasts made in 2008,” notes the report.

Iranian small craft asymmetric naval tactics present “worrisome threats to U.S. strategy” in the Persian Gulf, according to a 2009 RAND Corporation study on the rise of the Pasdaran. These tactics have spurred the development of countermeasures like lasers and guided rockets such as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II).

Though the United States has a significant market share of the fast craft market, the two largest regional markets for such craft are the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Asia Pacific. The other major markets are Latin America/Caribbean, NATO countries, and sub-Saharan Africa. Within MENA, two countries operate large fast craft fleets – Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi naval and coast guard requirements alone are estimated at more than 150 hulls of various sizes, up to 90 meters. Iran operates several thousand heavily armed small craft, including low-observable, semi-submersible SOC and small missile and torpedo craft – collectively known as FIAC. These types are in service with the naval component of the Pasdaran (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which has numerous active boat programs about which details are limited. Iranian small craft asymmetric naval tactics present “worrisome threats to U.S. strategy” in the Persian Gulf, according to a 2009 RAND Corporation study on the rise of the Pasdaran. These tactics have spurred the development of countermeasures like lasers and guided rockets such as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II).

In Asia-Pacific, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia have large small boat programs for military and law enforcement agencies under way. The Philippines have large requirements, but funding issues hobble progress, although U.S. boat builder Silverships recently delivered six 40-foot Riverine Patrol Boats through an FMS contract, while four 24-meter patrol craft from France and three more locally-built combat boats are on order. Cambodia, having received a number of Chinese patrol craft quite recently, is actively seeking more. Bangladesh, the beneficiary of numerous small patrol craft from the United States – with 41 ordered and 33 delivered to date – is also looking at acquiring combat boat-type platforms for its special forces (SWADS).

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