Does the Halifax class have a Future on the Foreign Market?

As the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates continue through their scheduled FELEX (Frigate Life Extension) refit, one question that arises is whether, when the time comes, they could be sold on the foreign market. After all, Canada’s costly approach to procuring new surface combatants makes the prospect of selling the Halifaxes to partially fund their successor all the more attractive, and a refit is usually a good first step in attracting potential buyers. The Royal Navy, after all, has already sold three of the Halifax class’s Type 23 contemporaries to the Chilean Navy. The two classes are fairly comparable, both top of the line frigates of their generation.

Who Wants a Used Warship?

A global market for used warships does exist, but it has been uneven at best. Perfectly good offerings have frequently been consigned to the scrap heap because ships were decommissioned at the wrong time for prospective buyers. Lack of advance planning and political will to lay the groundwork for a sale are the most frequent missteps of potential sellers. One cannot simply dump something on the market and hope someone will have room in their defence budget to take it.

As an example, the cash-strapped Royal Navy began decommissioning first its Sea Harrier force and then its carriers in the mid-noughts. With some preparation and adroit laying of the groundwork, India, which already operates the ex-HMS Hermes (at high maintenance cost) with a Sea Harrier air wing, could probably have been persuaded to take a much younger carrier with a more modern fleet of Harriers than their own, in the knowledge that these assets would be sustainable for a decade or more. Granted, India was in the middle of two other expensive carrier programs, but they could have set the price. Anything, from the Royal Navy’s perspective, would still have been better than nothing. The used ship market is fundamentally a buyers’ market. As it was, these assets were liquidated with minimal foresight or planning.

As to who exactly might be interested in our frigates, the traditional markets have been Latin American and Asian. There are some Latin American possibilities in the next seven to ten years- Brazil will need to look for a replacement for its Niteroi class frigates in that time frame, for example, and Mexico has some old American Knox and Bronstein class frigates it might want to get shot of. Nevertheless, of the four substantial navies in the area, the Argentine Navy is trying to survive on a shoestring, and all the rest have their traditional suppliers. The US has already offered Perry class frigates to Mexico, while Chile and Brazil usually buy British. In short, Latin America is hardly a growth market for used ships.

Asia might hold some possibilities, but these are much harder to predict. One thing that has become clear studying these navies is that procurements are motivated less by military considerations than an abstruse combination of political factors (witness Thailand’s aircraft carrier for evidence of that). New frigate purchases will very much depend on the threat perception at the time. However, Southeast Asian states like to do two things- buy in small batches and have ships custom-built, even if they’re completely unremarkable.

In any case, the thing to do would be to put out feelers now.

Refit Advantage?

The Halifax class was a good design, and the refit certainly provides much-needed electronic enhancements, adding Thales Smart-S and Saab Ceros 200 radars, Sirius Infrared Search and Track, MASS decoy system and a complete update of the combat system. However, these electronic goodies don’t make the refit internationally competitive.

The British Type 23s, which are likely to return to the market around the same time the Halifaxes decommission, are also going through a series of upgrades. By the time the Type 23s re-enter the market, they will have BAE Systems Artisan 3D radar, Sea Ceptor medium-range surface-to-air/point defence missiles, and most will also have the Thales Sonar 2087 towed array, widely touted as the best in the world.

In other words, the Halifax class will find itself with nothing much to distinguish it- indeed, its best hope is that the semi-separate replacement of Sea Sparrow with ESSM goes forward as planned. In an era in which frigates are increasingly equipped with more substantial air defences, and in which European navies have more frigates than they can afford to operate, the Halifax class will find the used ship market pretty tough.

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Major Surface Units: The Next BRIC Generation

Admiral Gorshkov, Kolkata, Type 052D

Admiral Gorshkov, Kolkata, Type 052D

They’re coming. For over two decades, Russian defence industries have struggled with a paradox. Though possessing more than ample experience and talent to create world-class equipment, with their own country struggling even to maintain its legacy Soviet-era equipment and others largely content with castoffs, new development has been slow to gain funding and even slower to find buyers.

The Russian Navy possesses formidable weapons systems, but they depend on twenty to thirty year old sensors and lack the digital combat systems of Western counterparts. Enter the Indians. The Talwar class frigate, a descendant of the Soviet Krivak (Burevestnik) class, incorporates the latest generation of Russian-derived weapons, including the Shtil (SA-N-12) surface-to-air missile and Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile, combined with a fully modern digital back-end. The success of this design seems to have been something of a revelation to both countries.

Krivak and Talwar

Krivak and Talwar

India has already built a similar design indigenously, the Shivalik class, while Russia is building the Gorshkov class, a Talwar derivative with Onyx rather than BrahMos and the longer-ranged S-400 SAM. Critically, it also seems to feature a new generation of electronically-scanned radar in place of the legacy equipment of the Talwars.

While smaller than Russia’s last new major surface combatant, the Admiral Chabanenko, it will pack significantly greater punch, as one might expect of a design slated to replace both the old Krivaks and the mighty Sovremenny-class anti-surface destroyers. Six orders are reported so far, and current plans envision 20-30 units of the class. Like most Russian naval procurement plans these days, that is rather overoptimistic in economic terms, but it certainly signals confidence in the design.

Meanwhile, India has not been standing still. The Kolkata-class destroyers, however, will incorporate more Indian and Israeli weaponry, including the Nirbhay land-attack cruise missile, the purported hypersonic BrahMos-2 and the Barak-8 medium-range SAM.

Over to China, which after a long development process has settled on a destroyer design for mass production. The Type 052C/D follows a number of designs built in ones and twos over the past decade, a cautious technological evolution that has led China to create its own multirole air-defence ship with indigenously built (subtext: “good thing those Russians are just too chicken to defend their patents”) weapon systems. The Type 052D is already in series production, alongside the Type 054A frigate- both capable multirole designs, with the former taking the long range AAW role and the latter the medium range with S-300 and Shtil- er, HQ-9 and HQ-16- respectively.

It has taken awhile, but after a long period of hibernation, Soviet military technology has pollinated a new multinational generation of high-end naval development. Now, if only there were a strategically reasonable purpose for all this stuff…

The 056 is a long-needed replacement for coastal patrol vessels whose design originates in the Soviet Union in the 1950s (the Jianghu class). The 056 isn’t particularly remarkable in any way for itself- it’s quite minimalist in its weapons fit and even its stealth features are average for new warship production globally. It does give a certain solidity to China’s patrol capabilities within the “first island chain” that has been sorely lacking. The PLA(N) is still in a situation where its modern “front end” is backed by an obsolescent coastal patrol force. The 056 may also be taking lessons learned from the US Navy’s comparable “Littoral Combat Ship” program, which has produced vessels even less capable and undoubtedly more expensive.

As far as potential adversaries are concerned, the real threat from China’s surface patrol forces are the 80+ Type 022 Houbei class stealth missile catamarans. No developed country has a comparably large and effective missile boat force, which is a very cheap way to do a great deal of damage to a naval force very quickly.

China Daily Mail

China Stealth FrigateChina has launched the first ship in a new class of stealth missile frigates, state media reported, amid ongoing tensions with neighboring countries over Beijing’s maritime claims.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is building a total of 20 Type 056 Jiangdao class frigates to replace older models and bolster its ability to conduct patrols and escort ships and submarines in waters it claims in the South China and East China seas.

The first in the class, No. 582, was formally delivered to the navy on Feb 25, 2013, in Shanghai, which is home to one of the country’s largest complexes of naval shipyards, according to the official Xinhua News Agency and the navy’s official website.

Newly promoted navy commander Wu Shengli attended the delivery ceremony, the reports said, an indication of the importance with which the service regards the new ships’ mission.

The helicopter-equipped ships feature a sleek…

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China in the South Sea Islands: Pride Goeth (first published 7/23/12)

This article was written just before the recent announcement by China of its intention to garrison the Paracel Islands, and should be read accordingly.

When island standoffs come once every few weeks, and the grounding of Chinese frigates on disputed shoals is the expected order of the day, the question “Why the heck does anyone care?” moves to the forefront of the minds of most reasonable observers. What the Spratleys or the Paracels actually represent to China’s foreign policy from an internal perspective is a question comparatively ignored. Of course, answers of a sort to both questions are quick to hand. Resources, national prestige. But what does that really mean?

Energy

Is the CCP so worried about the vulnerability of their energy supplies, not to mention future shortfalls as development continues, that they are consciously risking the very considerable goodwill they had amassed in the past decade of Chiang Mai currency swaps, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and a carefully-strategized soft-power offensive on the geostrategic necessity of finding abundant, proximate oil and gas resources? There is reason to believe that China is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of its African oil supply to disruption en route through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits. Further, the CCP has known for over a decade that it will have to dampen consumption levels and invest in sustainable technologies or risk outstripping the conceivable energy (and other) supplies available to them. However, it is quite likely that they have a few years left to go before that wall is in sight.

Prestige and Territory

East Asia is home to quite a number of ongoing territorial disputes, both maritime and continental, and China is involved in quite a few of them, yet life has somehow gone on without any hint of resolution. It could be that what China might have seen as pre-emptive actions in the region- notably Vietnam’s threat last year to grant oil concessions in the Spratleys- required a countervailing assertiveness for home consumption, and that the issue has snowballed. If this were the case, we could expect China to look for an opportunity to cool the issue down.

What Happened to the ‘Peaceful Rise’?

Why didn’t the recent ASEAN meeting show any sign of this? China wants all of these issues to be negotiated on a strictly bilateral basis. China has historically been quite careful about the limitations it might incur through multilateral commitments, and ASEAN can be said to bear much of the credit for acculturating China to the many multilateral organisations it has joined in the last decade. In the end, however, the strain of caution remains, and China may well see multilateral negotiation as a dangerous gamble particularly here, where they would have to be seen to play by ASEAN rules in the best case, and in the worst case the United States might try to muscle in, as it already has. Unfortunately, many ASEAN countries seem to have been driven beyond the point where the status quo is considered acceptable. The issue is live, and China may not be able to defuse it.

That is one interpretation. Another is that the CCP has yet again done too good a job substituting nationalism for Maoism. This has got it into trouble before. Widespread protests erupted within China in 2005 over Japan’s bid for a Security Council seat, and were immediately suppressed by an embarrassed Communist Party. It could be that popular opinion has swung through China Emergent all the way to China Triumphant. The tone of Chinese military rhetoric and building programs certainly suggests something of the kind. If so, then the secret fear of many China observers could come to pass: that a situation might develop in which the Chinese Communist Party feels that it cannot defy nationalist sentiment in the name of reason and will abandon its long policy of conflict containment in order to survive politically.

By far the worst case scenario is that the Party leadership, having decided that it cannot or will not clean up the internal corruption, political and labour scandals which have led to a constant, exponential annual increase in public protest since the 1990s, actually views these events as a useful distraction. This is the worst case, not because the Party is stirring up conflict as a distraction a la General Galtieri in the Falklands, but because if it has truly thrown in the towel and given into another generation of corruption under the Party “princelings” (and the structure of the new leadership suggests that possibility) then China surely is headed for a different kind of wall, a political wall in addition to a resource wall. It will surely take other countries with it.

The Tone of the Region is up to China

In any case, whatever the scenario we entertain, the significance of the island disputes is not in the disputes themselves- but that does not mean they are not significant. Every scenario points to the same choice. If China doesn’t find the will and the means to cool things off (and no one but China can), China may find itself crashing right through all its rhetoric of “peaceful rise” and all of its hard-won trust in the region. China can be either the nationalist bully, or the conciliatory regional power- but the choice is in play.

Afterword

When this article was first written, it concluded with the words “Hang on to your hats.” Little did it appear how apt that advice might be. The decision to garrison the Paracels comes after the installation of a municipal government for the islands’ sparse population, and announcements regarding the development of tourism and natural resources. By themselves, any of these could be seen as diplomatic manoeuvres, and the garrisoning of the islands, which were captured from South Vietnam in 1974, is not an entirely surprising extension of China’s military presence in the group. Taken together, however, all of these things indicate a disturbing assurance on the part of China that it can make a disputed island group its own simply by behaving as though it were. China either does not expect anyone to muster the force or the will to effectively contest such a policy, or wishes for such an incident in order to demonstrate the futility of any resistance to its territorial boxes.

Regardless of the military fact that China can indisputably win any conflict up to a regional war with any or all Southeast Asian countries, in either case, it is making a serious mistake. Even if everyone backs down, the results would undoubtedly polarise the region, and even if no one wanted to risk open conflict, this would be a definitive end to the friendly face of China’s rise, and the beginning of a path that might ultimately lead to a confrontation involving the United States, something that could not fail to be disastrous for everyone involved.