Tag Archives: modernization

The PLA Navy’s Plan for Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, and Carrier Aviation

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

Introduction

Potential modernization plans or ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were revealed in unprecedented detail by a former PLAN Rear Admiral in a university lecture, perhaps within the last 2-3 years. The Admiral, retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping, revealed key programs such as: a new medium-size nuclear attack submarine; a small nuclear auxiliary engine for conventional submarines; ship-based use of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs); next-generation destroyer capabilities; and goals for PLAN Air Force modernization. Collections of PowerPoint slides from Zhao’s lecture appeared on multiple Chinese military issue webpages on 21 and 22 August 2017,[1] apparently from a Northwestern Polytechnical University lecture. Notably, Zhao is a former Director of the Equipment Department of the PLAN. One online biography notes Zhao is currently a Deputy Minister of the General Armaments Department of the Science and Technology Commission and Chairman of the Navy Informatization Committee, so he likely remains involved in Navy modernization programs.[2]

Retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping,
who delivered an unusually detailed speech on China’s naval modernization, slides for which were posted on multiple Chinese military issue web sites.

However, Zhao’s precise lecture remarks were not revealed on these webpages. Also unknown is the exact date of Zhao’s lecture, though it likely took place within the last 2-3 years based on the estimated age of some of his illustrations. His slides mentioned known PLAN programs like the Type 055 destroyer (DDG), a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship (for which he provided added confirmation), the Type 056 corvette, and the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile.

Most crucially, it is Zhao’s mention of potential PLAN programs that constitutes an unprecedented revelation from a PLAN source. Rejecting the levels of “transparency” required in democratic societies, China’s PLA rarely allows detailed descriptions of its future modernization programs. While Admiral Zhao occasionally plays the role of sanctioned “expert” in the Chinese military media,[3] it remains to be seen if he or the likely student “leaker” will be punished for having revealed too much or whether other PLA “experts” will be allowed to detail the modernization programs of other services.[4] 

Admiral Zhao’s slides also mentioned many known PLAN programs, and perhaps helped to confirm that it intends to build a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) large amphibious assault ship. (CJDBY)

While there is also a possibility of this being a deception exercise, this must be balanced by the fact that additional slides were revealed on some of the same Chinese web pages on 23 September. The failure of Chinese web censors to remove both the earlier and later slides may also mean their revelation may be a psychological operation to intimidate future maritime opponents.

A New SSN

Admiral Zhao described a new unidentified 7,000-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) that will feature a “new type of powerplant…new weapon system [and] electronic information system.” An image shows this SSN featuring a sound isolation raft and propulsor which should reduce its acoustic signature, 12 cruise missile tubes in front of the sail, and a bow and sail similar to the current Type 093 SSN. This design appears to have a single hull, which would be a departure from current PLAN submarine design practice, but the 7,000 ton weigh suggests it may reflect the lower-cost weight and capability balance seen in current U.S. and British SSNs.[5]   

It is not known if this represents the next generation Type 095 SSN expected to enter production in the next decade. However, in 2015 the Asian Military Review journal reported the PLAN would build up to 14 Type 095s.[6]

Of some interest, Admiral Zhao describes a new 7,000 ton nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN), showing acoustic capability enhancements, internal storage for 12 large missiles, but design similarities with the older Type 093 SSN. (CJDBY)

Small Nuclear Powerplant

Zhao also revealed the PLAN may be working on a novel low power/low pressure auxiliary nuclear powerplant for electricity generation for fitting into conventional submarine designs, possibly succeeding the PLAN’s current Stirling engine-based air independent propulsion (AIP) systems. One slide seems to suggest that the PLAN will continue to build smaller submarines around the size of current conventional powered designs, but that they will be modified to carry the new nuclear auxiliary powerplant to give them endurance advantages of nuclear power.  

Admiral Zhao suggests that the PLAN is developing a new nuclear reactor-powered auxiliary power unit to charge the batteries of smaller and less expensive conventional submarines, allowing the PLAN to more rapidly increase its numbers of “nuclear” powered submarines. (CJDBY)

Zhao’s diagram of this powerplant shows similarities to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 auxiliary nuclear powerplant tested in the late 1980s on a Project 651 Juliet conventional cruise missile submarine (SSG).[7] Reports indicate Russia continued to develop this technology but there are no reports of its sale to China. Russia’s Project 20120 submarine Sarov may have a version of the VAU-6 giving it an underwater endurance of 20 days.[8] While the PLA would likely seek longer endurance, it may be attracted by the potential cost savings of a nuclear auxiliary powered submarine compared to a SSN.[9]

A slide of Admiral Zhao’s showing a diagram of a nuclear reactor powered auxiliary power unit for small submarines, appears to be similar to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 design. (CJDBY)   

Naval ASBMs and Energy Weapons

Zhao’s slides detailed weapon and technical ambitions for future surface combatant ships. While one slide depicts a ship-launched ASBM flight profile, another slide indicates that future ships could be armed with a “near-space hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile,” perhaps meaning a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warhead already tested by the PLA, and a “shipborne high-speed ballistic anti-ship missile,” perhaps similar to the land-based 1,500km range DF-21D or 4,000km range DF-26 ASBMs. At the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed its 280km range WS-64 ASBM, likely based on the HQ-16 anti-aircraft missile.

Another slide details that surface ships could be armed with “long-range guided projectiles,” perhaps precision guided conventional artillery, a “shipborne laser weapon” and “shipborne directed-energy weapon.” Chinese academic sources point to longstanding work on naval laser and naval microwave weapons.

Admiral Zhao’s slides also detailed new naval weapon ambitions, to include taking anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) to sea. This would greatly increase the PLAN’s ability to overwhelm U.S. ship defenses with multiple missile strikes. (CJDBY)

Future Destroyer

A subsequent slide details that a future DDG may have an “integrated electric power system,” have “full-spectrum stealthiness,” use an “integrated mast and integrated RF technology, plus “new type laser/kinetic energy weapons,” and a “mid-course interception capability.” These requirements, plus a subsequent slide showing a tall stealthy superstructure integrating electronic systems, possibly point to a ship with the air defense and eventual railgun/laser weapons of the U.S. Zumwalt-class DDG.

Modern Naval Aviation Ambitions

Zhao’s lecture also listed requirements for future “PLAN Aviation Follow Developments,” to include: a “new type carrier-borne fighter;” a “carrier-borne EW [electronic warfare] aircraft;” a “carrier borne fixed AEW [airborne early warning];” a “new type ship-borne ASW [anti-submarine warfare] helicopter;” a “medium-size carrier-borne UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle];” a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV;” and a “stratospheric airship.” 

Admiral Zhao illustrated PLAN aviation ambitions with an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft similar to a Xian Y-7 based test platform, but this may simply represent a generic carrier AWACS. (CJDBY)

These aircraft likely include a 5th generation fighter, an airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), an EW variant of that airframe, and a multi-role medium size turbofan-powered UAV that could form the core of a future PLAN carrier air wing. Ground-based but near-space operating UAVs and airships will likely assist the PLAN’s long-range targeting, surveillance, and communications requirements.

Submarine Dominance

Should the Type 095 SSN emerge as an “efficient” design similar to the U.S. Virginia class, and should the PLA successfully develop a nuclear auxiliary power system for SSK-sized submarines, this points to a possible PLA strategy to transition affordably to an “all-nuclear” powered submarine fleet. While nuclear auxiliary powered submarines may not have the endurance of SSNs, their performance could exceed that of most AIP powered submarines for an acquisition price far lower than that of an SSN.

Assuming the Asian Military Review report proves correct and that the PLAN has success in developing its auxiliary nuclear power plant, then by sometime in the 2030s the PLAN attack submarine fleet could consist of about 20 Type 093 and successor “large” SSNs, plus 20+ new smaller nuclear-auxiliary powered submarines, and 30+ advanced Type 039 and Kilo class conventional submarines.  

Such nuclear submarine numbers would not only help the PLAN challenge the current dominance of U.S. Navy SSNs, it could also could help the PLAN begin to transition to an “offensive” strategy against U.S. and Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). But in Asia it would give the PLAN numerical and technical advantages over the non-nuclear submarines of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. This combined with rapid PLAN development of new anti-submarine capabilities, to include its “Underwater Great Wall” of seabed sensors and underwater unmanned combat vessels,[10] point to an ambition to achieve undersea dominance in Asia.

An auxiliary nuclear- powered version of the Type 032 SSB could help enable multi-axis ASBM strikes. (CJDBY)

Such nuclear auxiliary engine technology also gives the PLAN the option to develop a number of longer-endurance but low-cost ballistic missile submarines, perhaps based on the Type 032 conventional ballistic missile submarine (SSG). Such submarines might deploy nuclear-armed, submarine-launched intercontinental missiles, long-range cruise missiles, or ASBMs. Auxiliary nuclear-powered submarines may be easier to station at the PLA’s developing system of naval bases, like Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan, and perhaps Hambantota, Sri Lanka. China can also be expected to export such submarines.

ASBMs at Sea

China’s potential deployment of ASBMs, especially HGV-armed ASBMs to surface ships, poses a real asymmetric challenge for the U.S. Navy which is just beginning to develop new long-range but subsonic speed anti-ship missiles. Eventually the PLAN could strike its enemies with two levels of multi-axis missile attacks: 1) hypersonic ASBMs launched from land bases, ships, submarines, and aircraft; and 2) multi-axis supersonic and subsonic anti-ship missiles also launched from naval platforms and aviation. ASBMs on ships and submarines also give the PLAN added capability for long-range strikes against land targets and overall power projection.

Carrier Power Projection

Admiral Zhao is indicating that the PLAN’s future conventional take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier will be armed with a modern and capable air wing, likely anchored around a 5th generation multi-role fighter. A model concept nuclear-powered aircraft carrier revealed in mid-July at a military museum in Beijing suggests this 5th gen fighter will be based on the heavy, long-range Chengdu J-20, but medium weight 5th gen fighters from Shenyang or Chengdu are also possibilities. This model indicated they could be supported by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for strike, surveillance or refueling missions, plus dedicated airborne early warning and electronic warfare aircraft. This plus the PLAN’s development of large landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, the 10,000 ton Type 055 escort cruiser, and the 50,000 ton Type 901 high speed underway replenishment ship indicate that the PLAN is well on its way to assembling U.S. Navy-style global naval power projection capabilities.

In Mid-July a Beijing military museum featured a model of a Chinese concept nuclear powered aircraft carrier, showing an air wing including J-20 stealth fighters, UCAVs, and AWACS. (FYJS)

But Admiral Zhao’s indication that the PLAN will be developing its own “near space” long-range targeting capabilities, in the form of a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV” and a “stratospheric airship” points to the likelihood that the PLAN is already developing synergies between its future ASBMs and its advanced aircraft carriers. This year has already seen suggestions of PLA interest in a future semi-submersible “arsenal ships” perhaps armed with hundreds of missiles.[11] Were the PLAN to successfully combine shipborne long-range ASBM and carrier strike operations, it would be the first to build this combination to implement new strategies for naval dominance.[12]

Arresting the PLAN’s Quest for Dominance

 Admiral Zhao outlines a modernization plan that could enable the PLAN to achieve Asian regional dominance, and with appropriate investments in power projection platforms, be able to dominate other regions. But it remains imperative for Washington to monitor closely if Zhao’s revelations do reflect real ambitions, as a decline in U.S. power emboldens China’s proxies like North Korea and could tempt China to invade Taiwan.

Far from simply building a larger U.S. Navy, there must be increased investments in new platforms and weapons that will allow the U.S. Navy to exceed Admiral Zhao’s outline for a future Chinese Navy. It is imperative for the U.S. to accelerate investments that will beat China’s deployment of energy and hypersonic weapons at sea and lay the foundation for second generations of these weapons. There should be a crash program to implement the U.S. Navy’s dispersed warfighting concept of “Distributed Lethality,” put ASBM and long-range air/missile defenses on carriers, LHDs and LPDs, perhaps even large replenishment ships,[13] and then design new platforms that better incorporate hypersonic and energy weapons. There should also be crash investments in 5++ or 6th generation air dominance for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

There is also little alternative for the U.S. but to build up its own undersea forces and work with allies to do the same to thwart China’s drive for undersea dominance. If autonomous/artificial intelligence control systems do not enable fully combat capable UUCVs, then perhaps there should be consideration of intermediate numerical enhancements like small “fighter” submarines carried by larger SSNs or new small/less expensive submarines. A capability should be maintained to exploit or disable any Chinese deployment of “Underwater Great Wall” systems in international waters.

It is just as important for the U.S. to work with its Japanese, South Korea, Australian, and Philippine allies. As it requests Tokyo to increase its submarine and 5th generation fighter numbers, Washington should work with Tokyo to secure the Ryukyu Island Chain from Chinese attack. The U.S. should also work with Manila to enable its forces to destroy China’s newly build island bases in the South China Sea. It is just as imperative for the U.S. to work with Taiwan to accelerate its acquisition of missile, submarine, and air systems required to defeat a Chinese invasion. Taiwan should be part of a new informal intelligence/information sharing network with Japan, South Korea, and India to create full, multi-sensor coverage of Chinese territory to allow detection of the earliest signs of Chinese aggression.

Conclusion

Both U.S. and then Chinese sources have tried to downplay the scope of China’s naval ambitions. About 15 years ago the U.S. Department of Defense assessed that China would not build aircraft carriers.[14] Then earlier this year a Chinese military media commentator denied that China will, “build 12 formations of carriers like the U.S.”[15] However, Zhao’s acceleration of China’s transition to a full nuclear submarine fleet, ambitions for new hypersonic and energy weapons, plus continued investments in carrier, amphibious, larger combat support and logistic support ships, point to the potential goal of first seeking Asian regional dominance, and then perhaps dominance in select extra-regional combat zones.

Former Vice Admiral Zhao’s lecture is a very rare revelation, in perhaps unprecedented detail, of a portion of the PLA’s future modernization ambitions. It confirms that many future PLAN modernization ambitions follow those of the U.S. Navy, possibly indicating that China intends to develop a navy with both the global reach and the high-tech weapons and electronics system necessary to compete for dominance with the U.S. Navy.  

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.  

References

[1] Poster “052D Hefei ship,” CJDBY Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-1-1.html; Poster “Kyushu universal,” FYJS Web Page, August 21, 2017, http://www.fyjs.cn/thread-1879203-1-1.html; and for some slide translations see poster “Cirr,” Pakistan Defense Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/2014-the-beginning-of-a-new-era-for-plan-build-up.294228/page-114; ; slides briefly analyzed in Richard D. Fisher, “PLAN plans: former admiral details potential modernization efforts of the Chinese Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 6, 2017, p.30.

[2] One biography for Zhao was posted on the CJDBY web page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-2-1.html

[3] “Deputy Chief Minister of Navy Equipment on the Contrast of Chinese and Russian Ships [我海军装备原部副部长谈中俄舰艇真实对比], Naval and Merchant Ships, September 2013, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2013-08-10/1023734607.html

[4] In 20+ years of following People’s Liberation Army modernization, this analyst has not encountered a more detailed revelation of PLA modernization intentions than Admiral Zhao’s lecture slides as revealed on Chinese web pages.

[5] For both points the author thanks Christopher Carlson, retired U.S. Navy analyst, email communication cited with permission, August 24, 2017.

[6] “AMR Naval Directory,” May 1, 2015, http://www.asianmilitaryreview.com/ships-dont-lie/

[7] Carlson, op-cit.

[8] “Sarov,” Military-Today.com, http://www.military-today.com/navy/sarov.htm

[9] For a price comparison between nuclear and AIP propelled submarines, see, “Picard578,” “AIP vs nuclear submarine,” Defense Issues Web Page, March 3, 2013, https://defenseissues.net/2013/03/03/aip-vs-nuclear-submarines/

[10] For more on Underwater Great Wall, see Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages

[11] A series of indicators on Chinese web pages was usefully analyzed by Henri Kenhmann, “Has China Revived the Arsenal Ship, but as a semi-submersible?,” EastPendulum Web Page, May 29, 2017, https://www.eastpendulum.com/la-chine-fait-renaitre-arsenal-ship-semi-submersible

[12] While the arsenal ship concept has long been considered on the U.S. side, and was most recently revived by the Huntington Ingles Corporation in the form of a missile armed LPD, the U.S. has yet to decide to develop such a ship. For an early review of the Huntington Ingles concept see, Christopher P. Cavas, “HII Shows Off New BMD Ship Concept At Air-Sea-Space,” Defense News.com, April 8, 2013, http://intercepts.defensenews.com/2013/04/hii-shows-off-new-bmd-ship-concept-at-sea-air-space/

[13] Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy Just Gave Us the Inside Scoop on the “Distributed Lethality” Concept,” The National Interest Web Page, October 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navy-just-gave-us-the-inside-scoop-the-distributed-18185

[14] “While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier.” See, Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 25, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[15] Wang Lei, “China will never build 12 aircraft carriers like the US, says expert,” China Global Television Network (CGTN) Web Page, March 3, 2017, https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d557a4e30676a4d/share_p.html

Featured Image: On 23 April in Shanghai, Chinese sailors hail the departure of one of three navy ships that are now in the Philippines, as part of a public relations tour to over 20 countries. (AP)

The Ambitions and Challenges of Russia’s Naval Modernization Program

Russia Topic Week

By Steve Micallef

Introduction

A lot has been said about Chinese naval modernization in recent years. However, China is not the only country that is currently investing in a modern naval force. Since 2011 Russia has been implementing its own naval modernization program. This comes after a period of neglect the as Russia Federal Navy (Russian Navy) is looking to build as many as a 100 new warships by 2020.

Sailing Under the Soviet Navy’s Shadow

At the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Soviet Navy consisted of about 1000 warships from the smallest patrol craft and missile boats to the large helicopter and cruise missile-caring carriers. Indeed, during the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had an important strategic role in a potential hot war with the west. Besides being in charge of one of the legs of the nuclear triad in the form of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the Navy was also expected to protect Soviet SSBNs, find and destroy Western SSBNs, and neutralize carrier groups. Where possible, the Navy was also expected to interrupt NATO sea lanes of communication and support ground forces in amphibious operations and other offensives.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy was dissolved and reformed into the modern Russian Navy. After 1991, limited funding was available and as time passed, capabilities decreased, platforms retired, and construction programs were cut. The situation grew so bleak that in the mid-90s it was reported that the Russian Navy was unable to mount more than 10 deterrence patrols per year. This decline continued until 2002 when no patrol was conducted at all. Russian naval aviation suffered similarly and is still suffering from a lack of trained aircrews. In 2009 former commander of the Northern Fleet Admiral Vyacheslav Popov (ret.) stated the Russian Navy would experience a sharp decline in capability by 2015 unless current shipbuilding plans are grown and new vessels introduced.

59801u-3w7
Soviet warships conduct an at-sea replenishment in July, 1985 (Soviet Navy)

This situation persisted even after Vladimir Putin came to power. Whilst he advocated and funded large modernization programs for the Army and Air Force, the Navy did not benefit much initially. This remained the case until August 2000, when the Oscar-class submarine Kursk sunk with all hands in a disaster. In a sense, the tragedy represented the decline of the Navy and was a wakeup call for the Putin administration. Lack of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment; negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement were all blamed by the investigation for the loss of the submarine.

Since the unfortunate disaster, the Navy has enjoyed renewed attention and efforts have been made to modernize starting in the early 2000s and expected to run through the 2030s. Notwithstanding, the more pressing problem facing the Russian Navy today is shipbuilding capability and low build rate.

Aims and Objectives

The Russian Navy today is a very different force than its Soviet counterpart; this can be seen both in its structuring and its missions.

The biggest challenge that the modern Russian Navy faces is the fact that it has fewer ships. The size of the Navy has shrunk to a quarter of its predecessor. Additionally, the ships of the Navy are divided between the five fleets (Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian fleets) which operate in areas that are geographically separate. It is easy to envisage that the Russian Navy today cannot hope to compete with the sortie rate or activity levels that the Soviet Navy maintained. Despite this, its mission has remained similar to the Soviet Navy. Today, the Russian Navy is still expected to carry out the tasks its predecessor did.

Firstly, the Russian Navy is still expected to maintain its deterrence patrols and the submarine-based part of the nuclear triad. Together with this, it must also provide protection for its SSBNs. During the Cold War, as missile range and accuracy increased, Soviet SSBNs did not venture further out at sea but instead stayed closer to home where they could be better protected by other naval assets. There is no reason to believe that this will change at least until more capable and silent submarines like the Borey-class become fully operational. It has been suggested that these boats might give Russia the capability to patrol the southern oceans, something that it has not done in 20 years.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the Russian Navy is expected to protect the Russian coastline. This means protecting from intrusions by any hostile power and making sure that Russia is not attacked from the sea. In this regard, the surface force has been particularly hard hit due to a number of shortcomings. Russia’s shipbuilding programs seem unable to meet the Navy’s demands. Beyond this, Russian shipyards are in need of modernization and rely heavily on foreign components for construction of Russian vessels. The sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukrainian Crisis have been particularly devastating both to the Navy and the shipbuilding industry. In particular, Ukraine has stopped selling ship engines to Russia, resulting in Russia having to find a substitute. The sanctions on Russia have also resulted in cuts to the Navy’s budget and orders for new ships.

Thirdly, the Russian Navy is a tool through which Moscow will project its power worldwide. Again, in this area, the Russian Navy is somewhat lacking. Beyond its ballistic missile submarines the Navy has very little in the way of long-range power projection. These include Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov,  Tu-95s patrol aircraft, and its forward naval base in Tartus, Syria. Deployments to the Atlantic and military adventurism off the coast of Syria are demonstrations of the Navy’s ability to project power. However, the Navy also recognizes that it is lacking in this department; various naval strategies since the 2000s have called for Russia to acquire between three to five aircraft carriers. Due to financial difficulties this order had to be cut to one.

These shortcomings have meant that Russia has had to adopt an A2/AD approach in naval matters in the face of overwhelming NATO sea power. This approach will continue into the foreseeable future, or at least until Russia can field a fleet that can impose sea control. The Navy’s insistence on submarines (with many labeling the Russian Navy as a ‘Submarine Navy’) and long-range missiles is the manifestation of this A2/AD approach. Needless to say, today we are witnessing the return of Russia’s ‘bastion’ mentality where certain maritime areas are a no go zone for any hostile force, yet Russian forces are unlikely to project power beyond such ‘bastions.’

Despite the fact that the Navy has to cover various regions (Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian Sea, Indian Ocean as well as the Antarctic), two areas in particular have seen more focus than the others, the Atlantic and Arctic regions. The Atlantic is seen as a potential battleground due to NATO expansion and renewed tensions with the West, whilst the Arctic is seen as a vital strategic region due to its untapped economic/resource value and its free access to both the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Shipbuilding Programs

Russian naval modernization has followed two main paths: extensively upgrading existing platforms and building new ones. Many of the old soviet-era platforms have been retired and those left in service have been extensively retrofitted to prolong their service lives. Despite tough economic times Russia has also managed to commission a number of new platforms. The main driving force behind these programs seems to be avoiding a situation where the Russian Navy would shrink to insignificance in the 2020s.

The Kirov-class battlecruisers are an embodiment of this philosophy. Of the four nuclear battlecruisers constructed for the Soviet Union, two had to be scrapped because they fell into disrepair and were beyond saving, one is in active service (the Pyotr Velikiy) and the other (Admiral Nakhimov) is undergoing an extensive refit which includes upgrading anti-ship and anti-air weaponry before returning to the fleet in 2018. The Pyotr Velikiy will also be refitted and both battlecruisers are expected to be in service into the early 2020s. The aim is to prolong the service life of both ships until their replacement is in service.

The expected replacement for the Kirov­-class is the 18,000 ton Project 23560E Shkval  Lider-class (Leader-class in English). Equipped with the S-500 air defense system and P-800 supersonic anti-ship missiles it is envisioned to carry around 200 missiles of different types. The ship will likely be nuclear powered and will carry helicopters for anti-submarine operations. The propulsion system installed in the Lider-class will likely be used in prospective Russian aircraft carrier designs. Despite the unveiling of the project in July 2016, there are still doubts whether Russia is able to actually construct such a ship. The first ship is expected to be laid down in 2019 at the Severnaya Verf Shipyard in Saint Petersburg. A more conventional destroyer design, the Project 21956, is also under consideration to compliment the development of the Lider-class.

23560_armiy-2015_01
A concept model of the Lider-class destroyer.

The Russian Navy also has two new classes of frigate under construction, the Admiral Gorshkov-class (Project 22350) and the Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356M). Both are intended to directly replace existing Soviet-era Sovremennyy-class destroyers and Krivak-class frigates in service with all Russian fleets and are equipped with the P-800 Oniks anti-ship missile system. However, construction has been particularly slow even by Russian standards; since 2006 only two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates have reached the fleet and are still undergoing sea trials. Construction of the Admiral Grigorovich-class (started in 2014) fared somewhat better with two ships in active service and one in sea trials. The Russians also signed a contract with the Indian Navy for four Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates. However, both classes have been particularly hard hit by the crisis in Ukraine as the engines are imported from Zorya-Mashproekt in Ukraine. Russia is trying to find an indigenous replacement, but currently all ships under construction remain without engines.

The Russian Navy is also acquiring a number of corvettes. The Buyan-class which come in two variants (Project 21630 and 21631, one armed with missiles and one not) for service with the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla, and Steregushchiy-class, Gremyashchiy-class and the Karakurt-class corvettes. The Steregushchiy-class (Project 2038.0) was developed for littoral combat, the Gremyashchiy-class (Project 2038.5) are a larger variant with more endurance for longer missions. However, development of the Gremyashchiy-class was stopped after just two ships since the design depends on German engines, which Germany is now refusing to export in the wake of recent events. Instead, Russia has ordered more Steregushchiy-class corvettes of which it has six in service and five under construction. The Karakurt-class (Project 22800) is a blue water-capable design laid down in 2015 and four are under construction. They will be armed with P-800 medium-range anti-ship missiles and Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles. The first unit will be commissioned in 2017.

For power projection purposes the Russian Navy is also looking to acquire aircraft carriers and amphibious ships (LHD). Information is scarce on both projects. Currently the Russian Navy operates no LHDs. Its plans to acquire two Mistral-class LHDs from France fell through due to the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia is expected to start construction on an indigenous design before 2020. Plans for the construction of a large aircraft carrier were also unveiled in May 2015. The Project 23000E is a nuclear powered 100,000-ton carrier similar to the supercarriers currently in service with the U.S. Navy. However, it is still unclear whether financial considerations and shipbuilding capabilities will allow Russia to commission such a ship. Already, the number of envisioned aircraft carriers has been subsequently cut from one naval strategy to the next. At any rate, it will take Russia around ten years to build a new carrier and construction would start in 2025 at the earliest. Russia will still have to address its shortage of naval aviators.

Things are progressing somewhat better on the submarine front. Russia has focused its efforts on two new classes of submarines, the Borey-class (Project 955) and the Yasen-class (Project 885). The Borey-class are SSBNs intended to replace the Delta III, Delta IV and Typhoon classes currently in active service. Russia currently has four Borey-class submarines in active service and seven in various stages of construction. Initial tests of the new SLBMs, the RSM-56 Bulava, were met with failure: 5 failures in 11 tests. The failures here were attributed to poor quality control and materials which resulted in delays in attaining operational capability. The first unit of the class deployed in 2014.

1028457787
Lead ship Severodvinsk of the Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines. (Northern Fleet Press Service)

The Yasen-class attack submarines are intended to replace the Soviet-era Akula and Oscar classes. According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, these boats are the quietest submarines ever put into service by Russia, although not as quiet as contemporary U.S. Navy Seawolf and Virginia class subs. Despite this, they represent a giant leap in capability for the Russian Navy. Construction on the first unit of the class began in 1993 and was only completed in 2010 due to financial problems. The class is armed with torpedoes, long range anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, and cruise missiles. The second unit of the class is estimated to cost US$3.5 billion making it one of the most expensive attack submarines ever commissioned. The high costs of each submarine has raised speculation that Russia might look for smaller, less well-armed alternatives in a bid to get more boats into service and drive costs down.

Conclusion

The Russian naval modernization program aims to transform the Russian Navy from a Cold War-era fleet into a modern 21st century navy able to project Russian power abroad and defend the Russian coast. On paper the fleet that Russia is constructing seems formidable. However, there are still doubts whether Russia will be able to actually acquire all these new platforms in sufficient numbers. The reality is that Russia is operating in an unfavorable fiscal environment. Additionally, there are serious concerns whether the Russian shipbuilding industry can deliver in its current state, both with regards to the production of indigenous components for designs and the capacity to produce large ships. Unless these key deficits are addressed Russian naval ambitions will remain on paper.

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He currently works at Bugeja Geopolitical Consulting, Malta.

Featured Image: May 23, 2012, Gren LST “Ivan Gren” at the Yantar Baltic Shipyard  (TASS)

The Status of Brazil’s Ambitious PROSUB Program

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

In spite of Brazil’s political crisis, the Brazilian Navy has continued with its ambitious project of domestically constructing a new fleet of submarines, including a nuclear-powered platform. The first Scorpène-class submarine is expected to be launched in 2018, an important development though a couple of years behind schedule. However, the question remains: does Brazil require today, or will it require in the foreseeable future, an advanced submarine fleet?

The PROSUB Program

A 2009 contract between the Brazilian Navy and French conglomerate DCNS “covers the design, production, and technology transfer required for four Scorpène-class conventional submarines, and the design assistance and production of the non-nuclear part of the first Brazilian nuclear powered submarine, including support for construction of a naval base and a naval construction site.” This contract was the result of a defense agreement signed in 2008 by then-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his French counterpart, then-President Nikolas Sarkozy. This project is known as the Submarine Development Program (Programa de Desarrollo de Submarinos; PROSUB).

At the time of this writing, SBR-1 Riachuelo (S-40) is nearing completion as it is expected to be launched in 2018 and delivered to the Navy in 2020. The next submarine, SBR-2 Humaitá, will be launched in 2020, while SBR-3 Tonelero (S-42) and SBR-4 Angostura (S-43) are scheduled to be completed by the early 2020s.

The first two S-BR boats in the assembly hall. (PROSUB photo)
The first two S-BR boats in the assembly hall. (PROSUB photo)

It is worth stressing that the Brazilian Navy is particularly interested in learning how to manufacture the submarines domestically, rather than relying on DCNS to construct and assemble the submarines abroad. For example, in July, the Brazilian company Nuclebras Heavy Equipment (Nuclebrás Equipamentos Pesados; NUCLEP) delivered the stern section of Humaitá to Itaguaí Construções Navais (ICN) which is assembling the platform in Rio de Janeiro. According to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, “the submarine’s hull has been divided into five sections and to date … four sections of SBR 2 [have been delivered]. The final one is scheduled to be delivered in November.”

As for the nuclear submarine SN-BR Alvaro Alberto (SN-10), the Brazilian Navy’s PROSUB webpage reports that it is still in the developmental phase and that actual construction will commence in 2017 and be completed by 2025. “The transfer [of the submarine] to the Navy is expected to take in 2027,” the Navy explains.

A word should be said about the status of the shipyard, also part of PROSUB, since the Navy wants the capacity to construct more of these platforms in the future. To this end, a 750,000 square meter complex is under construction in the municipality of Itaguaí (Rio de Janeiro). In 2013, the Metal Structures Manufacturing Unit (Unidade de Fabricação de Estruturas Metálicas; UFEM) was inaugurated, with then-President Dilma Rousseff in attendance. Among other tasks, UFEM will manufacture the metal hull structures of the platforms.

The DCNS and Other Issues

It is necessary to highlight that the construction of these platforms has not been a smooth ride. A 1 March 2013 article by Reuters reported that “the first conventional submarine [will be completed] in 2015 and the nuclear-powered submarine will be commissioned in 2023 and enter operation in 2025, the Brazilian Navy said in a statement.” The timetable was perhaps too ambitious as the first submarine Riachuelo is now scheduled to be launched in 2018, three years later than originally reported. Similarly, the nuclear platform is now expected to be ready by 2025, not 2023. Part of the reason for the delay has to do with the country’s recent economic crisis which has affected the budget of governmental agencies, including defense.

Due to space considerations, we cannot provide a full account of Brazil’s political crisis over the past year with regards to the Lava Jato revelations. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, which is involved in PROSUB via its ICN unit, has been implicated in the scandal. (Ret.) Admiral Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, considered the father of Brazil’s nuclear program and a major supporter of the nuclear submarine (see his biography in Togzhan Kassenova’s commentary Turbulent Times for Brazil’s Nuclear Projects) has also been implicated in illicit activities. He was sentenced to 43 years in prison this past August for corruption and money-laundering. While PROSUB itself has survived the recent crises, these scandals raise the question whether there will be new allegations of illegal activities surrounding the construction of these platforms in the near future.

The other problem with PROSUB is that sensitive information about the Scorpène-class subs may be out in the open as DCNS has suffered a massive intelligence leak. This past August, the Australian daily The Australian published documents which “detail the secret combat capability of six Scorpène-class submarines that French shipbuilder DCNS has designed for the Indian Navy.” According to reports, the DCNS leak includes more than 22,000 pages about the Indian platforms.

Regarding this incident, Brazilian Rear Admiral Flavio Augusto Viana published a letter stating that “the Brazilian submarines were designed along specifications made by the Brazilian Navy, which means that there are differences between our submarines and those of other countries.” Therefore, the Brazilian Navy, “does not foresee any impact on the construction of the SBR.” The author is not qualified to compare the Brazilian and Indian Scorpène-class subs, however it is likely that there are some general similarities between the two models.

tun_razak
Scorpène-class Malaysian Navy submarine Tun Razak in the shipyard of Navantia-Cartagena (Spain) a few days prior to its delivery. (Wikimedia Commons)

At this point it is worth remembering the words of Admiral Eduardo Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, who spoke at a recent 26 September event entitled “Addressing Challenges in the Maritime Commons” at the National Bureau of Asian Research. An article written by the author for IHS Jane’s Defense, quotes Admiral Ferreira stating that the PROSUB program is the Navy’s main priority, followed by upgrading the fleet’s frigates, and then repairing the Sao Paulo(A-12) carrier. In other words, PROSUB, in spite of delays, budget issues and other incidents, will continue.

Discussion

Given that PROSUB is well underway and by next decade we will see a modern, domestically constructed, Brazilian submarine flee. The question is: why does Brazil need these platforms?

The standard reason is for Brazil to monitor and protect its 7,500 kilometers of coastline and vast maritime territory, including its natural resources (the discovery of underwater oil reserves is an often-mentioned fact), from domestic and foreign threats. In his remarks for NBAR, Admiral Ferreira added that the Atlantic Ocean is an open ocean, not a closed sea, so Brazil requires a blue water navy, hence the importance of the submarine and aircraft carrier program. The admiral also highlighted the necessity to have freedom of navigation, implying a blue water navy is necessary, “so when there are problems in the South China Sea or the East China Sea or wherever, we won’t be affected.”

This author argues that Brazil does not have any major inter-state issues that would make the submarines, a platform suitable for conventional warfare, necessary. The reality of South American geopolitics is that Brazil’s relations with its 10 neighbors, including one-time competitor Argentina, remain quite cordial. Hence, the possibility that a regional state would attempt to aggressively take control of part of Brazil’s exclusive economy zone is too remote to realistically contemplate.

Additionally, while Brazil has pursued the submarine program (among other platform acquisition projects), this has not sparked a regional arms race for fear of an “imperialist” Brasilia trying to take over a neighbor’s territory. In other words, regional states do not appear threatened by Brazil’s PROSUB program, highlighting the current status of regional geopolitics and the general success of confidence building mechanisms (for example Brazil has a constant presence in regional military exercises, such as hosting UNITAS Brasil 2015 and serving as the deputy commander for PANAMAX 2016 – Multi-National Forces-South), which make the possibility of inter-state warfare remote in this region.

Likewise, there is little chance that an extra-regional power will deploy a fleet to Brazilian waters a la Spanish Armada to take over its oil platforms. While it is true that the U.S. did send a fleet, led by the USS Forrestal, to support Brazil’s military coup in 1964, bilateral, regional and global geopolitics are not the same as five decades ago.

Without a doubt, Brazil deserves a well-equipped and modern navy that can address its 21st century challenges, protecting its maritime territory, particularly the offshore oil platforms, and cracking down on maritime crimes like drug trafficking (or other types of smuggling) or illegal fishing. However, this author argues that submarines are hardly the appropriate platforms for these tasks. A fleet of oceanic patrol vessels (OPVs) along with a robust air wing would be more suitable for coastal and oceanic patrol, including the interdiction of suspicious vessels.

Final Thoughts

In his September remarks at NBAR, Admiral Ferreira explained the need for Brazil to possess a blue water Navy in case of a hypothetical armed conflict in the South or East China Seas. This author has not found a direct correlation between the two issues: if an incident took place, would Brazil need to deploy its platforms to the open seas in defense of freedom of navigation? While the Admiral’s statement is not clear, the wider goal is to obviously increase the power projection of the Brazilian Navy by making it a blue water navy. This explains PROSUB’s priority, as this will be a major source of pride regarding the country’s naval capabilities, including the ability to manufacture these platforms.

Additionally, Admiral Ferreira highlighted that the Brazilian Navy is a dual-purpose navy as “we are not just a war-fighting Navy like the U.S., we have other collateral tasks, we are coast guard, we are maritime authority for safety of the sea [and] we have lots of tasks in the Amazon basin.” Indeed, the Brazilian Navy has a variety of tasks. However, the question remains if a fleet of four Scorpène-class submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine are the ideal platforms to carry out these duties when OPVs and frigate-type platforms (which the Navy is upgrading) are more suitable for these tasks.

Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured image: The interior of the Brazilian Navy submarine Tapajó (Guilherme Leporace / Agência O Globo)

The Rise Of The Latin American Shipyard

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Introduction

In recent months various Latin American navies have either received or deployed new platforms. For example, Chile and Mexico have launched new Oceanic Patrol Vessels (OPVs) while Colombia has launched two amphibious landing vessels and two speedboats. In late July, Peru’s brand-new training vessel, the Union, left port for its first voyage.

While these acquisitions and deployments appear standard, there is one important detail that links them together: all these platforms were produced by Latin American shipyards.

The global shipbuilding industry is about to get more crowded as Latin America shipyards are making their presence felt. Their platforms are not solely produced for local navies, as exporting them is now an objective.

Current Projects

The most ambitious domestic naval project is found in Brazil. With assistance from the French company DCNS, the Brazilian Navy is constructing four Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines, as well as a nuclear-powered submarine, a dream of the Brazilian Navy for decades. Just this past July, the fourth section of the Humaitá was delivered to Itaguaí Construções Navais (ICN).  According to the Brazilian news agency Defesa Aerea & Naval the first submarine, the Riachuelo, will be launched in 2018 and delivered in 2020 while the Humaitá will be launched in 2020 and delivered in 2021.

Apart from the submarines themselves, Brazil is also constructing a submarine-building facility in Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. These projects constitute the massive program known as Programa de Desenvolvimiento de Submarinos or Program Development for Submarines (PROSUB).

A photo of the team that worked on the production of the submarine's stern of the Humaitá. Planobrazil.com
A photo of the team that worked on the production of the stern of the Brazilian submarine Humaitá. (Planobrazil.com)

Other countries are manufacturing naval platforms, though not submarines. Specifically, regional shipyards are constructing OPVs, multipurpose vessels, and even training vessels. Case in point, in late July, the Colombian shipyard Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (COTECMAR) delivered two new amphibious landing vessels, the Golfo de Morrosquillo and Bahía Málaga to the Colombian Navy, as well as two river patrol boats. COTECMAR has already delivered two similar ships (the Golfo de Tribuga and the Golfo de Uraba) to the Colombian Navy and plans to build an additional two more for a total of six vessels. The company has also constructed OPVs like the 7 de Agosto, which participated in operations Atalanta and Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa.

When it comes to other countries, in early August the Chilean shipyard Astilleros y Maestranzas de la Armada (ASMAR) launched the OPV Cabo Odger from its facilities in Talcahuano. The company has already delivered three similar vessels: Piloto Pardo, Comandante Toro and Marinero Fuentealba that were commissioned June 2008, August 2009, and November 2014, respectively.”

As for neighboring Peru, the state-run shipyard Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) has, as previously mentioned, constructed the country’s new training vessel (the author has discussed Latin America’s training vessels in a 6 June commentary for CIMSEC). On 27 July, the BAP Union departed the port in Callao for its first multinational voyage, carrying aboard 93 Peruvian naval cadets. Moreover, two patrol vessels were launched earlier this year: the Rio Pativilca and the Rio Cañete; they were constructed in SIMA’s shipyard in Chimbote (northern Peru).

As a final example,the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy has announced that the shipyard Astillero de la Marina (ASTIMAR) has launched two new vessels in the past couple of months. The shipyard No.6 at Guaymas (state of Sonora) launched the logistics support vessel ARM Isla María Madre in late May while shipyard No.1 shipyard launched coastal patrol vessel ARM Monte Albán in mid July. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly explains that “Secretary of Navy Admiral Vidal Soberón Sanz noted during the launch ceremony that the ship was entirely built by Mexican workers with local materials.”

In an interview with the author, Mr. Mario Pedreros Leighton, president of the Georgetown Consulting Group, LLC., based in Washington DC, highlighted the multipurpose functions that these domestically-manufactured platforms accomplish. As inter-state war is highly unlikely in Latin America, platform acquisition is not solely judged on traditional defense from a foreign military, but what other missions platforms can carry out, particularly to support civil society. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains how “there is no doubt that vessels today must fulfill a social role, like protecting natural resources and carrying out search and rescue operations. These uses make the vessels more attractive as their value is not based on traditional defense. In turn, governments find it easier to approve budgets and investments regarding these projects.” Hence, it is no surprise that the region has focused on constructing OPVs and multipurpose ships, as they are relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain, and can be utilized for patrol, support operations, as well as providing relief to coastal regions. 

Future Projects?

It is safe to say that Latin American shipyards will continue to produce vessels and submarines for local navies. As previously mentioned, Brazil is close to completing the construction of two Scorpene submarines, while it is expected that the two others will be delivered in 2022 and 2023. Even more, the highly anticipated nuclear submarine should be ready around 2023-2025.

Moreover, it appears that the Argentine shipbuilding industry is bouncing back after experiencing a difficult decade and a half of economic crisis and turbulent governance. The Rio Santiago shipyard in Buenos Aires province will now manufacture vessels that will be utilized to train naval cadets. Two are currently under construction, with a total of six expected to be ordered. According to the Argentine news agency Telam, the first will be delivered in 2018. Moreover, earlier this year Rio Santiago signed a deal with Daewoo to manufacture a Makassar-type landing dock platform vessel.

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Rio Santiago shipyard in Argentina. (Aandigital.com.ar)

It is important to highlight the assistance that other companies are providing to Latin American shipyards. Apart from DCNS in Brazil or Daewoo in Argentina, other examples include, Damen, which signed an agreement with Mexico so the country can construct in its own shipyards the aforementioned OPVs which are based on Damen’s Stan Patrol 4207. Similarly, while the Union was constructed in Peru, the Spanish company CYPSA Ingenieros Navales aided SIMA in the design of the vessel. As for future cooperation projects, representatives from Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems and Copower Ltda visited the facilities of Ecuador’s state-run shipyard Astilleros Navales Ecuatorianos (ASTINAVE) this past May.

The argument proposed here is that Latin American shipyards will continue to aim at domestically manufacturing platforms, which means that future deals with foreign shipyards will have to include some level of know-how and technical exchange.

The Ultimate Objective: Export

What is the ultimate goal for these shipyards? Manufacturing platforms for export, and not just to sell to local navies appears to be the answer. On this issue, Colombia’s COTECMAR reached a major milestone in April when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos carried out a diplomatic tour throughout Central America. During his stop in Honduras, President Santos signed a deal with the Honduran government where the latter will purchase a COTECMAR support vessel (the exact model and timeline for delivery are still unknown).

The significance of this deal cannot be underestimated as it is a Latin American shipyard exporting a platform to another regional state. (COTECMAR had previously supplied river boats to the Brazilian Army and Navy, however we are focusing on ocean-going platforms).

Colombia–Launch of the ARC Golfo de Uraba. (COTECMAR)

This deal also brings up the question of which countries are potential customers for Latin American shipyards. It makes sense that their primary targets would be countries with less developed naval industries, like for example Central America, Uruguay, and perhaps Caribbean states. If these hypothetical deals succeed, maybe some regional shipyard could attempt to export outside of the Western Hemisphere.

One plausible scenario is that, even if Latin American shipyards cannot sell brand-new platforms to the aforementioned nations, they could hypothetically still sell efficient, second-hand vessels from local navies at a much reduced cost. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains how “Chile, for example, could attempt to sell the OPV Piloto Prado [constructed by ASMAR and utilized by the Chilean Navy] which is almost a decade old and was constructed utilizing a Fassmer 80 design.” Second-hand platforms are always an attractive option when there are insufficient funds for brand-new equipment.

Potential Problems

Due to space considerations, we will provide a broad overview of the likely woes thatregional shipyards could face regarding future projects. Financial and technical problemsare obvious concerns, which are best exemplified by the construction of the Brazilian submarines. In 2009, the Navy’s objective was to have the first submarine, the Riachuelo, launched in 2015, but construction has been delayed by three years. Meanwhile, the delivery date for the nuclear submarine varies by a margin of two years. These changing delivery dates certainly do not help the image of the ICN shipyard and its supporting companies.

Another issue is finding customers, locally and abroad. The global shipbuilding industry is cluttered as shipyards compete with one another as well as government-to-government deals (e.g. Peru has recently obtained a new corvette, the Ferre, which was donated by South Korea).  Moreover, while Latin American shipyards can construct vessels, potential customers may continue to prefer more expensive platforms from well-known companies.

ASTIMAR – OPV Chiapas. (imparcialoaxaca.mx)
OPV Chiapas in ASTIMAR shipyard in Mexico. (imparcialoaxaca.mx)

Another problem has to do with the volume of construction. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains that “building one vessel is very expensive, but manufacturing two or more makes the project less costly.” Unsurprisingly, shipyards prefer to have large orders, however they may have to settle for single units (e.g. COTECMAR and Honduras) in order to establish their brands with foreign customers. While this situation may diminish sales revenue, the offset would be achieving a stronger name brand.

A final point has to do with marketing and name brands. Colombia’s COTECMAR has had an aggressive marketing program in order to gain customers abroad such as Brazil and Honduras. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss marketing strategies among shipyards, however it is necessary to stress that Latin American shipyards will only export platforms if they manage to make their names become well-known regionally.

Concluding Thoughts

Latin American shipyards are currently enjoying a boom, as many of them are constructing vessels from Brazilian submarines to OPVs in Chile and Mexico, to multipurpose vessels in Colombia, and a training vessel in Peru. This is a positive development for regional navies as they can rely on domestic shipyards to construct new platforms and have the expertise to repair vessels already in service. Moreover, the sale by Colombia’s COTECMAR to Honduras of a support ship is a significant development as this means regional shipyards are now exporting platforms.

It is true that Latin American navies cannot manufacture heavy surface combatants or carriers; meanwhile Brazil is having trouble keeping its ambitious PROSUB submarine project on schedule. Nevertheless, the tides are changing and Latin America is no longer solely an importer of sea platforms, it is also once again a producer and, albeit in a very restricted breadth, an exporter. 

Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Construction of the Brazilian submarine Riachuelo in Itaguaí (RJ) (Planobrazil.com)