Worldwide, the major navies as well as those with littoral warfare missions are getting rid of their existing fleets of FAC-Ms and light multi-role guided-missile corvettes (both armed with anti-ship cruise missiles of various types) and are opting for new-generation guided-missile corvettes (popularly referred to as littoral combatant ship, or LCS) that displace more than 2,500 tonnes and up to 3,500 tonnes. This trend, which is gaining more traction with every passing day, is due to the following:
1) FAC-Ms and light multi-role guided-missile corvettes have their own set of weaknesses that makes them no more effective than larger principal surface combatants. The LCS is capable of all of the peacetime and most of the wartime abilities of the FAC-M and light multi-role guided-missile corvette. Most importantly, the geography of 21st century seapower does not lend itself to low-endurance warships dependent upon isolated fixed bases for support.
2) The new-generation LCS can fulfill many peacetime duties, including presence functions and training with allied/friendly naval forces, which FAC-Ms and light multi-purpose corvettes cannot. While the LCS is a fully deployable warship capable of sustained operations at sea for at least 21 days, FAC-Ms and light multi-role guided-missile corvettes, however, have only an 8-day sustainability at sea and require a significant advanced base from which to resupply and refuel. The LCS can be supported through refuelling and resupply at sea via underway replenishment vessels.
3) In the current constrained fiscal environment, the first priority of the Indian Navy (IN) must remain high-endurance warships capable of extended combat operations at sea without forward base support. A large force of FAC-Ms and light multi-purpose corvettes cannot meet this requirement. India is a maritime nation with an interest in protecting and securing what political scientist Barry Posen has called the “global commons” of oceanic trade routes. Consequently, regional power projection within the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) requires regionally deployable naval assets rather than limited-endurance and role-specific sub-regionally dependent vessels.
4) Finally, the geography of seapower as understood by maritime nations with regional interests such as India does not support the use of such short-range vessels as FAC-Ms and light multi-purpose corvettes. Such a country must be ready to transfer significant parts of her armed forces seamlessly over great distances. Relatively high-speed, long-range naval task forces capable of sustained regional deployments are therefore the best solution to the problem of geography. FAC-Ms and light multi-purpose corvettes can be moved from one part of the IOR to another, but neither with the speed nor cost-effectiveness of larger LCS-type platforms with better endurance. The fleet of a regional naval power entrusted with the responsibility of being a net security provider throughout the IOR must be able to depart from one location, sail thousands of miles if necessary, arrive in its assigned theatre of operations and attain sea control without reliance on forward land bases, which may be vulnerable or unavailable for use.
The above-mentioned four underpinnings are what must dictate the procurement of replacements for the IN’s existing fleets of 549-tonne Project 1241RE ‘Molniya’ FAC-Ms and the 1,350-tonne Project 25 and 25A light multi-purpose guided-missile corvettes. But that has not been the case thus far. For instance, in February 2015 the IN’s global Request for Information (RFI) for six new-generation missile vessels (NGMV) specified that the vessel should have a displacement of some 1,500 tonnes, must cruise at speeds of more than 35 Knots, and have an endurance of 10 days at sea. The vessel should also carry a minimum of eight multi-role anti-ship cruise/land-attack cruise missiles, be fitted with a point defence missile system (PDMS) and possess a medium-range gun with ‘stealth features’ and having range in excess of 15km.
This was followed in October 2016 by another RFI that was sent by the IN sent to India-based shipyards—both private-owned and state-owned—that called for the supply of seven next-generation corvettes (NGC) capable of offensive attack with anti-ship cruise/land-attack cruise missiles, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, local naval defence, maritime interdiction operations and visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) missions, with deliveries of these seven vessels beginning from 2023. In terms of weapons fitments, the IN specified the BrahMos-1 missiles, a SAM system, cannon-based remotely-operated close-in weapon system, a medium-range gun with 15km-range, a twin deck-borne light torpedo launch system, and a helicopter deck capable of housing a light twin-engined naval utility helicopter (NUH) or VTOL unmanned aerial system (UAS).
From the above, it becomes clear that the IN remains intellectually stunted by being unwilling to take the required paradigm transformational leap of the type required for the net security provider for the IOR. Sound common sense suggests that the IN should combine its NGMV and NGC requirements by opting for common-hull 3,500-tonne LCS-type vessels (numbering 18 units) that ought to incorporate the following:
1) A 76/62 SRGM of the type already in service with the IN, plus two remotely-operated six-barrelled AK-630M cannons as close-in weapon systems.
Fire-control for all these weapons will be provided by the Pharos radar, which is now being co-developed by THALES of France and India’s Bharat Electronics Ltd.
2) Up to 24 vertically-launched Barak-8 LR-SAMs.
3) Up to 12 dual-tasked, vertically-launched long-range cruise missiles (either BrahMos-1/BrahMos-NG or Nirbhay) equipped with DRDO-developed X-band imaging monopulse active seekers capable of accepting programmable target recognition algorithms for either land-attack or anti-ship strike in real-time.
4) Twin two-tube heavyweight torpedo launchers—one on the port-side and one on the starboard-side of the LCS.
5) Integrated main mast (of the types available from France, The Netherlands, Italy or Russia) that houses all the required types of RF sensors, optronic sensors as well as integrated communications and electronic warfare suites. By resolving the electromagnetic conflicts and line-of-sight obstructions inherent to traditional topside antenna arrangements, the integrated mast aims at delivering an unobstructed field-of-view, reduced radar cross-section; ease of electromagnetic friction and simplifies shipboard integration.
This in turn provides a significant benefit in terms of improved operational performance and availability, shorter shipbuilding time, reduced maintenance requirements and significant savings in below-deck volume. In an integrated mast various antennae are integrated within the design of the mast itself along with the electronic equipment to be “integrated” in the mast as a single unit. The result is a mast that is a structurally self-supporting module.
6) A multi-purpose, remotely-operated rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) capable of carrying either side-scan sonar, or mine-detection sonar, or mine disposal robotic vehicle, or a dunking sonar. Such vehicles are also known as unmanned surface vessels (USV).
7) A stern-mounted helicopter deck capable of accommodating a 10-tonne naval multi-role helicopter and an armed VTOL-UAS that is also equipped with both a search radar and an gimballed optronic sensor suite.
8) A new-generation 360-degree augmented reality wall Combat Information Centre (CIC) housing the combat management system (CMS), which is network-centric and makes extensive use of software-defined radios (SDR).
Outside the US, there are only three major shipbuilders that are implementing on-going contracts for supplying LCS-type multi-mission guided-missile corvettes—Naval Forces of France, Fincantieri of Italy, and Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corp.
France’s Naval Forces has bagged contracts for its Gowing-2500 LCS design from Malaysia (six units) and Egypt (four units). The Gowind-2500 LCS incorporates the SETIS CMS (originally developed by DCNS for FREMM guided-missile frigates and GOWIND family of corvettes), the Panoramic Sensors and Intelligence Module (PSIM)—an assembly bringing together the integrated mast with its various instruments as well as the Operational Centre and its associated technical rooms, and a high-degree of integration, automation and conviviality. The 2,600-tonne Gowind-2500 LCS has a length of 102 metres, width of 16 metres, maximum speed of 25 Knots, crew complement of 65, range of 3,700 nautical miles while cruising at 15 Knots, and a combined diesel and diesel (CODAD) propulsion package.
Fincantieri’s LCS design has been ordered by the Qatar Emiri Naval Forces (QENF)—this being for four vessels. Each such LCS will have a full load displacement of 3,250 tonnes, and have a length of 107 metres. The armament suite will comprise dual quad-cell MBDA-supplied Exocet MM-40 Block-III anti-ship cruise missiles, twin Marlin 30-mm remote weapon stations, a 76mm OTOBreda main gun, 16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) for the MBDA-developed Aster-30 long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) and a 21-cell Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) system. In addition, the vessel is fitted with a CODAD propulsion package, and can accommodate 112 people on-board, including 98 crew-members.
From Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corp comes two offers: the Project 20385 multi-mission guided-missile corvette from the St. Petersburg-based Northern Shipyard (Severnaya Verf), a subsidiary of United Shipbuilding Corp; and the Project 20386 multi-mission guided-missile corvette from a partnership of Severnaya Verf Shipyard and Sredne-Nevsky Shipyard.
The Project 20385 multi-mission guided-missile corvette was offered three years ago to the IN for meeting the NGC requirement. This vessel has a displacement of 2,500 tonnes, a length of 106 metres, width of 13 metres, a speed of up to 27 Knots, a cruising range of 3,500nm, an endurance of 15 days, and a crew complement of 99.
The Project 20386 LCS has a full displacement of 3,400 tonnes and is 109 metres long and 13 metres wide. It produces a top speed of 30 Knots, has a cruising range of 5,000nm, crew complement of 80, a combined diesel-electric and gas turbine (CODLOG) propulsion package that integrates two 27,500hp M90FR gas-turbine engines from NPO Saturn, two electric powerpacks with a power output of 2,200hp each, and a 6RP speed-reduction unit.
The Project 20386 LCS comes fitted with a modular armament suite that incorporates either two four-cell 3S-24 inclined launchers with the Kh-35E Uran anti-ship cruise missiles, or containerised launchers with the Kalibr-family of long-range cruise missiles. Air-defence is provided by two eight-cell 3S-97 ‘Redut’ VLS coupled to the Zaslon multifunctional radar that has its active phased-array antenna arrays integrated with the tower-mast construction (I.e. an integrated main mast).
The LCS’ near-field area is protected by two 30mm AK-630M CIWS mounted in pair on the aft superstructure. The LCS is also armed with a nose-mounted A-190-01 100mm naval gun that can be controlled by the Zaslon radar. Also carried are the ‘Paket’ ASW suite with twin four-cell SM-588 launchers for 324mm torpedoes, Minotavr-ISPN-M hull-mounted panoramic sonar, Signa-20380 CMS, and a collapsible stern-mounted helicopter hangar.
When it comes to robotic, remotely-operated vehicles, several options are available from France’s ECA Group and Japan’s Japan's Mitsui E & S Shipbuilding Co. The latter’s vehicle is a high-performance mine-hunting system specifically designed for the steep bathymetry and strong currents around Japan. With a length of 1.8 metres and a weight just below 90Kg, the whole system comes with a control station and cable winch. It is indeed controlled via a “fine optical cable”, allowing the vehicle to achieve speed and good manoeuvrability, while the high-power battery systems (LiSO2 and Li-Ion) provide long endurance. The cable winch with auto-tensioner makes the cable resistance much smaller, contributing to fast target detection. For optical identification at greater depth, the robotic vehicle is fitted with a high-definition camera. The operator can get a clear sight at low light intensity. Thanks to a unique thruster arrangement, the vehicle can approach a target from various angles. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) selected this robotic vehicle after evaluating other foreign systems including ECA Group’s K-Ster.
For meeting the USV requirement, the Seagull from Elbit Systems of Israel (represented in India by the Kolkata-based Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers) will be the ideal choice. Back in 2017, Elbit Systems, by using SATCOM data-links, demonstrated that the Seagull USV, sailing in Israel’s Haifa Bay, could perform operational ASW missions using control consoles situated some 3,515km away in the UK. Operating the L-3 Ocean Systems-supplied DS-100 HELRAS dipping sonar in conjunction with Elbit Systems’ proprietary software, Seagull performed real-time detections and classification of objects, thereby demonstrating the capability to deter and dissuade hostile undersea activities.
The Seagull demonstration team included two operators—a USV operator and sonar operator. The Seagull is a 12-metre long multi-mission USV that can be operated from a mother-warship or from shore-based stations. It provides multi-mission capabilities, including ASW, mine-hunting and mine-sweeping, electronic warfare (EW), maritime security and underwater commercial missions, by leveraging modular mission system installation options and offering a high level of autonomy. It features inherent C4I capabilities for enhanced situational awareness, and has a mission endurance of more than four days.