Naval Warfare

Defence Insight: Year in review (Naval)

18th December 2019 - 12:00 GMT | by Harriet Haywood in London

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The year has been an eventful one, with multiple major contracts announced and new generations of vessels entering service. The US Navy continued its drive towards a 355-ship fleet, while European and Asian navies saw their carrier and submarine capabilities expand.

Navies across the globe are faced with dilemma: modern ships are hugely capable, highly advanced systems yet come with a considerable price tag. Balancing the demands of replacing legacy ships and the high cost of procurement requires difficult decisions about where to focus scarce resources.   

This pressure is felt even in the US, where the need to balance fleet expansion with support and personnel costs has led to a policy of buying proven and successful platforms rather than new and innovative designs. This policy resulted in General Dynamic Electric Boat (GDEB) being awarded the largest-ever shipbuilding contract, worth $22.2 billion, for the construction for nine Block V Virginia-class submarines.   

This desire to minimise risk and keep unit cost to a minimum, has also been seen in the continuation of the Arleigh Burke class. Construction of the first Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyer began in May when the hull was laid down, with a further 12 under contract. The USN also asked congress for a further $5.4 billion in FY2020 to build a further three Flight IIIs, while older Arleigh Burkes undergo a life-extension programme as the U.S. focus on increasing the fleet size in the most-efficient and cost-effective way. 

Continuing the theme of U.S. fleet modernisation, following years of development the next generation USS Gerald R Ford class carrier is now close to being operational, followed by the launching of the second ship-in-class in October 2019.

Many European fleets are also undergoing modernisations to replace ageing vessels. September witnessed the Finnish government award a contract for the construction of four new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes to Rauma Marine Constructions Oy (RMC) and Saab worth a total of $1.46 billion (EUR1.32 billion).

In the UK, the Type 31e preferred bidder was also announced in September, with the contract worth $1.54 billion (£1.25 billion)) for five new frigates for the UK RN officially awarded to Babcock in November. With a £250 million unit cost the Type 31e is seen as low-cost option, allowing the Navy to maintain fleet size at an acceptable cost to the MoD.  

Other countries such as Italy are downsizing their fleets to accommodate new modernised platforms such as the FREMM frigates, delivered to both France and Italy over the year.

Although Italy and the UK have taken different approaches to fleet modernization, both countries have re-affirmed their commitment to carrier operations. The UK RN commissioned HMS Prince of Wales, the final of the Queen Elizabeth class in December, marking a crucial landmark in the return to big-deck operations, while Italy’s Trieste was also launched in 2019.

Outside of the US and Europe, the commissioning of China’s first indigenously developed Type 2 aircraft carrier took place on 17 December 2019, marking a significant step in China’s expanding naval power.

China’s ever-growing investment in its defence capabilities has had repercussions across the region. Taiwan has pushed its own naval developments, announcing that its Indigenous Defense Submarines (IDS) are to be built in a new facility inside the grounds of the CSBC Corporation in Kaohsiung harbour, southern Taiwan. Other countries too have seen advancements in indigenous SSK construction over the past year. The first of South Korea’s first truly indigenous large submarine, the KSS-III Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho class began sea trials, while the first indigenously developed and built submarine, the Fateh class, entered service with the Iranian Navy.

The move towards more a militarised Arctic region became apparent as the Russians launched the first ever heavily armed ice-class patrol vessel in October, the Ivan Papanin class (Project 23550). Over recent years the Russians have acquired a number of ice-cable ships such as the 22100 Polar Start project and while Russia Navy exercises in the Barents Sea an Arctic waters are normal, 2019 has also seen live shootings in the Norwegian Sea.

In April, NAVSEA issued a contract for a Polar Security Cutter (PSC) for the US Coast Guard. The heavy icebreaker will allow the US to continue to conduct operations in the increasingly strategic Arctic region, while in May, the Canadian Coast Guard similarly awarded a contract for a further two Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) while the first-in-class began sea trials. The vessels will undertake government situational awareness activities and events in the region. The US is far behind its competitors with April’s contract a step towards a more arctic capable force with options for up to four PSC’s.

Overall, a focus on modernised fleets has dominated the major contracts of 2019. As navies struggle with the rising cost of shipbuilding and advanced systems, these programmes have been undertaken either through investing in proven platforms, as the U.S. has to reach its 355-ship fleet or by reducing fleet sizes to modernise with more technologically advanced platforms, as seen in Europe. This has not however, impacted upon newly developed indigenous programmes in Asia and elsewhere, as navies look to advance their capabilities and power projection. 

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