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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
"Three things are important for a navy today: flexibility, flexibility and flexibility," Rear Adm. (ret.) Kurt Birger Jensen, formerly of the Danish navy, tells Aviation Week. His analysis was borne out by discussions with shipyard managers and by new ship designs at the recent Euronaval exhibition here.
Tighter defense budgets, and the likelihood that battles on the high seas are things of the past, mean navies must understand that the ships they procure now will have service lives of 30-40 years. "We have an idea of what is ahead in the next 12 months, we can estimate what may happen in the next three years, but in 30 years? We haven't a clue," Jensen says.
So ships are becoming smaller, faster and capable of multiple missions.
Angelo Fusco, executive senior vice president for Italy of shipbuilder Fincantieri, says there is a "struggle between two conceptions [among navies]: maintaining the same number of ships but with lower capability or reducing the number but making each more sophisticated." He puts the Italian navy in the second category, "although industry would prefer the first." The general result, Fusco adds, is a tendency to simplification "but with modules to upgrade." Nevertheless, he finds modules "more philosophical than practical because current plug-and-play capabilities are not very developed in the naval sector and it takes one or two months to replace modules."
Fusco remarks that this is the first year the economic crisis has been felt in naval defense. Programs are limited and reconsidered. "The market is shrinking but the number of players is the same, so competition is tough." How tough? "The reduction in orders for merchant ships means shipyards that have never been interested in the military sector are turning to it, and we've been fighting them over the past couple of years." At the top of the list are South Korean shipyards, though he claims they "are not pro-active in design."
Ha-Yeon Jang, an associate in the ship business division of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, does not disagree. Rather than design a ship and offer it to the market, she explains that the group prefers to provide designs to customers' specifications, which tend to be for "not-so-big and fast" vessels.
French shipyard CMN—whose specialty has been small, fast, heavily armed vessels—was showing arguably the most unusual and innovative design of the show. It was so unusual that the design, which only exists on paper, was patented—the Combattante SWAO 53. This small-waterplane-area outrigger (SWAO) combines the speed of a slender boat with a large platform, on a starboard outrigger, for 5-ton helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
The 53-meter-long (174-ft.) aluminum alloy ship has a 16-meter beam. Designed for littoral waters, maximum draft is 2.6 meters, and three fixed-pitch propellers provide propulsion. Top speed is 30 kt.
Benoit Andrieux, CMN's purchasing director, says that the stealthy vessel—crewed by 26 but with space for 35—is mission-flexible. It is designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; commando support (it carries three 7.5-meter rigid inflatable boats); integration within a naval task force; deterrent strike; and helicopter and UAV operations support (there are two UAV hangars but none for helicopters).
The fastest, if not the most flexible, vessel at the show was the handiwork of a small Italian company named FB Design, after founder Fabio Buzzi. Fifteen years ago, Buzzi shifted production from racing boats to military speedboats. Days before the Euronaval show he broke a long-distance record by traveling the 684 nm (1,267 km or 787 mi.) between New York and Bermuda in 17 hr., 6 min., at an average speed of 39.8 kt, in the new FB 40'SF.
FB's military speedboats are not only in service with navies, but law enforcement and customs officials in more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Singapore.
The eye-catcher on the stand at the show was the unmanned FB38, already bought by one undisclosed customer, which can be manned in 8 min. by removing a hatch and adding a canopy. The 12-meter-long, 2.33-meter-wide boat fits into a container for transport aboard a ship. The bow contains a gun pit with rotary mounting device, the center section is for operators, and aft is the electronic piloting system (not provided by FB) for unmanned operation. The radar folds away and does not have to be removed during containerization.
Alessandro Borgolotto, one of the designers at FB Design, says the vessel is for anti-piracy and anti-smuggling missions. It is not, however, for anti-mine operations because a growing number of FB boats are made of structural foam. That substance makes the craft virtually unsinkable, he remarks, but the foam cannot withstand or deflect a mine blast. The boat has a molded hull and countermolded floor of laminated fiberglass and is divided into six chambers. The military versions of the boats have shock-absorbing seats, while a carbon-fiber front ramp can be added for rapid troop disembarkment.
Flexibility is how Arend Schulze, sales director of German shipyard Lurssen, chooses to describe the requirements of his clients. Lurssen is unique in the international shipbuilding market as it is family-owned. Now in the hands of the fourth generation of the Lurssen family, the company, with 1,400 employees, builds big ships—from patrol craft and fleet-support vessels to corvettes and frigates. "The only things we don't do are aircraft carriers and submarines," says Schulze.
"What clients are looking for are multirole, multimission ships," he says. As a result, Schulze sees "huge potential" in offshore patrol vessels (OPV). Lurssen sold three OPVs to Brunei and has a repeat order. The 1,625-ton, 80-meter-long PV80 OPV, with a 13-meter beam, is based on a modified hull line. Like Fusco at Fincantieri, Schulze talks of "plug-and-play modules" but seems more optimistic as to their practicality. The modules, he says, are customer-defined and allow the PV80 to be modified for disaster relief, hydrographic missions and other operations.
"This is not a highly sophisticated vessel," he concedes, "it's a workhorse" and "easy to operate" with "excellent sea-keeping" characteristics. It has a stern ramp for launch and recovery on the move of its four 10-meter rigid inflatable boats. The flight deck handles a 10-ton helicopter, though there is no hangar.
It is not easy to develop an innovative submarine. But at every Euronaval exhibition, DCNS, the French naval systems company, displays a concept in this category. This year's choice was the SMX-26 submarine.
The small, 20-crew boat, dappled in green and gray, descends to the seafloor in no more than 12 meters of water, where it watches and waits. To avoid creating a vacuum beneath itself, making it hard to rise off the seafloor, the SMX-26 extends three legs that are independently adjustable. These also assure the boat remains horizontal on uneven terrain, explains Xavier Itard, director of DCNS submarine programs. "It can even move about on the legs," says Itard.
Another advantage of not resting on the bottom is that the boat can fire torpedoes. It will also have two flexible hoses: one for air supply, the other for exhaust gas, meaning it can recharge batteries while on the seabed.
Itard says the designers, who were led by Marie Nicod, wanted to validate a number of ideas. One was to design a small submarine for countries with shallow littoral waters. The idea is that the SMX-26 submarine will monitor a coast with an optronic periscope and, if necessary, surface to fire a 20-mm gun or launch six commandos in a rigid inflatable boat.
Whether the concept will lead anywhere remains to be seen. The SMX-23, a concept boat that was shown at Euronaval 2006, did result in the 855-ton Andrasta submarine program, which though available, has yet to be ordered.
Perhaps more than their designs, it is the shipyards themselves that will have to be flexible in the coming years to survive their rivalry for shares of a shrinking market, where there will be fewer customers, as well as buyers that want to build all or part of a ship in their own countries.