FURTHER weaponry, such as varying anti-ship missile loads, ASW torpedoes, and mines, can be installed as and when required. Advanced air/surface search radar, electro-optical sensors, and hull-mounted sonar, would be pre-requisites on a baseline design, with additional modular sensors such as active towed array sonar for example, installed as and when required. However, even with this ability to swap or leave out equipment, including the previous list of characteristics in a ship design will see its cost rapidly escalate, therefore making a low tech single role vessel more attractive despite its inferiority.
However, meeting the expense of a multi-role capability can be mitigated by the modular concept of retaining dedicated space for mission dependent modules, but choosing not to include systems until they become affordable under the ‘fitted for but not with’ concept. This allows for systems to be installed when they become available, but does not delay service entry of the vessel itself, therefore having a reduced impact on operational availability especially at the lower end of the threat spectrum. Such a design could also have a dedicated reconfigurable stern compartment able to accept mission dependent equipment.
For example, in the OPV role for the MSA this may include an 11m RHIB; for MCMV missions it could include a dedicated counter mine module to locate, classify, and destroy mines; or an active towed array sonar package for ASW operations. This space could also accommodate anti-ship/land attack missiles if they could be raised and fired through the flightdeck. Additionally space could also be used for containerized mission payloads. Such flexibility would allow one baseline design, configurable per mission requirements, to replace a range of vessels usually tasked with patrol and defence of territorial, EEZ and adjoining waters.
Additionally, propulsion options can further reduce costs. Gas turbines have high fuel consumption and are thus expensive to run, contributing to high operational costs. However, integrated electric propulsion has the benefit of reducing operational costs due to the lower levels of maintenance required. It also frees up internal space for other use due to the ability to place the diesel or other engines/generators in alternative areas, and the electric motors thereby reducing the length of the drive shafts. Acquisition costs are high however, but propulsion costs can also be reduced if alternative fuels are considered. Research is ongoing into various possibilities including organic biofuels such as biodiesel or that derived from plants such as camelina, organic derived additives such as ethanol, or even breaking down sea water. Pakistan’s sugarcane industry can produce ethanol in quantity, and this plus other biofuel alternatives such as biodiesel must be explored. At the very least, diesels are an affordable, economical, and reliable propulsion option that considerably reduce operational costs.
Including or excluding helicopters (the most powerful and flexible weapons on any warship), can also reduce costs as they entail added expense of acquisition, maintenance, and operations through fuel and expandables, plus crew training. However, a modular design, allowing vessels to be built with or without a hangar will allow operations requiring longer range/endurance to be handled by vessels equipped with a hangar to embark a helicopter. Missions closer to shore could be handled by those only built with a flight deck to allow resupply, plus refuelling and rearming shore-based ASW helicopters.
Alternatively, operating rotary UAVs could keep overall costs down, but still maintain a larger operational footprint.
Warship designers presently offer platforms configurable to customer requirements. However, these are commonly built to certain specifications, and generally not reconfigurable once in service. The Danish STANFLEX system achieves this to a large extent as it allows mission specific modules and equipment to be included as and when required. Newer (some as yet un-built) warship designs have incorporated such concepts to achieve multirole flexibility. Of note in this regard is the U.S. experience of the Littoral Combat Ship Programme and its efforts to achieve this level of reconfigurable flexibility.
Despite the programme’s teething troubles the concept is still the way forward. Unfortunately, most western designs are generally quite large, and have excessively high acquisition and operational costs, especially for Pakistan which needs such vessels in volume. However, such a concept is still a realistic option for Pakistan, one that features the above characteristics that will enable it to be fully multi-role, able to undertake the full spectrum of peacetime patrol to ‘hot’ conflict operations. This may require a tailor made solution with maximum public/private industrial involvement, but lacking the necessary domestic design experience Pakistan’s naval planners will have to seek foreign co-operation, which, due to financial and geopolitical reality narrows the field down to China and Turkey. China is an increasingly capable warship designer and its Type-056 corvette/OPV could form the basis for such a design. As a source of affordable technology co-operation with China would make such a programme feasible.
Whereas navies can be convinced of the need to spend money to save it (and lives) though, high acquisition costs may potentially deter decision-makers, (who generally think short term). However, the prospect of affordably delivering a credible defence capability at lower operational cost, (plus a steady work for KSEW that ultimately benefits local industry and the national exchequer), is a powerful counter argument. A reconfigurable family of corvettes that can replace a range of less capable vessels and provide a more credible and robust defence during wartime will certainly allow Pakistan to efficiently and cost effectively safeguard CPEC and its EEZ as well as Extended Continental Shelf from aggression.