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Damen Shipyards Launches Pakistan’s First Corvette

On 17 May 2019, Damen Shipyards launched the first of two Pakistan Navy (PN) 2,300-ton corvettes from its facilities in Galati, Romania.

According to an official press statement by the PN Director General Public Relations (DGPR), the first ship – previously termed an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) – has a displacement of 2,300 tons.

Slated to join the PN by end of 2019, it will serve as a multi-mission corvette. The second ship will join the PN fleet by mid-2020.

The PN ordered the Damen OPVs in June 2017, and Damen Shipyards cut the steel of the first ship in April 2018. When it signed for the ships, the PN stated that it will use the OPVs for “anti surface [and] anti-air operations, maritime security operations, day/night helicopter operations, combat search-and-rescue, and surveillance and intelligence gathering operations.

Though the PN did not disclose all of the corvette’s specifications, it did reveal that the ship has a total displacement of 2,300 tons. This would place the PN’s ships in the vicinity of Damen’s OPV 2400, the Dutch shipbuilder’s second largest OPV design (behind the OPV 2600).

In an interview with Asian Defence Journal (ADJ), the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, stated that the PN will configure the ships with “indigenously developed SSMs (surface-to-surface missiles)” and “close-in-weapon-system, anti-aircraft guns, and a modern EW (electronic warfare) suite.”

However, if based on the OPV 2400, the PN could potentially equip the ships with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. But this is contingent on the PN’s OPV 1900 having space for mission modules, which it can employ for ASW and other applications, such as mine countermeasures (MCM).

It is evident that the Damen ship is a component of the PN’s fleet modernization efforts.

By terming it as a corvette and earmarking it for anti-ship missiles (AShM) – potentially the long-range Harba AShM – the corvette is more than simply a patrol vessel. It will join the forthcoming MILGEM Ada corvettes (of which one might be a frigate), giving the PN six new 2,000 ton to 2,500-ton ships.

In an interview with Mönch’s Naval Forces, the PN CNS is “looking at the acquisition of more corvettes for effective contribution in the Regional Maritime Security.” This could be an indication of the PN exploring the idea of procuring additional MILGEMs and/or OPV 1900s. Both outcomes are plausible.

First, Pakistan is acquiring the proprietary rights of the MILGEM Ada’s design and, in turn, will manufacture the fourth ship as “the first Jinnah-class frigate.” This statement would imply that the PN intends to build additional Jinnah-class ships to join the lead ship, especially since it bought rights to the design.

Second, it appears that the PN selected the Damen OPV over the Swift Corvette from the Louisiana-based shipbuilder Swiftships. When reports emerged of the PN procuring the Swift Corvette, the capability set of those ships were identical to the OPVs. Under the Swift Corvette plan, the PN was to procure two ships in 2017 with an option for an additional two in 2020.

Thus, the PN could potentially procure additional Damen corvettes and MILGEMs. However, it should be noted that the OPV 1900 may be a less costly platform than the MILGEM. For example, though Malaysia’s OPV 1800s are smaller ships meant for primarily patrolling, it has a unit cost of $55.7 million per ship.

If this is the cost of a baseline design, the PN could have flexibility in raising the ship’s capabilities while managing its cost. In such a scenario, the main cost drivers would be weapons and electronics, especially the radar, sonars, and electronic support measures (ESM).

However, the PN should save considerably by sourcing the AShMs locally. Besides that, it could pursue a baseline capability across the Damen corvette’s anti-air warfare (AAW) systems.

It does not need a complex surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, but anti-air guns (AAG). The PN can install AAGs on the hull without significant modifications. It can also choose from a diverse range of options.

Granted, this would not defend against all types of airborne threats, but it offers a minimum capability the PN can use against low-flying drones and helicopters. Otherwise, the ships can rely on the Type 054A and, potentially, Jinnah-class’ AAW umbrella for faster and/or higher-flying threats.

In effect, the PN could have an anti-ship and anti-submarine-capable corvette for $100-150 million, which is markedly less than the $200-250 million MILGEM. The PN could leverage the corvette as a way to build its fleet from a quantitative standpoint. It can also explore improving the qualitative aspect through a mid-life-update in 10-15 years after amortizing the cost of acquiring the hulls.

In terms of subsystem and armament suppliers, the PN is likely to approach Turkish and Western European vendors. Turkey’s Havelsan, Aselsan, and Meteksan are already engaged in the PN’s MILGEM and Agosta 90B upgrade programs, while Leonardo is a supplier for the PN’s aviation upgrades. Leonardo also opened an office in Islamabad, indicating a major push on its part in the Pakistani market.

If the PN commits to both the OPV 1900 and MILGEM, it will split its 2,000-2,500-ton fleet – i.e., a ‘low-end’ ship with baseline anti-ship warfare (AShW) and AAW capabilities (Damen corvette), and a ‘high-end’ with more robust AShW, AAW, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities (MILGEM).

The OPV 1900 will manage peacetime patrol, maritime policing, and – in case of conventional conflict – shore-up the PN’s AShW by deploying the Harba AShM. In peacetime, it could also undertake electronic intelligence (ELINT) work by building-up the Pakistan’s EW threat-library.

Based on the information available, the maximum scope of the 2,000-2,500-ton fleet would be eight ships – i.e., the four MILGEMs, two Damen corvettes, and potentially an option for two further ships. Because it is a lower-cost ship, the PN could potentially procure additional Damen corvettes.

One interesting side of the Damen corvette is that if it is based on the Damen OPV 2400, the PN could procure more ships to also replace specialized platforms, such as its mine countermeasures vessels (MCV).

According to Damen, the end-user can configure the OPV 2400 with an MCM module, which would enable it to detect and remove mines. The PN can acquire the corvettes for that role and replace its MCVs, but still have a general-purpose vessel for AShW, EW/ELINT, and, potentially, ASW.

These multi-purpose platforms enable Pakistan to make the most out of its limited resources.

Interestingly, if Pakistan commits to additional Damen corvettes, it ought to collaborate with the OEM to customize the hull for substantial future upgrades. In fact, seeing how Damen offered Pakistan a unique variant of its OPV-series, a bespoke system with more potential is tenable.

Pakistan could look at emulating the Israeli Sa’ar 6. The Sa’ar 6 is a 90 m ship with a displacement of 2,000 tons. However, despite being smaller than the Damen corvettes (or the MILGEM), the Israelis configured the Sa’ar 6 to carry 32 vertical launch system (VLS) cells, 16 AShM, two triple ASW torpedoes, a main gun, and a SHORAD solution in the form of the C-DOME. It also has a hangar and deck for a helicopter.

The PN ought to request comparable space in the 2,300-ton corvette design (i.e., sufficient space for VLS and complete ASW capabilities), but not equip it with those systems right away. It can split program costs by amortizing the upfront cost of acquiring the hulls, engines and ESM first, and the weapons later.

Alternatively, it can work with the OEM to design a low-cost multi-mission corvette (with VLS). In addition to designing the hull, the project could also involve finding lower-cost vendors for the engine and steel. If combined with local construction, Pakistan could further lower the acquisition cost. This custom corvette could serve alongside the Jinnah-class frigate (which appears to be a custom MILGEM variant).

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