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Is Pakistan Getting More Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV)?

In his changing-of-command speech on 07 October 2020, the previous Pakistan Navy (PN) Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, indicated that the PN will acquire additional offshore patrol vessels (OPV). Citing how the PN will induct the second of two Yarmouk-class “corvettes” – i.e., a custom variant of Damen Shipyards’ OPV 1900the ex-CNS said the PN “contracted” six ships of “larger tonnage.”

The ex-CNS’ statements suggest that the PN could either expand its order from Damen Shipyards with six additional OPVs, or acquire a new platform from a different supplier. In either scenario, the PN is working towards enlarging its surface fleet, notably its inventory of ‘major surface vessels.’

For the PN, the ‘major surface vessels’ likely refer to multi-mission ships with a minimum displacement of 2,000 tons. Of course, displacement is not the sole marker for a ‘major surface vessel’ – the ship’s range, endurance, on-board sensor and electronics suite, and weapons capability are also factors.

However, when taking those aspects into account, it seems that ships with a 2,000-plus ton displacement would be ‘major surface vessels’ in the PN. In the PN, these ships are to spearhead its wartime efforts as well as secure Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in peacetime. In addition, the PN is also interested in supporting more multinational/coalition activities at sea, so adding large ships to its fleet is essential.

With a careful look, one could see that the PN can bifurcate or split its mission requirements for its major ships into two main domains: First, a wartime-centered force comprising of high-cost, high-capability anti-ship warfare (AShW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities. Second, low-cost ships capable of some combat capabilities, but also equipped for an array of other missions, such as search and rescue (SAR), and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR).

The OPVs can take ownership of the second set of missions. However, there is more at play in an expanded OPV program than simply a low-cost asset. Basically, the PN can use OPVs to expand its presence on the international scene in coalition operations, overseas exercises, and other initiatives without dedicating its marquee wartime assets (such as the MILGEM corvettes). Moreover, it can expand its presence at a lower cost in terms of procurement compared to solely relying on wartime assets to carry the role.

How a Future OPV Could Take Shape

Currently, the PN’s sole OPV-type is the Yarmouk-class. Though the PN designated the Yarmouk-class as a ‘corvette,’ the 2,300-ton ship is, at its core, a customized OPV. It is a variant of the OPV 1900 design from Damen Shipyards. It is built to “commercial standards,” which Damen Shipyards says contributes to lower acquisition costs compared to naval-grade designs, such as Damen’s SIGMA or even Turkey’s MILGEM.

In contrast to most other OPV designs, the Yarmouk-class is not restricted to solely 25 mm stabilized guns and other light armaments. Rather, the PN can – and eventually will – configure its OPVs with full-fledged AShW capabilities through anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM). The OPV 1900 design also incorporates two TEU bays for “special mission-based operations,” so the PN can in theory add ASW systems to these OPVs.

If the PN is seeking larger variants of the OPV 1900, then it could simply continue templating the Yarmouk-class design. Interestingly, a larger tonnage ship may (though not necessarily) allude to additional space, which may allow the PN to incorporate full-fledged AAW via vertical launch system (VLS) cells to the ship.

In effect, the PN could basically attain a wartime-capable support asset through its OPVs if it designs them to have the capacity for AShW, ASW, and AAW. The PN would basically use the OPVs for multiple roles in peacetime, but in wartime, have them pivot to anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) missions.

Moving Beyond a Patrol Vessel

The likeliest outcome for a follow-on OPV order would be enlarged versions of the OPV 1900. However, if its requirements align, the PN could study emerging approaches to OPV design. Doing so would allow the PN to both fulfill its near-term needs as well as futureproof its acquisitions for emerging technologies.

One concept taking shape is Singapore’s ‘Multi-Role Combat Vessel’ (MRCV). The basic idea of the MRCV is to deploy a fully capable multi-mission ship that can support any role. It would achieve the latter through modular mission modules. So, if it is asked with a HADR mission, the end-user would equip the MRCV for that role. Basically, the MRCV can leverage its mission modules to dedicate to a particular role, but at the design level, it would not be tied to it since the end-user can swap those modules.

However, besides switching between various peacetime roles, Singapore is also envisioning the MRCV as a wartime asset. Thus, the MRCV will have the capacity to take on AAW via VLS and, potentially, ASCM as well as ASW torpedoes. It will also have the capacity to deploy and manage unmanned underwater vessels (UUV), unmanned surface vessels (USV), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Damen Shipyards pitched its new Crossover (XO)-series of ships for the MRCV. One interesting thing about the XO-series is that Damen is reportedly offering variants in both commercial and naval standards.[1] Thus, some XO-variants – namely the 115 m “Security,” 123 m “Fast Security,” and 131 m “Logistics” could be available at lower acquisition cost than standard-fare naval-grade designs.

Photo Source: Damen Shipyards

The commercial-grade XO-series ships start with a length of 115 m and displacement of 4,500 tons via the Crossover 115 Security. The Crossover 115 Security is meant to function more like the Yarmouk-class, but the larger variants of the XO offer more capabilities. For example, the Crossover 131 Logistics can hold 200 additional personnel atop of its crew of 63-83. In other words, it can carry a Marines detachment, or serve as a small sea-hospital as part of HADR operations. Its aft helipad can support two helicopters.

In addition, the XO-series offers up to four special mission bays. The end-user can use these bays for naval warfare roles such as AShW and ASW, but also a variety of other roles. The latter can include managing unmanned systems, HADR, and even logistics and amphibious assets. Finally, each variant incorporates space for AAW at the design level; it is a fixed asset separate of the four special mission bays.

The biggest benefit of an XO or MRCV-type ship is that the end-user does not need to invest in specialized – and high-cost – assets for niche roles. Yes, for countries with a large-scale focus on amphibious warfare, dedicated assets such as landing platform docks (LPD) are key. But for the PN, its amphibious interests are much more limited and, if anything, likely to emerge occasionally. The PN cannot afford a dedicated LPD, but it could have XO/MRCV-type ships configurable for the role when required. This way, the amphibious capability would not take away from another the role PN needs to fulfill.

Incorporating Offsets and Co-Production

The procurement of six ships is not trivial. It would be surprising for the PN to sign-off on such a contract without stipulating an offset and/or co-production. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) has been wanting to start the construction of Gwadar Shipyard. The initiative is going through red-tape issues between the concerned federal and provincial governments.[2]

However, once the work starts, there could be a chance Pakistan opens up private investment to the site. This can link into an offset agreement with a foreign shipyard company, especially Damen Shipyards (which maintains a network of shipyards all over the world, including Romania, which is built the Yarmouk-class corvette for Pakistan). If the PN involves a company such as Damen Shipyards, then perhaps Gwadar Shipyards can rapidly build competency using Damen’s expertise and supplier network for engines, steel, and electronics, among other inputs. Basically, Gwadar Shipyards could begin work sooner.

One of the domains Adm. Abbasi emphasized in his outgoing speech was supporting Pakistan’s maritime economy. Thus, an investment-based offset tied to a follow-on OPV order could be a reasonable start to such an initiative. In turn, the main contractor could build those ships from its facilities in Pakistan and, in the long-run, leverage the lower labour costs to offer ship-repair and shipbuilding services to third parties.

This scenario can also set-up a competitive environment wherein multiple shipyards (e.g., Karachi, Gwadar and potentially others) compete for future PN programs, such as the Jinnah-class frigate.

[1] Xavier Vavasseur. “IMDEX 2019: DAMEN To Answer Singapore’s MRCV Requirement With Fit For Purpose CROSSOVER Design.” Naval News. 16 May 2019. URL: https://www.navalnews.com/event-news/imdex-asia-2019/2019/05/imdex-2019-damen-to-answer-singapores-mrcv-requirement-with-fit-for-purpose-crossover-design/

[2] “Gwadar shipyard project facing delay.” The Express Tribune. 05 February 2020. URL: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2150508/gwadar-shipyard-project-facing-delay

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