TAIPEI — Europe dominates the Southeast Asian market for littoral and frigate/corvette vessels despite US efforts to break in with its littoral combat ships (LCS): the monohull USS Freedom built by Lockheed Martin and the trimaran USS Independence built by Austal USA.
Both active Freedom-class ships have operated in the region. The Freedom wrapped up a nine-month deployment to Singapore at the end of 2013, and the Fort Worth is in the midst of a 16-month cruise, also operating from Singapore. The presence of both types of ships in the region would could have increased interest in procuring them.
Barry McCullough, a retired US Navy vice admiral and now Lockheed's vice president for international business development, said there had been no movement on sales pitches to the Southeast Asian market. McCullough, who was manneding the Lockheed booth at the recent International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX) in Singapore last month, said interest in the their variant of the US Navy's LCS was stronger in Japan and in the Middle East, including such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
If regional navies are not buying European, they are building their own vessels, said Richard Bitzinger, a defense industry specialist at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Singapore has designed and built four Endurance-class amphibious operations ships and is also building one for the Thai Navy, he said. Indonesia has procured four South Korean-designed Makassar-class amphibious ships built by Daesun Shipbuilding and now the Philippines has two on order from a contract signed with South Korea in 2014.
Singapore is the market leader in producing sophisticated platforms that allow them to acquire European shipbuilding skills without diminishing the quality of the vessels — the six Formidable-class frigates modeled on the French-designed Lafayette frigate, for example have demonstrated this. France's DCNS shipbuilding designed and built the first frigate in France and Singapore's ST Marine built the remaining five locally during a four-year build plan from 2002-2006.
In 2004, Indonesia followed the same model to acquire shipbuilding skills with the Makassar class build, with two built in South Korea and remaining two in Indonesia.
The Southeast Asian market is growing, Bitzinger said. Malaysia is building six Gowind-class corvettes (Second Generation Patrol Vessels) in a deal with France. Indonesia is procuring four Sigma-class corvettes from the Netherlands, Vietnam has a deal with Russia for two Gepard-class frigates, and Thailand is in discussions with South Korea for a multirole frigate.
Though the US Navy had a strong presence at IMDEX — with tours of the Fort Worth Freedom and representatives from General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — European shipbuilding leadership was out front with Damen, Lurssen, Navantia, Saab and ThyssenKrupp with offering new vessels, especially submarines.
"Saab's A26 [submarine] model drew a lot of interest and comments at the show along with its Sterling AIP [air-independent propulsion] solution," said Guy Stitt, president of Bremerton, Washington-based AMI International, naval analysts and advisers."Saab's strong relationship with the Republic of Singapore Navy was obvious, having trained many of the RSN submariners."
The US has missed the diesel-electric submarine market by its commitment to the continuation of nuclear-fueled attack and ballistic submarines. Of the 1,034 new-build hulls Asia-Pacific surface ships forecastedto be built through 2033, more than 12 percent, or 131 vessels, will be submarines, said Amy McDonald, AMI's director of consulting operations.
"This accounts for about one-third of what AMI estimates the region will spend in new procurements over the next two decades," she said.
Most countries in the region did not possess any submarines 15 years ago, Bitzinger said, but now there are impressive fleets of subs plying the waters in the Strait of Malacca Straits and South China Sea. Singapore has procured six refitted submarines from Sweden, including two refitted with AIP. In 2014, the Republic of Singapore Navy announced plans to procure two new Type-218S submarines from Germany, also with AIP.
Malaysia has two new French Scorpene-class submarines and Vietnam has six new Kilo-class subs from Russia. Indonesia is procuring three South Korean-improved Chang Bogo-class Type 209 submarines, and Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines have active submarine procurement programs.
But the US is not completely out of the game.
Singapore-based ST Marine showed off a model of its new Endurance-160 multirole support ship design at IMDEX, a concept which could operate which could include Lockheed Martin-built F-35B stealth fighters with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.
"While the model only showed helicopters on its deck, many believe they will seek to design this for F-35B launch and recovery capability," Stitt said. "For sea projection and transport purposes, it has a well dock capable of operating multiple small craft, yet we understand" the RSN are interested in Textron's new ship-to-shore connector, the latest version of to replace the US Navy's landing craft, air cushion, craft.