Sea Denial Over Recto Bank Using Ship-based Anti-Ship Missiles

A Visby-class Corvette. Photo courtesy of GLOBALHAWK90 thru Flickr.
A Visby-class Corvette. Photo courtesy of GLOBALHAWK90 thru Flickr.

This is a continuation to my previous blog1 about the possibility of implementing SEA DENIAL over Recto Bank, and this time the topic will be the use of SURFACE VESSELS or ships as platforms for Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM). One advantage of using ships is that it will lessen the need for the “militarization” of Palawan as the main attack won’t come from there anymore, therefore also lessening the possibility of attack or invasion from China of that island. Another advantage is that since the ships can be MOVED CLOSER to Recto Bank, then we can use western AShMs with their below-200 km ranges and won’t be tied up to a single-source like the Brahmos.

The disadvantage of ships though is that first, they don’t have anywhere to hide out in the open ocean unlike land-based AShMs, hence are more vulnerable to weapons like missiles from other ships or aircraft and torpedoes from submarines, and thus will need to provide adequate defenses against these. As AShM platforms, less ships will be needed as the standard load per ship is eight compared to ground launchers which can only carry around three to four AShMs maximum per vehicle, but overall the Acquisition, Operation and Maintenance costs will still likely to be higher due to the more sophisticated and complicated nature of sea vessels.

‘Ship Requirements’
Assuming eight AShMs per vessel, to fill the theoretical 186 missile requirement we will need around 24 such vessels. A quick rundown on the available and prospective ships of the Philippine Navy (PN) that can be armed with AShMs are:
– Two Gregorio Del Pilar-class Frigates (eight AShMs each)
– One Pohang Corvette (two to four AShMs)
– Two Frigates ongoing bidding (eight AShMs each)
– Four Frigates for possible procurement in the near future (eight AShMs each)
– One possible Hamilton-cutter for inclusion into the Gregorio Del Pilar-class (eight AShMs)

That’s a total of ten total ships so far, so we will need at least another fourteen ships that can carry eight AShMs each to fulfill the 186 missile requirement. This number of vessels can be reduced, provided we are able to load MORE AShMs per ship than just eight. An ideal naval missile platform would need to:
– Be as light as possible because the lighter the vessel, the lower will likely be the price;
– Be able to carry as many AShMs as possible for its given size, at least eight as minimum;
– Have short-range Surface to Air Missile (SAM) capability;
– Have Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability

Basically what we will need is a vessel that will be a MISSILE PLATFORM, or a ship optimized for Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW) but still has adequate Air Defense and ASW capability. Vessels like Spain’s Descubierta-class2 or Thailand’s Ratanakosin-class3 fits most of the requirements above, and it is possible to get some of these ships because the Descubierta-class for example will be available as Spain is phasing them out.

’Stealth Corvette’
Alternatively, we could just get the latest equivalents of the above ships available from the manufacturers as brand-new builds. One of the more intriguing options would be the Visby-class Corvette4 which not only fills all of the above requirements, but also has the advantage of being a STEALTH ship. Most modern vessels built now tend to have a “stealth” or low observable profile, but what differentiates a truly stealthy ship is its construction, it should be made mostly of synthetic materials in order to absorb radar signals.

Aside from Radar, the Visby is also optimized to have low observability properties for Infra-Red (IR), Thermal and Acoustics, meaning it will not only be more difficult for surveillance aircraft to detect it, but it will also be more difficult for missiles and torpedoes to home in on it, decreasing their chances of hitting it.

The manufacturer is offering a larger, 1,550 ton version of the ship called the Visby + with more range and carrying capacity, and it may be possible to trade off the helicopter it can carry for additional missiles and smaller Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Now, there are advantages and disadvantages to having a helicopter, but in its place it might be worthwhile to have an additional eight AShMs instead allowing the ship to carry a total of 16 AShMs. This will lessen the required number of additional ships mentioned above from 14 to just 7. The use of UAVs like the Camcopter S-1005 will still give it enough capability for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and for Over-the-Horizon (OTH) targeting.

The Naval Strike Missile (NSM). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The Naval Strike Missile (NSM). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

’Stealth Ship Issues’
One issue about these stealth ships is that since they are made mostly of synthetic materials, then the possibility of them being more vulnerable to fire does exist, although this hasn’t been proven yet in actual combat. There has been a lot of controversy about the fire hazard of using aluminum on ships, and a similar controversy could eventually occur with these stealth ships, especially after such a ship in the RKI Klewang burned down recently.6 But such issues could be offset by using better Fire Safety Engineering (i.e., less flammable fillers, better firefighting equipment, etc.), after all, the US Navy’s latest Zumwalt-class Destroyer is also made out of similar synthetic materials.7

Another issue is cost as the Visby costs around USD 184 million each in 2004,8 plus another USD 87 million each in weapons and equipment,9 and adjusted for inflation means an estimated cost now of USD 311 million each. If we are getting a bigger version that is more than twice its weight, then we can assume to add another USD 75 million so the bill could run up to around USD 386 million each, which would be quite expensive for a vessel that is only around 1,550 tons.

‘AShM Candidates’
Well if we are getting stealth ships, we might as well get stealth missiles also, and right now there is only one type of missile in the western world in service with that capability, and that is the Naval Strike Missile (NSM).10 It has a good range of 185 km, and is quite light at only 407 kg compared to other AShMs, enabling ships to carry a couple more of them for the same given weight as long as space is available. The fact that it is difficult to detect by Radar or IR sensors means it has the possibility of hitting with little or even no warning at all for its target. On the downside, its 125 kg warhead is lighter than similar AShMs, which makes it a little less potent.

Another candidate would be the RBS-15 Mk311 which is not stealthy and weighs around twice that of the NSM, but does offer significantly more range at 250 km and has a much heavier at 200 kg thus enabling it to do more damage on its target.

‘OTH Targeting’
Just like land-based AShMs, OTH Targeting capability is critical for ships to be able to launch their missiles from long-range. Fast, fixed-wing, long-duration Surveillance Aircraft ideally should be used, complemented by UAVs like the S-100 mentioned above which could in fact be more effective and survivable owing to its smaller size making it more difficult to spot and shoot down by the enemy.

Unlike land AShMs, though, the loss of airborne targeting capability does not mean that the the ships will be completely useless as they will still be able to engage the enemy using their own sensors, although they will need to come much closer and thus lose much of their effectiveness and survivability. The use of stealth ships with their low-observable characteristics will improve the chances of making a successful attack, but I don’t think it will be up to the same level like if they are able to shoot at longer ranges. Also, as per the above plans most of our ships will not be the stealth variety … Unless of course our navy changes its plans.

‘Parting Shot’
For a Ship-based AShMs, the Pros and Cons are:
– Put less threat on Palawan as the main attack won’t come from there;
– Still will be able to launch attacks on Recto Bank even if Surveillance Aircraft support is compromised (although at reduced effectiveness and survivability);
– More varied source for missile systems
– Higher Acquisition, Operation and Maintenance costs due to the need for a more sophisticated and complex platform;
– For non-stealth ships, more vulnerable to various threats in the open ocean;

IMHO, having more options where to get the missiles from is good, as is the REDUNDANCY in that the ships will not be entirely useless if OTH Targeting support is not available for some reason. To improve the effectiveness and survivability of the ships when fighting on their own, though, we will need to invest in true stealth vessels that ideally will have a large AShM capacities, although this will mean much higher costs. If we can do this, though, then we possibly will have the capability to deny the Chinese armada access to Recto Bank.

A rough estimate to the possible cost of this project would be something like this:
– 7 Stealth vessels @ USD 386 million each = USD 2.7 billion.
– 2 Frigates ongoing bidding @ USD 200 million each = USD 400 million
– 4 new Frigates estimated @ USD 250 million each = USD 1 billion
– 1 Hamilton Cutter = USD 15 million
– Upgrades to 4 Hamilton/Pohang class ships @ USD 50 million each = USD 200 million
– Various Surveillance aircraft = USD 750 million
* Total would be USD 5 billion.

A Descubierta-class Corvette. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
A Descubierta-class Corvette. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


  2. Descubierta,
  3. Ratanakosin (PFMM Mk16),
  4. The Visby Class Corvette,
  5. Camcopter S-100 UAV,
  6. Navy vessel catches fire in Banyuwangi,
  7. The Navy’s Carbon Fiber Composite Stealth Warship,
  8. Stealth ships steam ahead,
  9. Defense Industry Daily – Visby Corvette,
  10. Naval Strike Missile (NSM), Norway,
  11. Diehl Defence – RBS15 Mk3 – Heavy anti-ship missile,

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