Monday, July 21, 2008

Wanna buy a Warship Cheap?

Sometimes a weapons system can be too sophisticated for its own good, as the tiny Asian sultanate of Brunei discovered when it commissioned a major British defense contractor to build it three state-of-the-art naval corvettes.

Sandwiched in between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, Brunei may be small but it is still rich. It is a kind of Southeast Asian Kuwait, with about 380,000 people living in a country the size of Delaware, ruled by one of the wealthiest families on Earth and sitting on top of some of the largest petroleum and natural gas reserves in the region.

With assets like these, situated among other nations that are buying modern armaments and close to one of the major theaters in the Global War on Terrorism, it is hardly surprising that the family that has ruled Brunei for centuries was looking for some protection.

In 1995 the sultanate contracted with the British defense indsutry BAE Systems to build three advanced naval corvettes (technically Offshore Patrol Boats) for a total of $750 million pounds (about $1.4 billion). They are equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles, and Sea Wolf anti-air craft missiles, torpedo tubes and rapid firing guns, among other armaments.

Brunei has only about 70 miles of coastline to protect, but it also is among the six Asian nations that claim all or part of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. These comprise some 51 small islands and reefs, and 44 of them are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam the Philippines – and Brunei.

The sultanate figured that the three corvettes would allow it to project Bruneian naval power over the Louisa Reef near its coastline not to mention, of course, the nine off-shore oil fields it owns in the South China Sea, which contribute a good part of the approximately 200,000 barrels of oil that Brunei exports each day.

There is no question that these warships would allow the sultanate to project power in the region. There was no question that the oil-rich country and its immensely wealthy royal family (whose fortune is projected at about $22 billion) could afford to buy them. But did Brunei have the human resources necessary to man them.

These warships are among the most sophisticated small naval vessels in the world as just a partial list of its weapon systems would indicate:

Nautis II command and control system.

MBDA Exocet anti-aircraft missiles

Two sets of triple torpedo tubes

Thales hull-mounted medium-frequency sonar

Oto Nelara Super Rapid Gun
And more. The high level of computer-aided automation also allows it to operate with a crew of only about 70 officers and ratings.

The problem is that the Royal Brunei Navy has only about 700 personnel, operating three coastal patrol boats and a small fleet of mostly riverine patrol boats. Manning the three corvettes would have severely taxed not only the navy but the population as a whole.

Brunei has historically preferred not to import many foreign workers, unlike many of the small sultanates in the Persian Gulf, even though it does pay for a battalion of Gurkha soldiers seconded from the British Army as its main land force.

But while Brunei’s military expenditures have always been modest, it has always gone first class. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the country’s absolute ruler, is a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, and he can fly military helicopters. But in this case the sultanate bit off a little more than it could chew.

Realizing that its appetite had probably exceeded its capabilities, Brunei tried to back out of the deal, rejecting the ships as not meeting specifications. That was a pretty tough sell considering the armaments and weapon systems were so advanced. An arbitration panel ruled in favor of BAE Systems and required that the Brunei government pay up.

So now the ships belong to the Royal Brunei Navy, but are still docked at Borrow-in-Furness, Cumbrai, in northwest Britain. The country has no qualified sailors to man them and does not intend to commission them. The German luxury yacht builder Lurssen Werft Co. has been hired to try to broker a sale, and the Brunei government has cut about $50 million pounds from the asking price for each vessel.

So far there have been no takers. The ships are customized for service in tropical waters and lack such things as heating that might limit their appeal to the navies of countries in cooler climates without expensive modifications.

They would seem to be ideally suited to neighboring countries, such as Malaysia or Singapore which have been trying to modernize their naval power in the strategic waters of Southeast Asia, which are plagued with pirates and vulnerable to terrorists. But some countries such as Malaysia want to nurture their own defense industries and prefer home-made vessels.

So they are currently being shopped around as economical enhancements to the navies of countries as diverseas Egypt, Ecuador and Uruguay, but would any of these countries have the sophisticated trained personnel necessary to man them?


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