The Bangladesh Navy is tasked with the responsibility of keeping the country’s sea lane of communication open. To achieve this will require investment of billions of dollars however even if such large sums of money were spent the Bangladesh Navy still could not match the might of the Indian Navy. Countering much larger navies in the region can however be achieved through unconventional means. The Bangladesh Navy can study other naval forces who face similar challenges and how they successfully implemented measures to establish a deterrence capability against the big navies.
Unconventional warfare can include development of the Special Forces, submarine service, naval air wing and coastal defence capabilities in conjunction with the Army and Air Force.
Surface combatants epitomises the Navy, without them there can hardly be a naval force today however due to increasing power of naval aircraft and underwater warfare systems today’s frigates and corvettes remain vulnerable. Even though a number of self-defence systems are available, they are mostly installed on larger ships and substantially increase the cost of the warships. Most of the smaller naval craft are left with MANPADS and anti-aircraft guns. This is especially true in the case of the Bangladesh Navy.
In this regard the Bangladesh Navy can improve the survivability of its fleet by adding medium and long range surface to air missile systems in vertical launch configuration. CSOC of China is cooperating with the Bangladesh Navy to transfer technologies for building frigates over three thousand tonnes. These frigates will be multirole by design with ability to counter surface ships, aircraft and submarines. A Vertical Launch System (VLS) with capability to fire LY-80N Medium-Range Surface-to-air-Missiles will be installed aboard the new generation frigates. A standard 76.2mm main gun, 30mm CIWS, FL-3000N Close-In rapid fire SAM and anti-submarine warfare torpedoes will be fitted. A helicopter hanger for AgustaWestland AW-159 sized helicopter will also be present as per requirement of the Bangladesh Navy.
Moreover a separate program exists to build guided missile corvettes, possibly in the form of Shadhinota class. A total of four have been built for the Bangladesh Navy at Wuchang shipyard in China for over $400 million. They come equipped with modern sensors and YJ-83 (C-802A) anti-ship missiles, which have a maximum range of 190km. Moreover self-defence against anti-ship missile is provided by one 8-cell FL-3000N, which has fast reaction time against incoming low flying anti-ship cruise missiles, helicopters and other types of combat aircraft. The FL-3000N has a maximum range of 9km against subsonic targets and 6km against supersonic targets.
At least a dozen guided missile frigates and sixteen to twenty four guided missile corvettes will form the backbone of the Bangladesh Navy’s fleet by 2030. Two Hamilton class patrol frigates used for training and patrols will gradually be transferred to the Bangladesh Coast Guard as the Bangladesh Navy moves from performing constabulary duties to more conventional naval warfare roles befitting a capable naval force.
The Bangladesh Navy has also decided to do away with small craft like Fast Attack Craft (Missile, Torpedo and Gun-armed types). They will not operate any warships under 500 tonnes because they found it difficult to maintain a presence throughout the year in the Bay of Bengal with small craft. Specialist Large Patrol Craft armed for surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare are to be built at Khulna Shipyard. Two Durgam class anti-submarine warfare large patrol craft have already been built, they join two Durjoy class anti-surface warfare large patrol craft. The Navy plans to deploy hunter-killer teams in this configuration to boost its littoral warfare capabilities.
The Bangladesh Navy raised the Special Warfare Diving & Salvage (SWADS) outfit modelled on the US Navy SEAL/UDT. This force was trained by the Republic of Korea (RoK) Navy SEAL/UDT, Turkish Su Altı Taarruz (SAT) and US Navy SEAL. The secretive force was established in 2009 with 150 Commandos and 200 divers. Equipment for the unit was procured from the US and South Korea. At present they are estimated to have reached a battalion strength. In future it will reach a brigade strength size.
Unlike other Special Forces outfits of Bangladesh, SWADS is unique due to the fact that it can operate on Land, Air and Sea. As such its capabilities make it a strategic force. Together with the units under Army Special Forces Command SWADS can be effectively used to cause maximum damage to the enemy.
Equipment such as Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV) and Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPV) can enable SWADS members to insert themselves deep in to enemy territory to undertake missions.
A separate team of naval combat divers can be employed for defensive roles to counter enemy Special Forces teams sent to sabotage the Bangladesh Navy fleet. This outfit could be equipped with diver detection systems, DPV’s and underwater firing capable guns and anti-sabotage grenades.
The Bangladesh Navy purchased two refurbished but upgraded Ming class (Type 035G) diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK) from China for only $203 million. The two SSK’s were commissioned in early 2017. Their purchase raised alarm bells in neighbouring countries as those countries objected over any measures to strengthen the Bangladesh Navy, particularly with the cooperation of China. Countries such as Turkey and South Korea also stepped forward to aid the development of the Bangladesh Navy’s submarine force with training for the personnel and technical services associated with the operation of submarines.
The two Ming’s may not be of the latest designs they are still fully operational submarines and as such induces the Indian Navy and Myanmar Navy to spend more resources on Anti-Submarine Warfare. It may be noted already that the Myanmar Navy built some anti-submarine torpedo boats and purchased light weight anti-submarine warfare torpedoes and hull mounted sonars from India to this end. The pure psychological effect it has had on the two neighbouring navies is a victory of sorts by its own right. The two Ming class submarines are being used as coastal patrol, intelligence and reconnaissance platforms. They can be used to provide experience to submariners who will move on to newly built submarines, which the Bangladesh Navy plans to procure after 2020.
The Bangladesh Navy would not need more than four Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) diesel-electric submarines for the fleet. It is interested in procuring such platforms from Germany however if that is not possible it can always fall back on China or South Korea to fulfil those requirements. Russia also offered Amur class submarines however the program was cancelled.
These conventional submarines can be complemented by a dozen midget submarines which are far less expensive, can be used as a maritime ISR picket and provide vital warning and targeting data to shore-based anti-ship cruise missile batteries. Depending on the model each midget submarine would cost $20 million or more, which is still far cheaper than one newly built conventional submarine but can act as a force multipliers and highly effective early warning platforms.
Hyundai has offered the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) the HDS-500. These modern midget submarines have a displacement of 510 tons when surfaced. Being only 37 metres in length the fast moving submarines have a maximum speed of 20 knots and can operate to a depth of 250 metres making them ideal for performing coastal missions. The HDS-500 can remain at sea for 21 days and travel 2,000 nautical miles. The armament aboard the HDS-500 consists of two 533mm heavyweight torpedoes and four 324mm lightweight torpedoes. They also carry a crew of 10 and 4 combat swimmers enabling them to perform infil and exfil during war time. The swimmers can exit the midget submarine through a dry-wet compartment.
Unmanned sea vehicles
There are two types of unmanned sea vehicles, those designed for surface warfare and another type for underwater warfare. The underwater category can also include remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV).
For needs of the Bangladesh Navy, the unmanned surface vehicle can be used to perform a wide range of tasks including Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Fast Inshore Attack (FIA) and marine target for training. A number of systems are available on the market primarily from Europe. Neighbouring Myanmar obtained some USV’s from Israel, which suggests they plan to utilise them albeit in a limited manner to collect intelligence. The possibility of inducting unmanned sea vehicles should be priorities as part of the unconventional warfare strategies of the Bangladesh Navy.
Maritime air power
In 2017 the Bangladesh Air Force purchased the nation’s first maritime strike capable Multi-Role Combat Aircraft from Russia. The state-of-the-art Irkut built Su-30SME is capable of carrying Oniks (Yakhont) anti-ship missiles, which have a range of 120km to 300km depending on the altitude. Moreover it can carry the lighter Kh-31, Kh-35UE and Kh-59 cruise missiles, which can wreak havoc on any surface combatants. Though officially one squadron of maritime strike aircraft is concerned, it would be recommended for the Air Force to raise another squadron of maritime strike aircraft and base those at Barisal. In addition the Bangladesh Air Force has plans to operate Airborne Early Warning Aircraft enabling it to detect enemy aircraft at very long ranges and feed the information to fighter squadrons.
The aircraft maritime strike platforms could be jointly operated with the Bangladesh Navy as the naval forces have a much higher stake and appreciation of the need to maintain a maritime strike capability option during operations.
In 2013 RUAG delivered the first two Dornier Do-228NG unarmed maritime patrol aircraft to the Bangladesh Navy. Another two aircraft of the same variant was ordered in 2016. These aircraft will enable the navy to maintain an early warning capability however they are mainly limited to performing Coast Guard grade missions.
Given this problem the Bangladesh Air Force has proposed to establish an armed maritime patrol aircraft fleet. The aircraft would certainly be armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-submarine warfare torpedoes. Such aircraft would however be better served being operated by the Bangladesh Navy from its new super-base in Barisal-Patuakhali region, which is also to maintain a fully-fledged naval aviation station.
The Bangladesh Navy currently operates only two AgustaWestland AW109 for training, search and rescue, transportation and utility duties, however in 2017 the Bangladesh Navy signed an agreement with AgustaWestland to procure the first dedicated shipborne AW159 anti-submarine warfare helicopters. The Navy will standardise these helicopters aboard all helicopter hanger equipped guided missile frigates. There could be a requirement for a dozen or more AW159 ASW helicopters down the line. The AW159 would substantially boost the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities and extend the reach of its frigates. It bodes well for the overall force projection of the Bangladeshi naval fleet.
Like naval aviation or maritime strike aircraft coastal defence has to be a joint effort concerning Army, Air Force and Navy.
There are no known shore-based coastal defence capabilities in Bangladesh leaving the nation’s key point infrastructures such as sea ports, airports, power plants, important highways and other important infrastructures, urban areas and strategic points extremely vulnerable to attack by sea. The enemy can carry out sudden attack on Bangladesh Navy shore installations from sea and air without fearing consequences. In this regard the Bangladesh Navy needs to invest heavily on undersea sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, shore based anti-ship missile batteries and anti-submarine warfare rockets.
Poly Technologies Inc (China) developed an undersea battle network comprising of passive/or active sensors, which report to land based C4. The land-based C4 estimates the location of the enemy submarines, then passed on the coordinates to shore based anti-submarine rocket batteries. The rocket batteries then launch munitions capable of delivering small torpedoes to the target area. After the torpedo dives in to the water it begins to search for the enemy submarines around the provided coordinates. At this point the enemy can either choose to leave the area or be destroyed. The Poly Technologies offering includes a rocket delivered lightweight torpedo that has a range of 120km. Such a torpedo can be launched from WS-series long range guided multiple rocket launchers. Coincidently the Bangladesh Army sought an RFI on long range rocket artillery systems in mid-2016. If the torpedo system is added to the GMLRS battery it could potentially ensure a very strong coastal defence capability.
A land-based system anti-ship missile capability will also be central to the coastal defence of Bangladesh. Both Rosoboronexport JSC and Poly Technologies Inc have offered shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles to the Bangladesh Army to fulfil this role.
Russia offered the BAL-E and the Club-M mobile coastal missile systems. Of the two the Club-M is more capable in terms of range. The TEL is fitted with 6 launchers, which can launch either 3M-554KE/3M-54KE1 against surface warships and also stationary objects such as KPI’s using land-attack 3M-14E missiles. In active mode the Club-M has a range of 250 km and up to 450 km on passive mode.
China on the other hand developed a new system named YJ-18 (YingJi-18 or Eagle/Hawk-18). This new missile system is a vertically launched, long-range, supersonic, anti-ship missile mounted on a 12×12 heavy duty truck chassis. The YJ-18 is designed to destroy enemy surface targets such as warships, amphibious landing parties, convoys, carrier strike groups and land-based radiocontrast targets under intensive fire and electronic countermeasures. It can also employ anti-radiation warhead in place of the HE warhead to disable enemy warships electronics and sensors.
The YJ-18 missile’s turbojet engine is capable of flying at a cruise speed of March 0.8 for 180km after that point the warhead separates and the solid fuelled rocket engine to ignite. It is believed the missile can perform 10G acceleration to avoid enemy interception by air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles making it a very lethal weapon system.
It is apprehended some Western countries may not be willing to transfer sophisticated systems to the Bangladesh Navy therefore the best and possibly most economically sound solution for the Bangladesh Navy would be to employ unconventional means of warfare starting by conducting feasibility studies on the acquisition and implementation of various units and unconventional warfare systems to effectively counter aggressor navies through the doctrine of sea denial.
A strong naval deterrence can buy the nation’s leaders the luxury of options and time. Without it the entire future of Bangladesh might remain hostage to the whims of its neighbours.