Thursday, February 10, 2011

OPVs, LCS and What Have You

First of all, I’d like to express my thanks to Navy Chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar for taking the effort to make clarifications to my queries raised in my earlier press statement which were directed to the Minister of Defence.

1. Points of fact – OPV or LCS?

a. My statement on 7 Feb 2011 on this issue was responding to the statement made by Defence Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on the government agreeing to allocate RM6 billion to build 6 “patrol vessels” as reported by Bernama on 5 Feb 2011.

It was only in yesterday’s press conference that Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar or the Navy or Ministry of Defence for that matter, made reference to the specific term “Littoral Combat Ships” or LCS.

I have been accused in the Internet, on blogs and twitter that I can’t tell the difference between a “sampan” from a “speedboat”. Perhaps these criticisms, if valid, should be directed at the Minister of Defence himself, unless of course, Bernama misquoted the Minister.

b. However, more amusingly perhaps, Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) are a broad class of ships above 700 to approximately 2000 tons used for mixed purposes such as fishery protection, pollution control, fire-fighting, search and rescue, humanitarian operations, EEZ patrol and wartime deployment. Such ships built to wartime requirements are sometimes referred to as “corvettes”.

LCS on the other hand specialised variant of combat ship designed in the United States, which is arguably the “high-end” model of OPVs. The USS Independence, which is 1 of the 2 LCS in the US is 127m long, weighs 2,176 tons and has a speed of 44 knots. Our current Kedah-class OPV for example, is 91m long, weighs 1,650 tons and has a speed of 22 knots. “Littoral”, in layman’s term means “close to shore”.

Hence the question isn’t “OPV or LCS?” – but “what type of OPV is the navy buying?”.

2. Point of fact – The Price of Ships

a. Questions were raised as to the accuracy and relevance of the prices of OPVs which I had quoted in my earlier statement. For example, again according to Bernama, Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar claimed that my figure of NZ$90 million (RM210m) for each of New Zealand’s recent purchase 2 OPVs was incorrect as the New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence website claimed the cost isn’t finalised.

Attempting to split hairs over the NZ$90 million figure is however a pointless exercise. The figure is an estimate as at December 2010 for ships which have already been delivered and commissioned in the middle of 2010. Hence even if one were to allow for a generous 10% variance, it’ll still be priced only at RM231m, and a far cry from the Royal Malaysian Navy’s RM1 billion per ship.

My point isn’t whether New Zealand bought its ships for NZ$90m or NZ$99m. My point was that the price range for different types of OPVs is huge, from US$34m (RM103m) to US$300m (RM913m) or more. Hence the question I asked per my earlier statement:

“The obvious question then, is whether the Government is procuring the construction of OPVs nearer the Irish Roisin class or closer to the US LCS? And if we are indeed making an order for the best-in-class LCS type ships capable of fighting a full scale surface and submarine warfare, does Boustead even have the skills and technology to make these ships?”

3. The Point

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a military man nor am I as knowledgeable as many of the military analysts and self-confessed military enthusiasts out there. I’ll also raise my hands to say that I’ll have tonnes to learn from our Chief Admiral in terms of military expertise. At the same time, I’m also not questioning the Navy’s need for additional ships.

But the indisputable fact of the matter is the price gap between the lower-end OPVs and the top-of-its-class models is huge. Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi’s statement of a RM6 billion purchase of 6 patrol vessels was vague and required detailed clarification. And it is our duty as parliamentarians to ensure that the tax-payers’ receive the value for their buck.

From the reports on the Chief Admiral’s press conference yesterday, I’ve to hear the additional specifications which make our ships being priced substantially higher than that paid for by New Zealand. For example, will our “LCS” be in the similar class as the American “LCS” in terms of armament for surface to air, surface to surface and anti-submarine warfare? The features of these ships such as the types and quantities of guns, electronic warfare and decoys, speed, sensors and processing systems are no secrets and are widely published in various defence magazines.

Hence, we MPs from Pakatan Rakyat are more than happy to accept the gracious offer by the Chief Admiral to meet him in person and be “educated” on the RM6 billion transaction.
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