The last decade has seen some pretty awesome looking warships hit waters around the globe. On the "blue water" side of things the Star Wars looking Zumwalt Class and the minimalist art-like Lafayette Class were clearly designed with stealth in mind. Yet the "brown water" is where the most exotic vessels roam, and this is precisely where the X3K was born to fight.
The X3K was built by Indonesian-based Swedish boat builder North Sea Boats, and designed in part by renowned exotic boat builder LOMOcean Design LTD. The goal was to build a very stealthy, high-speed, multi-role missile boat that could dominate the complex littorals around Indonesia while still being affordable to procure and operate.
At 63 meters in length, the X3K is no small patrol boat, but with her trimaran wave piercing hull and twin MJP 550 water jets, she can keep up with much smaller boats and even follow them into areas where there is just six feet of water. She is powered by four MAN12 diesel engines that put out 1,800hp each, that can propel her up near 40 knots during sprints. She cruises leisurely in even rough sea states at 16 knots, and has a range of over 2,000 miles.
The X3K is said to have an extremely stealthy design, with its two sets of four-tube anti-ship missiles launchers shrouded behind flat panels above and behind the bridge. Eight Chinese built C-702 anti-ship missiles can be carried for use against medium and small sized targets, or against larger targets, if fired as a salvo. Alternatively, four deadly Saab RBS-15 Mk3 advanced cruise missiles can be carried for attacking both large ships and land targets at long ranges.
The ship's rear boat launch ramp and enclosed housing can launch and recover up to an 11 meter high-speed rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) with ease. A 40mm advanced Bofos cannon is fitted atop her bridge for surface and air engagements, including being the ship's primary close in weapon system (CIWS). It is rumored that torpedoes and a anti-aircraft point defense missile system can also be accommodated, all shrouded behind the ship's stealthy skin.
Her weapons are directed by the highly capable Sea Giraffe 1X 3D radar which is able to conduct air and surface surveillance. SAAB's CEROS 200 fire-control director is also mounted above the bridge, and this system is capable of directing gunfire or providing targeting solutions against marauding aircraft. This unique, elevated sensor and gun configuration provides an enhanced line-of sight for the ships sensors and a better firing angle for the ship's cannon.
All these systems are tied into Saab's 9LV Mk4 series "open architecture" combat management system, which the X3K's command crew can interface with just behind the state-of-the-art bridge, in a mini combat information center. In total this highly automated ship is crewed by about 21 sailors and officers, and another 9 persona special operations contingent can be embarked even on long duration missions.
The X3K's whole package adds up to an incredibly powerful yet elegant and futuristic design that was tailor built to dominate her unique combat environment while providing 'balanced' signature control, combat punch, and survivability against cost.
Missions for this radical ship design include counter-piracy, drug interdiction, coastal security, special operations, surface attack, counter-terrorism, surveillance, area sea control and fishing regulations enforcement. Additionally, the ship can be outfitted to carry out other missions, such as mine clearing, which her composite hull is highly adapted to.
Indonesia's first of four planned X3Ks was called the Kri Klewang, which is the Indonesian name for a traditional long sharp sword, and was officially launched in August of 2012. The X3K infused vinylester carbon fibre foam sandwich structure allowed for ease of construction, corrosion resistance, light-weight and high-strength, and it was especially useful when it came to dampening the ship's radar, thermal, magnetic and acoustic signature. All of which add up to reduced detectability and enhanced survivability, especially in the cluttered and noisy littorals.
One thing the X3K's carbon fiber construction may have been less than idea for is dealing with fire, at least when compared to more traditional steel ship designs. After just three weeks of highly successful sea trials, the Kri Klewang caught fire while in port, and rapidly burnt until she succumbed to the flames totally.
Nobody died in the fire, which was rumored to have been caused by an electrical short and compounded by the fact that fire suppression equipment was not yet fitted to the still highly experimental vessel. Some claim the speed at which the fire progressed was due to the ship's composite building materials while others say an aluminum ship would have burned quickly as well, not to mention the fire would have probably been stopped either way with the proper gear on-board.
As a result of this event, the X3K program was put on indefinite hold, but it is now back in full swing, with a major material change for the ships structure being infused into its production. This time around, Swedish defense giant Saab is running the whole program and says they will use a very advanced "nano-composite compound" for the ship's structure, which they claim is extremely fire resistant..
Four ships are still on order, which will have considerable enhancements in comparison to their doomed predecessor. These include a higher shrouded sensor mast, a stealthy gun enclosure, and additional armament, much of which remains classified. Follow-on models may even feature a lengthened rear upper deck for accommodating helicopters and unmanned aircraft, a feature that may be essential when it comes to landing export opportunities for the sleek ship.
Depending on how things go with the first four ships of this updated class, up to twenty may be ordered by Indonesia, not to mention the exportability prospects for the stealthy trimaran. In fact, I have have often suggested that the US should ditch its Littoral Combat Ship program (which is really just a very impotent and vulnerable fast frigate with a shallower draft) and procure a real littoral combat ship for forward deployed 'brown water' operations.
Sweden, a country that has seemingly become the default master of building stealthy littoral combat ships, already has the mono-hulled Visby Class Corvette, which is also a program ran by a subsidiary of Saab and uses many of the same systems as the X3K/Kri Klewang Class. In fact, the two vessels, although radically different in shape, will possess similar capabilities, although the Visby Class is a more mature design.
An enhanced version of the Visby was always at the top of my list for a partial LCS replacement. Yet the adaptability and true littoral environment design mindset behind the X3K/Klewang Class also makes it a very intriguing contender. It also seems that the Klewang Class, once developed, may be cheaper than the Visby Class which is built in its native country, Sweden, not Indonesia.
Since there are already plans for both an enhanced Visby Class and Klewang Class, both with a full flight deck and aviation facility on their stern, the US could buy two of these enhanced boats for the estimated cost of a single Littoral Combat Ship. This would allow the US Navy to procure a proper frigate instead of the majority of the LCS buy, as well as a large lot of much smaller and more rudimentary patrol vessels. Such a three tier procurement strategy would provide more hulls in the water, while also increasing our capabilities and better providing the right ship for the mission, not the right mission for the a single jack of all trades, master of none, ship.
The over budget and under-capable LCS program was recently severely curtailed back to 32 ships, from 52 ships by the Pentagon, a action that many thought was long overdue. If the program was further cut to 12 ships total, six of both the Freedom and Independence classes, funds from the 40 unbuilt LCSs could be used in the plan I loosely outlined above.
If 40 of LCSs were cut, at an average cost of $500M per ship, and an additional $200M for all the troubled mission modules as well, there would be about $24B available if we factor in $100M production efficiency savings per unit to round-out our conservative estimate.
With this $24B the Navy could procure a fleet of 20 survivable, multi-role frigates that can also provide area air defense and over-the-horizon surface attacks, along with the majority of the LCS's current roles. The most logical choice at this point for this capability is Ingalls Enhanced Patrol Frigate (make sure to watch the video above) which is based on the Coast Guard's National Security Cutter that is already in service. At an estimated $800M each, this would account for $16B. Then the Navy could procure 25 "off the shelf" upgraded Klewang Class or Visby Class true littoral combat ships, (with much more punch than the LCS) all with enhanced aviation capabilities.
These smaller, true littoral combat ships, that go to sea with much smaller crews than their bloated LCS counterparts, could be operated for a fraction of the cost comparatively. At a hypothetical cost of $300M per boat, these 25 vessels would cost $7.5B total. With the remaining $500M the Navy could buy 33 highly relevant and deadly MkVI Patrol Boats for about $15M apiece.
You can plug and play with these numbers however you like, adjusting the force structure and unit costs at will, but the general picture is clear. By cancelling the LCS and purchasing much less expensive littoral ships, that retain 80% of the LCS's capabilities at half the cost or less, money can be freed up to procure true multi-role frigates and mission-focused and cost efficient patrol boats.
By procuring a true multi-role Frigate instead of the LCS, the USN get's a ship that can still operate to some degree in littoral areas, while still being very capable of striking the enemy over the horizon and protecting itself and ships under its defensive umbrella without the need of a destroyer or cruiser escort. In other words, the Navy get's more capability and more flexibility at the same price. This independence of operation is something the LCS totally lacks in anything but the lowest threat environments.
As an additional benefit of cutting the LCS program to 12 ships, the Navy can afford to purchase dozens of Mark VI Patrol Boats that can actually tangle with swarming 'brown water' threats, while also accomplishing dozens of other shorter ranged littoral oriented missions such as force protection, counter-terrorism, special operations, drug and weapons interdiction, border security and may others. Using a massive LCS to conduct many of these missions is absolutely overkill, and it totally defeats the economics of the design's original intent. Sending in a $600M warship to do the job that a $15M patrol boat can do better, and at less risk, is absurd and a total waste of tax payer money.
It is interesting to see the brown water patrol craft mission being adapted with vigor and a high degree of creativity by shipyards and navies around the globe. Specific vessels are being designed to really dominate in this unique combat environment, while also taking into account new, albeit sometimes risky, manufacturing techniques and technologies. Additionally, many shipbuilders and navies have leveraging off-the shelf, proven combat sub-systems and weaponry to control costs on these ships as they really don't require the highest end senor and weapons suites available to be effective. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has once again gone for a jack of all trades, master of none approach to a relatively straight forward mission set. As a result, their Littoral Combat Ship, of which there are two designs in production (which is even more absurd), ended up being too big and too costly to tango with swarms of boats in the murky brown water. At the same time, it also ended up being too impotent, lightly armored and insufficiently manned to fight with its 'blue water' surface combatant cousins, or do any mission alone in contested space for that matter.
For the same $24B, give or take a few billion or a few boats, that the last forty LCSs will cost the US Navy, they can procure a three tier, lower-end naval procurement strategy that grows from the harbor out to the blue water, with almost perfect mission overlap between the three platform classes discussed above. This is a rational, scalable and cost effective force made up of ships that can really own their particular mission sets and disrupt the enemy's ability to operate in key areas close to shore and beyond.
The Navy needs to cancel the LCS program immediately, and finally learn from their one size fits all costly lessons of late, and begin to build a navy with relevant "layered" capabilities. One where a fast patrol boat is built to fight fast boats, a littoral combat ship is built to dominate the littorals and nothing more, and a frigate is built to bridge the gap between the aforementioned capabilities and all those missions that do not require a multi-billion dollar Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer or Ticonderoga Class Cruiser
An upgraded Klewang Class, or its Swedish cousin the Visby Class, could be a major part of this winning equation. Now only if we can get it built with parts from 48 states and get some admirals to act like they came up with the idea first...
Image credits: Industry, public domain, DoD. Side view of the Visby Class in port via DanNav/wikicommons.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com