Brunei Finally Gets its Gunboats

Late, maybe, but nobody has attacked yet

The Sultanate of Brunei this week took delivery of two 80-meter Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessels, with a third on the way, 14 years after the sultanate went looking for warships to replace its now 30-year-old Waspada-class missile gunboats.

It was also several years after the Royal Brunei Navy bit off more than it could chew. The sultanate originally ordered three 95-meter-long Nakhoda Ragam-class corvettes, built by BAE Systems of the UK, before cancelling the purchase ostensibly because they failed to meet technical specifications. Brunei was forced to settle a confidential contract dispute over the vessels in the International Court of Arbitration in June 2006.

The three corvettes were eventually paid for by Brunei, which in turn authorized the German luxury yacht builder Fr. Lürssen Werft GmbH & Co. KG to try to sell them on as part of the deal to acquire the three smaller and less sophisticated patrol boats. The corvettes were subsequently sold to Algeria in 2008 at an undisclosed price, but believed to be well below their original ₤600 million (US$1.71 billion at 2007 exchange rates) cost to Brunei.

The first two are due to sail from Germany in May, with the third to be delivered in August, according to a release by the public relations department of the Royal Brunei Navy, and will be sailed by a fully Brunei crew. The ageing Waspada missile gunboats have been sold to Indonesia.

Although Brunei has only 66 miles of coastline, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s decision to acquire the powerful Nakhoda Ragam-class corvettes was thought to be driven by a desire to beef up the country’s naval power in an effort to secure offshore claims challenged directly by Malaysia and indirectly by China.

The three corvettes originally ordered were sufficiently well armed enough to give at least pause for thought to Malaysia in the event a maritime boundary dispute moved from the diplomatic phase into a more direct confrontation. The Nakhoda Ragam-class warships, armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, a Seawolf point defense missile system, an Oto Melara 76/62 Super Rapid gun and two sets of triple torpedo tubes, were a match for any Malaysian navy vessels then afloat, offering Brunei the means to seek negotiation rather than capitulation in the event of a crisis over its offshore claims.

Brunei’s principal territorial claim in the South China Sea is the Louisa Reef, some 120 miles off Kuala Belait. Brunei made the claim in 1984 in an apparent attempt to forestall any moves to challenge its rights to its offshore oil fields in the South China Sea, which produce an average about 143,000 barrels of crude per day. Malaysia contests this claim, but has not pressed in recent years.

From Malaysia’s perspective Brunei’s claims to a maritime area offshore the Limbang salient, an area of East Malaysia’s Sarawak state that divides the sultanate, proved non-negotiable. In April 2003, shortly after Brunei announced it had awarded exploration contracts in the disputed waters off Limbang, Malaysian and Brunei warships faced off in a brief confrontation that continues to reverberate to the present day.

Brunei recognized it was in no position to confront Malaysia, and in subsequent negotiations conceded its previous exclusive claims in exchange for joint development of hydrocarbon resources off Limbang. In April 2010 Brunei formally relinquished any claims to the Limbang salient and its offshore territories.

Brunei’s decision to abruptly cancel the contract with BAe in 2004 on the grounds that the corvettes failed to meet technical specifications led to speculation that the more pressing reason was that the sultanate’s small navy would be overstretched by the manning and support demands of the three OPVs. Each of the three corvettes would have required a crew of about 100 personnel, which would effectively have doubled by the normal naval practice of training at least two full crews per warship. The new ships would have required at least another 600 men for even the most basic operations, not to mention shore-based support personnel, according to a military analyst based in the UK.

“Operating and maintaining this kit would absorb much of Brunei’s small cadre of technically proficient workers, few of whom would be remotely interested in bobbing around the South China Sea being shouted at by people considerably less competent than themselves,” the analyst said.

Another explanation for Brunei’s decision to reject the corvettes may be linked to the April 2003 stand-off between Malaysian and Brunei naval vessels. Acquiring the Nakhoda Ragam-class warships, which could only realistically ever be deployed against Malaysian naval units, would have been regarded by Kuala Lumpur as a potentially hostile act and their removal could well have formed an early part of the discussions that ultimately led to the 2009 and 2010 settlements of longstanding maritime boundary and resource disputes.

The corvettes languished in various British ports for years as the Royal Brunei Navy attempted to first return them to BAE Systems and then, following arbitration that found in favor of the British shipbuilder, to sell them to another buyer. In the wake of the court case Brunei accepted an offer from Lürssen Werft to find a buyer for them as part of deal to purchase the three smaller OPV. The new craft may lack the capability of the Nakhoda Ragam corvettes, but they will offer Brunei’s navy a greatly enhanced technical means to protect national sovereignty. The three OPV mount four sets of Exocet missiles and a Bofors 57mm, 'A' position gun, supported by advanced fire-control, air/surface search navigation radars.

While there is some doubt how the corvettes will be employed, Lürssen has also delivered four 41-meter, 265-ton Ijhtihad-class fast patrol boats, each armed with a single Rheinmetall 27 mm gun. According to Brunei’s defence ministry two of the patrol boats entered service in March 2010, with the second pair joining the fleet in August 2010. These smaller craft are likely to prove more useful to Brunei than the costly and over-armed OPVs.

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