Surface Forces: LMS Versus LCS


January 20, 2020: At the end of 2019 Malaysia received the first of four Malaysian designed but Chinese built OPVs (Offshore Patrol Vessels). These are somewhat different from the 1,800 ton corvette sized OPVs China usually exports. These 780 ton Keris class Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) are, like the much larger (at 3,000 ton) American LCS (Littoral Combat Ships) built to work with different modules. In the case of the LMS there is space on the ship to carry three standard shipping containers with equipment for one of three different tasks; Mine clearing, hydrography, and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). All three of these tasks will involve the use of several types of robotic vehicles. Mine clearing and hydrography use specialized AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) for searching or surveying the sea bottom. Hydrography uses AUVs that literally map the sea bottom as well as examine it to determine what that sea bottom is composed up. The hydrography mission would also include equipment for more accurately surveying shorelines and islands off the coast, as well as reefs and shoals which are close enough to the surface to be a danger to larger ships. The ISR module uses UAVs of various sizes that are able to land and take off from a small deck space in the rear of the ship. There is a crew of 45 plus additional accommodations for 30 or so module specialists as well as rescued or arrested people picked up.

The first four LMS are 69 meter (226 foot) ships with a top speed of 44 kilometers an hour, an unrefueled range of 3,700 kilometers and endurance (food and water) of 15 days. LMS have a standard armament of 30mm autocannon RWS (remote weapons station) which can be operated from the bridge or a control station below deck. There are also several mounts for medium (7.62mm) or heavy (12.7mm) machine-guns. There are also assault rifles and other small arms and portable missiles for the crew.

Nearly all the pirates still operating in Malaysian coastal waters are lightly armed fishermen using their own boats to rob stationary ships at night. Malaysian coastal waters include the Strait of Malacca. This is the busiest waterway in the world, with over 50,000 large ships moving through each year. That’s 120-150 a day. Lots of targets for pirates. The 800 kilometer long strait is between Malaysia and Indonesia and is 65 kilometers wide at its narrowest and depths are generally 27-37 meters (90-120 feet). The shallow and tricky waters in the strait force the big ships to go slow enough (under 30 kilometers an hour) for speed boats or even fishing boats to catch them in the dark. The slower speed is essential because if there’s a collision, especially one involving a loaded oil tanker, the oil spill could be huge and a large ship sinking in the strait could block or throttle traffic for months. In times of particularly bad weather or heavy traffic, some ships will drop anchor outside the shipping channel and wait for better conditions. This makes the ships vulnerable to pirates and Malaysia, Indonesia and nearby Singapore all have coastal patrol forces assigned to protect Malacca traffic.

The first four LMS ships cost $64 million each. Indonesia wants up to 18 of them and plans to build most of them in a local shipyard. Two of the first four were to be built in Indonesia but at the last minute, to save $33 million, it was decided that all four will be built in China. These four LMS will be in service by 2021.

Malaysia has revised the LMS design to increase its length to 75 meters (245 feet), which increases displacement to nearly a thousand tons. The increased length would provide a flight deck large enough to handle a 10 ton (UH-60 type) helicopter as well as larger UAVs. Depending on how the first four 68 meter LSMs perform, the 75 meter design will be modified and adapted for the remaining 14 LMS ships with most of them built in Malaysia.


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