by Chipp Reid

The most modern naval vessels in the world no longer belong to the United States, United Kingdom, Russia or China. They fly the blue and yellow pennant of the Royal Swedish Navy.
The navy received an early Christmas present when it officially commissioned the first two of five Visby Corvettes, the HMS Helsingborg and HMS Härnösand. The Visby class is the first true stealth warship, built with composite, radar absorbing material. Although exact specifications remain classified, experts say the Visby corvettes can reach speeds of 41 knots (48 mph) even in bad weather. “It is with joy and pride we receive our first two Visby corvettes,” said Gen. Sverker Goransson, head of the Swedish Armed Forces. “This is a great step forward and Visby corvettes will allow us to respond more effectively to solve our tasks.” The 650-ton ships are armed with a 57mm gun, eight RBS-15 anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, mines or depth charges. The corvettes are among the most highly automated warships in the world, requiring a crew of just 43. Kockums Shipyard in Karlskrona is building the five Visby-class vessels. Mats Elofsson, Kockums project manager for the Visbys, said the high-degree of automation serves several purposes. “A 72-meter (236-foot) ship can’t accommodate much more than 40-50 crewmembers,” Elofsson said. “In order to be an advanced multifunctional ship, the level of automation must be high. This development in the Swedish Navy started with the earlier series of corvettes, the Gothenburg class; with the Visby class corvettes this concept is taken even further.” Visby is the first class of warship to fully adopt network-centric operational capabilities. Pioneered by the United States Navy, network-centric warfare or NCW is still a new strategy among western navies. Sweden is the first western navy to design and build a platform intended to fully utilize NCW. The United States and Australia are currently building new classes of warships that will also fully integrate NCW systems. “At the most fundamental level, networking aims to accelerate engagement cycles and operational tempo at all levels of a warfighting system,” said Carlo Kopp, Ph.D., of the Royal Australian Navy. “This is achieved by providing a mechanism to rapidly gather and distribute targeting information, and rapidly issue directives. A high speed network permits error free transmission in a fraction of the time required for voice transmission and permits transfer of a wide range of data formats.” NCW also allows naval planners to replace the manpower that once staffed Combat Information Centers on board warships with computers. Elofsson said the automation on the Visby class is a direct result of the adoption of NCW. “I would say it is mainly a technical decision due to the parameters mentioned above, such as ship size and the numbers of functions etc.,” he said. “In some cases the machine works better than a man, for instance in the automatic air defense system. This system must compare and evaluate more scenarios and parameters per second than all the crewmembers together ever could do.” Everything about the Visby class is revolutionary, right down to how Kockums built the boats. The shipbuilder used a sandwich design, putting carbon fiber and vinyl laminate over a PVC core. The ship also has an angular design, somewhat resembling the F-117 Stealth Fighter, which reduces the ship’s radar cross section, or how large it appears on an enemy’s scope. The angled design reduces the amount of energy which bounces off the ship, making it appear extremely small on radar. At slow speeds, Kockums engineers say the Visby class is virtually invisible to radar. The crew can even fold the barrel of the ship’s 57 mm cannon into its turret to further reduce the radar cross section. The Visby class also incorporates water jets instead of propellers for propulsion. Water jets use an impeller to pull in and discharge water, making the vessel much quieter than standard-drive ships. Kockums designed the Visby class to operate in the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea, but also made the vessels tough enough to stand up to operations well away from the Swedish coast. Last year, a pair of Stockholm-class corvettes, the Stockholm and Malmo, operated as part of the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) patrolling the waters off Somalia. With a draft of just eight feet, Visby can also participate in special operations. By contrast, the newest U.S. warship, the Littoral Combat Ship, also incorporates NCW but despite its billing as a special operations warfare platform, LCS has a draft of 23 feet. Visby is also a dedicated antisubmarine warfare (ASW) platform. Each of the five ships carries hull-mounted and tow-array sonar that work in coastal as well as deep water. The LCS also has ASW capabilities, but only if the U.S. Navy fits a ship with an ASW module. The Visby class, like LCS, can carry a helicopter for ASW or special operations. The operational capabilities of the Visby have caught the attention of numerous foreign navies, with India, Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Africa and Brazil all said to be interested in the vessel. Helsingborg and Härnösand are the first two Visby class corvettes to go operational. HMS Karlstad, Nykoping and Visby are set to join their sisters late this year and early next year. “Visby corvettes, with their stealth technology, are the right concept for the future of the environment the Navy should operate, both locally and far away,” said Navy Inspector General Anders Grenstad. “Corvettes will for a long time to come constitute the backbone of the Navy.”