Monday 22 March 2021

Small But Deadly - Turkish Fast Attack Craft In Service With Turkmenistan

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkmenistan almost certainly isn't the first nation that comes to your mind when you consider the naval balance in the Caspian Sea. Nonetheless, a continued naval build-up has meanwhile transformed the nation into the strongest naval power in the region, even surpassing Russia in this regard. This is in no small part due to Turkey's Dearsan Shipyard, which has supplied the Turkmen Naval Forces with almost the entirety of its modern inventory of vessels.
One of these ship classes is the FAC 33, one of the preciously few types of fast attack craft (FAC) in the world to have entered service in the past decade. Almost certainly owing to its small size and nation which is its operator, the FAC 33 is largely unknown outside the country in which it was designed: Turkey. Nonetheless, its sleek design and relatively light armament makes it stand out from other vessels in the same class. Its small size of 33 metres and choice of armament also makes it closer to a FAC than a missile boat, although both designations have become largely synonymous with each other since the advent of anti-ship missiles (AShMs).
Although certainly not the largest operator of FAC in the world (a title that rightfully belongs to North Korea), Turkey is one of the few countries that still actively designs new types today. These include anything from conventional hull designs to a catamaran-based design and even a surface effect ship (SES). When in 2013 the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) launched a tender for a new class of FACs to replace the ones currently in Turkish Navy service, it could make a selection out of close to 30 domestic designs. [1] While only half of all of these were offered as part of the Turkish Type FAC programme, it shows that the scope of this design craze can hardly be overestimated. In the end a slightly less unconventional (but equally good looking) design based on that of the FAC55 by STM was chosen.
One year after the beginning of Turkey's acquisition efforts, in 2014, Turkmenistan was also looking to strengthen its own Naval Forces through the introduction of a new type of FAC. By contrast however, it was not looking to replace an existing class of ships already in service, but rather to purchase a new one as part of an ambitious expansion plan that aimed to drastically transform the Turkmen Naval Forces into the most formidable fleet on the Caspian Sea. Considering the close cultural, economic and military ties enjoyed between Turkmenistan and Turkey, it is not at all surprising that Ashgabat looked to Turkey to bring this plan to fruition.
With plenty of Turkish shipbuilders to choose from, Turkmenistan eventually settled on Dearsan Shipyard, likely because it had a wide range of vessels on offer that perfectly suited the needs of the country. As an added benefit, several of Dearsan's designs are already proven and in the water. The most popular of these is the Tuzla class patrol boat, sixteen of which serve with the Turkish Naval Forces since 2011, and on which another class of ships for Turkmenistan would eventually be based. 
The contract for six FAC 33s was then signed with Dearsan in June 2014. [2] Construction of the first vessel commenced in July 2014, followed by its launch in January 2015 and delivery to Turkmenistan in July the same year. The remaining boats followed at three-month intervals, with deliveries completed in 2017. [2] The six vessels subsequently entered service with the State Border Service of Turkmenistan (often abbrevated to SBS or as it's known in Turkmenistan: Serhet Gullugy) as SG-119 Naýza, SG-120 Ezber, SG-121 Kämil, SG-122 (?), SG-123 Galjaň and SG-124 Gaplaň. In 2016, the ships participated in their first joint exercise Hazar-2016 (Hazar is the Turkic name for the Caspian Sea).

The FAC 33s measure 33 meters in length and are powered by two MTU M90 or MTU M93L diesel engines that provide power to two water jets, enabling the craft to build up speeds of 37+ or 43+ knots depending on the choice of engine. At a slightly slower speed the FAC 33 has a cruising range of 350 nautical miles (650 kilometres). [3] The armament suite consist of an 25mm Aselsan STOP remote controlled weapon station (RWS) in front of the bridge, two crewed 12.7mm machine guns on top of the bridge and two Marte Mk2/N anti-ship missiles installed on the aft portion of the ship.
Dearsan Shipyard – in a joint venture with Gülhan Shipyard – has become the main supplier of the State Border Service and the Turkmenistan Navy. To date, Dearsan Shipyard has delivered ten NTPB patrol boats (based on the Tuzla class), six FAC 33s, ten FIB 15 fast intervention boats, a 27-meter landing craft, one HSV 41 hydrographic survey ship, a catamaran for offshore personnel transport and two tugs to Turkmenistan. All but two of the combat vessels subsequently entered service with the Serhet Gullugy.
This is not to say that development of the Turkmen Naval Forces is forgotten. On the contrary, the Turkmen Navy is set to receive yet another design from Dearsan in the form of the Corvette C92 that is under construction at Türkmenbaşy (although work is currently halted due to COVID-19), the hub of all Turkmen naval activities. The Turkmen Navy and State Border Service each have their separate bases and shipyards at this location, even featuring a massive crane that allows the FAC 33s (as well as the much larger NTPBs) to be lifted out of the water and placed ashore for easier maintenance.

Another product from Dearsan Shipyard that entered service with the Serhet Gullugy is the FIB 15, a class of fast intervention boats that can travel up to speeds of 40+ knots. Though much smaller and lighter at 15 metres length, forward armament on the ten vessels that entered service consists once again consists of a 25mm STOP RWS. Its characteristics make it well-suited for maritime interdictions, coastal patrols and harbour protection duties.

While the 25mm STOP RWS is perfect for engaging targets at close range, the targeting of enemy vessels at longer ranges requires a wholly different type of weaponry. On the FAC 33, this comes in the form of two Italian Marte Mk2/N AShMs. This subsonic sea-skimming missile uses inertial mid-course navigation through waypoints and active-radar terminal homing to target enemy vessels at ranges in excess of 30km. Though boasting a far smaller range than other anti-ship missiles like the Kh-35 and Exocet, it should be remembered that the Marte Mk2/N is a lightweight derivative of the Marte Mk2/S helicopter-launched AshM. [4]

Although on the FAC 33 in Turkmen service only two single launchers for Mk2/N AShMs are installed, a single launcher can easily be upgraded to a stacked twin, allowing the number of missiles of each FAC 33 to be doubled even though the deck footprint remains unchanged. If such an upgrade isn't already envisaged by Turkmenistan, it could be an attractive option as part of a future Mid-Life Update (MLU) increasing the firepower of the six ships at little cost.

The FAC 33s incorporate state of the art technology including multi-function display-equipped control stations and remote-controlled weaponry offering a high degree of automation. This also allows for a significant personnel reduction, and the number of crew is estimated not to surpass 12 on the FAC 33.

A unique feature of the FAC 33 is the slipway (also known as stern ramp) for a fast boat at the stern of the vessel. This does much to expand the scope of the ships, facilitating rapid interdiction and inspection of suspicious vessels. Although many modern FAC classes carry a small boat on their aft deck, these have to be put to water by a crane as a rule: an impossible undertaking when involved in a high-speed chase on the open sea.

Although still a relatively new design, the FAC 33 was already replaced in Dearsan's portfolio by an updated design known as FIB 33 (Fast Intervention Boat, 33 metres). Aside from offering a greater range and speed, the most obvious external differences are the lengthened superstructure and a revised placement of the two Marte Mk2/N AShMs on the aft of the ship. A new addition to the ship is a platform for two MANPADS on top of the bridge, but otherwise the armament suite is the same as that of its predecessor. 

The FIB 33 is not the only FAC currently on offer by Dearsan. The FAC 43 essentially constitutes a larger version of the FIB 33, and as such incorporates a more extensive radar suite and a larger armament suite in its design. The FAC 65 on the other hand fits in an entirely different class of vessels. Coming in at a much larger 65 metres, the FAC 65 is perhaps better referred to as a heavily-armed missile boat or corvette for not only its length, but also its heavy anti-air armament of eight VLS cells for VL MICA-M missiles.

 The FAC 33

The FIB 33

Offering a surprising range of capabilities for a compact design with small crew complement, the FAC 33 and its successor FIB 33 earn their title of 21st centure multi-purpose ships particularly well. As nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh are currently in the process of renewing their fleets, Turkish designs such as these could prove attractive candidates for adoption. Closer to home, prospective customers could include Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that are meanwhile becoming seriously outgunned by other nations sharing the Caspian Sea. One thing is certain: with almost 30 design on offer there will always be a ship to to fit the bill, no matter the requirements.