Saturday 28 August 2021

Ship Lore: The Story of Bangladesh’s Castle Class Corvettes

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Images of the devastating explosions in Beirut in August 2020 shocked the world as stunning incompetence and negligence in the storage of 2.750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed 207 and caused in excess of 15 billion USD in damages. Also struck was the BNS Bijoy, a Bangladesh Navy vessel stationed in Beirut during its deployment to the Mediterranean as part of the Maritime Task Force of the United Nations mission in Lebanon. Largely spared from the most extreme effects of the explosion thanks to the nearby grain elevators that absorbed much of the blast, the crew still suffered 21 wounded and the vessel had to undergo repairs in Turkey before it could safely make the journey back home. [1]
The BNS Bijoy (meaning: Victory) is one of two ships in a class of corvettes serving the Bangladesh Navy since early 2011. The career of both two ships started in Great Britain in the early 1980s, where they were commissioned as Castle-class patrol vessels. Their primary mission was to carry out patrols and fishery protection in the North Sea. The vessels could also be used for impromptu minelaying operations, and their accommodations for additional troops and a large fight deck made the vessels ideally suited for a number of additional auxilary tasks.

After the 1982 Falklands War, the ships assumed the role of guard ship in the Falkland Islands on a three-yearly rotational basis. By the mid-2000s they were finally slated for replacement in this role by the River-class offshore patrol vessel HMS Clyde, and both vessels of the class were decommissioned by the Royal Navy in 2005 and 2007. Originally due to be transferred to the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency in 2007, the deal fell through and both ships were eventually sold to the Bangladesh Navy in April 2010.
From May 2010 onwards, both ship underwent a major refit at the A&P Tyne Shipyard in Tyneside that included an overhaul of the vessels' engines, the installation of new diesel generators and deck cranes and a thorough upgrade of the crew accommodations, which lasted until December 2010. [2] After their arrival to Bangladesh in early 2011, both ships were commissioned in the Bangladesh Navy as the BNS Dhaleshwari (the name of a river) and the BNS Bijoy. [3] Arguably the most interesting part of their career would be under this new Bangladeshi ownership, which saw them converted to guided missile corvettes.
The ship configuration that resulted is unique in the world, consisting of a British-designed patrol vessel armed with four Chinese anti-ship missiles and a Chinese copy of the Soviet AK-176 76mm gun (H/PJ-26). Their new armament is a notable upgrade from what they brought to bear in British service, during which the ships were only armed with a single 40mm cannon (later replaced by a 30mm cannon) and several 7.62mm general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs) for close-in defence against small vessels. The new weaponry is further reinforced by two manned 20mm cannons at the rear of the bridge and an extensive radar and guidance suite for target acquisition and engagement.

Wounded sailors from the BNS Bijoy walk away from the stricken vessel after the Beirut explosion on the 4th of August 2020

The Bangladesh Navy is a regular participant in United Nations missions ever since its first deployment to Mozambique in 1993. In some 30 years, over 5.000 personnel of the Bangladesh Navy have completed UN missions in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia. [4] In 2010 the navy deployed the two patrol vessels BNS Osman and BNS Madhumati as part of the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL). BNS Bijoy was tasked with patrolling of the Mediterranean Sea, maritime interdictions, air surveillance and training of Lebanese Navy personnel until the faithful blast on August 4, 2020, after which it was replaced by the BNS Sangram. [5]

Internal destruction on the BNS Bijoy after the explosion

Despite the vessels' large flight deck, no hangar is present and neither the Royal Navy nor the Bangladesh Navy ever assigned any helicopters to the class during operational deployments. Instead, the flight deck is used for the stowage of RHIBs and also doubles as a training and leasure area, providing some much needed space that is lacking in the cramped interior of the ships. In the future, the abundant deck space could be utilised for the deployment of VTOL UAVs to significantly increase the effective patrol range of the corvettes. These are significantly cheaper to operate than helicopters and have the added benefit that they can stored inside the ship or in a small structure located on the free space of the deck.

The BNS Dhaleshwari and the BNS Bijoy during a firefighting exercise in 2017

The Bangladesh Navy is well accustomed to operating (renovated) second-hand vessels. Despite their age, the two ships are likely to serve the Bangladesh Navy well in the future, either on UN deployments in the Mediterranean or in defending Bangladesh's territorial waters. While they may belacking in modern capabilities such as air defence missile systems and close-in weapons systems (CIWS) especially when compared to other corvettes in the world, a massive modernisation and expansion undertaking currently ongoing (Forces Goal 2030) will likely see new ships with such capabilities being acquired. Together with the acquisition of Type-035 submarines from China, the Bangladesh Navy thus has a bright future to look forward to.

Special thanks to Rahbar Al Haq.
[4] Role of Bangladesh navy in UN peacekeeping mission

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