Friday, 17 December 2021

New Meets Old: Aselsan’s 30mm SMASH RWS On Azerbaijani Stenka Patrol Boats

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Azerbaijani Navy is lagging behind in modern developments compared to the rest of the country's military and other nations' navies in the Caspian Sea. Instead, Azerbaijan has diverted considerable funds to modernising its Coast Guard, acquiring six Israeli Sa'ar 62 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and six Shaldag Mk V patrol boats fitted with Spike NLOS (25km range) and Spike-ER (8km range) anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) for its State Border Service. [1] Interestingly, the Azerbaijani Navy does not use anti-ship missiles (AShMs) aboard any of its vessels, operating purely as a patrol force in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Rather than operating corvettes or fast attack craft, the Azerbaijani Navy utilises a number of Soviet-era patrol boats, landing ships and minesweepers. The navy also continues to operate a single Petya-class frigate built in the 1960s, which however only boasts gun, torpedo and ASW armament. More recently, the Azerbaijani Navy was strengthened through the transfer of numerous ships from the State Border Service (SBS). These consisted of Soviet Stenka class patrol boats and large tugs armed with anything from AA guns to machine guns. Although increasing the ship inventory of the navy at least twofold, these vessels did little to introduce novel capabilities to the navy.
Currently not possessing any ships that can be fitted with AShMs, the Azerbaijani Navy has instead sought to increase its combat capabilities through the installation of heavier armament on some of its ageing naval ships. This has so far included the replacement of 30mm AK-230 gun turrets with other armament such as World War II-era 37mm 70K AA guns, feats that however do little to meaningfully expand on the firepower of each ship. By contrast, a more reasonable upgrade has come through the recent modernisation of at least one Stenka class patrol boat with a 30mm SMASH remote weapon station (RWS) from Turkey's Aselsan.

The Azerbaijani Navy is currently thought to operate four Stenka class patrol boats (G 122, G 123, G 124 and G 125), which it received from the SBS after the commissioning of the Israeli-designed OPVs and patrol boats. Initially armed with two 30mm AK-230s guided by a MR-104 fire control radar at the front and rear of the ship, at least some Stenkas saw either their front or rear AK-230 gun turret replaced by a 37mm 70K AA gun. Although little capable in its intended role by modern standards, the 37mm 70K is ideally suited for firing warning shots across the bow of intercepted vessels. G 124 is the only vessel so far known to have been equipped with a 30mm SMASH RWS. Intriguingly, the SMASH has both been seen installed instead of the front AK-230 gun turret as well as the rear AK-230 turret. When not in active use, the SMASH is covered by a tarpaulin for additional protection against the elements.

The SMASH RWS is currently the most popular naval RWS in the world, having been acquired by countries like Croatia, Malaysia, Qatar, Bangladesh, the Philippines and now Azerbaijan. Qatar is by far the largest operator of the SMASH, having purchased the system to equip most of its (Turkish built) coast guard vessels. An equally large customer of Aselsan's RWS is Turkmenistan, which has no less than 28 naval ships equipped with a total of 38 25mm STOP RWS's. Turkmenistan is also the world's first operator of Aselsan's 35mm Gökdeniz close-in weapon system (CIWS).

In addition to equipping brand new equipment such as the naval vessels acquired by Turkmenistan, Aselsan has also had significant success with the integration of its EO/IR sensors and weapon systems on a range of older ground, air and sea platforms. A recent example of this was a deal with Ukraine's Motor-Sich to jointly modernise Mi-8/17 and Mi-24 (attack helicopters) for Ukraine and potential export clients, with Aselsan supplying the EO/IR sensors and integrating modern Turkish precision-guided munitions. [2] Another such instance again involved Turkmenistan, which has upgraded some of its BTR-80 APCs with SARP-DUAL RWS from Aselsan. [3] 4]

Turkmenistan's Deniz Han corvette. Currently the most powerful naval vessel in the Caspian Sea, the ship boasts a number of weapon and electronic systems from Aselsan including a 35mm Gökdeniz CIWS and two 25mm STOP RWS.

The SMASH RWS is equipped with a 30mm Mk44 Bushmaster II cannon capable of firing up to 200 rounds per minute thanks to its dual-feed capability. A total of 175 rounds can be carried in two large magazines on either side of the gun. The RWS is fully stabilised, enabling accurate targeting against moving targets even in rough seas. As opposed to the fixed sight systems used on the 12.7mm STAMP and 25mm STOP RWS's, the SMASH comes equipped with a stabilised EO/IR sensor that can track targets without having to rotate the entire weapons system.

The older version of the 30mm SMASH RWS that has meanwhile entered service with at least five countries.

It is unknown if the acquisition of more SMASH RWS's by the Azerbaijani Navy is currently planned. The transfer of numerous vessels from the State Border Service likely indicates that the Azerbaijani Navy has to make do with whatever it currently operates for the foreseeable future. Thus, the navy might be forced to upgrade its vessels again and again to retain some form of combat relevance in a Sea that is increasingly swarming with AShM-equipped ships. With at least four Stenka class patrol boats in service, there certainly are enough opportunities for SMASH RWS's to show their worth.

Aselsan has achieved widespread success with its products across the world. This has been no different in the Caspian Sea, where two navies now sail with warships equipped with Aselsan's products. The outlook for Turkish naval defence products appears bright, with Azerbaijan likely one day choosing Turkish warships designs to modernise its own navy and Kazakhstan perhaps investing in Turkish ships as well. These will undoubtedly be equipped with products made by Aselsan as well. While armament like the SMASH RWS is certainly less eye catching than the actual ships it's installed on, it too is an important indicator of ongoing modernisation of these Central Asian countries.