Nelson’s Lament: The Woes of Frigate Navies
Was I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart.
Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson
The above complaint is surprising coming from one of the primary arbiters of conventional sea combat, leading the battleline to immortal victory at Trafalgar . Yet, Nelson understood the complications of sea power, and that you could not maintain control with battleships alone. Today modern admirals and their sailors are increasingly flustered, grappling with the same problem of trying to defend too much sea with too few ships. The following story is from W.G. Dunlop at the AFP:
Navies can intercept Somali pirate skiffs and foil hijackings but fighting waves of attacks at sea will not solve the problem, which is rooted in instability on land in Somalia, naval leaders said.
Anti-piracy efforts “will not actually resolve the base problem of why piracy is occurring … That solution lies in the stabilisation” of Somalia, Commodore Bob Tarrant, director of Britain’s Royal Navy staff, told AFP at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Abu Dhabi.
“The symptoms (piracy) we’re seeing now off Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, are clearly an outcome of what’s going on on the ground” there, said Australia’s navy chief, Vice Admiral Russell Crane.
“As sailors, we’re really just treating the symptoms,” not the root of the problem.
Good point, except the troubles on land should not hinder the sailor from performing his primary duty, maintaining the rule of law on the sea.
“There’s a vast area to patrol,” Tarrant said. “The pirates are an audacious bunch, and we’ve seen pirate attacks taking place as much as one thousand miles (1,600 kilometres) from the coast of Somalia.”
“Despite all these navies, and I think there are some 28 nations working together in this effort, you cannot possibly patrol and protect all the time.”
The frigates have been dealing with individual attacks quite well, and even made some headlines, but there are too few of them to make a lasting effect. This last problem has the admirals repeating the mantra that “piracy can only be defeated on land”, an astonishing statement for one service to degrade its own abilities, and promote another, meaning the ground forces.
Here is a golden opportunity for navies to ask for more hulls in the water, and lots of them, for historically navies have been essential in defeating outbreaks of brigandage on the high seas. Ancient Rome at its height, and the mighty Royal Navy, all were forced to contend with pirates at some point. Even the US Navy could trace its birth and its first naval heroes to the Wars against the Barbary Pirates.
We need small wars to prepare for the Big Wars, but for the Navy to only prepare for Big Wars, that never seem to come, means we are allowing a minor problem to grow and fester until it is becoming a major sore.
Despite the effort, each of these 28 navies in the Gulf only deploy on average one or two ships. On total there are only 30-40 warships in the region, and often less. The problem is, most of these nations deploy high end missile frigates to the region, impressive on paper with advanced weapons, sensors, and long range helicopters, so they can only afford to send a few at a time. The expense cuts deeply into your presence, and you lose the ability to maintain control. Here is David Axe pointing to a recent incident in the Gulf concerning one of Norway’s modern Aegis frigates:
“The area that the coalition has to cover is enormous,” the skipper admitted. “Even though modern warships, with their sophisticated equipment, can monitor and conduct surveillance over large areas, it is impossible to be in more than one place at the same time.”
Actually, a vessel can be in two places at the same time, if she carries a helicopter. But Nansen sailed with her hangar empty, owing to delays in Norway’s procurement of the NH-90 naval chopper. Sandquist called the absence of a helicopter a “deficiency.”
Helicopters today are so advanced and capable, they are losing their practicality, but we still need them. Because they are so capable, you can do less with more, but they still need many platforms to operate with, hulls being the boots on the ground for the Navy. So you deploy fewer helos, but deploy them more wisely, perhaps one aircraft operating with 6 small warships. A large mothership or small carrier is better able to operate and support the large and complicated helos like the Merlin, the NH90, or the Seahawk than a 3000-5000 ton frigate, which must also make room for crew, weapon stocks, fuel, etc. If you separate the aviation requirement from the patrol vessel you can buy a great many vessels.
Canada recently had an interesting answer to the problems facing its fleet, but I fear it may not be a lasting one. Faced with a shrinking budget and continuous delayed promises from government over the state of its fleet, the Vice Admiral in charge chose a more direct route, and an effective one. In order to maintain his force of 12 frigates built during the 1980s and 1990s, the admiral planned to cut 6 patrol ships, and reduce operations and weapons systems manning on several other ships.
It was an audacious move in the midst of celebrating the Navy’s 100th anniversary, and when news leaked out, there was widespread outrage. The order for cuts was rescinded, the money for operations was found, probably taken from another essential function, and the Navy was saved. It is only a temporary fix however, considering the country’s huge coastline, and the expense of building modern warships. Not shrinking seems to be the major goal for Western navies, but the problems of the Middle East and defending our own shorelines call for increases greatly beyond the handful of frigates we can afford.
A better way would be for Canada to operate very few of the high-end warships she can’t afford to operate, let alone replace. For instance, the Navy could keep 2-3 helo-capable ships in service for each coast, while these sail with 4-6 corvettes each, expanding the reach of the high end warships’ capability instead of concentrating it in a single package.
The British Royal Navy, also seems to have settled the type of fleet she will deploy in this new century. Again we hear from David Axe in a separate post titled “English-Speaking Navies Reorganize“:
Today, the escort forces numbers 22. With six new, large Type 45 destroyers under construction and 17 Type 26 frigates planned, that number might grow by one. Twenty-three escorts is just enough for standing patrols in the South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Caribbean, plus counter-piracy work and escort duty for the two 60,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class carriers due to begin entering the fleet in 2016…
By consolidating its ready naval power into a single entity, the U.K. has effectively answered the question facing many countries: should they field small but powerful navies for conventional operations, or large low-tech navies that can distribute vessels widely for security operations versus pirates, smugglers and other “irregular” enemies. The Royal Navy is preparing for singular, intensive combat rather than for the ongoing demands of long-term security patrols.
It is difficult to see where this type of warfare would ever occur again. Is Argentina in any condition to face such conventional firepower as in 1982? Will Britain ever conduct an operation such as invading Saddam’s Iraq? Does the Royal Navy plan on contending with China on the the side of the world, the only other remotely peer foe? But the problems of piracy, smuggling, and coastal defense from terrorism are here and now, and the Royal Navy has stood among the best at this type of warfare, it’s premier drug buster HMS Iron Duke staying consistently in the headlines.
Smaller warships are the answer. Corvettes of today are one-third the size of modern frigates, and one-third the price or less. They are more easily adaptable to shallow water but also the Blue Water if needed. It is wrong to consider them less capable, because when you build them in quantity you are dispersing, not losing capability. Plus, you are solving your presence problem at the same time. The ideal ship, the frigate of the future would possess NONE of the attributes considered essential in modern warship design:
- Superb seakeeping (It’s a shallow water animal, geared for coastal warfare).
- Long range and endurance (No more than necessary, since it will operate either close to naval ports or in conjunction with motherships).
- A helicopter or hangar (other than a landing pad).
The inflated specifications for the perfect vessel means you have more luxury combat ships today than real warships. Corvettes provide adequate amounts of endurance and capability for their operating environment. They are about the size of frigates and destroyers in World War 2. For their size, they are the most heavily armed warships available. In contrast, Navies today are having to send their expensive frigates to sea without adequate armament, minimally manned, and in fewer numbers.
Corvettes probably should not carry the now-considered-essential helicopter hangar, to keep down costs and size which is killing the frigates. This doesn’t mean the small warship works without airpower. Instead they will operate in conjunction with a few large aviation ships and land based air. Thats how you build a fleet, instead of shrinking force of “do everything nothing well” battleships. Thats how you increase numbers, reduce costs, and limit complications in the design. It how you maintain presence and control.