The Corvettes of Summer
Now for a little history. Around the turn of the 20th century, the US Navy saw the fast and small torpedo boat as a threat to its brand new fleet of battleships. These tiny boats of about 30-50 meters in length traveled at speeds approaching 30 knots, were armed with at least 2 self-propelled torpedoes and were considered major threats to the predreadnoughts which steamed on average of 17 knots or less.
To counter this challenge to their sea dominance, the USN built a total of 60-10,000 ton heavy cruisers over a two decade period. Each warship was about 100 times the weight of their miniature antagonists, carried 100 torpedoes each, as well as a single 5 inch cannon and a few smaller guns. Also planned was a new class of 14,000 ton armored cruisers geared toward countering the new undersea torpedo boats, the Holland type submersibles. Because of the enormous cost, only two of these powerful vessels were ever built.
Luckily for the world, this history never occurred. Against the deadly new torpedo boats the Navy followed the British lead, constructing small torpedo boat destroyers. In 1901, the 420 ton USS Bainbridge (DD-1) was launched and an entirely new class of warship was born. At 29 knots, they were speedy enough to catch the TP boats and carried an armament of 2X3 inch gun and 2X18 inch torpedo tubes. She was versatile enough to keep up with the battlefleet and also fight it out in shallow waters.
Best of all the new destroyers were small and cheap enough, compared to the capital ships, to be built in large numbers. To attack the submarine menace of the First World War, many hundreds were bought by all nations. By the start of the next conflict in 1939, these essential craft has increased to around 1500 tons on average. To combat the new German U-boats, many thousands more were ordered, including smaller destroyers escorts, frigates, corvettes, and sloops.
From the first paragraph you get an idea of where we are today. As Milan Vego argues in his article “Think Small“, we aren’t where we need to be when it comes to operating and defending against small attack craft:
The main tactical advantages of FACs are their versatility, high speed, great striking power, excellent maneuverability, small silhouette and high degree of immunity to mines. The main drawbacks of FACs lie in their lack of staying power, short range, modest ability to fight in poor weather, quick onset of crew fatigue, high likelihood of loss if hit and, most important, high vulnerability to enemy attacks from the air. Most of them are also unstable weapon platforms.
The great majority of U.S. surface combatants are too large and ill-suited for operations in the littorals. The Navy has in active service 22 of its original 27 Aegis Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers and 52 (plus 10 under construction or planned to be built) 8,950- to 9,155-ton Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers. The plan is to retain the Aegis cruisers until they reach the age of 35. The lead ship of the Arleigh Burke-class was commissioned in 1991; the last will enter service in 2010/2011. In addition, the Navy operates 30 4,100-ton Oliver Hazard Perry-class missile frigates. They will remain in service until the 2010s. The majority of the Navy’s surface forces will be composed of the Aegis cruisers into the 2030s.
But their unsuitability to operate in so-called “green waters” because of the huge size and deep draft isn’t the only drawback to the new destroyers and cruisers. Vego considers these 21st century battleships as vulnerable to missile craft as their Victorian Age predecessors were to torpedo boats:
The threat from small surface craft to the larger U.S. surface ships is illustrated by several incidents in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz since the early 1980s. During the Iraq-Iran War, the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked the Kuwaiti-owned but U.S.-flagged tankers in the vicinity of Bahrain and Qatar. It also came in direct confrontation with the Navy. Several IRGC ships were sunk by the Navy in the late 1980s. However, the Iranians drew the lessons that U.S. large surface ships were vulnerable to air and missile attacks. This, in turn, led directly to the adoption of so-called “swarming tactics” by the Iranians in future conflict with the Navy in the Gulf. Swarming tactics are nothing new; many armies used them in the past. The Iranian concept employs a large number of small boats to surprise and isolate a force of the enemy’s large surface ships. The boats converge to their prospective targets from a large number of bases and attack using ambushing positions close to the Iranian coast or offshore islands.
My fear is in the next war at sea, perhaps sooner than we think, the tiny and rapidly shrinking US Navy might find itself overwhelmed by such tactics, even the loss of a single large warships with their hundreds of crew (many thousands on an aircraft carrier) would be devastating to morale at home and might result in a humiliating withdrawal from the littorals, which today the admirals seem to scorn as unimportant.
His answer to the new threat from small craft is another small craft, the corvette:
In general, the optimal size for multipurpose surface combatants is between 1,000 tons and 1,500 tons…In the past, corvettes and light frigates were the principal small surface combatants. A frigate was smaller in size than a destroyer and larger than a corvette. It was employed primarily as an oceangoing convoy escort. A corvette was a small ASW ship, also used for convoying duties, but primarily in coastal waters. However, over the past three decades, the line between a frigate and corvette has progressively blurred because both types evolved into multipurpose combatants capable of conducting land attack, ASW and air-defense missions. Multipurpose corvettes can attain a maximum speed of more than 30 knots. Their range can vary from 1,500 to 3,500 nautical miles. Modern corvettes are armed with several launchers for anti-ship missiles, multi-purpose guns and ASW weapons. They also are fitted with a landing pad for helicopters.
He goes on to declare the littoral combat ship as a frigate and not a true littoral ship. To this view we agree, and especially considering the latter’s extreme cost and only modest performance, we would reject building the planned 55 ships that the USN wants. We think the new attack boat destroyer is the modern corvette and should be bought in sufficient numbers to absolve the Big Ship Navy of any responsibility in the green waters, where they are too costly to risk.
For a detailed list of numerous corvettes around the world, go here.