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A Battleship for the Shallow Seas

May 5, 2009
Visby class Corvette

Visby class Corvette

A friend recently emailed the following good advice:

Now, if you want to put a warship within range of anti-ship missiles, aircraft platforms with anti-ship missiles, and even shore based artillery — you’d better have a ship that can defend itself or make itself invisible with a Romulan “cloaking device.”

The missile armed corvette is the new battleship for littoral operations. Weighing in at 1000-1500 tons, of shallow draft, and low profile, such small attack ships should be the largest Navy warship sailing in such missile, mine, and submarine infested waters on an extended basis. For the traditional forward strategy of the USN, such relatively inexpensive and easy to build vessels, deployed in large numbers would be the “shock absorber”, taking on the initial wave of any enemy attack in the impending missile war at sea, until sizable Blue Water forces can surge to the location.

A vessel intended to sail in harms way would of necessity be heavily armed, even out of natural proportions to its size. Ship survivability has become an obsession with modern warship designers, though it should be secondary to weapon’s payload, which in itself enhances a ship’s lifespan under fire. The very costly and perhaps fool-hardy practice of constructing exquisite platforms with minimal armament, most notably with the new littoral combat ship, must be abandoned in favor of as many point defenses, offensive cruise missiles, aerials assets, and guns as practical.

The closer a naval force approaches enemy controlled coastal regions, the less effective long range defenses such as Aegis becomes. With only seconds to react where missile armed aircraft, warships, conventional submarines, and ground base missile launchers are active, the necessity of medium range, short range, and last-ditch point defenses increases substantially. An adequately armed corvette should consist of layers of such defenses, including missile and gun weapons. Airborne early warning UAVs should be constantly in flight and on alert as the littoral flotilla approaches the land.

Air defense corvettes are the high end of the new littoral flotilla, which some might describe as an “Influence Squadron“. Also available probably in higher numbers will be low end ships such as Offshore Patrol Vessels (or fast attack craft) slightly less heavily armed and able to carry a helicopter. Monitors might also be required if the armada consists of amphibious troops, which could carry a heavy gun or guided rockets for shore bombardment. Concerning the landing of troops, small landing craft, though somewhat larger than current versions allowing them to traverse oceanic ranges, but still compact enough to be cost-effective to purchase in adequate numbers.

Traditional minesweepers would also complement the flotilla, as well as conventional AIP submarines which are more effective in littoral operations than a giant nuclear attack boat. Logistical motherships would complete the force, allowing the corvette and her brood to operate for extended periods in a warzone.

A $100-$300 million corvette is a stark contrast to $1-2 billion escort ships of the American, European, and Asian navies. It is the antidote to out-of-control costs, and ever increasing bulk affecting all traditional warship types, especially in the US Navy. The perceived need to pack ever conceivable advance in design of these exquisite multi-mission vessels has assured us of an ever decreasing, gold-plated navy unsuited for low-tech insurgency conflicts which we most often fight, and perhaps too precious to risk in the kind of conventional “worse case” threats we most often plan for.

The corvette, then will return balance to naval warfare as well as sanity to ship design. It is a return to basics, on a low-cost hull that still takes advantage of high tech capabilities of the new precision warfare, brought on by the micro-chip and the miniaturization of weaponry and sensors. Thanks to this new computer age of warfare, the smaller ship will become a potent vessel in its own shallow water environment, in the tradition of the mighty battleships that once dominated the Blue Water expanses.

Below are links to some interesting corvettes or OPVs currently in service:

Sa’ar 5-class Israel

Visby class Sweden

River Class UK

Kedah class  (MEKO A-100) Malaysia

Commandante Class Italy

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Randy Howard permalink
    October 5, 2009 8:06 pm


    As I understand, the US LCS Freedom/Independence are designed to carry mission modules. Currently there are three such modules – ASW, mine counter measures and anti-surface.

    No pirates or smugglers are using mines or attack subs (some smugglers are using semi-suibmersibles cargo carriers). The largest weapons Somalian pirates appear to being are RPG’s. During the Falklands, Operation Praying Mantis and the 1991 Gulf War fast attack craft were sunk or rendered inoperable by helicopters. Smugglers ‘serving’ the US market have had their fast cigar boats stopped by USGC helicopters firing .50 HMG.

    Now, I believe Freedom and Indpendence are armed with RAM, but them so are several of our LHA’s.

    So, not convinced LCS/corvettes have much to offer in combating pirates and smugglers.

    Finally, the line, “…The larger you get the more vulnerable to asymmetrical attacks in shallow seas … ” is being to casually used.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 5, 2009 7:01 pm

    Randy, I agree that some type of aviation ship is desirable, but such a vessel would need escort. The larger you get the more vulnerable to asymmetrical attacks in shallow seas. You could have an Influence Squadron which consists of motherships, an anti-air corvette, and patrol vessels that should cover all the basics.

  3. Randy Howard permalink
    October 5, 2009 5:23 pm

    A few weeeks ago, there was an article in “The Economist’ on piracy off Somalia. It said the body of water where the Somalian pirates were operating was just a bit smalelr than the continental United States. The warships currently operating in the area were not adequate in number (My memory of the number is poor, ~ 30 ships ???).

    So, twelve ~corvettes~ would not be adequate by themselves. How would they help the frigates/destroyers already on station?

    To cover that expanse of water requires overhead surveillance (drones, helicopters, satellites). Quick response would probably require helicopters. A small carrier would work better. A modifed container ship would serve better.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 2, 2009 4:13 am

    “How might those ships be deployed today?”

    Pirates and smugglers!

  5. Randy Howard permalink
    October 1, 2009 11:16 pm

    There’s rule of thumb that a ship’s weapon systems comprise ~ 15% of the total displacement. So, a hypothetical warship displacing 1000 tons could carry around 150 tons worth of weapon systems. What sort of weapons systems would fit in that envelope and ‘layers of defense’ people imagine?

    A thought experiment. Imagine the USN had purchased 12 ships from one of the classes listed above (Visby, Sa’ar, MEKO, etc). How might those ships be deployed today?

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 1, 2009 6:29 am

    The corvette is a back to basics approach. It is the antidote for out of control ships costs and weights, the habit of adding every capability imaginable, then end up using them as old style gunboats against pirates and smugglers. Larger warships are so much more capable now than in the past, so you need fewer of them, even if there was an impending peer threat out there that required every warship to be able to shoot down ballistic missiles or chase high tech nuclear submarines. The main threat these days, and one which we are least concerned with, is from small craft in the shallow seas. So logically you build small ships to combat small threats, just as you would giant warships for a like foe.

    And the type of vessel we label a “corvette” was a frigate or destroyer in previous decades, so it isn’t like we haven’t used such vessels in warfare before.

  7. Randy Howard permalink
    September 30, 2009 6:51 pm

    I like corvettes. That said …

    Setting aside endurance and seakeeping questions, displacement constraints limit the “layers of such defenses, including missile and gun weapons” desired for “An adequately armed corvette.” (pardon the splicing).

    The Sa’ar 5’s forefather was a much smaller ship. Why did the Israelis decide to increase size? The desired capabilities required more displacement.

    The workaround is netting platforms, which certainly can work, but creates its own vulnerabilities.

    I believe we should be experimenting with different platforms, but I don’t think ‘corvette’ should be considered a godsend in advance.

  8. May 6, 2009 9:31 pm

    “I’m curious about the Turkish Milgems, and the German K130…”

    Forget about K130. Capabilities were taken away from the basic design and it’s just an overpriced ship of little utility.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 6, 2009 4:13 pm

    At half a billion $$$$, it is a bitter pill rather than a cure-all and not well armed at that.

  10. pitcrew permalink
    May 6, 2009 3:56 pm

    LCS = USN’s cure-all for asymetric warefare at chokepoints; for SUW, ASW(diesel) & MIW: anything more is ‘requirements-creep’.

    [Visit LCS1 at Alexandria VA on Friday & Saturday; see & touch the newest/only 3,000ton pickup truck in the Navy.]

  11. leesea permalink
    May 6, 2009 2:43 am

    The Cyclone PC are in fact a amalgam of two disparate boat projects foisted on the Navy NSW sailors. They rejected them and the regular navy sailors are stuck with the remainder. NOT a good baseline.

  12. Heretic permalink
    May 6, 2009 12:26 am

    Uh … base ships mean Cyclons and Cylon Raiders to me …

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 5, 2009 4:14 pm

    When you start piling on the capabilities, then you get into excessive costs and wind up with something like the LCS that is only good for running away, or the 6000 ton battleship Distiller mentioned. With enough hulls you could also disperse capabilities, having mine ships, helicopter ships, surface attack, AA ships, troop ships, instead of “all of the above” , doing a little of everything, nothing well, on a few exquisite and vulnerable platforms.

    The 1500 ton warship was good enough for the war-era navies and they packed on the capabilities. Only in the Battle of the Atlantic did you start needing high end escorts like the Tribals and the Gearings later on. But the corvettes are not meant to refight the Battle of the Atlantic, but the Battle of the Littorals. If you are in the shallow seas you have bases nearby or base ships.

  14. Distiller permalink
    May 5, 2009 2:03 pm

    Ya ni amerikanskyi chuvak.

    I don’t say that’s a reasonable minimum. Just looking at your wish list tells me you end up with 6000ts.

    Can’t see Mike’s 1000-1500ts as a sweet spot. LCS, La Fayette, Meko A-100 — all around 3/3500ts full. Range and organic helicopter requirements, decent sensor & weapon setup and some survivability won’t get you much lower – a small frigate. Don’t think you can pack an organic helicopter onto a corvette, maybe that’s the main difference to a frigate.

    I’m curious about the Turkish Milgems, and the German K130, as both try to go even lighter (also the Gowind 200). Saar 5 obviously went too light, or overarmed (pick one). And none of these designs has any real endurance, a week or so with reserves. Not really suitable for expeditionary warfare. Once you start to add Flo/Flos and replenishers the cost and manpower benefit of the smaller unit goes down the drain.

    Tarantuls are interesting designs. Shows what can be done with 500ts. Not as slick as a Visby, but with much more punch.

    One of the reasons I’m really looking forward to LCS-2 trials is how such a larger multihull does in real military life. Multihulls might be really interesting for light vessels. Skjold is very promissing, but not even 300ts, so we’ll see.

  15. Heretic permalink
    May 5, 2009 9:45 am

    Har har Distiller.
    Very funny, this … Amerikanski humor.

    We bomb now.

    On a slightly more serious note, I forgot Shallow Draft and Good Seakeeping.

    And as to your point Distiller, what makes you think that a displacement of 6000 tons is a “reasonable” minimum?

  16. Distiller permalink
    May 5, 2009 9:21 am

    Yes, displacement estimate: 6000 tons.

  17. Heretic permalink
    May 5, 2009 9:12 am

    A “modern day” corvette will need to have the following weapons:

    A main gun (as large as is practical for the ship’s tonnage on the forward deck)
    Torpedo tubes (at least two, preferrably three)
    Automated point defense guns (preferrably port and starboard)
    Helicopter/Hangar (ASW/ASuW capable helicopter)
    RHIB launching capability (preferrably two for Search and Seizure operations)
    VLS missiles (surface to surface and surface to air)
    Mine deploying capability
    Depth charges (for ASW)
    Observation UAV deploying capability (preferrably two VTOLs)

    All of the above must be “integrated” with the hull form(s) so as to maintain as small a RCS/accoustic/thermal signature at sea as is practical.

    Other features of the ship should include:

    “Sufficient” crew accomodations (as opposed to minimal for a single environment)
    Accomodations for a squad of marine infantry (boarding and special forces operations)
    30+ knots sprint speed, 15 knots transit speed
    Reserves for 15 days of transit sailing at 15 knots sustained speed (5000+ nmi)
    Designed for easy means of underway replenishment
    Phased array surface/air search radar(s)
    Wide angle aperture side looking sonar, mine detection sonar, towed array sonar

    Did I miss anything?


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