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Defending the Small Ship Navy

May 31, 2009
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USN Cyclone class patrol ships

USN Cyclone class patrol ships

At the Information Dissemination blog, we read the following quote from Navy CNO Admiral Gary Roughead:

“There are some folks that would say that the best way to do cooperative security is with small, cheap and benign little patrol boats operating in various areas around the world,” he said. “I would argue that the model that we have, with the Africa Partnership Station on Nashville, is a great way to do cooperative security.”

What the Admiral means is using the current battleship-centric Blue Water forces for use in its “soft power” initiatives. According to Norman Polmar at Defense Tech here is what such a mindset has given us in the past few years:

 The Navy’s flip-flops on the Zumwalt (DDG 1000) and Burke (DDG 51) programs have hurt the Navy’s image and credibility of its shipbuilding program.  The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, required by Congress, is unrealistic and of little value.  Poor management of the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts have resulted in ship delays and cost overruns.  The Navy has failed to effectively “sell” itself as a key factor in America’s political-military effectiveness, in part because of the above factors   Ship numbers do count and the controversial littoral combat ship (LCS) is the Navy’s only hope for increasing fleet size. The Navy’s leadership can fix the procurement mess, but must take bold and innovative action, including demanding firm fixed-price contracts and the use of second-tier shipyards and contractors to spark competition.

Historically the small warship been essential in all naval wars, from the age of sail to today. It was small littoral craft which helped build the British Empire in early forms of amphibious warfare, and small steam gunboats which secured that Empire. More recently, in two world wars, small ships ranging from 1000-2000 tons were in huge demand and many thousands were built by the US, Canada, and the UK to combat submarines and escort the Big Ships. The very name “destroyer” was derived from the torpedo boat destroyer, without which the battleship would have been obsolete long before WW 2. In the Vietnam War, small ships, the famed Brown Water Navy intercepted Vietcong shipments on the rivers and coastal regions to help stem the infiltration of the South. The communists would use any route available to feed their insurgency, so interdicting these shallow water areas was imperative to the American war effort.

So where does such low cost and plentiful craft fit in today? Considering the high cost of large warships, the increased complexity, and shrinking numbers, small corvettes and other littoral ships might be the antidote. Considering the enhanced capabilities of modern precision weapons such as cruise missiles and guided rockets, small ships can pack a punch that rivals and makes them a threat to the Big Ships.

Trying to compare the small shallow water corvette to a giant Arleigh Burke missile destroyer would be a mistake, as we see with Admiral Roughead’s point of view. Pound for pound, a corvette such as the Israeli Sa’ar class is the most powerful surface ship in any navy. Such a craft would be a battleship in the Green and Brown Water environment, able to maneuver where Big Ships would be at risk, and support the troops closer to shore, while larger Navy warships would have to avoid such waters infested with submarines, mines, and cruise missiles. What commander wouldn’t be willing to risk a $100-$300 million littoral ship, where he might think twice with a $2 billion destroyer?

I think we can learn something from the wars of the past, in getting a glimpse of what the future entails. And if history is any guide, we will need lots of ships, some large ones of course, but very many small ones of all shapes sizes, and functions. A handful of large and costly battleships are mainly good for a constabulary force, as Western navies have deployed since Korea. But there is no guarantee in the future we will only fight land powers who don’t shoot at our carrier fleet, in fact the opposite is more likely.

Ecuadorian navy ship Esmeraldas

Ecuadorian navy ship Esmeraldas

23 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2014 12:50 am

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  2. TitoLemz permalink
    August 17, 2012 10:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Anything Goes.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 7, 2009 6:47 am

    Chuck, the Navy consistently complains about a “presence deficit”. Recently we hear of the carriers forced on longer deployments because others are in drydock, and this sort of thing has been ongoing all my 40+ years. The admirals seem to have resolved themselves into doing more with less and refusing to compromise on high end ships, but I think this is a wrong and unnecesary strategy.

    As the fleet gets smaller, it is working harder, not giving up missions. To me that just screams “more ships”, but we could also do more with our current assets instead of depending wholly on large deck carriers for this so-called gunboat diplomacy.

  4. Chuck Hill permalink
    October 7, 2009 3:45 am

    Mike, as I’ve said before, if you want to make your case for numbers of small ships you have to identify the mission and the required resources. in a rigorous way.

    Think MasterGunner has identified a task that is quantifiable and the force requirements are known.

    Could we do Market Time? Could we blockade a 1000 miles of coast line on the other side of the world against clandestine entry?

    There were Maritime Patrol Aircraft, DERs, Large Cutters, 82 ft cutters, Nasty Class PTs, and a large number of South Viet Namese vessels too.

    There it was made easier by having bases on shore to operate from. What if we had no bases? Say, Somalia.

    Could we do it?
    What would we need to add?
    How about logistical support? tenders? Motherships?

  5. leesea permalink
    June 26, 2009 12:12 am

    Mike I just reread your comments and have a shorter post:

    There is NO need for an HSV to be trans-oceanic. They make good tactical sealift ships but not so good for distance.

    Bill, I think the RSLS Rapid Sealift Ship design was a good one. You familiar with it?

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 1, 2009 5:43 pm

    ” It was a failure of the Israeli captain who was complacent and did not know how to fight his ship in a war zone. ”

    And this is a recurring problem with Western navies, Bob, recalling Sheffield, Stark, Vincennes, and so on. Ghosts of Iron Bottom Sound coming back to haunt us.

  7. June 1, 2009 4:08 pm

    With all due respect to ADM Roughead, there isn’t a big gray ship driver in the world that would want to bring his multi-billion dollar hull into the littorals because it is just too big a target to survive in that anti-ship missile environment. Therefore, it would be in the Navy’s best interest to go with small ships that can effectively operate in such waters and can defend themselves when needed. The most capable ship in the world right now, would have to be the Royal Swedish Navy’s Visby-class. She’s got all the necessary survival characteristics. She needs more armament and systems, but as a whole, the ship is very sound.

    The Italian Lupo-class corvettes are a proven design, but they’re getting along in years and an improved design would be right on the money as far as a good ship for this area is concerned.

    I am with Mike in my like for the Israeli Sa’ar V corvette. However, its defensive capabilities are not yet to my liking, although the all around design has great possiblities.

    The Sa’ar V has gotten a bad rap from its dismal performance during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006. The Sa’ar V that was hit by a Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile that killed four Israeli sailors was not a failure of the ship or its systems. It was a failure of the Israeli captain who was complacent and did not know how to fight his ship in a war zone. Note to captain: you have your ship on Condition ONE (general quarters) in a war zone and you do NOT have your anti-ship missile systems (Barak and CWIS) shutoff to prevent friendly-fire accidents.

    The problem with the USN is they are totally without a clue when it comes to combat in either green or brown water. The brown water combat lessons are being relearned by the new NECC units, but the blue water community has no clue what’s going on there.

    Green water is more than brown water and less than blue water. There is no coporate memory now within DoD that remembers the lessons learned by TF-115 MARKET TIME and those barrier-denial operations. Indeed, todays Navy could not begin to replicate MARKET TIME if it wanted to because the assests are just not there.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 1, 2009 3:49 pm

    “I predict the two laid up Hawaiian Super Ferry cats will be in Navy service soon.”

    Thats good, whatever it takes. And I guess warships are in the eye of the beholder, Lee! Look at what the pirates are doing with speedboats and captured freighters.

  9. leesea permalink
    June 1, 2009 3:29 pm

    Mike I think you are on the right track about small warships. Tactical sealift ships are for the most part being ignored by the bluewater Navy. The JHSV program has only gotten this far because the Army and the Marines saw the need and used them. HSV WestPac Express have been providing true intra-theather sealift for over 7 YEARS. And the JSHV is still several years from IOC.

    Bill points to the problem. The Navy loves to test advanced marine vessel designs and then NOT buy any. The solution of course is obvious to me a sealifter. Charter what vessels you need today (OTS NDI) and let them go when the rqmts change. Evidently the rqmts have NOT changed in the case of WPE. Which would have told me to buy something ohh about 3 years ago? But anyway I predict the two laid up Hawaiian Super Ferry cats will be in Navy service soon.

    BTW please please do not confuse warship and other type HSVs. They are different beasts mostly.

  10. Andy permalink
    June 1, 2009 2:58 pm

    Hi guys, you may be interested in this concept study from bmt…..

    seems to be exactly what your thinking about.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 1, 2009 12:02 pm

    With multiple hulls you could get by with one helicopter on each ship. Also, you could have single purpose aviation ships which did nothing but carry helos, perhaps as many as three, all on a 1000-1500 ton hull.

    Another alternative, stick to UAVs like Fire Scout on your corvettes and base the helos on larger motherships.

  12. Distiller permalink
    June 1, 2009 10:03 am

    Lack of helicopters … once you want to operate a manned helicopter with any meaningful mission capability, maybe in anything above SS3, your displacement *has* to go up. And one helicopter is also not of much use, so two it’ll be. Means minimum at least 3500ts.

    The only way around that is: no manned helicopter. Instead a VUAV launched and recovered by a Skyhook system, not even a landing pad.

    Agree that multihulls are the way to go for the littorals.

  13. Bill permalink
    June 1, 2009 1:27 am

    Mike, I heartily agree, but that ‘high-speed sealift thing’ has kept me busy with wasted design efforts for decades. Chunks of money as regular as clockwork – about every 10 years a new flurry of wasted initiatives as Congress gets impatient with lack of indigeneous sealift and especially the fast kind.

    Just completed yet another exercise in HSSL design futility in fact..and the technical results are actually ground breaking. But who is going to build the ships? Not the Army…certainly not the Navy…and both sit around hoping some commercial entity might.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 31, 2009 7:30 pm

    Scott, here is where I think speed might have a place in naval warfare, in Blue Water resupply and troop transport. Remember those fast cruise liners placed in military service during the world wars? They would speed across the Atlantic with thousands of troops on board without the need of escort ships. They literally outpaced any aggressor which might have it in its sights. For a finale, in 1982 the QE 2 loaded the entire 5 inf brigade of 3000 troops to the Falklands in time for the decisive battle on land. How cool is that?

    The HSVs in have been used as troops transports in and around Iraq. They can carry 350 troops, with 500 tons of equipment, at their top speed of 40 knots. This is a unique capability that I hope the services would take advantage of on a large scale.

  15. Bill permalink
    May 31, 2009 4:01 pm

    “The Oksoy and Alta class? No, they lack a helicopter and endurance. They don’t seem to combine sweeping/breaking with hunting either.” True..but all by choice for those particular builds. They are not even 400 tons after all. Easy to scale up and other multi-role variants have been looked at in depth..and look pretty good.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 31, 2009 1:57 pm

    Its not that I am so enamored with the corvette, Sven. Actually I am a recent convert. After much study I have come to the conclusion that if we must fight in the littorals, the 1000-1500 ton vessel is the only practical solution. It also concerns ship numbers, and with the 3000 ton frigate design approaching $1 billion, this is no longer an alternative for littoral work, which is why I also discount the LCS as viable. It is not a REAL littoral ship whatever the name says.

    Remember also I think the corvette is the HIGH END warship of this new strategy, meaning there are room for smaller or similiar vessels like FACs, patrol ships, OPVs, mine ships, HSVs and so on. Its all about practicality, affordability, and especially numbers.

  17. May 31, 2009 1:36 pm

    The Oksoy and Alta class? No, they lack a helicopter and endurance. They don’t seem to combine sweeping/breaking with hunting either.

  18. Bill permalink
    May 31, 2009 1:26 pm


    The RNoN MCMVs are practically that already, right?..and more ‘multi-mission/OPV” variants are long since off the design boards for that class. Everyone who takes MIW platforms seriously (we are not included in that group) does not get stuck with slow, overweight single-role vessels like the practically new ones we are busy retiring at the moment either.

  19. May 31, 2009 12:52 pm

    Mike, I know you’re kinda in love with corvettes / OPVs.

    Maybe there’s actually a way how a navy could have these in peacetime for OPV (maritime policing) purposes and still have a good use for them in a hot conventional war.

    One category of ships fits the size: Mine countermeasure ships. They tend to weigh 250-900 tons.

    It should be possible to develop a 1,000 tons ship with OPV speed (20 kts) and equipment (fire hoses, small ward, light helicopter landing pad and basic 40-76mm gun armament).
    It could still be used for mine-sweeping (as control ship for mine breaker drones, classic cable-cutting equipment) and mine-hunting (cable-controlled recoverable and disposable underwater drones, divers, hull-mounted sonar) in wartime.


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