Corvettes Should be Good and Plenty
The lineage of the modern corvette can be found in the fast attack craft (FAC) from the 1960s, notably those built by the Soviet Union and transferred to scores of Third World navies. The notion that the “little Davids” armed with the new cruise missiles like Styx could sink the larger, more capable warships of the dominant Western navies at very low cost was too intriguing to resist. After awhile, various counter-measures taken by the West would effectively blunt this ideal scenario, as detailed in this 2007 Armada International article by Ed Hooton:
Like the British battle cruisers in 1916 the fast attack craft proved vulnerable to plunging fire, in this case missiles delivered by aircraft, and US naval air power severely punished both Libyan and Iranian vessels. The lesson was driven home in 1991 when Allied air power massacred Iraqi fast attack craft (some of them former Kuwaiti vessels) making a sortie down the Saudi Arabian coast. The range of fast attack craft search radar was restricted by the low height at which the antenna was carried, depriving them of early warning while their air-defence capability was further eroded by the absence of anything more than man-portable missiles. The small size of the fast attack craft, less than 55 metres long and with a displacement of 500 tonnes or less, made them especially vulnerable to missile strikes–those that did survive were fit only for the scrap yard.
Clearly the air defense problem needed to be addressed, and thankfully modern technology was up to the task, especially from the same Navies whose large warships were at risk. Many small but technically advanced fleets which had quickly discarded their large frigates and destroyers for fast attack craft, now saw the corvette as a way to restore some balance to their seapower abilities. Larger corvettes, while still packing the missile punch of the FAC, could also deploy adequate air defense weapons and radar, even sonar, yet cost much less than a $1 billion destroyer or frigate. Hooton continues:
Israel has followed the same path from major warship to fast attack craft to corvette, partly spurred on by the Eilat incident, which has led the trend towards enhanced AAW capability in corvettes. In the 1990s the Israelis built under license an Ingalls/John J. McMullen Associates design with Foreign Military Sales funding as the Eilat or Sa’ar 5 class. This 1295tonne Codog ship with traditional shafts, which may be about to replace its Elta EL/M-2218S radar with the IAI Elta MF-Star active array sensor, has an Elbit NTCCS combat management system, Boeing (formerly McDonnell Douglas) Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles, and was the first to feature an effective surface-to-air missile system in the form of the Israel Aerospace Industries Barak 1. This was one of the first corvette ‘stealth’ designs with shaping and radar absorbent material to combat radars while the acoustic signature is reduced by resilient mountings for machinery together with a Prairie Masker bubble system. This and the increased mass of the design demonstrated the advantages of the whole corvette concept in July 2006, when the INS Hanit was hit by a C-802 anti-ship missile off Lebanon. Despite the fact the ship had its main search radar and close-in weapon system switched off the missile struck the corvette’s stern and, while killing four crew, it inflicted limited damage and the ship quickly returned to front-line duties.
Other navies have since joined the corvette bandwagon, including several in the Middle East and elsewhere. While loading Exocet and Harpoon missiles for attack, they also sport advanced surface to air defenses usually seen on heavier warships, like the Israeli Barak (6.5 nm), the Raytheon Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (10 nm), Raytheon Rim-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (5 nm) and Russia SA-N-11 ‘Grison’ (4.5 nm). BAE is equipping the 3 corvettes for Brunei with the battle proven Sea Wolf (11 nm) in VLS (the ships were built but the sale flopped).
Mark 46 torpedo’s, “the backbone of the U.S. Navy’s lightweight ASW torpedo inventory” are carried by many small warships, including the Israeli Eilat. Swedish corvettes like the Visby can carry the ASW 600 Elma, Short range ASW grenade launcher that brings to mind the “Hedgehog” for the World War. Russia’s RBU-6000 ASW rockets are used on all types from carriers to corvettes.
Recent sea combat between North Korea and the South emphasizes the importance of the surface gun in small boats engagements. Probably the most popular medium caliber gun for corvettes is the Oto Melara 76-mm 62-caliber gun. The compact mounting is very popular, with a range of 12.4 nm and 85 rounds/min rate of fire, in ships as large as frigates and smaller classes like the Indian Kora, the German Braunschweigs, and the Eilat. Some navies prefer the smaller, shorter range BAE Systems Bofors 57 mm, like the Swedish Visby and the much larger American LCS.
As small as they are, many corvettes of less than 2000 tons full load also have helicopter facilities. Here are some details:
- Braunschweig-Camcopter S-100
- Sigma-Optional hangar
- Eilat-Eurocopter Panther
- Espora-Alouette III or Fennec
Those which do not possess a fixed hangar often sport landing spots for helos. Being a shallow water vessel, this capability is not a prerequisite, since land based airpower would normally be on call.
Today, European built corvettes are leaning toward the 2000+ ton range for new corvettes, the French Gowind for instance, putting them increasingly in the “light frigate” class. That is fine for navies with only the need for a handful of highly capable but affordable vessels. For larger global fleets like the US Navy, it would seem prudent for them to keep the tonnage low, from 1000-1500 tons light to insure plentiful numbers. Capabilities are fine for battleships like Aegis missile warships, but for general purpose missions such as presence required of a larger fleet, numbers are most crucial.