Corvettes: Not Your Typical Missile Boat
The modern corvette has come a long way from the fast attack craft (FAC’s) of the late Cold War. It was these small cruise missile firing boats, which could be built cheaply and in large numbers that caused so much panic after the sinking of an old Israeli destroyer in 1967. Many Third World navies saw the FAC as an inexpensive way to threaten or at least deter the traditional large Western navies hindering their future nautical designs. But there were problems with the “cheaper is better” theory, says Ed Hooton at Armada International:
For small navies previously using fast attack craft as the keel of their capability, personal experience and the lessons of the first Gulf War have demonstrated the limitations of these small, but powerful warships. Because of their size–up to 55 metres long and 489 tons displacement–their sensor range and self-defence capabilities were extremely limited as was their capacity to absorb battle damage. This was confirmed when most of the Iraqi strike force was annihilated by Coalition air power, including Lynx helicopters with Sea Skua missiles.
Too many compromises left the light craft vulnerable to countermeasures, so a less radical way of deploying an affordable naval force had to be found. The corvette seems to hold the answer which provides enhanced ability to a smaller navy unable to afford pricey destroyers and frigates, and also could build up numbers for larger navies, who need vessels for world-wide presence and patrol.
The versatility of corvettes and the lower costs of acquisition mean that some of the larger navies have become interested in them as a cheaper means of deploying a presence in low-risk theaters. The Royal Navy, for example, is considering a frigate/corvette mix to meet its Future Surface Combatant (FSC) requirement from 2015 to 2020 while Germany’s only active surface programme is for the K-130 class, which were ordered in 2001.
Yet, in larger navies like the US and Britain, the potential of such craft to restore their shrinking fleets’ declining numbers, especially because of continued pirate attacks which become bolder each year, have been rejected because of past lessons from one-sided victories. I refer specifically to the helicopters versus the missile boats of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf Wars. Comparing the superbly led and equipped American and British Fleets, the latter armed with boat-killing Sea Skua missiles on helicopters, to the poorly armed and led squadrons of Iraq is hardly basis for establishing doctrine, or any shipbuilding strategy geared for future combat.
As we saw yesterday, the corvettes of today are not the fast attack craft (FAC) of 20-30 years ago, the first generation of missile boats. Newer craft like the UAE’s Baynunah and the German Braunschweig come heavily armed with missiles, guns, and even helicopters. The more advanced ships come with sophisticated surface to air defenses, like the Evolved Sea Sparrow or the Sea Ram missiles. Many like the Maylasian Kedah carry the Oto Melara 76 mm Super Rapid gun, which is heavier than the 57 mm carried by the frigate-sized LCS. Most, like the Sigma class for Indonesia carry a small Sonar suite, something the heavier and more expensive USS Freedom also lacks!
Modern corvettes might be likened to the destroyer escorts and frigates of the last world war, which were similar in size and built in many numbers. Such small warships fought Hitler’s U-boats to a standstill on the open oceans. They could also be compared to the original “tin cans” the destroyers of a century ago which the mighty dreadnought battleships feared to leave port without. These light ships were born to deal with the other fast attack craft from that era, the torpedo boats, with their powerful “missile” weapon the torpedo, that threatened the existence of Big Ships in shallow waters. As soon discovered, they were so much more than escorts for the Big Ships, with their modern forbearer’s like the Burkes, Kongos, and Darings today becoming battleships in their own right.
A return to light ships is needed today to deal with new small enemies, then equipped with torpedoes, today with missiles of extended range. A half-hearted attempt to create a corvette with the LCS has given us a bloated frigate instead, too large to safely chase small enemies in the littorals, and too expensive to build in the desperately needed high numbers.
Summing up, the following is something that previously appeared in the comments:
Let me point out again that the Corvettes of today are not the FACs of Saddam’s Navy or Iran in the 80s and 90s. Even had the small missile boats of that era been better used by a First World power, they still would be outclassed today by advances in missiles and radar. In contrast to those craft mowed down by Sea Skua wielding helos in the Gulf Wars, are large 1000+ plus vessels, most with long range missiles, many with helicopters of their own.
Corvettes, being a shallow water animal might also expect to operate near air bases. If they are deployed by Western navies, several of these countries would utilize aircraft carriers. The proper way to operate these would be with mothership support in Influence Squadrons. Such unique units would come with their own helicopter support.
Though it is feasible to use helicopters alone against the small FAC’s of a Third World power, against some Navy like Israel, Taiwan, or S Korea, it wouldn’t be very advisable. But corvettes of a First World power in most occasions can expect to posses their own air support of some kind.