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Corvettes: Not Your Typical Missile Boat

November 17, 2009
tags:
sigma

A Sigma class corvette from Indonesia. Author: Mr Wim Kosten,maritimephoto.com

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.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 18, 2009 9:13 pm

    Thanks for putting us over the top guys!

  2. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 18, 2009 7:44 pm

    Woo Hoo! Sweet success, Mike!

    Again, congratulations on getting the topical balance just about perfect. Keep up the excellent work!

  3. Scott B. permalink
    November 18, 2009 6:00 pm

    It’s official now : the blog has hit the 300,000 mark (300,957 hits as I am typing this).

    Well done, Mike B. !!! :-)))

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 8:24 pm

    LCS as an Aegis ship? Is there any doubt this would price the same as a DDG-51 destroyer?

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 8:18 pm

    Scott said “That alone deserves much admiration, no matter how much one may (or may not) disagree with Mike B.”

    If everyone agreed with me, there would be no reason to post! Divergent ideas is what we want, not Yes Men. Thanks again to you all. Scott and the rest keep me on my toes, and I think is making me write better articles.

  6. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 17, 2009 6:43 pm

    Mike,

    You’ve done an excellent job in providing a forum for wide-ranging discussion. Just follow the link that Scott B. provided back to your September 15 entry. I made my forecast in the middle of the thread. That middle section of the thread follows:

    https://newwars.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/wow/

    elgatoso 2009 September 15

    and you are one of the small number of military-historic bloggers that do not make the reader bored to the tears with political-partisan discussions

    Mike Burleson 2009 September 15

    elgatoso-I love history. So the combining of history with present and future strategy is seamless, and very important, since with the lessons of the past we can bravely face what is ahead.

    D. E. Reddick 2009 September 15

    Mike,

    What elgatoso said!

    Forecast: 300,000 in another three months, methinks. Gotta keep clickin’ on that home button or ‘reload current page’ button mene, mene times a day. ;-)

    Joe 2009 September 15

    What I like about this site is you can find ways to participate in discussions whether you are a “wonk” or simply an Average Joe with a keen interest in this general subject area. Some sites can be informative but the “classroom participation” section looks like drunken tenured professors going at it w/a full clip of acronyms.

    elgatoso 2009 September 15

    And others sites looks like a bunch of teenagers in youtube discusing about a football game.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 6:25 pm

    D.E. wrote “I honestly forecast (or else made a wise-ass comment) that New Wars would reach 300,000 hits within another three months”

    Was that you? Thanks so much and of course I couldn’t have done it without all of you! Now who’s going to sit up all night and watch us reach the 300,000 mark? LOL

  8. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 17, 2009 5:56 pm

    Back in September I believe that I honestly forecast (or else made a wise-ass comment) that New Wars would reach 300,000 hits within another three months. Oh the shame! I was woefully mistaken and absolutely wrong! ;-)

    Many congrats, Mike!

  9. November 17, 2009 5:31 pm

    BZ Mike B. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. November 17, 2009 5:30 pm

    “The Absalon has clean lines but a boxy look, as befits it capacity and function. It’s not sexy. ”

    They do look dumpy but not big from the keyeside. The oddest thing is the multi-mission once you are onboard looks “wrong” (in a curious way) on a frigate. You enter this big space that ships of that size don’t normally have; you are very aware that you are onboard something that belongs to a new school of thinking.

    (I won’t mention the attractive Danish sailor guarding the brow who looked like a Barbie doll. ;) )

  11. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 5:14 pm

    x said : “I admire the site owner’s efforts here and I am grateful for the chance to share (in good humour) differing views with some learned very learned people.”

    A couple of month ago, on September 15, 2009, Mike B. explained that it took him (them ?) 5 years to get to 100,000, and a further 9 months to get to 200,000.

    Some time tomorrow, Mike B.’s blog will most likely hit the 300,000 mark.

    In short :
    * 5 years to get to 100,000
    * 9 months to get to 200,000
    * 2 months to get to 300,000

    That alone deserves much admiration, no matter how much one may (or may not) disagree with Mike B.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 5:01 pm

    Hudson said : “One reason why the Absalon, superior to these or any corvette, will not be duplicated wholesale is national pride in producing original designs, even if they are functionally inferior. The Absalon has clean lines but a boxy look, as befits it capacity and function. It’s not sexy.”

    I think it’s a fair comment.

    Compared with the mythical corvette, the ABSALON offers :

    1. superior endurance
    2. better seakeeping
    3. more versatility
    4. superior adaptability
    5. better air defense (not only for self-defense)
    6. better interoperability
    7. better survivability
    8. superior crew comfort
    9. more free spaces
    10. better aviation facilities

    AND

    11. is affordable

    BUT

    12. is not sexy
    13. was not invented here

  13. Hudson permalink
    November 17, 2009 3:14 pm

    The Sigma class ship pictured above is a sleek good-looking warship, much like the Russian Steregushchiy of yesterday’s thread. The latter is also a stylish warship, a vast improvement over Soviet designs of the 1970s and 80s when the USSR was the Evil Empire. Being that, it built evil looking ships, with fat missiles all over the place; potent designs but not good looking—you would never confuse one with a virtuous U.S. ship.

    Even in military affairs, fashion plays a role. One reason why the Absalon, superior to these or any corvette, will not be duplicated wholesale is national pride in producing original designs, even if they are functionally inferior. The Absalon has clean lines but a boxy look, as befits it capacity and function. It’s not sexy. It lacks that sleek killer look of the corvettes. Nor can one discount the wishes of the naval architect. Architects dream big and have big egos, though not the one I met in NYC years ago. One day out of the blue, a man came up to me and said: “I helped design the battleship Missouri.” He was balding and wore glasses. He looked like a mathematician. I told him the Missouri was a beautiful ship, and he smiled.

    It could be that the corvette is the new frigate, as frigate costs soar. More small navies will go for these ‘vettes, and the design bureaus will turn out real beauties for all to admire. More missiles and guns and helos will be added. And they, in turn, will become too expensive to afford.

  14. November 17, 2009 2:42 pm

    “I say with. Some are even hand-launchable. Pioneer on the USS Missouri in the Gulf was rocket assisted, recaptured in a net.”

    Hand launched ones would be useless at sea; range too short and too fragile. Modern electro-optics would have the edge me thinks.

    How would you organise patrol forces off Somalia?

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 1:51 pm

    I say with. Some are even hand-launchable. Pioneer on the USS Missouri in the Gulf was rocket assisted, recaptured in a net.

  16. November 17, 2009 1:24 pm

    Corvettes with UAVs? Or no UAVs?

  17. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 12:06 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “But a few helos and many corvettes is nearer to solving the issue.”

    Time to ask one of my favorite questions : why does it have to be a corvette exactly ? How does a corvette bring you nearer to solving the issue ?

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 11:05 am

    Mr x said “Doesn’t that underline the utility of the helicopter? I refer you once again to DK Brown’s book. It is the symbiotic relationship of helicopter/ship that drives maritime tactics”

    I don’t mean to downplay the importance of helos in naval warfare, just raise the status of the platform to its proper place, meaning, they assist each other, but neither can replace the other. We can fight pirates without helicopters, but not without ships. But the Navy says, “just throw a helo on the destroyer and the small boat problem solved”. Yet a helo alone is useless without its mothership, but the opposite is not true. Neither can the aircraft do presence.

    The failure of the multi-mission platform to solve the piracy problem, to keep them out of the Blue Water as Scott says, is proof of this over-reliance on the helicopter/destroyer strategy. But a few helos and many corvettes is nearer to solving the issue.

  19. Matthew S permalink
    November 17, 2009 10:55 am

    “And yet you would establish a “small carrier” shipbuilding strategy based on the single example of the Falklands War, in which superbly armed and led British forces administered a drubbing to poorly armed and led Argentines…”

    I wouldnt say that was a drubbing. The Royal Navy took a bit of a drubbing as well. It would have been a catastrophic drubbing if those bombs actually exploded.

  20. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 10:09 am

    More LCS news :

    Lockheed Martin pitches LCS for radar picket”

    ********************************************************************

    Israel doesn’t want LCS ? Let’s sell it to the Arabs !

    LCS-1 is grossly overweight ? Never mind, let’s add more topweight and put a SPY-1F radar !

  21. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 8:48 am

    Meanwhile, more money goes down the LCS drain :

    Navy awards CSC contract for up to $169 million for work on combat ship acquisition program

  22. November 17, 2009 8:13 am

    “Are you talking about that book where D.K. Brown wrote : ”

    Yes that book. I admire the site owner’s efforts here and I am grateful for the chance to share (in good humour) differing views with some learned very learned people.

    But his interpretation of “that book” and mine are widely different.

  23. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 8:01 am

    x said : “Doesn’t that underline the utility of the helicopter? I refer you once again to DK Brown’s book.”

    Are you talking about that book where D.K. Brown wrote :

    “Some potentially hostile countries operate fast attack craft with a powerful anti-surface missile armament. This threat is well countered by Harriers and helicopters using Sea Skua missiles. (…)

    The vulnerability of fast craft to air attack was first demonstrated as early as August 1918, when twelve German seaplanes destroyed or disabled six British coastal motor boats off the Zuider Zee.

    Though some fast attack craft can carry an impressive fit of anti-aircraft weapons, they are too small to support the sophisticated sensors and controls necessary to make these effective.”

  24. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 7:56 am

    x said : “Doesn’t that underline the utility of the helicopter? I refer you once again to DK Brown’s book.”

    Are you talking about that book where D.K. Brown put so much emphasis on such *platform-centric* attributes as passive survivability, endurance, seakeeping, embarked aviation or growth margins ?

  25. November 17, 2009 7:55 am

    Screwing (offensive) missiles to decks is silly. Harpoon 600mph (give or take) so lets it fix it to something that can (on average) do 30kts………..with a limited sensor horizon.

  26. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 7:01 am

    Did I ever mention this other quote by Stuart Slade :

    “The Absalon and her near-sisters are exactly what the LCS should have been”

  27. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 6:51 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Corvettes: Not Your Typical Missile Boat”

    Every time I come across this kind of comment, I remember what Stuart Slade wrote at the end of the chapter on FAC in Norman Friedman’s Navies in the Nuclear Age (p. 108) :

    “On several occasions, significant advances in weapon and propulsion technology have given the appearance of making possible an equaliser; a small, inexpensive, highly lethal warship that will drive conventional fleets from the seas.

    On each occasion, a clique of supporters has coalesced around the ‘new concept’, damning those who question its infallible lethality as hidebound reactionaries who are terrified that the ‘new ideas’ would upset their ivory towers.

    In every case, be it the torpedo boat, the CMB, the MTB/MGB/PT boat or the FAC-M, as experience with the new design has grown and countermeasures have been developed, natural design evolution has turned the radical new concept into a minor variant of a traditional warship type.

    In every case, the hidebound reactionaries who have patiently argued that warships designed with regard to a broad spectrum of real military requirements and conditions will prove more viable and effective than those optimized for maximum performance in a very narrow part of the military and environmental spectrum have been proved correct.

    It is probable that within a few years, new propulsion and weapons technologies will lead to a new generation of equaliser and the whole cycle will start again. History strongly suggests that such developments need to be treated with extreme caution.

    Visionary !!!

  28. November 17, 2009 6:43 am

    I don’t think the Argentines were as poorly equipped as you think. Rather like the British forces there was a mix of excellent and obsolete. But like you said it it the leadership that matters.

    “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.”

    Doesn’t that underline the utility of the helicopter? I refer you once again to DK Brown’s book. It is the symbiotic relationship of helicopter/ship that drives maritime tactics.

  29. Tarl permalink
    November 17, 2009 6:25 am

    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.

    And yet you would establish a “small carrier” shipbuilding strategy based on the single example of the Falklands War, in which superbly armed and led British forces administered a drubbing to poorly armed and led Argentines…

    Such small warships fought Hitler’s U-boats to a standstill on the open oceans.

    U-boats which did not have ASCMs…

    A return to light ships is needed today to deal with new small enemies, then equipped with torpedoes, today with missiles of extended range.

    This does not necessarily follow. You could as easily say that a reinvigoration of airborne ASW capabilities is needed rather than more light ships.

    Is a light ship able to defeat missile-armed subs necessarily going to be small and “cheap”?

Trackbacks

  1. The Impending Rebirth of the Flotilla Pt 1 « New Wars
  2. The Corvette in Myth and Legend « New Wars
  3. LCS Alternative Weekly « New Wars

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