The Corvette in Myth and Legend
Here are some prevailing myths on the small warship which New Wars advocates as the antidote to much of the naval woes affecting Western navies in the modern era. These include shrinking numbers of high end warships which typically end up being used in low tech warfare, against pirates and smugglers or speed boat fleets like Iran. Such high end vessels continue to rise in price, are notorious fuel hogs for an increasingly energy conscious military, and require huge manning to maintain. The answer to the latter has been to increase automation which further adds to the price without necessarily making things better for now smaller but overworked crewman.
While becoming more and more capable, the large multimission warship hasn’t provided us with the answers we need for modern problems of seapower. They often add to our difficulties by making enormous demands on shipbuilders to build ever fewer hulls, which are very complicated, requiring enormous expertise to design. Not surprisingly such technically complicated vessels enter the fleet unfinished, riddled with faults, requiring numerous returns to the dock for repairs. Most notoriously this has occurred with the LPD-17 class amphibious ship, and seems also to be the fate with the Navy’s presumed answer to high end warships, the $600 million+ LCS.
The navy claims only high end, very large, and technically complicated warships will do for its future needs. While continuing to suffer from over-deployments and presence deficits, it rejects low cost alternatives, small warships in the employ of small navies the world over. They are immediately shocked at the notion that a speed boat, fast attack craft, or corvette could ever perform the same mission as one of their billion-dollar battleships, yet these same vessels are being used by rogue nations to threaten historical Western sea dominance, because of our diminishing number of resources.
Below then we present several excuses advocate of Big Ships only use to vilify the very type of vessels that might be the answer to all their current problems, the corvette:
Small warships are too vulnerable
Sadly we have gotten to the point where we consider hull size as power and effectiveness. In some cases this is true, but you must have some balance. The ship needed for the Blue Water of necessity should be large, that is common sense. But a craft meant to fight in shallow water, close to many threats from air, sea, and land, should naturally be small offering a smaller target, or natural stealth. Because threats are so many, you would also require a great many to overwhelm defenses, plus ensure individual ships more survivability. The smaller hull would be cheaper(though not necessarily cheap), require smaller manning the Navy is seeking, and more fuel efficient, also a plus today.
Corvettes are poor sea-keepers
I often use the example of small warships utilized in the Battle of the Atlantic, plus the Pacific Campaign, concerning corvettes and seakeeping. Some contend that corvettes and patrol vessels are totally inadequate for littoral warfare, despite the fact they were also used to combat this very serious threat on the high seas. They are exactly the same size as the escorts from the war years, that did very well on the high seas. The 800 ton Flower corvettes were about the limit you would want to sail in the stormy North Atlantic. They were very lively, to say the least, though Churchill dubbed them “cheap but nasties”. The larger sloops and frigates, from 1200-1500 tons solved many of the inadequacies of the Flower class, and were much better sailer’s.
An alternative which can produce a very stable platform without a large hull is SWATH technology. DK Brown described this capability in his book The Future British Surface Fleet:
SWATH stand for Small Waterplane Area, Twin Hull. Such vessels have two deeply submerged cylindrical hulls connected by narrow struts to a platform well above the water surface. The submerged hulls are little affected by most waves which leave the platform level, dry, and undisturbed. In the most severe seas, the SWATH will follow the wave surface with motions still much less vigorous than those of a conventional ship.
In waves, the SWATH will be able to maintain speed better than a conventional ship and because it is much steadier, it is able to operate sensors, weapons, and helicopters when others cannot…The US experimental SWATH, Kaimolino. of only 200 tonnes, has shown seakeeping comparable with that of a 2500-tonne monohull sailing in company. Technically. SWATH is a well-proven concept.
Naturally, the larger 3000-5000 ton frigates of today are roomy and comfortable. I think they pay the price for their immaculate accommodations by being far more expensive and thus greatly fewer in number. The frigates of today stay at sea far longer than did the escorts of the war years, for all their capability. They are wonderful sailer’s, but seem to have lost the point of a warship, which is “a ship built to fight”. We see the worse aberration of this in the LCS.
They are too poorly armed to contend with high end ships
In some cases this is true, but many corvettes are as well armed as modern frigates, and all better so than the LCS! As we wrote in 2009…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!
So when thinking of corvettes for Western navies, think of Germany and Israel, not Iran and Iraq!
Small warships are fodder for helicopters
There are problems with this recurring excuse against Western deployment of corvettes and fast attack craft. First off, it seems to ensure continued production of fewer but very expensive and hard to replace large surface combatants, with the notion “we have no choice”. Except, advances in technology must happen and there are always alternatives.
The sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967 by Egyptian missile boats is often considered the dawn of the cruise missile age. A key decision by the Jewish Navy led to their discarding of all large warships for an-all small warship Navy consisting of Sa’ar class attack craft, also armed with cruise missiles such as the home-built Gabriel. These were very successful in the 1970s with the destruction of Egyptian craft, and leading to the domination of the coastal regions by Israel ever since.
This is proof that a nation can operate a force of corvettes which can be very effective and cost effective, especially in the presence of their own supreme air superiority, something the Western fleets rarely ever leave port without. Likewise have new tactics such as swarming, and increased miniaturization of warfare with sensors and weapons allow drastically less room for extremely advanced weapons to counter enemy air threats.
Another factor in the need for many small warships can be taken from the first paragraph of this particular question. Because of shrinking number of high end assets, small boat navies may actually win by being where the frigates and destroyers aren’t. For instance, it should be noted the fleets of America and the UK which effectively used helicopter anti-small boat tactics in the Falklands and in the various Gulf Wars, are about half the size they were during these conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. Each are expected to shrink further in coming decades, which is already leaving gaps that small boat navies, like Iran with an estimated 1000 in service, to exploit.
The falling ship numbers brings us back to our central reason for building the corvette, so that Western navies do not vanish under the weight of their own cost. As Secretary Gates pointed out so clearly, we can’t continue building costing many billions, or even frigates which price nearly so, and expect to have effective fleets in the future. Ships which are individually very capable, but cannot be where you need them to be in a crisis, or bring undue strain on sailors, are no longer adequate for our needs. Neither have large ships ever safely operated in shallow waters very long without escort from small warships, a crucial lesson from the World Wars we seem to have forgotten.