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Little Ships, Big Jobs

Small combatants and patrol vessels have a large role in global maritime security

No matter how you count them, there are a lot more corvettes, offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), and small combatants in the world’s navies and coast guards today than aircraft carriers. When seeking partners to provide for maritime security, nations that cannot operate cruisers can make a contribution with corvettes. As nations work together to ensure global maritime security, it will be the smaller ships that will contribute a major share.

The “Thousand-ship Navy” concept espoused by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen underscored the value of having many more vessels to provide for collective stability than the U.S. Navy could provide by itself. “I’m after that proverbial Thousand-ship Navy – a fleet-in-being, if you will – comprised of all freedom-loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other. Because I believe, with every fiber of my being, that we are all united by more than just fear,” Mullen said to students and faculty of the Naval War College in August 2005.

When a navy or coast guard weighs various mission priorities, threats, geographical considerations, capabilities, and resources, they frequently come up with markedly different solutions. Some nations find their role is shifting. Drug runners are using more sophisticated methods and vessels and are venturing farther into the open ocean to avoid detection. Smugglers carrying illegal migrants are using faster and more powerful boats to reach their destinations. Pirates are becoming more brazen in their attacks and boarding ships hundreds of miles from shore.

With the demise of the Cold War, the NATO allies have expanded their focus from an open ocean confrontation with the Soviet navy to an asymmetric threat in the littorals. Even the U.S. Navy, with its fleet of aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, has learned that its diminutive Patrol Coastal boats (PCs) have become indispensable in meeting the challenges of the post-September 11 maritime environment. Just a few years ago, the Navy was preparing to divest itself of the PCs, but now finds itself planning to modernize them. With 11 supercarriers and more on the way, the Navy is also committed to build 55 Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) at the same time. As the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” calls for a visible presence and engagement around the world, the fast and versatile LCS helps the Navy be in many places at the same time.

Although many of these ships are smaller than American naval combatants, they are often better suited for operations in their local environments than a large, multipurpose warship.

USS Sirocco (PC 6)

The Cyclone-class patrol coastal boat USS Sirocco (PC 6) speeds north to provide support in conjunction with Maritime Security Operations in the northern Persian Gulf. Formerly on the way out of the fleet, with several on loan to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Cyclone-class patrol boats have since proven indispensable in meeting the needs of the post-September 11 era. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Robert McRill

“Beyond the 15 or so largest navies in the world, what you really have is a coast guard,” said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen. “They might call themselves a navy, but they perform coast guard or coast guard-like missions.”

There are a handful of nations with the resources to operate large ships such as carriers, cruisers, or large-deck amphibious assault ships. But virtually every navy in the world operates small combatants – from small destroyers, frigates, and corvettes to offshore patrol vessels. This common need for small combatants is where the similarities end, because nations own and operate small combatants for different purposes in different environments.

When a navy or coast guard weighs various mission priorities, threats, geographical considerations, capabilities, and resources, they frequently come up with markedly different solutions. Some nations find their role is shifting. Drug runners are using more sophisticated methods and vessels and are venturing farther into the open ocean to avoid detection. Smugglers carrying illegal migrants are using faster and more powerful boats to reach their destinations. Pirates are becoming more brazen in their attacks and boarding ships hundreds of miles from shore.

“There is no absolute composition for a patrol vessel or a patrol fleet,” said Jan Jaeger, a retired admiral of the Royal Norwegian Navy. “The question today is not so much who shall we defend ourselves against as much as what shall we defend.”

When considering the potential threat, Geoffrey Till, professor of maritime studies at the Corbett Centre of Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College in London and author of Seapower: A Guide to the 21st Century, asks, “… are we talking about wily fishermen or hostile superpowers?”

Just as military threats are evolving, pirates, smugglers, and drug runners are embracing technology and changing tactics. It is one matter to patrol the 14-mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar to keep drugs from coming into Spain. But the drug smugglers are moving farther and farther out to sea to avoid detection. The Somali pirates stunned the shipping world when they captured a super tanker 500 miles off of Kenya.

Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter

An artist’s conception of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter, based on the “parent craft” Damen Shipyards 4708 design. Rendering courtesy of Bollinger Shipyards

So while in the past a nation may have felt comfortable with a ship that would operate on patrol close to home, they may now find themselves operating farther out to sea or jointly as part of a coalition.

Some navies and coast guards are procuring new combatants to perform traditional naval and maritime security roles, while others need specialized craft for resource protection, environmental enforcement, or hydrographic survey work. Upgrades and modernization of older platforms are common. Reducing crew size to save on life-cycle costs is prevalent, but such capabilities come with a cost of their own.

Countries require the capability to patrol and protect their 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, claims can be made to include a country’s continental shelf. This may call for more capability and capacity to patrol and defend. For some nations, an offshore oil support boat, tug, or fishing vessel can be adapted for patrol purposes. Rolls-Royce has designed a series of coastal protection vessels derived from offshore standby vessels. The basic design can provide the capability to perform multiple functions, such as emergency towing, firefighting and pollution control, law enforcement, and EEZ patrol.

While patrol boats take different shapes depending on the environment and the mission, there are some basic multipurpose small combatants offered by shipbuilders and being considered by a wide market of potential operators.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is embarking upon a six-ship Project Baynunah-class patrol combatant. The 780-ton ship can achieve 32 knots and is armed with Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles, a 76 mm 62-caliber gun, and Mk. 56 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes for the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). The corvette also has facilities for a helicopter. The UAE’s two former German 580-ton patrol boats operate with a flight deck (but no hangar) for an SA 316B Alouette-III helicopter. The Baynunah-class ships are the first modern combatants built in the Gulf region. They are being constructed at Abu Dhabi Ship Building (ADSB) with assistance from Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie of Cherbourg, France.

ADSB is also building 12 new 111-foot composite patrol boats for the UAE coast guard. While they will not carry an aircraft, they will have a smaller high-speed interceptor boat that can be quickly launched and recovered by means of a ramp in the stern. ADSB calls is this a “mother-daughter” design. The feature is found on the U.S. PCs, as well as other patrol vessels such as the Damen-built Cornwall class for Jamaica and Leonard C. Banfield-class patrol boats for Barbados. The Damen 4708 design will also be the basis for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutter (FRC).

HMAS Melbourne (FFG 5)

The Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Melbourne (FFG 5) shown after her upgrade. While the most notable difference is the eight-cell VLS forward of her Mk. 13 missile launcher, her combat systems have been modernized, new sonars have been fitted, and she is able to fire Standard SM-2 missiles, among other improvements. Other navies operating Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates are showing interest in similar upgrades. Royal Australian Navy photo LSPH Helen Frank


International Product Offerings

Some nations have assumed regional or global responsibilities beyond their home waters and need ships that can operate with range, endurance, and interoperability. Poland, for example, is a country whose territorial waters and EEZ lie within the Baltic, which means that maintaining its maritime security doesn’t require large naval vessels; however, as a NATO member, Poland must assume maritime obligations that extend beyond its own waters. In peacetime, the Polish navy’s fast attack craft (FAC) support the Polish Border Guard in protecting territorial waters and the EEZ. In times of crisis, these vessels can protect sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and monitor and protect the approaches to Poland from the sea.

“Our FACs must be able to operate in brown water and blue water,” said Capt. (N) Krzysztof Jaworski, commanding the Polish navy’s Fast Patrol Boat Squadron.

In wartime, these same ships destroy enemy forces and maintain sea control. The current inventory of Orkan- and Tarantul-class missile patrol boats will soon be joined by the new-construction Gawron-class. The Polish navy’s new corvette, Gawron, will be a 2,000-ton, 95-meter craft capable of 30 knots, armed with the RBS 15-missile system and a 76 mm gun. Gawron will have a crew of 95.

Many factors affect hull design and propulsion selection, according to David Bricknell of Rolls-Royce. Vessels used for police or customs duties but are not required for military tasks may be smaller, with less endurance, unarmed, and may not require a flight deck. OPVs operated by navies tend to be large enough to carry an aircraft, and require higher speed for pursuit. Even if they are lightly armed, they often appear “warlike.”

“Higher speed delivers increased persistence of naval presence,” Bricknell said, and in general “speed is intuitively good.”

Israel’s 490-ton Sa’ar 4.5 class has speed and endurance. With a maximum speed of 33 knots and a range of nearly 5,000 nautical miles at economical cruising speed, they pack a lot of punch into a small ship. The Sa’ar 4.5 has four Harpoon anti-ship missile tubes, Gabriel anti-ship missiles, Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), and a 76 mm dual-purpose gun. Although small, the two ships of the Aliya subclass of the Sa’ar 4.5 had the capability to operate a helicopter. Those two ships were sold to Mexico in 2004.

Visby-class Corvette

Sweden’s Visby-class corvettes are constructed of stealthy composites complimenting the elegant stealth shaping of their hulls, mount a 57mm gun, and are equipped with torpedoes and hull-mounted, variable depth, and towed-array sonars. Rendering courtesy of Kockums

The larger Sa’ar 5 is about 1,200 tons and 280 feet long. It has a top speed of 33 knots. It is more of a multimission ship than the Sa’ar 4.5, with Barak surface-to-air missiles and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) torpedo tubes. It also has a flight deck and hangar for helicopters. These ships were built in the United States by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems.

There are revolutionary designs in smaller combatants, such as the Norwegian Skjold fast patrol craft and the Swedish Visby corvette. Skjold is a surface effect ship, built of lightweight and stealthy composites, and able to achieve 50 knots. The Norwegian ship has a 76 mm gun, Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles, and Mistral surface-to-air missiles. Visby is also made of stealthy composites and can achieve speeds in excess of 40 knots. Visby has a 57 mm gun and is equipped with hull-mounted, towed-array, and variable depth sonar.

The Dutch Navy recently provided escort duty for World Food Program shipments from Kenya to Somalia. They employed modern De Zeven Provinciën-class missile frigates to protect cargo ships from attack by Somali pirates in small boats. The mission could have been conducted by a smaller combatant, but the Dutch navy doesn’t have smaller corvettes.

Some experts warn against smaller, more specialized combatants at the expense of more capable multi-mission warships. “We should not be fixated with the present asymmetric threats of anti-terrorism or piracy. The dog we keep to deal with the cat can deal with the kittens,” said Dr. Eric Grove, professor of naval history and director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies at the University of Salford. “What we are building today may be all we have for a major conflict in the future.”



The Coast Guard’s new 418-foot CGC Bertholf (WMSL 750) National Security Cutter (NSC) is part of the ambitious Deepwater recapitalization plan to provide new ships that will be fully interoperable with the Navy. When Deepwater is fully implemented, the service’s cutters and aircraft will no longer operate as relatively independent platforms with only limited awareness of their surroundings in the maritime domain. The 4,500-ton Bertholf carries a double helicopter hangar, a 57mm gun, and a stern ramp for launch and recovery of boats. Built to operate on long patrols, the Bertholf has a range of 12,000 miles and an endurance of 60 days.

The Navy today has 30 of the original 445-foot, 4,100-ton Oliver Hazard Perry class of guided missile frigates (FFGs). Some of the decommissioned FFGs have been transferred to Bahrain, Poland, Egypt, and Turkey. Since the Mk. 13 missile launcher and Standard Missile System have been removed from the U.S. ships, the main battery of the Navy FFG today is her two SH-60B Seahawk ASW helicopters. Australia, however, is adding a VLS for the ESSM to its Perrys, as well as upgrading the combat systems and the Mk. 13 to launch SM-2s, and other nations may follow.


The Royal Norwegian Navy’s Skjold-class fast patrol craft is a surface-effect ship that carries a heavy armament for its size of Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles, Mistral SAMs, and a 76mm gun, and is capable of 50 knots. Photo courtesy of ABB

Both the Navy and Coast Guard operate the aforementioned 170-foot PCs. These are fast (35 knots) and useful for interdiction patrols. Once considered a ship without a viable mission, the post-September 11 maritime environment has secured an important role for a ship of this size and speed.

The Coast Guard will acquire a new class of patrol boat called the Fast Response Cutter (FRC). Designated the Sentinel class, the new ship will be slightly smaller than the PC (153 feet long) and capable of speeds of 28-plus knots. Sentinel will carry a stabilized, remotely operated 25 mm chain gun as well as .50-caliber machine guns. With a crew of 22, the FRC can operate independently for a week or more at a time. The command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems will be fully interoperable with Coast Guard units as well as Navy, Department of Homeland Security, and international partners. Twelve FRCs are planned, with the first being completed in 2010.

The ship construction contract has been awarded to Bollinger Shipyards, Inc., in Lockport, La. The FRC design is based on the successful Stan Patrol 4708 patrol boat design by Damen of Gorinchem, Netherlands. The Dutch company’s basic “Standard Range” design can be scaled to various lengths in standard increments for different applications. Similar examples of the Damen Stan 4207 design serve with HM Customs and Excise (HMCE).


Aircraft on Combatants

A number of navies now operate the former U.S. Knox-class frigates. These 4,200-ton ships were primarily built for ASW and have a flight deck and hangar.

Destroyers, frigates, and corvettes usually carry a helicopter for ASW and other roles, enhancing the reach and power of the ship itself. The U.S. Navy first operated Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) unmanned aerial vehicles from destroyers, but the system was phased out because of reliability issues. The Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopter was subsequently developed, and destroyers and frigates received SH-2 Seasprite LAMPS helos, followed by the larger SH-60 Seahawk that is found in the U.S. fleet today on cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Small combatants of other navies also operate a range of helicopters, from the small AgustaWestland Lynx and Eurocopter Panther to variants of AgustaBell’s “Twin Huey” and the larger AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin and NHIndustries’ NH90. Both prototypes of the Navy’s new LCS have a large flight deck and hangar area for both Seahawks and the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While the use of UAVs from smaller ships is still in its infancy in most of the world’s navies, the potential benefits to be derived by small combatants through the use of UAVs seem to be significant. In some cases, this could mean an aerial ISR capability for vessels formerly too small to operate aviation assets.

USS Independence (LCS 2)

USS Independence (LCS 2) is a trimaran hull design, with a very large flight deck and interior spaces for the unmanned vehicles and mission modules that are key to the Littoral Combat Ship concept of operations. Photo courtesy of Austal


Littoral Warfare

The Navy has built small combatants before, such as the Patrol Hydrofoil Missile boats (PHMs) and Patrol Gunboats (PGs), which were capable for choke point operations, but with limited endurance.

While the Navy fleet today was largely built to meet and defeat a Cold War threat in the middle of the ocean, there are now new challenges in the littoral or coastal waters of the world where land and sea meet. Compared to the “blue water” environment, this battlespace is very different and challenging, with shallower water, varying bottom types, irregular coastlines, heavy traffic, and shifting currents. This makes it harder to address threats such as mines, quiet submarines, or swarms of fast, armed boats that could limit or deny access for global trade, our Navy, and allies. Analysis showed that a smaller, shallow-draft, and fast, focused-mission combatant is best able to address these three threats in the littoral areas of the world. This brought about the new concept of an LCS, essentially a truck or “sea frame” that can quickly deliver a modularized mission package to a high-threat area and deploy its offboard systems.

There is a general lack of understanding of what LCS is and what it isn’t. It is not a multi-mission warship but a focused-mission combatant based upon a commercial design that has been adapted for naval use. The LCS role is not to enter a threat area with guns blazing to take on the enemy. The opposite is true. The LCS sea frame, with its volume, speed, and shallow draft, can be positioned to effectively deploy the appropriate manned and unmanned offboard systems for the required mission.

The Navy is building two different sea frames, both based upon commercial designs. LCS, however, is constructed under new American Bureau of Shipping “Naval Vessel Rules” that have been developed for warships and are much more stringent than commercial practice.

USS Freedom (LCS 1) is based upon the 60-knot Italian yacht Destriero, a high-speed monohull that holds the transatlantic speed record. USS Independence (LCS 2) is based on the Australian-built Benchijigua Express, a high-speed trimaran, built by Austal that operates between ports in the Azores. The ferry concept is valid because the requirement for LCS is to have ample volume for the interchangeable mission packages.

The current crew size is 40. Blue and gold crews will rotate. Fifteen-man detachments of mission specialists will come aboard with their respective mission packages to operate the remote systems and sensors. Likewise, a composite air detachment with 23 people would embark to operate the helicopters and unmanned aerial systems.

USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750)

USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750), the first National Security Cutter to be built, shown on its maiden voyage to Baltimore, Md., before heading out to its permanent homeport in Alameda, Calif. Built to carry out long patrols in defense of the homeland, the Bertholf’s stern ramp for launching small boats, twin-helicopter hanger and large flight deck, and 57 mm can be seen here. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA2 Nathan Henise

In the mine warfare role, the mission specialists would detect, localize, and classify mines with offboard systems a safe distance from the ship, and then employ offboard systems to neutralize those mines. This is a very different concept from that of minehunting or minesweeping with slow surface ships in the middle of a minefield.

In the ASW role, the LCS can quickly position its offboard sensors to detect, localize, classify, and track quiet diesel submarines in the littoral environment, and if necessary, engage with its aircraft-delivered weapons, all while the ship itself remains safely clear of the threat area.

In the anti-surface role, the mission package does include weapons installed on the sea frame itself, but still the objective is for the manned and unmanned aircraft to detect and enable engagement of hostile boat attacks before they approach the ship or the other units being protected.

LCS does have a core capability to defend itself with a very effective gun and other defensive systems. But it is not a gunboat. As a focused-mission ship, LCS will perform tasks that would otherwise require a much larger multi-mission ship. Those multi-mission combatants – such as Aegis destroyers and cruisers – can be better employed conducting missions more suited to their capabilities, while also being able to provide protection to the LCS.

The LCS modularity is not unique. There are several frigates available internationally with modular systems, such as the German MEKO family of combatants. The MEKO platform allows the customer to select the modularized weapons and systems that will go on the ship. Theoretically, the ship can be kept current or its configuration can change by updating with new modules.


The Next Watch

Small combatants have utility and are vital to a comprehensive naval and maritime security effort. Not all countries can or should operate large ships, and some large countries rely on larger ships because of range, endurance, and combat effectiveness in major conflicts, even though there would be some roles best suited for smaller ships. Smaller ships can carry sophisticated weapons, but perhaps at the expense of robust command and control capabilities. Unmanned systems will grow in value as a means of surveillance for smaller ships as well as big ones, and improvements in networking will make all nodes in the network valuable. But for the foreseeable future, the big debate about smaller versus larger combatants will continue.

Ning Yang (F 938)

The Taiwanese frigate Ning Yang (F 938) shown underway departing the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in 1999. The Ning Yang is the former Knox-class frigate Aylwin (FF 1081), one of former U.S. Navy frigates operated by several navies. U.S. Navy photo by William H. Clarke

This article was first published in Defense: Spring 2013 Naval Edition.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...