First published: 5th May 2011 | Dr. Alexander Clarke

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Okay so this, I am afraid, is another of those joining the dots entries I am adding so that when the next large one is put out there it will not be such a great leap from the first. This is focusing on those little vessels, which the more I learn about the more I think are of growing importance in modern naval warfare; after all for navies such as Israel’s they are their largest ships (Sa’ar 5 Pictured). I am of course referring to the very humble, but multi-mission capable corvette.

The limitations on corvettes are of course obvious, they are small; this means all the space has to be used effectively, but the continued use of the Pauka’s by former Soviet Countries, and the American’s new Littoral Combat Ships – a hybrid corvette in everything but name, rather like the British ‘Through Deck Cruisers’, aka the Invincible Class Carriers. Both these designs show that if you put enough thought into the design you can get a very useful ‘ship of war’ out of it.

Another factor which has raised the importance of these vessels in my mind at least is the lesson of the Joint Strike Fighter – an aircraft produced to a budget, of very high quality, very good capabilities, and not that expensive. Whilst of course the possibility exists to do this with other classes of ships, it is in fact better to build a number of corvettes in this method rather as the USAF is doing with JSF a larger number of those aircraft to provide the quantity whilst there is a core of F-22 Raptors. This is how I envisage the role of corvettes in a modern ‘blue water’ fleet, the Destroyers/Frigates provide the key escorts of the carriers/amphibious groups, whilst the corvettes fill the gaps, shadowing the big targets – the carriers and the amphibious ships, or taking over guard ship posts from the larger escorts if those vessels are needed elsewhere, thus alleviating the possibility of the Falklands Islands being left unguarded in the case of the British.

My definition of a corvette is something of around 550 to 2,800 metric tons, and between 50-120 meters in length. They carry almost any armament going, although it is increasingly common – and advantageous, for them have multi-role capable VLS system which take any combination of surface to air, surface to surface, or even surface to sub-surface weaponry. They carry a small helicopter- the lynx is quite common, although the new German ones have unmanned air vehicles with dipping sonar’s and small torpedoes instead of them. As is expected from the fact they are operated by so many states they exhibit a wide variety of gun armament across the range of corvettes in use. This I know is a nice long list, and I am sorry its style is lacking but its purpose is to show what these vessels are capable of.

With the German K130 Braunschweig class the standard theory of corvettes being the little ships which support other escorts is turned on its head; as it is these corvettes which are responsible for supporting the German navy’s attack boats. Now, this is focused on the Baltic sea operations, but it still demonstrates the same theory which I pointed out in the first post, that a destroyer operating in support of three or four corvettes will be able to achieve a large degree of sea control within a limited area of conflict; especially in support of littoral operations and peacekeeping/counter-piracy operations, both of which favour the larger numbers of smaller craft for which a corvette is an ideal constituent.

The final area which lends a corvette so well to modern warfare is the recent theories of decentralisation whereby capabilities are distributed around smaller vessels in order to make them more secure against enemy attacks. Reminiscent of guerrilla warfare and the methods by which smaller states survive the attacks of larger ones; for example the policy of Long War epitomised by Ho Chi Minh. However, back to theories of naval warfare. Corvettes can provide so much, but they come at a price, they need the support of a larger escort, a destroyer, and further back a carrier group. A corvette because of its size will never have the onboard supplies to survive unsupported against a modern threat spectrum as will be deployed in a full conflict. Whilst this is true, it also misses the main purpose of a corvette, it is a ship designed to act as part of something larger, as part of a battle group; it is as part of a collective that it comes into its own. Most importantly a corvette provides an option for navies which need the hulls but don’t have the budget of the USA to spend billions on escorts; because of this fact whatever its logistical limitations its importance will just continue to grow as time goes on.

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