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The corvettes and frigates new wave. (Naval Warfare).

Frigates and corvettes are the backbones of mast navies. At one time the frigate was an ocean-going anti-submarine convoy escort, and the corvette a smaller anti-submarine ship adapted to more coastal waters, but over the past half century these terms have evolved to mean two sizes of general-purpose surface combatant warships, the corvette being the smaller of the two.

Frigates and corvettes are moreover distinguished from destroyers, which at present only China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are building. All three terms are essentially meaningless; what one navy calls a destroyer another may call an air defence frigate. The central difference is political. A destroyer is imagined as a massive surface combatant, expensive and aggressive. A frigate is clearly far smaller and is defensive, and a corvette is further down the scale. The most extreme use of such terminology is to be found in South Africa, for which four new ships, which, although elsewhere would be called frigates, are being built as corvettes.

From a builder's point of view, the great question is whether prospective clients can buy either surplus warships or derivatives of existing classes. Surplus sales are exemplified by the British Leander class and by the US Knox and Oliver Hazard Perry classes. Through the 1980s and 1990s the trend in major Western navies was to smaller numbers of more capable ships. The end of the Cold War caught several major navies by surprise, as they had specialized in ASW frigates well adapted to dealing with a massive Soviet submarine force, but ill-adapted to the new central role of presence/power projection. For the future, navies needed larger ships with longer endurance and with the ability either to fire land-attack weapons or to screen carriers and amphibious ships mainly against airborne threats (aircraft and anti-ship missiles). Hence the new European programmes for air defence destroyers: the British Type 45, the Dutch De Zeven Provincien, the German F124 (and K130, as a replacement for fast attack craft suited mainly to the Baltic), the Franco-Italian Horizon, the Spanish F100, and, to some extent, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen.

The US Navy, the world's largest, has been the largest source of surplus frigates, with Perry class ships transferred to Turkey and to Poland last year. Several navies have sought surplus British frigates, but with only limited success. Brazil received the first four Type 22s. Reportedly Chile reached an agreement to receive four Type 22 Batch II frigates when they became available, but the deal collapsed when the British detained ex-President Pinochet. Two of the ships were then sold to Romania, presumably to be substantially rebuilt before transfer. Chile is now to receive a third, the HMS Sheffield, but no more are available (the others have been scrapped). The Royal Navy seems less likely to be willing to transfer Batch III ships. That leaves open the question of transferring Type 23 frigates that are so adapted to ASW roles that potential buyers may find them too limited for other purposes. Of other navies, the Netherlands has transferred nine Kortenaer class frigates to Greece and two to the UAE; only one remains in Dutch service. This last ship and two Heemskerck class anti-aircraft frigates are likely to be decommissioned, hence available for sale, in the 2003-2004 timeframe. Note that, despite the general trend towards open ocean operations, the Dutch are considering a corvette to replace the existing M-class (Karel Doorman class) frigates. France has transferred A69 class corvettes to Turkey. At the end of 2002 Italy was negotiating with Peru, which wanted to buy all four Lupo class frigates.

There are several new programmes, all of which have interesting implications. In October 2000, France and Italy announced a joint project to develop a multi-purpose frigate that would follow the joint Horizon class anti-aircraft frigate programme. Both navies have large frigate forces needing replacement. Moreover, the French Navy wants a surface combatant capable of firing land attack missiles, presumably as a supplement to its carrier force. It also needs replacement anti-submarine ships.

The solution adopted is a multi-purpose design that can be completed to emphasize either land attack or antisubmarine warfare. Some of these ships may also have flag facilities. For the Italian Navy, the urgent need is to replace the existing Maestrale and Lupo class frigates built in the 1970s. To the extent that the Lupos enjoyed export success, the multi-purpose frigate may also be attractive as a replacement. As currently envisaged, the joint programme calls for a total of 27 ships.

Several other European programmes are in prospect. Given the sheer size of the potential French-Italian project, other navies may be inclined to join. Candidates probably include the Belgian Multipurpose Escort Vessel (MPEV, replacing the Wielingens), the Dutch future corvette or frigate (replacing the M-class), the Portuguese future frigate and the Turkish TF2000.

Bulgaria plans a class of six new corvettes, which presumably its government hopes would be financed by Nato or European Union partners, much as Portuguese frigate construction was financed by Nato during the Cold War, and as Irish frigate construction was financed by the European Union.

One key question in the Franco-Italian programme is the extent to which the ships will be optimised for shore attack. At present there is no large calibre European gun comparable to the new US 155 mm Advanced Gun System, which is to arm the DD(X) and presumably also the CG(X). However, at several industry exhibitions Giat has displayed drawings of a 155 mm weapon firing guided rounds. And recently, the turret of a 155 mm self-propelled gun was shown mounted on the forecastle of the German frigate Hamburg on a flexible--presumably recoil-absorbing--mounting (see title picture).

Of European navies, only the Royal Swedish Navy seems inclined to favour much smaller ships. Its Visby class missile corvette is less than a quarter the size of the blue-water frigates operated by other fleets. Because the Visby is also about twice the size of earlier Swedish missile craft, which are classed as corvettes, the Royal Swedish Navy sees the Visby as a leap in size commensurate with a shift from a coastal to a foreign-presence stance. The Royal Danish Navy has already concluded that ships about three times as large as the Visby are still far too small for such a role, based on its own experience in the Gulf and in the Adriatic in the 1990s. It therefore seems likely that at some point the Swedes will find themselves seeking something substantially larger than the Visby, perhaps on the lines of the Franco-Italian frigate.

Blohm+Voss, which has been extremely successful in marketing its Meko series of modular frigates, is now building a stealthier version. The larger size Meko A-200 is being built for South Africa (and called a corvette); the smaller A-100 is being built for both Malaysia and Poland. The latter may also be characterised as a corvette. The new German K130 is a related design. Turkey was on track to buy A-200 for her TF2000 frigate, but that may not happen due to the financial effects of the massive earthquakes the country suffered a year ago. Beyond these designs, Blohm+Voss has developed a destroyer or large frigate, which it hopes Australia will adopt as the basis for its future air defence ship. At least in theory, the German F124 (Sachsen class) missile destroyer may form the foundation for the new design. Current German work on a next-generation frigate (F125), to replace the existing Bremen class, may become the outline for yet another Blohm+Voss design.

France has three export programmes underway. Saudi Arabia is taking delivery of modified La Fayette class frigates. Singapore is buying six new Delta-class frigates (3000 tonners bought instead of eight 1000-tonne missile corvettes). In addition, CMN has been selected to build six multi-role corvettes for the UAE.

Of the British builders, Vosper Thornycroft has now been selected to design the new Greek corvette. Initially eight ships were envisaged, however, it now seems that the Greek Navy may buy only three while upgrading existing Kortenaer class frigates.

Russia continues to advertise a variety of frigates and corvettes for export. Severnoye DB, to meet as many size requirements as possible, offers 1800, 1350 and 600-tonne corvettes. According to Severnoye, these designs incorporate high levels of stealth technology and their low observability is "ensured by original hull and superstructure architecture, and other measures. In comparison with the similar class ships of traditional architecture, radar cross section is reduced 4 to 6 times due to structural features" which in turn reduces detection range by a factor of 1.4 to 1.6.

The larger 1800-tonne corvette is particularly suited for direct operations against enemy war ships and submarines, the defence of transiting ships during passage and coast guard missions. For its air defence, the corvette is equipped with the vertical-launch, 40-kilometre, 60,000-feet Shtil missile system. Two 100 mm and 30 mm close-in weapon system round up the ship's armament description. Propulsion is of the Codog type, with two cruise geared diesel engines driving fixed-pitch screws and a 15,000 kW gas turbine driving water jets for 27-knot dash speeds. Running on the diesels, the ship has a range of 3500 nautical miles.

The 1350-tonne type for the protection of sea lanes, escort and land force support duties is armed with Club-Ns and mounts a Kashtan-M gun-missile turret affording air protection out to 10 km and 18,000 feet altitude, the type also carries a 100 mm gun for land attack.

Propulsion is also Codog, although the diesels are smaller but with higher speed engines. Dash speed is a vivid 30 knots and maximum range stretches to 4000 nautical miles.

The smaller Severnoye sister is a highly manoeuvrable design capable of 30-knot speeds and a range of 3000 nautical miles. Armament consists of Uran-E (Harpoon class) anti-ship missiles, 76 mm or 100 mm guns, torpedo tubes, a Kashtan-1 gun-missile mount, 12.7 mm machine guns, electronic countermeasures, drop sonars and a 3D radar.

The weapons description of the three ships is purely indicative, since Severnoye says that systems of western origin can be adapted with adequate digital interfaces. The same applies to helicopters of the same calibre as the S-70.

Almaz, on the other hand, has designed a ship that its General Designer Alexander Shlyakhtenko described as a "versatile hunter-killer and escort ship which is capable to destroy any target, either surface objects, combat surface ships, transport vessels or submarines, as well as to ensure escort screening and fire support for landing parties, convoys and ground forces operating in the coastal area". Primarily intended and soon to be built for the Russian Navy, the ship has nevertheless been designed with the export market in mind, a task that Rosoboronexport was empowered with. The export version has a displacement of approximately 2000 tonnes. Armament would include vertical-launch Urans (eight missiles in two launchers), two Kashtan close-in missile gun mounts, a 100 mm bow gun mount, two 14.5 mm guns, anti-aircraft gun systems, twin 533 mm torpedo tubes, a modern combat management centre and sonar with a towed transducer.

The vessel would have a maximum speed of 30 knots and a cruising range of 4000 miles. Interestingly, all accommodation, service spaces and combat posts are equipped with an air-conditioning system to maintain comfortable conditions within.

The only noteworthy sale in recent years was the Indian Talwar class, a more heavily armed derivative of the existing Krivak. Although the first unit was completed in February 2002, a year later she was still in the Baltic. The ship apparently suffers from electromagnetic interference between her weapon systems, possibly between those of Russian origin and those (e.g., jammers) of Indian origin. The Russian Navy did commission the light frigate Tatarstan as flagship of the Caspian Flotilla, and reportedly work is underway on the light frigate Steregushchiy for the Baltic. At Kaliningrad, work is proceeding slowly on two Neustrashimyy class frigates in hopes of selling them abroad. Both ships had previously been cancelled. The main customers for Russian warships are currently China and India, with Iran as a good prospect. China is buying Russian destroyers, and perhaps frigates will eventually follow.

China advertises warships for export, and in December 2002 a contract was signed for two Thai offshore patrol vessels (corvettes). The Royal Thai Navy has already received several Chinese-built frigates, which, like the new ships, will have Western systems onboard. For some years Pakistan has been negotiating for Chinese missile frigates, but they have not yet, apparently, been ordered. As for the domestic market, in 2002 the eighth Jiangwei-II class frigate was delivered. Although a next-generation destroyer class is under construction, there is no indication of a next-generation frigate class.

Although Denmark has only a small navy, in recent years it has been quite innovative. Denmark is currently building a series of frigate-sized command and support ships. Like the earlier StanFlex 300, they are modular, in this case with a large open 'hangar' into which suitable containerised systems can fit. Last October the Danes announced that the ships would be armed with the US 5-in/54 Mk 45 Mod 4 long-range gun, symbolising a commitment to shore attack as part of the ships' power projection role.

The Indian Navy continues building both frigates and corvettes. The indigenous frigate program comprises three modified Godavari class ships (Brahmaputra class: Project 16A) and three 'stealthy' Nilgiri class ships (Project 17). The first of the Project 16As took eleven years to build, but the second may soon be completed. The first unit of Project 17 was laid down in July 2001. India also builds a Project 25 (Khukri class) missile corvette, the last of which is to be completed in 2003. It is a derivative of the Russian Tarantul armed with SS-N-25 (Kh-35) missiles.

An announced Israeli programme to buy up to five new missile corvettes of an enhanced Eilat design has not yet resulted in orders, although negotiations with Northrop Grumman have been underway since 2001.

Chile has been considering buying new frigates for some years, but in 2001 the Tridente program (which would have used a Meko design) was dropped as unaffordable. Four ships are needed, so the purchase of HMS Sheffield is no more than a stopgap. The United States has reportedly offered Spruance class destroyer hulls, but Chile has long used British systems, and the US ships could be incompatible (not to mention expensive in manpower). A Request For Proposals for a new frigate could be issued in the spring of 2003.

In the late 1980s, the United States Navy made a conscious decision to stop building frigates. No replacement for the Oliver Hazard Perry class was developed. That meant that any navy which had bought or built O.H. Perrys could not look to the United States for a replacement--which will presumably come due this decade or next. Now the US Navy and Coast Guard are both looking at frigate-sized ships again. The Navy programme calls for about fifty Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). Initially, the LCS was conceived as Streetfighter, a very small combatant that could fight fast attack craft on a more or less even basis. That idea was soon dropped in favour of a specialised frigate-sized vessel, one that performed well in war games in the late 1990s and early in this century. However, the key development was a change in US national policy after 11 September, 2001. The attack on that date seemed to show conclusively that the United States would have to deal with large numbers of potential contingencies, quite possibly simultaneously. After all, before the terrorist attacks, US strategy had envisaged only two major threats: a renewed Iraqi threat to the Gulf, and a North Korean threat. However, there are also many others.

The pre-11 September US strategy could be summarised as '2-1'; the United States had to deter war in two places. If one broke out, the country could fight a war while holding down a crisis elsewhere. Such a strategy fit with the current fleet structure, in which two carrier groups and two associated amphibious ready groups are forward deployed at any time. In turn, this deployment requires enough surface combatants to screen the combination of the carrier group and the amphibious group. The approved post-11 September strategy is '4-2-1', which means that deployed forces--necessarily naval--must be able to supress four simultaneous crises--or stop two attacks simultaneously, or win one war decisively.

In fact, even the ability to provide serious naval presence in four places simultaneously may not be enough. The navy therefore sought to develop as many independent naval units as it could. The first step was to make the amphibious ready groups truly independent combat units, now to be called Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs). Given the capabilities of the Aegis weapon system for air defence, it was also feasible to build Surface Action Groups (Sag) around Aegis ships. What was missing in all of this was the surface combatant force needed to fill out the ESGs and the Sags. The solution was the LCS. What is not so obvious is that this cannot be the LCS originally envisaged, simply because such ships are not terribly relevant to strike Sags or, for that matter, to much of what the ESG is likely to have to do.

The argument that the LCS can indeed be small and inexpensive rests on the assumption that its main roles will be to clear out the littoral battle-space in support of an ESG or a Sag. That should mean a combination of mine/obstacle clearance, anti-submarine warfare, and combat against 'swarm boats'--small combatants ranging from personnel boats carrying antitank rockets to missile attack craft. For mine clearance, the LCS might deploy unmanned underwater and surface craft, the latter towing sweeps. Unmanned surface craft might be used to simulate a large US force, so as to tempt an enemy to employ and thus to expose his coast defences (including swarm boats) to attack. For ASW, the LCS might deploy unmanned sensor platforms. All of these techniques are likely to work, if at all, only in calm littoral waters.

Opponents of a small LCS approach may point out that the ESG requires substantial fire support, since its main offensive arm is the complement of Marines on board the amphibious ships. For that matter, to be effective a Sag must offer some threat to the shore, which again means fire support, in the form of guns or missiles or both. It may also be argued that the LCS is unlikely to tempt an enemy to uncover shore defences unless it presents a serious threat. These grounds suggest that ultimately the LCS ought to be large enough to carry numerous vertically launched missiles and/or a 155 mm gun. Whether that actually happens is, of course, entirely uncertain.

Running roughly parallel with the LCS programme is the US Coast Guard's Deepwater effort, which is ultimately to replace the existing fleet of cutters and aircraft. In theory, Deepwater will emphasize the creation of a surveillance system that will allow the Coast Guard to operate on a more reactive, hence more economical (in terms of platforms) basis. That in turn requires the construction of frigate-sized cutters to support the helicopters that will often run out to where they are needed. As in the case of the LCS, the ships to be built will be of roughly the size foreign navies may want, although their armament and equipment will fall well short of what those navies often require. One interesting possibility is that LCS will be a more militarised adaptation of the hull(s) now being developed for Deepwater.
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Author:Friedman, Norman
Publication:Armada International
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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