Surface Combatant Role Definition for Middle Power Navies

The purpose of this article is to propose a new distinction in classifications which will be useful to middle power navies in more clearly defining their requirements.


The navies with which this series is primarily concerned operate combatant vessels (for purposes of this article, we will define the latter as missile-armed vessels only) of three general classes. These are destroyers, frigates, and corvettes or patrol vessels. The trend has been to blur and confuse these categories, as capabilities of area air defence traditionally associated with destroyers have been incorporated into hulls with frigate classification, and the capability distinction between frigate and destroyer hulls has become economically unsustainable for all but a few navies (the Royal Navy with the Type 42/45 and Type 23/26, Japan, China, India and South Korea are the only nations currently producing or planning to produce both classifications in the future, given that the LCS designs of the United States are insufficiently armed in any configuration to match modern frigate designs and given that the Royal Canadian Navy’s future frigate/destroyer distinction will likely be one of armament rather than hull).

At the same time, corvette and patrol boat classes are in some cases becoming more capable, as with the Scandinavian Skjold and Visby classes and the Russian Steregushchy class. In any case, many navies continue to see the cost effectiveness of leveraging small, stealthy, fast and heavily-armed small vessels against larger targets (most notably the Chinese Type 022 Houbei class stealth catamarans).

Why We Buy

In order to do this, we must face one of the fundamental contradictions of naval procurement: navies purchase surface combatants for shore support, anti-piracy, anti-terrorist, humanitarian relief, goodwill and littoral roles for which they are both too expensive and manifestly ill-suited. Navies, like churches, endeavour to show that they are relevant, and carry out such missions in order to gain funding, which is then used to build surface combatants, which go forth and perform Operations Other than War throughout most of their service lives, ad nauseum. The rationale for not building dedicated ships for such missions is often to keep up numbers of surface combatants. Because the projected operational requirement for surface combatants is calculated factoring in OOW, however, the requirement becomes inflated artificially and precious funds are dispersed over a larger number of already expensive hulls at the expense of capabilities included in the design.

A Reluctant Distinction

In order to avoid this situation, it may be advisable for navies to make a clear distinction at the level of operational requirements between operations requiring fully capable surface combatants and those requiring something in the class of the United States’ High Speed Vessels. The latter concept has much to commend it. High speed ferries currently in service have proven extremely useful in cheap, rapid deployment of troops, equipment and vehicles, disaster relief and goodwill missions. In the form of the Sea Fighter prototype, there is potential for such a design, using largely Commercial Off-The-Shelf components, to undertake interdiction, anti-piracy, coastal patrol, shore support and low-risk missions such as coastal ASW and minesweeping, using containerised, removable equipment. The capabilities of such a ship in humanitarian roles could include conversion into containerised hospital facilities. As such, and with their greater cargo and transport capacity, they would represent a substantial and significant contribution to a broad range of operations, potentially far in excess of what a surface combatant could provide. Their military usefulness in transporting and supporting troops is equally clear.


This absolutely requires that the two major mistakes of the Littoral Combat Ship program not be repeated. This means that the design should privilege available empty space in the form of a large Ro-Ro deck and helicopter pad/container space above installed systems and/or warship-like appearance, and that there should be absolutely no military requirement creep with regard to the design, materials or installed systems apart from basic anti-missile defence, basic search radar and damage control. These ships do not need to be stealthy. If a program incorporating containerised armament and other military-specific features proves too expensive, simply buy an entirely COTS design, remembering that the main purpose of this hull is not to provide military capability, but to alleviate the operational tempo of militarily-capable platforms. Once again, avoiding feature creep is key to success.

Keys to Flexibility

This will allow surface combatant requirements, including hull numbers, to be confined to purely military needs. To reduce costs, all large surface combatants should share a common hull design, making use of modular systems to vary armament and equipment. Both Area Air Defence capable and non-capable ships would be of the same hull design. The keys to ensuring sufficient space and flexibility in armament are twofold. The first is to avoid the main avoidable mistake of every major European surface combatant program in the last decade by including sufficient (and sufficiently flexible) VLS tubes (64 tube minimum- this ensures a good mix of medium and short range SAMs capable of handling at least one saturation missile attack, plus room for anti-ship, ASW and land attack missiles without modification). There is no flexibility boost greater than a large number of Mk. 41 VLS tubes.

The second key to flexibility is a flex deck, which is simply a flat surface with the ability to attach containerised weapons, a concept used to great success by the Danish Navy. The ability to procure a number of hulls and, separately, containerised weapons systems on a Standard Flex- type model and using the inherent versatility of Mk. 41 VLS tubes, would create both savings and flexibility within a program, allowing hulls to be repurposed and allowing hulls and weapons systems to be procured on a flexible schedule. Given the rapid turnaround time for swapping StanFlex modules, a cash-strapped navy could conceivably swap weapons from ships returning to port to other hulls about to deploy. The catamaran hull form is ideal for this type of ship, as it provides the abundant surface area which maximises the potential of the modular concept.

Leveraging Small Vessels

The third and final type to identify is the corvette/ patrol vessel. It is well known that the LCS program was heavily inspired by the Scandinavian Skjold and Visby classes. The absurd cost and lacking armament of the LCS ships result from attempting to turn a concept for fast, extremely sea-worthy and well-armed single or dual purpose corvettes into a combination FFG replacement, Minesweeper replacement, War On Terror and OOW mutant and jack of all trades. Separating some of these roles into a seperate HSV design is therefore critical. What makes even more sense is a clear distinction between frigates, corvettes and high-speed vessels, multiple cheap and individually-capable classes being preferable to an expensive hybrid that is designed to do everything.

Taking the superb Skjold design as a basis, something not much bigger could, by containerising the NSM missile armament (which is conveniently placed aft), substitute basic ASW equipment such as a towed array, sonobuoys, USV and torpedoes (Skjold’s basic characteristics of speed, lateral manoeuvrability, low torpedo vulnerability and low radar cross-section lend themselves to this role, in much the same way that the RCN once contemplated for the hydrofoil Bras d’Or). Skjold is also a superb craft for littoral covert operations, and may be adaptable to minesweeping (better to have a purpose-built minesweeper, but better a modular capability than none at all). With its extremely low crew requirements and impressive capabilities, Skjold is a benchmark by which to measure craft of its size, an exceptional solution for any navy looking to rapidly and cheaply boost their capability.

This demarcation of roles between Major Surface Combatant, High Speed Vessel and Corvette may seem like a political risk, but it fairly neatly avoids several of the major pitfalls inherent in naval procurement programs today. Above all, it avoids the distortion of surface combatant roles and the stretching of resources to favour number of surface combatant hulls over the capabilities incorporated, by providing a relatively cheap solution for missions other than naval combat.