The U.S. Navy has long identified threats in the littorals and the need to fight within these close waters, but it still struggles with creating a capable fighting force that provides speed, lethality, and a deterrent. Expeditionary strike groups are back in vogue with the Navy–Marine Corps team; a new frigate may soon be on the horizon; and the littoral combat ships (LCSs) still are in search of a viable combat mission. These options, however, all involve large, expensive platforms and have been the focus of the surface fleet for too long. What the Navy–Marine Corps team needs is a complement to existing capital ships—fast-attacking ships that are strategic assets and can be deployed globally.
Falling Short on Small Craft
Not since the days of PT boats in World War II has the U.S. Navy had a fleet of ship-killing small craft. The Navy tried in the 1970s and ʼ80s—partnering with NATO allies, it attempted to build a 30-plus fleet of lethal patrol craft. The requirements and planned use were spot-on, but after the retirement of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt—the major driver behind the program—the Navy shifted funding back to larger capital ships, resulting in a busted program and a total of only six ships in the Pegasus class.
In the past decade, the Navy has tried out-of-the-box thinking to address littoral needs with both the ship design and capabilities of the LCS, but it struck out miserably. Built to be a modular multirole platform, the LCS lacks capabilities in almost every aspect the Navy would want. It does not have the legs to augment or enhance a carrier battle group; it cannot provide air defense to augment amphibious ships or in a standalone role; and it is not yet configured to be a threatening antiship or antisubmarine warfare platform. It was a concept designed to provide comfort and aid to emerging nations with the U.S. flag flying off the coast, but it serves little functional purpose against today’s emerging threats.
Corvettes: Fast and Lethal
What the U.S. Navy lacks are small, fast, stealthy, highly lethal missile boats that perform best in the littorals—corvettes. The Navy has leased or tested several variants of these ships since scrapping the Pegasus class, but for one reason or another, it shied away from them. This was a mistake. One reason may have been because small vessels do not transit oceans very well. Their range requires overseas bases in close proximity to their operating area. Navy Lieutenants Colin Bernard and Ian Sunstrum make good arguments for a corvette-style boat in their November 2018 Proceedings article, “Don’t Buy a New U.S Patrol Craft—Buy a German One,” but as with other articles advocating better patrol craft capabilities, they fail to change the narrative of using patrol crafts. Small missile boats don’t fit the typical ship profile to meet the needs of a maritime nation that projects power across the seven seas, but that is because the United States has lacked the imagination to employ them.
As the threat from shore-based antiship munitions has grown, the Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Navy, has been experimenting with ways to operate farther over the horizon. Sea basing uses mobile platforms to assemble, deploy, command, project, reconstitute, and reemploy sea power at a distance using aviation and surface connectors that can then transit to the shore or beach faster. There are a few holes in the current sea-basing strategy, not the least of which is the lack of high-speed mobile protection for the connectors and close-in fire support from the sea.
The solution to the naval littoral problem is merging sea basing with the Navy’s World War II and Cold War fast-attack concepts. Older dock landing ships, such as the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41) class, have a large well-deck designed for transporting Marine connectors (landing craft air cushioned [LCACs] and landing craft utility [LCUs]). Instead of connectors, why not load dock landing ships with two Skjold-class missile corvettes (currently used by the Norwegian Navy) or similar boats.
One of the fastest naval platforms afloat, the Skjold can do 60 knots, carries eight Naval Strike Missiles (a weapon coming to the U.S. inventory), a 76-mm OTO Melara cannon (also familiar to the U.S. Navy), and a crew of 20 or fewer.
Loaded with fuel and missiles for rearming, a corvette carrier could rapidly deploy two stealthy corvettes such as the Skjold with an 800-nautical-mile range, capable of threatening an adversary surface fleet or naval base with a barrage of surface-to-surface missiles. Taking this concept further, the Navy could use existing expeditionary sea base ships (the Lewis B. Puller [ESB-3] class and the Montford Point [T-ESD-1] class) to carry four to five missile corvettes into a theater of its choosing, providing the potential for swarming fast-attack ships—and posing a new problem to adversaries in their home waters.
Competing in Adversary Littorals
Imagine having multiple such corvette carriers, loaded with a four- to five-ship squadron, within each of the Navy’s numbered fleets. Iran’s small but capable fleet is a threat to the Navy’s capital ships in the close quarters of the Persian Gulf. Matching this capability, and keeping the Navy’s valued capital ships at a safer distance from Iranian patrol craft and shore-based antiship batteries, would create a new dynamic in the service’s ability not only to safeguard its assets, but also to provide a credible threat to Iran’s navy and coastal assets.
Corvette carriers could be of significant use in the South China Sea—where freedom of navigation is being threatened—as a counter to China’s growing blue-water navy and its fleet of Type 022 missile boats (Houbei class). Partner-nation island chains could be used as temporary bases from which to train, patrol, and ensure freedom of the seas, while the corvette carrier itself could be used to move, maintain, and refuel squadrons.
This concept also poses an opportunity in the Black Sea, where Russia increasingly has harassed Ukrainian shipping and uses its Black Sea Fleet to intimidate Georgia. The Montreux Convention—a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control over the Turkish Straits and regulates the transit of naval warships—limits the aggregate tonnage of warships of non-Black Sea states allowed to pass into the Black Sea at 30,000 tons. Thus, often no more than two U.S. warships can enter at any given time. At well below 1,000 tons each, multiple corvettes could be deployed in the Black Sea, augmenting a capital ship or on their own, without violating the convention. This would provide a counterbalance to Russia and allow for training and additional support to U.S. Black Sea partners. Even more interesting would be Turkey’s interpretation of the carrier as a support vessel. Annex II B(6) of the convention allows for auxiliary vessels, defined as vessels “which are not specifically built as fighting ships,” to be excluded from the tonnage limitations.
Small corvettes also offer additional capabilities to augment the Navy–Marine Corps team. Their speed and 76-mm cannon make them ideal escorts for amphibious assault ships. With room for a small launch, they could be delivery platforms for the Navy’s unmanned autonomous sea and undersea vehicles, offering a fast solution to get the vessels close to the area of operations to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They also could accommodate a small boarding party of special operations forces for interdiction or other operations. As technology continues to evolve, these corvettes could become more semiautonomous and controlled from the mother carrier.
Transporting small combat boats to faraway theaters in a support ship is not a new concept. What is new is using the mother ship not only as the permanent base of operations, but as the means to transport them. These ships would be capable of launching the small boats independently or in mass, providing maintenance and berthing for the crews, and refueling and rearming the boats at sea. Already in the Navy’s inventory, expeditionary sea base ships could converted for use as corvette mother ships, but semisubmersible heavy-lift ships such as the Blue Marlin and Tern also are ideal for conversion.
Fast, Cheap, Effective
There are numerous off-the-shelf platforms available to the U.S. Navy in the near term, and limitless potential to modify size, range, and autonomy of missile corvettes in the future. The technology already exists and the cost is a fraction of new capital ships. Given a dedicated strategy to get corvettes into theater quickly, the Navy could project a littoral capability worldwide. Corvette carriers could deploy on their own or partner with allied nations. The corvettes would allow the United States to better engage in maritime security operations with allies as the ships would be similar.
The concept of a corvette carrier with multiple small-attack craft directly aligns with the Chief of Naval Operations’ latest strategy to keep pace with the technology and the tactics of U.S. adversaries (China and Russia in particular) in the “gray zones” as well as when the shooting starts. Would the Iranians in the Persian Gulf, the Russians in the Black or Baltic seas, or the Chinese in the South China Sea be as quick to harass merchant shipping with three to five U.S. missile corvettes barreling down on their position?