Thursday, June 6, 2013

Small Missile Boats and Regional Sea Control

Many people advocate greater production and use of small missile boats of one type or another by the Navy.  Unfortunately, these people rarely elucidate a clear and useful mission for these craft.  They believe the Navy should have them but they aren’t really sure how they would be used.  Is there a use for small missile boats in today’s navy?  If so, what is it?  How would small boats be used in combat and how would they fare?

A friend of ComNavOps, currently serving in the Navy, offered some thoughts on small missile boats that suggest a valid, indeed vital, use for such craft.  Let’s start with an analogy.  Carriers use their air wing to keep the area around the carrier group free of unwanted pests so that the group can go about its business.  The aircraft are, essentially, regional control platforms for the region surrounding the carrier.  In this example, the “region” is mobile, moving as the carrier moves.

Consider, now, the many strategically important and localized areas (regions) around the world that could benefit from a constant naval presence.  These include the Strait of Hormuz, specific areas of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, various shipping lanes, chokepoints around the Chinese A2/AD zone, contested sites around the Philippines and Japan, etc.  These areas are all “peaceful” but would benefit greatly from a continuous naval presence with a respectable combat capability yet able to economically perform the more mundane peacetime activities of patrol, surveillance, and presence.

Now, remembering our concept of regional control aircraft, let’s apply this to the regions we just listed, however, instead of using aircraft let’s substitute small missile boats.  Thus, squadrons of small missile boats become our regional control platforms.  They perform peacetime patrol, surveillance, and presence functions with enough punch to give an enemy pause but at a fraction of the cost of a multi-billion dollar Aegis ship.  The key is having enough combat power in each ship (or the squadron as a whole) to make an enemy hesitate in whatever mischief they might be contemplating.  Not to pick on the LCS, but as a comparison point the LCS has no credible combat power and, therefore, offers no credible deterrent effect.

What are the requirements for effective regional sea control?  Well, half of the requirement is surveillance.  You can’t control what you can’t see.  Thus, missile boats should carry the most powerful sensor suite possible for their size and cost and be able to self-designate targets through the complete range of their weapons.  Small UAVs might well enter into this by providing long-loiter, long range surveillance as a supplement to the vessels on-board sensors. 

Egypt's Ambassador MkIII - Regional Sea Control Platform

The other half of the requirement for regional control is, as we mentioned, combat power.  You can’t control what you can’t destroy.  The threat of destruction is what leads to compliance. 

We see then, that our notional missile boats need a powerful sensor suite and credible combat power.  There are any number of small missile craft throughout the world that could serve as templates.

Of course, in the event of full scale conflict, small missile boats would be unlikely to survive long on their own.  That’s OK, though, because that’s not their function.  We have Aegis ships and carrier groups to deal with that type of scenario.  However, even in an all-out conflict, small missile boats can be used to maintain regional awareness of lower intensity combat areas and help keep their area free of enemy assets while operating under protective air support or Aegis AAW.  Even within the context of high intensity combat, small missile boats could prove to be a useful asset under the right circumstances.  I’ll leave discussion of the tactical uses for another forum.

We see, then, that small missile boats could have a valid and highly useful mission as regional sea control assets.  Unfortunately, the Navy’s attitude towards small combat craft is not very positive.  However, the reality is that the Navy is between a rock and a hard place with ever increasing demands for presence and a severely limited budget and shrinking fleet with which to meet those demands.  It’s time for an attitude adjustment, Navy.


  1. Absolutely...enough said.

  2. "Small UAVs might well enter into this by providing long-loiter, long range surveillance as a supplement to the vessels on-board sensors."

    I'm in favor of the small surface craft concept, but I think it's just as important to understand the design limitations as much as its capabilities.

    If you're talking a ship significantly smaller than the LCS, then it won't have room for a helo deck, let alone a hangar. That will essentially rule out any organic ISR beyond something small/short range (Scan Eagle).

    I'd say your concept would be heavily reliant on land-based ISR capabilities (BAMS, P-8A, etc.) for scouting.

    1. Anon, a small Scan Eagle type UAV is exactly what I'm thinking of. Scan Eagle is launched from a small catapult and recovered via a hook. It doesn't need a flight deck or hangar. Combined with a decent sensor suite, a squadron of these boats should be able to maintain a decent awareness of their region. Of course, any available aviation assets would be a help but is not required.

      The radars on the two LCS classes are a decent starting point for sensors. There are others out there, as well. Remember, we're talking a squadron of boats, not just one. That provides fairly wide coverage. Supplement with small UAVs and you've got pretty decent coverage.

      Although I didn't discuss this, I would think a mothership of sorts would be almost essential and, if based on a amphib type vessel, would also add helo support. Again, highly desirable but not mandatory.

      Do you still have a concern with the concept? If so, what type of threat do you see such a squadron being unable to detect and track?

    2. Remember, Scan Eagles really only perform persistent, point surveillance. They aren't good at searching large areas. They are far too slow can't carry a useful maritime search radar.

      Fire Scout, OTOH, can carry the Telephonics RDR-1700B+ maritime search radar with a maximum detection range of 120 nm.

      Both are useful, but fill different roles.

    3. B.Smitty, remember we're talking about regional control. On the scale of the ocean, we're talking about very small areas - say 20-100 miles around some fixed point. That's hardly a trivial amount of area to patrol but it's not like scanning the open ocean! A squadron of boats, each with a TRS-3D (on LCS-1) radar with a 50 mile or so range can cover a lot of area. Throw in Scan Eagle for closer looks at suspect contacts and you've got pretty good surveillance.

    4. Except that a small combatant could be fitted with sonar, both hull, VDS, towed array, or even an aircraft dipping sonar, which would provide significant ISR on the principal maritime threat: submarines.


  3. Do we really need short-legged missile boats? Or long-legged OPVs with armed helos?

    Look at what Royal Navy Lynxes did during ODS with Sea Skuas.

    1. B.Smitty, what type of vessel are you proposing and what would it cost?

    2. B.Smitty, even Cyclones and Ambassadors have 2000 nm range. For small regional control work, that seems quite adequate. I wouldn't consider those short-legged for the regional control mission.

    3. There are a huge number of aviation-capable OPVs out there. The forthcoming USCG OPC, Spanish BAM, RN River/Clyde class, examples. The first two can carry H-60s or smaller helos.

      It's difficult to compare costs between countries, and it depends on the level of technology included in the platform, but according to Wikipedia, each BAM OPV cost $160 million. The HMNZ Protector class was ~$60 million each. The final USCG OPC cost is unknown.

      Here is an interesting study from a NATO working group on small ship design,

      If you look at Figure 3.3-1, Relative Lead Ship Costs, the 600 ton small combatant (aka FAC) has a similar normalized cost to a 2000 ton OPV. But the OPV has 30 days of endurance, where the FAC only has 7.

    4. Also, adding the ability to carry a helicopter (or Fire Scout-sized UAV) will greatly expand a patrol vessel's area of influence.

  4. ComNavOps,

    What do you envision these missile boats will be armed with? Anti-ship cruise missiles which the U.S. Navy currently lacks or something with a smaller range and payload? Do you think that they would also have to have some sort of anti-air and/or missile defense capability even if its only CIWS or SeaRAM?

    If these ships only have surface to surface offensive capability, I could see them being incredibly vulnerable to both air attack and attack from shore-based cruise missiles and would need to operate under the shield of an Aegis-equipped vessel, thereby rendering the original premise a moot point.

    Let me know what you think, specifically about what offensive and defensive weapons systems you see these ships carrying.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Typically it's ASCMs, medium cal gun, point air defense (e.g. CIWS, RAM).

      The StanFlex 300s can carry ESSM in lieu of other components for local area air defense.

    3. Anon, B.Smitty has got it about right. An anti-ship load of 4-8 missiles (Harpoon is the only choice for the US Navy until the LRASM comes along), a gun, and CIWS or RAM.

      Of course they're vulnerable to air attack, whether plane or missile. I stated that in open, high intensity combat they would have a short lifespan without support. Their function is to maintain the peace, patrol, offer presence, and provide some punch in combat (if properly supported).

      Consider the recent spate of aggressive actions by Chinese warships. They've been free to operate aggressively because there's been no opposing force capable of resisting. These kind of small missile boats would make an excellent counter in that scenario.

    4. Speaking of ASCMs, I really don't understand why the US doesn't just license the Naval Strike Missile already since it is so likely that they'll end up doing so anyways in the JSM version for F35.

      Its a modern efficient ASCM which good electronics and even when the LRASM comes in, it will be very much complementary.

    5. Don't think the JSM is a slam-dunk for the F-35, at least for the US variants. JSOW-ER is in the works and could provide a cheaper alternative for internal carriage. And JASSM-ER is part of the LRASM program.

  5. Patrol-wise, all FACs can really do is sortie out 5-700 nm, hang out for a while, and come back right?

    Another way of handling that mission is to split the duty between a low-end patrol boat (e.g. USCG Sentinel) and fixed-wing airpower.

    Let the patrol boat be the visible surface presence.

    Back it with air power to provide the big stick, if needed.

    For example,

    1 x Visby corvette - ~$180-220 million


    1 x USCG Sentinel - $70 million
    2 x F/A-18E - ~$130 million


    1 x USCG Sentinel - $70 million
    5 x MQ-9 Mariner - $125 million?

    1. B.Smitty, you may be overestimating the size of the regions of interest. Straits, islands of interest, chokepoints, etc. are the regions of interest. Again, we're talking 20-100 miles or so, generally, around key locations. We're not talking about open ocean sea control. A 700 nm sortie is way beyond regional sea control, at least as I've defined it. Aircraft are nearly useless in these peacetime regional control scenarios since they have no significant loiter. A small missile boat that can go out, shadow a pirate boat or Chinese warship for an extended period and offer a credible threat is what I'm envisioning.

      And, yes, sub-$200M (preferably sub-$100M) is the necessary price range to be able to afford squadrons of boats and to be willing to consider them expendable.

    2. What are some of these regions of interest? Basing FACs in Bahrain would let them operate in the Persian Gulf region, but they wouldn't have the legs to patrol the Gulf of Aden. Basing them in Okinawa would let them operate in the Taiwan Strait, but not the South China Sea. The tyranny of distance is especially acute in the Pacific theater.

      UAVs do have significant loiter, as do MPAs, but I agree, they provide a different kind of presence.

      On the flip side, fighter aircraft can be anywhere in a 500-1000nm radius in an hour or two. So even though they can't persist there, they can pulse power there rapidly.

      IMHO, you need both kinds of presence, which is why I suggested a cheaper patrol boat backed by air power, or an OPV with a helicopter. BAM-style OPVs based in Okinawa could patrol the entire South China Sea. In fact, they could patrol the entire second island chain region.

      Not sure what kind of FAC we can reasonably expect to buy for less than $100 million. The USCG Sentinel cutters cost $70 million each. Our FACs can't be stripped down missile boats like the Houbeis if you want them to perform patrols, VBSS, and so on.

    3. B.Smitty, I fear you're still not understanding the limited scope of regional control as I've described it. Regions of interest are various straits, chokepoints, islands, and whatnot around the world. Each needs to be patrolled and controlled for a radius of 20-100 nm or so. I'm not at all suggesting using small missile boats to patrol the entire South China Sea! That's what Big Navy is for.

    4. I still think if you look at likely home ports for such vessels, they are often rather far away from their patrol area.

      Or, they are so close that you don't need a 600 ton FAC. Bahrain to the Straight of Hormuz is only 300 nautical miles. Land-based fighter aircraft can easily cover that distance. Supplement them with smaller patrol boats like the USCG Maritime Protector, Mark VI Patrol Boat, Israeli Super Dvora, or the like. These are a couple orders of magnitude cheaper than a FAC. Or Cyclones or USCG Sentinels, both of which are still cheaper than a FAC.

      In the Persian Gulf region, we really need anti-swarm capabilities. We don't need ship-killing cruise missile carriers. Harpoon is overkill.

      I suppose I also have an issue with FACs that can't perform their own ISR. They typically carry a 60-100+nm range missile, but can only "see" surface targets out to their radar horizon (around 20nm). Maybe they'll get an ESM blip further out, if their opponent is careless.

      IMHO, they need a Fire Scout or helicopter just make to full use of their missiles.

    5. B.Smitty, I'll try one more time and then I'll let it go. You may be confusing surveillance with control. For surveillance, aviation assets are far superior assuming one can maintain a continuous presence. Control, however, requires putting a boat alongside the "target" and nudging them into compliance or simply maintaining a constant physical presence. It also requires up close inspection (possibly boarding). It requires someone on a megaphone convincing the target to comply or simply investigating what they're doing. It requires a ship with enough punch to back up its demands getting in the way of intruding ships (think, countering the aggressive Chinese patrol boat actions around the Philippines and other areas). In short, control requires up close physical presence.

      In any given circumstance could a smaller craft be suitable? Sure. The point is that a small missile boat would always be useful and they have some limited amount of combat capability as well.

      Regarding weapon ranges and ISR, I stated in the post that a small missile boat should be able to self-target throughout its weapon range. Remember, I discussed a notional missile boat rather than any specific one whereas you seem to be focusing on the shortcomings of existing craft. Further, the missile boat only needs to be able to see (sensor) and shoot within its control area which I've already said would typically be 20-100 nm. Assuming multiple (I said squadron in the post) boats in a region, there would only be a need for 1-20 nm or so. A single boat wouldn't be covering the entire region. Thus, Fire Scout or helos aren't needed to provide OTH targeting which is what I think you were referring to. For all out combat, sure, helos would be nice but I also stated that small missile boats would have only a very limited utility in total combat.

      Finally, right now we're doing regional sea control with multi-billion dollar Burkes which is an absurd waste of resources. We need something that's more cost efficient and this is a good possibility.

      If this didn't make things clearer then I have to give up!

    6. We agree on the key points,

      1. A physical presence is required. Flying overhead is not enough.
      2. Burkes are wasted on this mission.

      "Nudging" ships into compliance calls for a larger vessel who's physical presence alone might cause a change in behavior. The Chinese don't use their missile-armed Houbeis for thei aggressive presence policy, they use simple patrol boats. There's value in doing it this way, IMHO, as it limits the potential for escalation and allows one to claim they are legitimately protecting territorial waters.

      Honestly, I don't think having anti-ship missiles on board is going to change Chinese behavior much. Firing them at a Chinese vessel is an act of war that should be avoided at all costs, unless they fire on us first. So the missiles will just sit on deck looking menacing.

      I'd rather have large, sturdy, relatively inexpensive ships that can survive trading a little paint with smaller Chinese boats. (in other words, a sizable OPV)

      Lastly, I'll quote your post, "What are the requirements for effective regional sea control? Well, half of the requirement is surveillance. You can’t control what you can’t see."

      And you can't see what you can't find. Aviation is instrumental in this equation, whether it is organic or networked (e.g. MPA). Both fixed and rotary wing aviation have a role. Rotary wing aviation is also necessary for boarding operations to provide overwatch to carry fast-roping boarding teams.

      On a side note, our best anti-ship missile in the 0-20nm category might be ESSM. If I wanted to build a Streetfighter, I'd start with it and an AESA radar and illuminator like CEAFAR/CEAMOUNT. ESSM weighs nearly 700 lbs, has a larger warhead than a Sea Skua and flies at Mach 4+. That's a lot of kinetic energy, unspent fuel and warhead. And the radars and fire control systems are already designed to control many outbound missiles simultaneously.

  6. Do you believe it's possible that the USCG could fulfill this role?

    1. Awk, yes, I suppose so but there is no scenario under which it would make sense. The CG's mission is defense of home waters. I know the CG fought abroad in WWII but that was a fairly extreme and unique situation. The CG is currently underfunded, underequipped, and understaffed for their main mission. Further diluting their resources to cover a Navy mission in foreign waters is probably not a wise use of the assets they have. Also, the CG is not a combat organization. True, they have some combat capability on some of their ships but they do not live, think, and breathe combat (of course, neither does the Navy but that's another story!). Asking them to step into a possible combat role would be placing them in a role they aren't prepared for. So, could the CG fill this role in any practical sense? No.