Cheaper Corvettes: COOP and STUFT like that

If the answer to the Navy’s future is robotics, then Admiral Greenert’s July 2012 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings piece, “Payloads Over Platforms, Charting a New Course” opens up a whole new world of possibilities for using existing small ship platforms as “trucks” to deliver large numbers of modern weapons platforms to areas of interest.

As former Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work emphasized during his recent appearance on MIDRATS,  the Littoral Combat Ship is such a truck–a vehicle for delivering unmanned weapons system.

This post is meant to take that concept and cheapen it.

What is a corvette? Something smaller than frigate but larger than a patrol boat, I guess. The LCS in either of its variants is large at about 380 feet in length and displacing 2800 tons. A Gearing-class destroyer from post WWII measured in 390 feet and 3400 tons.  The Perry-class frigates are over 440 feet and 4100 tons.

Seems we have a lot of size and space to play with.

It occurs to me that we need to take the thinking that developed the WWII escort aircraft carrier (CVE) and model it down to a ship that is a “drone” carrier (and by “drone” I mean unmanned vessels of any type- surface, subsurface and aerial) – like the LCS only in the smaller economy version.

After all, if the real weapons systems toted by the LCS are its drones, then virtually any vessel capable of lowering said drones into the water or into the air and hosting their command and control system can be a “drone carrier,” too. Such a ship becomes a “mother ship” for the drones.

Are drone carriers are really “war ships?”  Remember, “payload over platform.”

Suppose we take a hull like an offshore oil platform supply “boats”  outfitted with a “surface warfare module” (yes, like that designed for the LCS) and four davits designed to lower four USVs into the water.

If the USVs are outfitted with torpedoes or missiles like those discussed here, and if you deploy them in the face of a threat, you now have a ship with capable weapons systems out there.

Other vessels might include large tuna clippers and small freighters.

Photo: San Diego Tuna Clipper (they already have a stern launch system)

Even better, you have now added complications to the targeting systems of any opponent because instead of having one vessel to engage, it now has five. Make up a small squadron of such mother ships (say 4 per squadron) and your opponent now faces 20 vessels.  These may consist of multiple threats- a squadron may have USVs in combinations of missiles, torpedoes or other weapons.

If the mother ships carry additional drones, the threat increases as each batch is placed in the water. Proper use of an aerial relay drone may allow the mother ships to be reasonably far from the action site, under the umbrella of a larger warship or some sort of converted floating offshore oil platform configured properly to “sea base” operations.

The drone mother ships will require a tender of some sort for fuel and other hotel services, but such a tender need not be elaborate nor expensive. Under the proper circumstances they might be shore supported.

One of the cost-saving features of this concept is that the drone mother ships might be acquired in a COTS fashion either by lease or purchase. Under an old U.S. Navy program (and one used by the Australians), there is precedent for using a “Craft of Opportunity Program (COOP)” to acquire vessels to experiment with. While the U.S. experience with COOP involved inshore mine hunting, the underlying concept is sound–lease or buy already built units that can meet the minimal standards of your “drone trucks”–and avoid the expense and delays of design and construction (albeit allowing for necessary modifications) .  The other expression for acquiring such ships is “STUFT”-”Ships Taken Up From Trade,” which the Royal Navy used to put together a force during the Falkland War in 1982.

These vessels can be minimally manned and are, in the famous phrase “expendable.” Since they deliver their weapons remotely, speed is not really an issue. Instead, deck space and electrical capacity will be important. Manning could be mixed CIVMAR, active and reserve Navy.

For example, an older diesel powered platform supply vessel capable of 12 knots and about 290 feet in length could work if properly outfitted. I suspect it, even with the appropriate modifications will not cost any close to even a cheap non-truck warship. Heavy lift a half dozen of these to where they are needed and you have a force multiplier on the cheap. Lots of deck space for vans, generators and cranes and perhaps even some self-protection bolt-ons.

Are they “corvettes?” Payload-wise they could be . . .

Of course, unlike a “standard” corvette but like the LCS, these drone carriers are dependent on modules.

Eagle1 is the nom de plume for Mark Tempest, who maintains his own blog EagleSpeak and co-hosts the popular Naval Affairs podcast “Midrats.” Mark is a retired attorney and former US Naval Reserve Captain (Surface Warfare).

11 thoughts on “Cheaper Corvettes: COOP and STUFT like that”

  1. I think the discriminator is going to be whether the ‘mother ship. might have to fight to protect itself. if so, a standard offshore supply/support vessel might lack the deck space for weapons with the range to stand off some of those available to guerrillas and the like. That said, some trawlers operating in Somali waters in the late 1990s mounted twin 14.5 mm and, I am told, even twin 23 mm guns, albeit with restricted firing arcs. More recent an SAN frigate encountered a Namibian trawler in the Mozambique Channel that was armed with at least one 12.7 mm HMG abaft the wheelhouse. Looking forward, a mix of HMGs and small, low cost PGMs might meet the self-protection requirement. That leaves the sensors, but perhaps the right UAV system could get around that, even if it might be a bit too weather and seastate dependent for comfort.

    Taking this approach suggested by Mark Tempest would certainly allow many a navy to acquire useful patrol ships for a lot less than a typical OPV – and they would be tougher built too.

    But let’s go off topic for a moment and take it a step up the ladder, as Mark did with the reference to small freighters: When we were busy with our frigate project in the 1990s I liked to annoy – in the friendliest possible way and over a beer or two – Navy friends by asking what it was that a 30 knot frigate would do for us (ie the SA Navy) that we could not in our particular circumstances achieve by taking a 7 000 ton twin-shaft box boat hull, adding a flight deck and hanger, some UAVs and helicopters, some fast interceptors and a few weapons for self-protection and perhaps some with ‘reach’. Not generally well received.

    But to close on yet another variation on this expanding theme, think back to German merchant raiders of WW I and WW II, and then think forward to take that concept and marry it to UAVs, cruise missiles and modern wire-guided long-range torpedoes….

  2. Self protection does not mean defense against every conceivable threat, just against those likely in the expected environment. We used more than 50 LSTs during Vietnam, many as motherships for riverine forces … four were significantly damaged –
    The mission can be accomplished, but there is some risk no matter what you do to improve the self-defenses of the platforms and sailors performing them.

    1. They were, as I remember, mostly moored or anchored in brown water. Wasn’t most of the damage from combat swimmers and limpet mines or mines made to drift down on them, rather than more conventional attacks?

      1. Right, Chuck… they were pretty well defended against land/air threats, so the enemy used the avenue that was available to him. Navy knew of that risk, and decided to take it while working to mitigate it.

  3. Bit unfair to describe LCS as merely a robot truck – their size is driven mainly by the fact they are primarily a small helicopter carrier. It’s hard to shrink them much further whilst you’ve got that requirement.

    The idea of a modular ship based on an OSV is not new – see eg the SIMSS concept or the RN’s Black Swan sloop concept :

    TD is something of a container obsessive, he’s written a variety of pieces on variations on that theme.

    1. @ El Sid, “Bit unfair to describe LCS as merely a robot truck – their size is driven mainly by the fact they are primarily a small helicopter carrier. It’s hard to shrink them much further whilst you’ve got that requirement.”

      The OSVs suggested are not smaller than the LCS, just a lot cheaper.

      1. The LCS is criticised in the article for being “large”, and OSVs tend to be a bit smaller, plus not being purpose-built means they use the space less efficiently for military purposes, you may end up having a hangar below decks or something. The ex-Polarbjorn HMS Protector is a real-world example. 90m, had o spend $5-10m on conversion including moving the flightdeck onto the back end, the RN ended up buying her out of her lease for around $80m for a 12 year-old ship. Admittedly she’s ice-rated but it gives you an idea of how this kind of concept would look in the real world.

  4. Just load a Stryker on each ship (M1128 or M1134) with 105 MM main gun and missles. Also a couple of Talon robots with .50 cal for point defense weapons. C3 is already built into the Stryker and the Talon could even be run autonomously from off ship if the ship were ever boarded.

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