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Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

What is a Corvette? And What Next?

By Chuck Hill

Classification of surface warships as cruisers, destroyers, frigates, or corvettes, has become like pornography. There are no generally accepted definitions, but “I know it when I see it”–except that everyone sees it a little differently.

Since this is “Corvette Week” what are we really talking about?

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My Combat Fleets of the World, 16th Edition, which I have used here extensively for reference, defines Corvettes as, “Surface Combatants of less than 1,500 tons but more than 1,000 full load displacement–essentially, fourth rate surface combatants.”  But goes on to note that “…the designation as used here essentially refers to smaller frigates and does not correspond to the European concept of corvettes as any warship larger than a patrol craft but smaller than a frigate.” I feel to confine the definition within a 500 ton range is too restrictive. In fact it would have excluded the Castle class corvettes of WWII as too large, and other corvettes as too small.

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Royal Navy Photograph of Castle class corvette HMS Denbigh Castle (K696)


During the age of sail, corvettes were originally warships typically smaller than a frigate, but larger than a sloop, usually with guns on a single deck. Some ships continued to be called corvettes as steam was introduced, but in the Royal Navy, in 1877, corvettes along with sloops and frigates were subsumed under the new designation “cruisers.” Corvettes, as a type, essentially disappeared from the English naval lexicon until 1939. The term was kept alive in some navies (including the French, German, and Italian) as a rank that translated corvette-captain, a rank generally equal to Lieutenant Commander.

World War II

Corvettes as a type reemerged just prior to WWII. As it became clear that U-boats would be a major threat, Britain saw the need for an escort vessel that could be built quickly and in large numbers, in yards that had not been considered capable of building warships. Just before WWII, they ordered the first of 267 “Flower Class” corvettes that were built in the UK and Canada. They modified the design for a whale catcher named Southern Pride, enlarging it to 205 feet overall and a displacement of 1245 to 1390 tons. They were terrible warships, weakly armed, cramped, uncomfortable, and slow. Single screw, reciprocating steam propulsion gave them a maximum speed of only 16.5 knots, a knot slower than a typical (Type VII) surfaced U-boat. They were originally intended only for coastal operations, but because of their long range, they were thrown into the Battle of the Atlantic, where they were by far the most numerous transatlantic convoy escorts for the critical early years, taking slow merchant convoys across the mid-Atlantic air gap, while the Home Fleet’s more capable, but shorter legged, fleet destroyers were generally held back to escort the battle fleet or met convoys only as they approached the British Isles.

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Flower Class Corvette HMS Polyanthus, Source, Author =Leidseplein Date =1943-09-

Reportedly Winston Churchill had a hand it designating this new class “corvettes,” probably in an attempt to make them appear more glamorous than the term “patrol vessels” which had been applied to similar vessels previously. Two years after the re-introduction of the term “corvette,” the term “frigate” was also resurrected to describe another war emergency escort program, this one more complex and more capable but still using reciprocating steam propulsion. Larger commercial yards converted to making frigates (301 to 307 ft, 1920 to 2420 ton), but smaller yards continued to make corvettes of the improved Castle class (252 ft, 1590 to 1630 tons), while naval yards continued to produce small numbers of sloops like the Black Swan class that were the true premier ASW escorts of the Royal Navy.

Australia also built corvettes, 60 ships of the similar but even smaller, slower Bathurst Class (186 ft). Initially they were classified as minesweepers, but found more employment as escorts, so were more frequently referred to as corvettes.

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Bathurst-class corvette, HMAS Fremantle, State Library of Victoria

Japan, Germany, and Italy all made similar escort ships, but only the numerous Italian  Gabbiano class (193 foot, 728 tons, with combined diesel or electric propulsion no less),  were actually referred to as corvettes.

All of the WWII corvettes were primarily ASW escorts, but their were a number of classes of vessels, many built prior to the war, that share DNA with today’s missile armed corvettes. These were small, fast, torpedo armed vessels that resembled destroyers, but most had a standard displacement of 1000 tons or less. Usually they were referred to as “torpedo boats.”  Japan built twelve, The Germans built 48 (the last 15 were large enough to have been considered destroyers in other navies). The French Navy completed twelve. The Italians completed 69 (some of which were closer to frigates or destroyer escorts). The Italian Spica class (269 ft, 885 to 1,030 ton, 34 knots) may serve as an example.

spica class
Italian Spica Class torpedo boat

Generally, the war emergency programs had one thing in common. They were not the ships these navies would have chosen to build in peacetime. In wartime priorities change; planning horizons contract. Producibility may trump quality. They were all compromised in some fashion–in their speed, survivability, weapons, or economy of operation. Corvettes filled a need for large numbers of escorts, but after the war, most were quickly discarded.

The MCM Connection

The Flower Class Corvettes were originally also equipped to sweep mines. As noted the Australian Bathurst Class began life as minesweepers. While the US built no “corvettes” during the war, the minesweepers of the Raven (220 foot/1040 tons), Auk (221 foot/1,250 tons), and Admirable ((180 foot) classes frequently functioned in this role. In fact, with minor modification Admirable class ships were redesignated PCEs (Patrol Craft, Escort). All these minesweepers were built with sonar. By the end of the war, most were equipped with hedgehogs, depth charge projectors (K-guns) and dual depth charge racks, having enjoyed priority for ASW equipment second only to destroyer escorts.

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Former Auk class minesweeper still serving in the Philippine Navy as Corvette BRP Rizal (PS-74), US Government photo, 050822-N-6264C-145 Sulu Sea (Aug. 22, 2005)


Since the end of WWII corvettes have generally fallen into two categories, with some designs attempting to incorporate elements both types. They tend to be either:
—Small, fast, missile armed vessels optimized for ASuW, like Sweden’s Visby Class (40 knots, 239 ft, 650 tons) usually expected to operate in groups, either with others of their kind or acting as flagships for even smaller missile boats, or
—Smaller versions of frigates with moderate speed optimized for patrol and presence in peacetime and escort during wartime like the Damen designed SIGMAs or  India’s Kamorta Class (25 knots, 358 foot oa, 3100 tons).

File:K33 HMS Haernosand Karlskrona Marindagen2008.jpg
Visby class Corvette, HMS Härnösand.
SIGMA class corvette.

Largest Operators of Corvettes

The largest operator of corvettes is Russia with approximately 53 (3 Buyan, 1 Buyan M, 7 Parchim II, 23 Grisha V, 4 Grisha III, 2 Dergach Project 1239, 13 Nanuchka) (80 if you count the 27 Tarantuls that fall slightly below the 500 ton threshold I have assumed).
India, China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Italy also maintain large numbers of corvettes.

File:Type 056 corvette 583 Ganzhou.jpg
Chinese Type 056 corvette 583 Ganzhou.

Corvettes in the USN

While the US Navy has never built corvettes for its own use, the type is not without precedence in the US.

In the early days of WWII, when the US navy was desperately short of escorts, 18 Flower class corvettes were transferred to the USN. Eight of those were manned by USCG crews.

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Coast Guard manned Flower Class Corvette USS Intensity (PG-93), mid-1943. Former HMCS Fennel (K194).

In the 50s the Navy was interested in experimenting with types that might be built hurriedly in an emergency. The result was the four ships of the Claude Jones class (DE-1033-1036) built by Avondale between 1956 and 1959. At 312 feet long and 2000 tons, they were essentially the same size as the preceding Dealey Class, but they were  simplified, diesel powered, slower, and more lightly armed. These ships were really a update of the corvette concept of a cheap simple escorts that lent itself to rapid construction. (Similarly about the same time the British were building 14 HMS Blackwood Class  (Type 14) that were “2nd Rate Frigates” of 1536 tons, powered by a single shaft steam turbine plant with no gun larger then 40mm.)

USS Claude Jones (DE-1033)
USS Claude Jones (DE-1033)

In the late 1960s the US built four corvettes, given US hull numbers PF-103 to PF-106, that were immediately turned over to the Iranian Navy. They became the Bayandor Class (275 feet long, 1,135 tons).

In the early ’70s, two additional PF-103 class ships (PF-107 and 108), built to a modified design, were delivered to Thailand’s Navy. These were the Tapi Class.

Between 1977 and 1983 Tacoma Boat built a class of four CODOG powered “PCG” for Saudi Arabia, the Badr class, 245 feet, 1,038 tons, 30 knots.

Between 1983 and 1987 Tacoma Boat built two diesel powered “PFMMs” for the Thai Navy Ratanakosin class 252 foot, 960 tons, 26 knots.

Between 1989 and 1995 Northrop Grumman Litton built three CODOG Corvettes for the Israeli Navy, the Sa’ar 5 class, (281 foot, 1,275 tons, 33 knots).

American built Sa’ar 5 missile corvettes. Photo via Flickr.

Between 2008 and 2013, VT Halter Marine has been building a class of four missile corvettes for the Egyptian Navy, the  Ambassador MkIII class (205 feet, 700 tons, 41 knots). The first has already been delivered.

An undated photo of the ENS S. Ezzat, an Egyptian Fast Missile Craft. VT Halter Marine Photo
An undated photo of the ENS S. Ezzat, an Egyptian Fast Missile Craft. VT Halter Marine Photo.

While the Littoral Combat Ships are not normally considered corvettes, on June 10, 2013, Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, the Chief of Information for the Navy called them Corvettes. Without a mission module or aviation detachment, they are really more like OPVs. But when the Mine Warfare module is mounted they become MCM vessels. When an ASW or ASuW module is mounted, they start to look like corvettes.

The Claude Jones class ships were transferred to the Indonesian Navy and continued in service there until 2006. Of the six PF-103 class ships, two Iranian ships were lost in combat with Iraq, but the remaining four are still in service with the Iranian and Thai Navies and have been updated. The Badr class and the  Ratanakosin class are still in service with their respective navies, and the Sa’ar Vs are still the most advanced surface ships in the Israeli Navy. All but the two Thai Navy Ratanakosin class (PF-107 and 108) have been equipped to launch anti-ship cruise missiles.

The Coast Guard Connection

During WWII Coast Guard Cutters were frequently used as ASW escorts, some quite successfully, filling corvette and frigate roles. After the war, new construction frequently included provision for ASW systems either as built or as planned upgrades in the case of a major conflict.

The 16 Reliance class Medium Endurance Cutters (210 feet, 1,050 tons, 18 knots) delivered 1964 to 1969, were built with provision for adding sonar, hedge hogs, and torpedo tubes. They were originally to have been designated PCs. a designation shared with the sub chasers of WWII.

The 12 Hamilton Class High Endurance cutters (378 feet, 3,050 tons, 29 knots) completed 1967 to 1972, were built with ASW systems installed and their systems were upgraded and provision for harpoon installed 1989 to 1992. As built, they were not the equal of contemporary Destroyer Escorts with their AN/SQS-26 sonars, but were comparable to those built only a few years before. An argument can be made that these ships, as built and later modified, could be considered, if not frigates, at least corvettes.

USCGC Mellon after upgrades including Harpoon, CIWS, and support for LAMPS

The thirteen Bear class cutters (270 feet, 1,780 tons, 19.5 knots) completed 1983 to 1990, were built without ASW systems, but had provision for adding a towed array and supporting a LAMPS I helicopter. If these systems had been provided, then the ships might have also been considered corvettes.

The Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters, of the Bertholf class (eight ships planned, 418 ft/4,500 tons) have no installed ASW systems or ASCMs, but they do have excellent aviation support facilities and the ship has been marketed as the basis for a frigate program. Aside from Exocets carried by the French ships, they are in most respects more capable warships than the Floreal “light surveillance frigates” (307 ft/2950 tons) and similar to the French Lafayette Class frigates (410 ft/3,600 tons) which also currently have no sonar.

USCGC Waesche by Yerba Buena Island.
USCGC Waesche by Yerba Buena Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo ID: 100228-G-2129M-004.
French Floréal-class frigate
The Coast Guard is in the process of procuring a new class to replace its Medium Endurance Cutters. The resulting ship is likely to be similar to the Floreal class (90 to 100 meters in length and 2500 to 3500 tons) but faster and will share sensors and some weapons with the Bertholf class and the Littoral Combat Ships. Addition of ASW or ASCM systems would result in ships many would classify as light frigates or corvettes.

Bottom Line–What is a Corvette?

Corvettes slot under frigates but above patrol boats or missile boats as a classification of surface combatants. To me, this means that they are the smallest or perhaps least capable ocean-going warships. This is a bit of a stretch for Corvettes like the Visby, but in fact the Swedes have deployed even smaller warships to the Indian Ocean for counter piracy operations. That sets the low end of the the displacement range at about 500 tons, but when we look for an upper limit, it seems a moving target, with no similar performance based limit.

The US and Britain already build destroyers the size of WWII cruisers. Germany and in the near future Britain will build frigates over 6,000 tons full load. Japan’s Coast Guard has OPVs displacing 9,350 tons full load.  If we tripled the displacement of WWII corvettes as we have done with WWII Frigates and Destroyers, Corvettes could displace almost 5,000 tons, so I don’t think displacement is a reliable determinant.

Strict naval vessel construction standards don’t necessarily distinguish a corvette from an OPV either. They were not applied to the original “Flower” class, and they don’t apply to the Damen designed Sigma class, built or building for Indonesia, Morocco, and Vietnam, or to the French Lafayette class (also operated by Taiwan, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia) and Floreal class (also operated by the Moroccan Navy) which are rated as frigates but which it might be argued are actually corvettes.

The only metric that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last 70 years is crew size. Corvettes generally have crews of 120 or less, frigates from 120 to perhaps a bit over 200, while destroyer crews begin slightly under 200 and go up to about 350, and cruiser crews are larger still. The DDG1000s will apparently have a frigate sized crew, but their final crew may be larger than currently planned. OPV crews tend to be corvette sized or smaller.

Just as the difference between Spruance Class Destroyers and Ticonderoga Class cruisers was mission and associated equipment, not displacement, the differentiation between the various types of warships and between Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and corvettes may simply comes down to their missions and equipment. OPVs include a wide range of ships, but the common thread, generally accepted, is that they have no ASW weapons, no heavy anti-ship cruise missiles, and only a self-defense AAW capability. Adding an ASW capability and/or cruise missiles would convert an OPV into a corvette. Perhaps they would not make very good warships, but then the original Corvettes weren’t very good warships either, but they served a vital role. Conversely an old frigate or corvette, stripped of all its weapons except a medium caliber gun and heavy machine guns would become an OPV, even if it nominally retained its frigate or corvette designation as in the case of Portugal’s Joao Coutinho and Baptista de Andrade class or some of Italy’s Minerva class.

If we had no history, and we could start ship designations on “a clean sheet of paper” we might define ships types based on their missions and equipment, saying destroyers are vessels designed with robust capacity to perform well in all three major surface combatant warfare areas, AAW, ASuW, and ASW. Frigates are designed to perform well in only two missions areas  (with possibly modest self defense capability in the third). Corvettes would be single mission specialists with only modest capability in the other two missions (if at all). OPVs would be vessels equipped for missions that did not require robust capabilities in any of these three mission areas. All four types might be called generically “cruisers” which would bring that designation back to its original meaning, a vessel smaller than a ship of the line that can operate independently.

The Future of Corvettes

WWII corvettes were small ships packed with crew and weapons.They were small because there was an urgent need for many ships that could not be met by the shipyards that normally built warships. They were a way of making the small commercial yards serve the war effort. If we are ever engaged in a prolonged conflict against a near peer adversary we may again resort to a similar expedience. If so, the resulting corvette is more likely to be based on a petroleum industry offshore support vessel rather than a whaling or fishing vessel.

But when ships are built in peace time, for a 20 to 40 year life, other factors beside construction cost start to dominate. In the West, crew costs weigh heavily, while increasing hull size appears less important, provided we do not load up the larger hull with additional systems which will in turn drive up crew costs. Larger hulls are more seaworthy, allow greater endurance, and may be made quieter. They may even be more economical to operate and maintain because of easier access.

Some European Countries that formally operated a number of Corvettes seem to have abandoned the type in favor of ships with more range and better seakeeping including The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. Denmark has instead produced frigates and a novel class of ships, the Absalon Class “support ships,” (450 ft/6,600 tons) that include a relatively large hull of modest speed, with a relatively small crew of about 100, and a large reconfigurable spaces–an open one topside midships where missile systems can be placed and a “garage” area under the flight deck that can accommodate vehicles and containerized loads. These ships are perhaps too large to be considered corvettes, but they are not nearly so well armed as the frigates of the similarly sized Iver Huitfeldt-class. They do have characteristics I would expect to see on future corvettes, a relatively commodious hull (because “steel is cheap and air is free”), a relatively small crew (because that is the most expensive component over the life-cycle of the ship), and reconfigurable spaces and weapon systems, that allow the ships to be adapted to different missions (because that is allow us to hedge our bets regarding what capabilities will be needed, while allowing that minimal crew over most of the life of the ship).

Because Corvettes are always compromised, they are likely to be controversial. Many will not agree with the compromises accepted. That is certainly true of the new American Corvette, the Littoral Combat ship.

In some respects the LCSs may be the prototype of the future corvette, in that it is not particularly small, but they were made cheap to operate with a minimal crew, and they are single mission ships, but with the advantage that the mission can be changed over time, although not as quickly as once advertised. Other aspects of the ship were perhaps not as well thought out, but they will serve a purpose, and perhaps the next generation LCS  or convertible corvette will better meet our needs.

Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history. Chuck normally writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.  

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Moving the Navy/CIVMAR Integration Experiment Forward

     The contributions of Civilian Mariners (CIVMARS) from Military Sealift Command (MSC) are normally associated with the Combat Logistics mission; however, recent experiments with USS PONCE and other hybrid-manned ships demonstrate a compelling case for further CIVMAR integration into U.S. Naval units.  MSC has been in existence since 1949 as an operator of non-naval government ships, in its current name and organization since 1970, and an operator of naval service support ships since 1972. The Navy first experimented with the assignment of CIVMARs to combatant ships in 2004, when MSC personnel were assigned to the USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20). Subsequent to that first trial the Navy has also re-assigned its Safeguard class salvage ships completely to MSC control and converted substantial parts of the ship’s complement of the tenders USS Emory S. Land and USS Frank Cable. Most recently the Navy assigned CIVMAR’s to the first Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) USS Ponce, formerly LPD 15 forward deployed in the Persian Gulf.  When the Navy decided to reverse the decommissioning of PONCE, the 360 billets were liquidated and the only means of manning the ship in haste were CIVMARs and Individual Augmentees (IA’s) from the Fleet. Ponce’s proven worth after one year of operations presents an attractive means for delivering capability at a reduced cost when considering Ponce is operating with 140 fewer personnel than the naval version of the Landing Platform Dock (LPD). Questions remain whether the low cost of employing CIVMAR’s minimum manning methods can help conserve Navy resources for other priorities?

     The first efforts to integrate CIVMAR’s into combatant naval vessel crews came in the early 2000’s as the Navy’s inventory of conventional steam-powered ships plummeted due to age and replacement ships employment of different propulsion systems. Many Civilian mariners are former naval personnel and have extensive experience in the operation of steam propulsion plants. They were considered an ideal choice to keep aging naval steam plants properly resourced and functional at a lower cost than current naval personnel who would require re-training to operate legacy propulsion systems. A 2005 report by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) warmly endorsed the concept of using CIVMARs in a host of positions on combatant ships. The study also recommended that the Navy adopt many CIVMAR low cost/minimum manning techniques as a way to both improve U.S. warship maintenance and operation. The experiments on Ponce and other ships have tested many of the CNA report’s proposals. The results indicate some distinct organizational, operational, and cultural differences in the MSC and U.S. Navy. An updated version of the CNA 2005 report is in order. It should determine what strengths and weaknesses greater assignment of CIVMAR’s to combatant ships would bring, as well as consider what CIVMAR best practices the Navy might adopt in order to reduce costs but preserve combat efficiency.

     The CIVMAR community has a number of professional strengths. First and foremost, CIVMAR’s emphasize pre-planned and economical operations. “Routine” and “predictable” is entirely in line with their merchant background. Their mission is to move a ship and its cargo on as straight a line as possible from point (a) to point (b) at its most economical speed and do so with the bare minimum of fuel, personnel, and other resources. To meet these requirements, CIVMARs operate precisely and professionally in all ship handling and engineering procedures. Deck officers are licensed with a significant higher level of navigation skills than that of the standard U.S. Navy officer and engineering officers not only orchestrate and manage the engineering plants, but are hands-on operators who actually conduct many equipment repairs. CIVMARs are paid by the hour and are on the ship to work. The Commanding Officer of Ponce put it very succinctly as follows; “You will not find TVs in CIVMAR workcenters. They are “workcenters” not “entertainment centers…and when you pay by the hour, you manage by the hour.”

     The CIVMAR community also brings cultural disadvantages that make integration with naval personnel a challenge. The CIVMAR focus on regular, cost efficient operation does not always lend itself to the non-routine and unpredictable operations of a combatant warship. CIVMAR Engineering officers do not “tear down” equipment for inspection or as part of regular maintenance. They do not drill down equipment during casualty control drills,  shift equipment daily, or subject their plants to excessive changes in speed that are regular operating characteristics of warships. They are very proficient in damage control, but if an MSC ship suffers damage, the operating ethos is to save the ship rather than fight the ship. CIVMAR bridge officers and topside personnel are equally devoted to routine rather than multi-disciplinary operations. The bridge on an MSC ship operates with a fraction of the personnel assigned to a U.S. Navy condition 1 or even condition 3 watch, but the expectations for what that watch is capable of are significantly reduced. CIVMAR deck officers drive in straight lines. They are unaccustomed to steaming boxes or formation operations and they are not familiar with concepts like navigating swept channels and are unfamiliar with maneuvering to avoid missiles/torpedoes. The concept of having the Combat Information Center (CIC) disagree with their course and speed recommendations can be disconcerting to some CIVMAR Mates of the Watch (MOW’s). Some of these cultural divisions between MSC and USN are significant, and would require a good deal of patience and maturity on the part of both communities for effective integration within the lifelines.

     Despite these big differences, the CIVMAR experiment on USN ships to date has been generally successful, especially in getting further service life out of aging steam-powered ships. There are aspects of MSC operation from which the U.S Navy could certainly benefit. The MSC system of engineering watch standing and record keeping (both automatic and paper records) was sighted by several USN officers as more efficient and easier to use than current Navy procedures. A CIVMAR-style engineering watch organization might be beneficial on diesel-powered amphibious warfare ships like the Landing Ship Dock (LSD) class where consistent, most economical speeds are more the norm than in surface combatant vessels. Navy Officers of the Deck (OODs) and Navigators would benefit from the U.S. Coast Guard-tested standards of CIVMAR navigation knowledge. The Navy might consider the assignment of a CIVMAR navigator to smaller Navy ships in a role similar to the Master position of the days of sail. Such an officer would be subordinate to the executive officer and perhaps serve as the actual navigator and principle advisor to the ship’s commanding officer on all aspects of good seamanship. The amount of training potential embodied in this individual is enormous and benefits might include an enhanced knowledge of navigation at all levels of the ship’s company. A similar position might be considered for a ship’s engineering department in the form of a Maintenance expert along the lines of the old ship’s carpenter from the sailing navy.

     In conclusion, the U.S. Navy has proven success with using CIVMAR’s to gain additional service life from aging ships. Successful integration of these two different cultures on combatant ships remains to be seen, but the model seems to be working on the ships where it is currently employed.  Finally, the U.S. Navy should consider further exploiting the wealth of knowledge inherent in the CIVMAR ranks by assigning senior CIVMAR experts to smaller combatants as navigation and maintenance experts. The education benefit for all hands in such an assignment is substantial and might significantly improve naval standards for navigation and maintenance in smaller crews at minimum cost. The Navy should also commission a follow-up study to the 2005 CNA report on CIVMAR manning on Navy ships in order to re-assess those concepts in light of results from the experiments on Ponce, Mount Whitney, and the submarine tenders. The CIVMAR experiment has been useful, but needs a re-evaluation based on these recent experiences in order to move effectively forward.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, and at under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

American Defense Policy: 8 Reality Checks

This article is part of our “Sacred Cows Week.”

The fight over funding the federal government and raising its debt limit may be over for the moment, but other debates rage on.  One of the more vexing ones that has been touched upon most recently in the arguments over possible military intervention in Syria is the relationship between America’s defense posture and its role in the world.

Both parties, in fact, seem to be at a loss in grappling with this question.  While the Administration has had to walk a fine line regarding appearing weak over threats made with regard to Syria and landing the U.S. in a war it does not want, the Republicans and like-minded conservatives have been debating amongst themselves policies ranging from American retrenchment, advocated by the likes of Rand Paul, and paying the price of continuing and indeed extending American primacy, as advocated by organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute.

Lost in the heated argument, however, are certain immutable facts regarding the situation America is actually in when it comes to defending itself and its allies.  The picture that emerges does not look good either for those who want America to come home or for those who favor a more expanded international security role.  Looking at it, though, is the first step toward any kind of sane defense policy, one which probably will not resemble that advocated by either camp.

Submitted for consideration, therefore, are eight of these realitiesm:

1.  America’s defense posture is driven largely by its expensive and possibly unsustainable counterproliferation policy.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, and to some extent before, U.S. foreign policy has fixated on preventing the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.  While the exact number of weapons held by states already recognized as nuclear powers (particularly the five declared nuclear states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) might be up for negotiation, the U.S. has endeavored with all the means at its disposal to prevent new nuclear powers from emerging.  Although a wide variety of policy tools are at the U.S.’ disposal to accomplish this, the most critical ones have involved the U.S.’ overall military posture:  the U.S. has sought either to reassure allies that it would come to their aid (with its nuclear arsenal) if they were attacked, or else to use force to prevent hostile states from acquiring nuclear arsenals of their own.  The former policy has encompassed the likes of South Korea, which the U.S. is reported to have talked down from building its own nuclear arsenal in the 1970’s.  The fact that three key U.S. allies in the Pacific – Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – could easily go nuclear in a matter of weeks or months if they ever feared for their safety and doubted U.S. resolve reinforces the point:  the U.S. has to maintain enough spare military capability to defend these allies if it wants to convince them they do not need nuclear arsenals of their own.

It used to be that the U.S. protected key allies because they could not protect themselves.  Increasingly, the U.S. protects its allies because it fears they will protect themselves.

Interestingly, this also has effects when it comes to the U.S.’ management of its nuclear deterrent against larger powers.  Since the U.S. military cannot be everywhere at once, a critical component of the U.S. security umbrella is its willingness, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons in a crisis – this being the case, it cannot renounce the first-usage of nuclear weapons as some arms control advocates have suggested.  That is, unless, of course, it comes up with far, far more conventional resources, for the problems of which see what follows.

As for preventive warfare, the fact that this policy led to a woefully misguided war in Iraq – in which suspicions of a nascent nuclear arsenal turned out to be completely false – has not prevented two successive U.S. presidents – Bush and Obama – from threatening the use of force to shut down or delay the Iranian nuclear program.  (While it is essentially too late to do anything about North Korea’s nuclear program, the latter is almost certainly the exception that proves the rule:  the U.S. has done everything it could afford to do, and it remains militarily engaged, even if it has avoided open war.)

There are other reasons why the U.S. maintains so much force projection capability, of course.  What cannot be denied, however, is that as long as the U.S. remains committed to preventing a nuclear arms race along the edge of the Eurasian landmass (what the strategist and former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “arc of crisis”), its military commitments to the world at large cannot be allowed to shrink.  Which brings us to…

2. There is no one else who can shoulder or share the burden of enforcing the counterproliferation regime, and a number of powerful states are seeing to it that the U.S. carries great expense from doing so. 

By all publicly available accounts, Iran bled the U.S. in Iraq after it invaded to stop a purported Iraqi nuclear arsenal; it then held great influence over, and access to, the new, Shi’ite led government.  The next time, wherever it occurs, will be worse.  We have only to imagine what China or even Russia might do in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iran.

Conversely, there is literally no great power anywhere – not Europe, not China, not Russia – that can either wage war to stop would-be nuclear proliferators or guarantee the security of smaller states that might otherwise seek arsenals for their own defense – even if any of these states had any inclination to do so.  As long as the U.S. remains committed to keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle, it is on its own.  And speaking of which…

3.  America’s strategic rivals are getting more powerful. 

China and Russia are both modernizing their militaries.  Russia plans to modernize its military extensively by 2020, with a particular emphasis on new fighters for its air force and submarines for its navy – the projected expenditure by the end of the decade amounts to $650 billion – about a third of Russia’s annual gross domestic product.  (For comparison, imagine a U.S. rearmament program that deployed $500 billion a year for ten years on top of current U.S. expenditure.)

Notional chinese carrier from unclass 2009 ONI report.

China is in the process of acquiring aircraft carriers and long-range precision-strike capabilities that will both expand its military reach and pose a problem for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific.  It is in the process of testing missiles that – potentially – could sink U.S. aircraft carriers in a naval confrontation before they were in range to launch their aircraft.  Iran has also tested a short-range version of this technology, which could potentially render aircraft carriers – the most lethal and most expensive assets in the U.S. military and the very symbol of American power – as irrelevant as battleships in World War Two.

Defending U.S. allies, in other words, will be more difficult in the next ten years than in the past twenty.  Of course, that’s only if the U.S. can even use its military in such a scenario, because…

4.  America’s greatest strategic rival is also its greatest foreign creditor. 

The U.S.’ ability to defend its allies is in one sense dependent upon the goodwill of the state it might have to defend many of them from, namely, China.  Although as of this writing U.S. federal debt is essentially being monetized (at the rate of about $85 billion a month) by the U.S. Federal Reserve, once the long-anticipated “taper” begins, the U.S. will once again be resorting to foreign credit markets.  To date, China, with about $1.3 trillion of the $12 trillion of U.S. debt held by the public, is the U.S.’ largest single foreign creditor, narrowly beating Japan’s $1.15 trillion.  (In the larger picture, about 47 percent of U.S. federal debt held by the public is owned by foreign governments.)

It is far from clear what might happen to the U.S.-China debtor-creditor relationship – or the U.S.’ relationship with any of its other international creditors – in a crisis.  But at the moment, with the U.S. running deficits in excess of $700 billion annually, a situation that, although ameliorated by the sequester, will get worse in this decade as entitlements are strained by an aging population, the U.S. has to tread carefully.  We do not know what would happen to the bond markets if the U.S. attempted to fight a war its foreign creditors disapproved of.  There are powerful incentives for foreign creditors to say nothing (they obviously do not want their assets to fall in value), but that is not the same thing as saying that there are no risks.  Speaking of budgeting…

5.  Where the defense budget is concerned, it doesn’t get any better than this.

A less-remarked-upon consequence of the fiscal “sequester” has been a slow erosion of overall U.S. military readiness.  On 19 September, the chiefs of staff of the various armed forces testified before the House Armed Services Committee that extension of the current fiscal path prescribed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – the fiscal compromise that led to the so-called “fiscal cliff” and “sequester” of government spending – would leave U.S. military readiness at an all-time low.  Most dramatically, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s testimony, 85 percent of U.S. Army brigade combat teams would be unready to fulfill their mission requirements.  All of the services have already furloughed civilian employees as a result of the sequester, and all of them now face personnel cuts in fiscal year 2014.

The “sequester” was part of a larger effort to control federal spending at a time when deficits had topped $1 trillion a year.  Although federal discretionary spending is now being cut in accordance with these measures, little has been done to address the most important long-term drivers of federal debt:  Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and related entitlement spending, all of which are likely to increase as members of the postwar baby boom generation hit retirement age (the first people generally thought to belong to that demographic began to reach age 65 in 2011).  Until these large segments of the federal budget are addressed, even the sequester will not keep deficits down.  The latest CBO projection has U.S. federal debt held by the public beginning to climb relative to GDP around the year 2018 after a temporary decline.  This, of course, assumes nothing goes seriously wrong with the U.S. economy in the interim.

Not only do deficits remain a long-term problem, but when faced with a choice between their retirement programs and their foreign policy, or between investment capital in an anemic economy and their foreign policy, it is quite likely Americans will choose the former, and there is little that can be done about this for the foreseeable future.  It is simply unlikely there will be much more money for anything more than maintaining the status quo in the near future, and even that will be costly and politically divisive.

(It is sometimes claimed either that defense should be excluded from a solution to America’s fiscal problems or that the required increases in defense spending to maintain the status quo are minimal.  Neither is persuasive.  Political realities dictate that all options remain open for solving America’s fiscal problems, and however small the increases that are asked for may be, the fact remains both that more will ultimately be needed later and that literally nothing is available.  It is not possible to discuss spending increases and budget cuts at the same time.)

In the face of rising challenges to its interests and its allies, the U.S. will have to make do with what it has.  And it hasn’t been very good about that so far…

6.  America’s defense procurement process is hugely wasteful, makes it near-impossible to know how much we “need,” and could cause the U.S. to lose a war. 

There is far, far too more that can be said about this than there is space here to write, but, in short, there are serious problems with the way the American military gets its weapons that are rooted in the structure of American governance itself.  Put simply, defense projects are local employment programs even when they are national liabilities.  Even congressmembers who want to avoid excessive defense spending find it difficult to resist the temptation to vote for programs that route defense money to their districts.  In many respects, they would be foolish not to, since, unless a concerted effort is made, the money will likely be spent somewhere regardless, and, from the point of view of their constituents, might as well be spent in their districts so as to recoup tax dollars that would otherwise go elsewhere.

The result is so well-known it has led to its own peculiar slang, documented by defense reform advocates such as Donald Vandergriff, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney, and others.  “Front-loading” refers to a contractor offering Congress an overoptimistic cost projection for a weapons system, on the theory that when it costs more, Congress will sink in the requisite extra cash.  “Gold-plating” refers to making a weapons system as complex, elaborate, and expensive as possible, the better not only to sell more goods to the federal government, but also to spread the ensuing expenditures among more congressional districts to make a program harder to kill.

The result can be seen in weapons systems like the F-22 and F-35.  As a number of defense analysts – notably Pierre Sprey, James Stevenson, and Robert Dilger – have noted, these fighters are larger, more visible, and (certainly in the F-35’s case) less maneuverable than an F-16, have less fuel available for combat, have poor pilot visibility due to the need to maintain “stealth,” probably are not very stealthy since their vaunted targeting radar systems amount to a homing beacon for missiles and since stealth coating is notoriously difficult to maintain, cannot operate at the same operations tempo due to the need for complicated maintenance, and cost several times more than an F-16.  The Air Force’s F-16C fighters were obtained in the 1990’s for about $30 million apiece in today’s dollars; the “flyaway” cost (the pricetag for a single new model, without research or maintenance costs) of an F-22, before the program was cancelled, was $137 million. The flyaway cost of an F-35 ($153-199 million, depending on the version) has now exceeded that figure.  Ironically, the F-22 was cancelled because the F-35, which was not designed for air combat and has fewer capabilities, was supposed to be cheaper.

(It is often claimed that one advanced “5th generation” fighter such as the F-22 can defeat several F-16’s.  This occurs in tests where the F-16’s are not allowed to use radar-seeking technology to target the F-22’s, and in which radar-guided missiles from the F-22’s are assigned unrealistic kill probabilities.  In either case, this ignores the fact that one can get several F-16’s and their pilots for the cost of one F-22.  It also ignores the historical fact, documented in a 2006 presentation by James Stevenson, that, because of the dynamics of air combat, the more planes that are involved in an engagement, the closer to 50-50 their odds of survival become, regardless of how they are built.)

What this means in practice is that equipment that are too expensive to replace all at once are replaced slowly, resulting in aging.  Sometimes this has alarming results:  in 2007, older models of the F-15 had to be grounded because they were too old to fly safely; replacements have been slow in coming.  Given the costs involved, the F-35 is currently projected to replace all of the Air Force’s F-16 fleet by sometime in the 2030’s.

While this is a particularly egregious example, what is true of the latest fighter weapons systems is true of other systems as well.  The piling on of irrelevant and expensive systems and the obsession with high technology over tactical function doomed the Army’s Future Combat System; similar concerns have been voiced regarding the Littoral Combat Ship and other naval vessels.

What all this means is that discussion of how big the defense budget should be becomes meaningless when no one knows how much waste is acceptable.  Likewise, it means that the U.S. may soon field weapons systems that are both too few in number and inadequate for the missions they are assigned – a situation that, if push came to shove, could cause America to lose a war.

A concerted effort to resolve this state of affairs in favor of better, cheaper weapons systems that could be delivered on time would require achieving consensus among a large number of lawmakers from both parties in both houses of Congress, in order to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma involved in funding defense programs.  The problems involved are obvious to anyone who reads the news.

Supposing that something could be done, advocates of reform of defense procurement often suggest that the defense budget be cut in the hopes that austerity will force sanity on the process.  But it is not clear that it would force enough sanity, particularly given that the U.S. is facing rising military challengers, and particularly given that the U.S. faces tough choices about how to deploy its power in the world that it has yet to address.  In particular…

7.  The U.S. is a sea and air power that has been acting like a land power. 

As many, from Alfred Thayer Mahan to scholars such as Karen Rasler and William Thompson, have noted, sea power – the type of power that can be projected globally – is crucial to maintaining supremacy worldwide.  (In modern times, airpower also contributes to this capability.)  Major world powers maintain their preeminence by their ability to strike anywhere across the globe, as well as their ability to keep sea lanes open to their commerce and keep potential foes at arm’s length.  Sea powers are more easily challenged when they become bogged down on land – spending money on large, expensive land wars such as modern “nation-building” means a military top-heavy with land forces that are only deployable in a limited context.  (Rasler and Thompson’s book advancing this argument, The Great Powers and Global Struggle, although rather technical, is very much worth a read for those with a serious interest in this subject.)

When resources become scarce and a world power is starved of fiscal oxygen, one would expect blood to concentrate in vital organs:  one would expect it to abandon land-based commitments in favor of maintaining its navy and, in the modern era, its air force.  Yet the fact is that the U.S. has spent most of the past decade involved in manpower-intensive, land-based police operations that forced it to push all available surplus resources into increasing the size and capabilities of its two land services, a trend that has only recently been reversed and will take time to undo.  Since that time, virtually all of the debate surrounding U.S. foreign policy to date has concerned foreign nation-building, rather than the more pressing question of how to maintain naval and aerial preeminence in order to deter potential adversaries from attacking us or our allies and respond quickly in an emergency.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter.

8.  Nothing in the foreign policy debate within the U.S. to date has addressed these basic problems. 

Those who want America to take a more modest view of its international role must deal with the reality that the nuclear counterproliferation regime – which everyone professes to be concerned about – depends on a large, flexible, and forward deployed U.S. military and a massive alliance network.  These concerns cannot simply be wished away; they drive to the very heart of what the U.S. has to fear in the modern world, more so even than great power rivalry in its own right.  They determine which allies the U.S. must keep and protect, in which regions American power must be deployed, what type of arms races the U.S. must engage in, who is the enemy, who is a friend, and, in short, who matters.  There is no easy way out of this problem.  To pursue American retrenchment over the long term is to decide – probably for our lifetimes – that a world full of nuclear armed states would be an acceptable price to pay for whatever benefits are sought by drawing down our forces and our posture.

On the other hand, those who want America to intervene in conflicts such as that in Syria, and believe this type of intervention to be crucial to the national security, must address the fact that there simply isn’t any more money for such activities, and that there are more important things to be worried about.  They are, at best, missing the point altogether.  At worst, they are wasting valuable resources at a time when no expenditure can be thought unimportant – when the money simply isn’t there.

It would be good if, in the course of our public debate about our role in the world, which, like it or not, we will have, we paid attention to these troublesome facts that do not seem to want to go away.


Cirincione, Joseph.  Bomb Scare:  The History & Future of Nuclear Weapons.  (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2007. (For U.S. reassurance of South Korea, see p. 57)
Wheeler, Winslow (ed.).  America’s Defense Meltdown:  Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress (in particular, “Reversing the Decay of American Air Power,” the chapter by Pierre Sprey and Robert Dilger on the future of U.S. air superiority).  Stanford University Press, 2008.
Rasler, Karen and William Thompson.  The Great Powers and Global Struggle.  The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

 Martin Skold is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, with a dissertation focused on analyzing long-term security competition between states.

Nigeria’s Navy: Setting Sail in Stormy Seas


In the din of East African security issues, the navy of Africa’s most populous nation has fallen out of the international eye. With continued pressure on diversified procurement, increasing capability, and new international cooperation, Nigeria’s Navy is slowly growing to fill a void dominated by piracy, petroleum smuggling, and other criminal elements that is re-engaging international attention in Western Africa. Whereas the state of Somalia has been quite unable to manage its offshore affairs, the Nigerian Navy has plotted a course out to sea under the pall of its severe security challenges. If the challenges of oversight, funding, and collusion don’t capsize their efforts, it may become a quite fine sailing.

Procurement-Let’s Go Shopping:

Since 2009, Nigeria has been pursuing an aggressive new procurement program. During the last Nigerian naval modernization period, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Nigeria purchased a vast number of vessels from Germany (LST’s) , France (Combattantes), the UK (Thornycraft), Italy (Lerici minesweepers), and others. Unlike the procurement processes familiar in larger navies, such those of NATO, Nigeria ran an “open-source” program, pulling already-proven foreign systems off the foreign shelf. This new buildup is similar, with some new attempt to build local ship-building capacity.

NNS Thunder, the former USCG Chase
NNS Thunder, the former USCG Chase

The three big ticket “ship of the line” purchases are the 2 “Offshore Patrol Vessels” and the NNS Thunder. The NNS Thunder is the old school “off the shelf” style ship purchase, bringing a Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter, the ex-USCG Chase, into Nigerian service in 2011. The “Offshore Patrol Vessels” were commissioned with China Industry Shipbuilding Corporation and approved for purchase by President Jonathan in April of 2012. The fleet’s major combatant until the NNS Thunder was the NNS Aradu, an over 30 year old vessel and Nigeria’s only aviation-capable ship. The new contenders will add a total of 5 new 76mm Oto Melara’s added to the fleet, a none too shabby improvement of overall firepower for littoral operations. The 45 (NNS Thunder)/ 20 (OPV’s) day endurance will give the Nigerian Navy an impressive new stay-time for continuous at-sea opeartions. Arguably most important is that all three vessels have maritime aviation capabilities that will greatly expand the reach and ISR component of Nigerian maritime operations. These three ships are right on target to fill critical gaps in Nigeria’s capabilities.

Nigerian Navy Shaldag mk III
Nigerian Navy Shaldag mk III

Nigeria’s littoral squadrons are also scheduled for improvement. Nigeria is purchasing several brown-green water patrol craft to bolster her much-beleaguered inshore security where smuggling of all kinds is rife. Singaporean Manta’s and Sea Eagle’s, US Defender’s, Israeli Shaldag Mk III’s, and others will add potent brown and green water assets to Nigeria’s toolbox.

On small ship for a ship, one large ship for Nigerian Shipbuilding kind.
On small ship for a ship, one large ship for Nigerian Shipwright kind.

However, not all of Nigeria’s purchases are imports. Thi package also begins the cultivation of indigenous ship-building capability. One of the aforementioned OPV’s is scheduled for 70% of its construction to occur in Nigeria. To more fanfare, the NNS Andoni was commissioned in 2012. Designed by Nigerian engineers and produced locally with 60% locally sourced parts, it is considered a good step forward for building local expertise and capability in the realm of the shipwrights. More local capacity and expertise will further increase the ease with which ships bought locally, or abroad, can be maintained.

-But Avoid the Bait and Switch!

While flexible, this off-the-shelf model can lead to some bad dealings either by vendors or government buyers. Flexible US defense procurement specialists would love more unilateral authority and oversight compared to their gilded cage of powerpoint nightmares. However, the opposite can lead to incredibly terrible purchasing decisions. While Nigeria’s 2 OPV’s are running for current a total cost of $42m, a proposal was made to purchase one 7 year old vessel for $65m dollars. That vessel had a further $25m in damage that needed to be repaired. That particular vessel now sails as the KNS Jasiri after a large financing scandal of several years ended. At the time of delivery it appeared completely unarmed as well, though since it has since had weapons installed.  If one were to ask why Nigeria would want to buy a single unarmed vessel with no aviation capability for the price of 4 more gunned-up and helo-ready OPV’s, the answer is probably not a “clean” one. Oversight is going to continue to be an issue in a country with one of the bottom corruption ratings.

Capability- Shooting more, shooting together :

Popped collars, midriff, and tiny shorts? Worst pirates EVER!
Popped collars, midriff, and tiny shorts? Worst pirates EVER!

Ships are all well and good, but what matters is what you do with them and how. Though the scale of offshore criminality is likely in total hovering around 10 billion, and the entire naval budget is roughly a half billion, the Nigerian Navy is moving more aggressively to course-correct their coastal regions. Several instances include a successful gun battle in August, ending the careers of six pirates, further arrests for oil theft in september, and a nice little capture of pirates in August for which photo opportunities were ensured for the press. The Nigerian Navy is further attempting to extend the “immediacy” of their reach by establishing Forward Operating Bases, like the ones at Bayelsa and Delta states. These and many other instances are the nickles-and-dimes as the Nigerian Navy chips away at the corners of their behemoth security challenge at sea. Every journey begins with a single step, and though the Nigerian Navy has reached a bit of a trot, they have a long way to go. But even in the Navy, no man is an island. With a limited budget and math-rough half of the budget going to the army, the Nigerian Navy needs support. The civil and military authorities are moving closer to that “joint” model with the Memorandum of Understanding between the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) on the use of NAF assets in Anti-Piracy operations. With an existing MoU between NIMASA, this creates further points of coordination between civil, naval, and air force assets in a coordinated battle against criminals at sea. It’s no J3/J5 shop, but it’s a start.

-But Don’t Undershoot!

The Nigerian Navy’s take from the $5.947bn defense budget is a cool $445m. This is a continued increase for both the defense budget overall and the navy budget specifically and is expected to continue increasing. While this is all well and good, the Nigerian Navy faces a criminal enterprise worth billions: Piracy ($2bn), Oil Theft: ($8bn), and others. The Nigerian Navy itself has a way to go with shoring up its vast body of small arms, ammunition, and gear. In 2012,  a fact-finding mission by members of the Nigerian senate found an appalling state of affairs in regards to equipment shortages, maintenance, and a whole slew of other steady-state problems. Enthusiasm and new ships can only go so far. The Nigerian Navy needs to spend the extra money to shore up their flanks, refurbishing or replacing their vast stock of older ships, weapons, equipment, and ordnance stores (without forgetting training).

Cooperation- Team Player: 4026984_orig

Nigeria is no stranger to international cooperation. Many forget that in August 26th, 1996, ECOMOG (under ECOWAS) actually conducted an amphibious assault into Liberia led by Nigerian military units. From peacekeeping in Liberia, to Sierra Leone, to Darfur, to Mali, etc… etc… Nigeria troops have been a staple of many peacekeeping efforts. Now, their typical face abroad, the boots on the ground, is pulling back to the homeland to fight Boko Haram. However, the navy is still extending its project to integrate into partnership programs through both engagement at home and extending the hand abroad. Nigeria is an active catalyst of the regional security regime. For one, ECOWAS is a factor at sea as well as land. At an ECOWAS conference ending 9 OCT, the naval chiefs of Nigeria, Niger, Benin, and Togo agreed to a common “modality” for the combating of terrorism and agreed to set up a “Maritime Multinational Coordination Center” in Benin to coordinate security efforts. It also doesn’t hurt to host the maiden run of a major procurement/policy forum in your continent, namely the “Offshore Patrol Vessels Conference” for hundreds of African and interested parties. Networking, though an intangible product, is an important way of building institutional strength and connections. Nigeria also engages with US and NATO training missions, like the most recent Operation African Wind: a training exercise for the Armed Forces of Nigeria and other regional militaries in conjunction with the Netherlands Maritime Forces under the auspices of the United States sponsored African Partnership Station. In Lagos and Calabar, units will learn about sea-borne operations, jungle combat, amphibious raids, etc… over 14 days of training and 4 days of exercises. Finally, Nigeria’s navy has made a very respectable show of striking out by conducting a “world tour” of sorts with the new NNS Thunder. The NNS Thunder made a tour around Africa before crossing the Indian Ocean for an historic visit to Australia this month for International Fleet Week. The Nigerian Navy seems determined not to remain shackled by their previous bad position, and is aggressively pursuing an expanded mission and self-image through more than just procurement. Despite the challenges ahead, they’ve demonstrated a reach few of their continental compatriots can lay claim to. It may not help against pirates, but it should be a fine addition to espirit de corps.

-But Also Collusion, Not Always the Right Team…

BURN! Someone call a trauma unit!
BURN! Someone call a trauma unit!

However, while the navy coordinates with foreign navies, some officials in Nigeria coordinate with the criminal elements. Such “industrial scale” theft of oil in particular would be impossible without the involvement of at least some security officials and politicians. The wide-spread collusion helps stall policies designed to curb the vast hemorrhaging of wealth, since the wealth is hemorrhaging to some with influence on the levers of power. This collusion is further muddled by the revelations about government payments to stop oil theft. While a pay-off policy might be effective in the short term, as it has been in Honduras, the long-term promise is muddled, especially if it turns off the money spigot to those receiving graft.  While corruption has improved since the end of the patronage-heavy military state, some see very little hope at all: from the luxurious government salaries to wholesale theft from government coffers. Whatever the case, even local perceptions of transparency are depressingly negative. If internal collusion with the criminal underground cannot be controlled, the Nigerian navy will never find itself with truly enough allies to defeat the foe some of their leaders look to for wallet-padding.

Right Course, Add More Steam:

The Nigerian Navy is making good progress. With new ships, expanded operations, and continued engagement the bow is pointed in the right direction. However, without maintaining the engineroom and navigational equipment by battling corruption and putting enough fuel in the diesels by increasing their defense budget, the Nigerian Navy will find itself floundering in the storm.

Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the NEXTWAR blog and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. His opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that.