Tag Archives: Denmark

Warship Diplomacy: British Intervention in the Baltic from 1800-1801

By Jason Lancaster

Setting the Scene

In 1801, it seemed as if Britain had made the entire world her enemy. Her allies had dropped by the wayside, Spain had swapped sides and allied with France, Austria was defeated, and Russia, under Tsar Paul, schemed to divide Europe between itself and France. Three coalitions formed against Republican France had already collapsed, leaving Britain friendless and alone. Yet, Britain fought on, alone. Britain relied heavily on naval stores, which came out of the Baltic; supplies such as fir trees for masts and spars, hemp for cordage, and tar and pitch. As the French revolutionary armies swept across Europe, borders changed and the number of ports Britain had to blockade increased, stretching the Royal Navy to the limit and further increasing the requirement for Baltic naval stores. Merchants from overrun nations transferred their cargos and vessels to neutral flags, such as Denmark and Sweden. As a result of this, the merchant marines significantly increased after the wars broke out in 1793.  Many of the ships carried legitimate cargos, but some carried contraband. However, to a nation fighting for its life, all goods going into an enemy port could be constituted a threat. As the struggle at sea intensified toward the end of the 1790s, the need for the Danes to protect their convoys from privateers, as well as the Barbary pirates, increased. Convoys escorted by Danish warships involved themselves in several naval skirmishes with British blockading squadrons in 1798, 1799, and 1800. These skirmishes resulted in the British seizing Danish convoys. The seizures led the Danes toward reviving the old League of Armed Neutrality, which had last formed in 1780 to protect the Baltic Nations’ ships during the American Revolution and to protect merchant vessels from belligerent privateers.

Tsar Paul was happy to help revive the League. He had recently fallen out with the British over the island of Malta. The Swedes and Prussians also joined the League. The formation of the League was a threat to British security. Britain’s fleet protected the island from invasion. Anything that jeopardized her access to Baltic naval stores was a threat. Therefore, a Baltic coalition formed around a hostile Russia could only be interpreted as a threat. His Majesty’s government decided that the best way to disrupt the League was by striking out at the weakest link in the Alliance. Britain demanded Denmark leave the League. When she refused, Britain prepared a fleet to remove Denmark from the League by force. 

The Creation of the League of Armed Neutrality

As Britain’s allies were defeated and dropped out of the conflict, Britain’s struggle for naval supremacy began to yield results. The battles of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Aboukir Bay in 1798 had defeated the Spanish and French navies and left them to regroup and refit. Britain controlled the seas. With naval superiority, Britain could blockade French ports and enforce restrictions on neutral ships. Some ships flew Danish flags as a convenience. The registration and flag were from Denmark, but little else was Danish. In reality, many were former Dutch merchant ships with Dutch cargos and crews.1 This was especially prevalent amongst the “Danish” ships bound to and from the Dutch East Indies. In 1797, 1798, and 1800 British ships sighted Danish Convoys and compelled them to heave-to. However, the Danish escorts refused to allow the British frigates to search the convoy for contraband goods. On July 25, 1800, the British frigates Nemesis, Terpsichore, La Prevoyant, and Arrow – all of 40 guns – and Nile – a small lugger – found the Danish frigate Freya escorting a convoy of six ships. Captain Baker of the Nemesis sent a boat to the convoy to search for contraband, however, the Danish Commander replied, “that if he attempted it he would fire into the boat.” Captain Baker lowered his boat and the Freya opened fire on the boat, missed it, and struck the Nemesis killing one of her crew. With this, the Nemesis gave the Freya a broadside, and “a most spirited action took place, which lasted for about twenty-five minutes, at the end of which time the Danish frigate, being much crippled in her masts, rigging, and hull struck her colours.” The British ships escorted the Freya and her convoy into the Downs to await the adjudication of a prize court. Regulations set down in 1673 stated, “When any ship met withal by the Royal Navy, or other ship commissioned, shall fight or make resistance, the said ships and goods shall be adjudged lawful prizes.” The prize court ruled that, “free ships make free goods,” but only to a certain extent, and that belligerent powers do have the right to “[ascertain] whether the ships are free or not.” Many Englishmen thought that the Danes and the Swedes were aligning themselves with the French by going out of their way to force engagements with the British over the convoy. The British insisted that the privilege “of visiting and searching merchant ships on the high seas, whatever be the cargoes, whatever be the destinations, is an incontestable right of the lawful commissioned cruiser of a belligerent nation.”2 The British had to insist on this steadfastly, otherwise, their entire blockade of France and her satellite republics would have been futile. Food, weapons, and supplies for her army would find their way into French ports in Danish and Swedish bottoms. If the French and Dutch received the naval stores that the British blockade denied them, then the Franco-Dutch fleets could come out and fight the British fleet, possibly defeating them and invading England.             

The British claimed to have the right to search neutral vessels for contraband, while the Danes insisted that neutral ships meant neutral goods. With overpowering maritime supremacy, Britain was in a far better position to dictate policy than Denmark. Despite her small size and stature, Denmark was not without recourse. She made overtures to Russia, Sweden, and Prussia to recreate the old League of Armed Neutrality. Each of these countries had different reasons to revive the League. Sweden and Denmark desired to protect their convoys from British searches and defend their idea of neutral rights, while Tsar Paul of Russia coveted British possession of Malta. Prussia was the most apathetic to joining the League, forced into it by the diplomatic wrangling of Russia and France. Prussia was very reluctant to do anything for the League, since she had little maritime commerce of her own, and felt threatened by borders with both France and Russia. In addition to convoy protection, Sweden coveted Danish Norway. The members of the League agreed to escort convoys with larger combined forces. Instead of a national frigate or two, the Northern League would escort convoys with a combined squadron of several ships of the line, while a fleet of 10 to 15 ships of the line cruised in the North Sea.3

The British viewed this armed League arrayed against them and proceeded to neutralize the Northern League’s threat. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, remembered what had happened when his predecessor, Lord North, failed to neutralize the threat of the League in 1780 – his government had fallen in 1782. The Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Russians managed to form their convoys and protect their freedom to sell naval stores to Holland, France, and Spain. As a result, the British met well equipped Dutch, Spanish, and French fleets across the world, from Jutland to Ceylon. At the Dogger Bank in August, 1781, the British and Dutch fought an indecisive, but bloody battle. The seven Dutch ships remained in line, but the British fleet of seven ships of the line bore down on the Dutch and crossed through their line. However, Admiral Hyde Parker’s fleet failed to break the Dutch line. Admiral Parker could not reform his ships into line and the engagement ended.4 To prevent a repeat of the 1780 League, British national security demanded the dissolution of the 1800 League of Armed Neutrality by whatever means necessary.

Diplomatic Efforts

Denmark did not desire to go to war. On the contrary, the Danish Foreign Minister, Count Bernstorff, desired nothing more than to remain neutral in a world caught in the flames of world war. Count Bernstorff hoped the recreation of the League would “not be productive of any more serious consequences [than] those which had followed the convention of 1780.” However, Lord Drummond, the former British Minister to Denmark, reminded Bernstorff, “the circumstances of the times rendered the present alliance of the Northern Powers infinitely more hostile to England than that which had taken place.” Britain’s failure to neutralize the previous League had led to disastrous results in the Atlantic. Britain lost naval supremacy and suffered defeats at sea, one of which led to the Franco-American victory at Yorktown. Britain had to contend with Spanish, French, Dutch, and, to a lesser extent, American warships in a global war. These nations harassed the British while they were busy guarding the English Channel from invasion fleets, protecting the naval stores convoys from the Baltic Fleet, and fighting a major land war in North America.5 

Not all British politicians were for directly attacking the Armed Neutrality, despite the fact that it was perhaps the best and only option available to prevent them from entering Napoleon’s camp. Mr. Charles Grey, MP, feared that war with Russia would,

“Give to France, as allies, the fleets of our new enemies. From Archangel to the Tagus, and from the Tagus to the Gulf of Venice, there will not be a single friendly port out of our own possessions where a British fleet can take shelter…. Will it then be possible for our navy, with all its skill, to stretch along such an extent of coast?”6

The prevention of French control from Archangel to Venice was precisely the reason why Britain had to act against the Armed Neutrality. “Free ships with free goods would accomplish nothing except enabling the French economy through neutral shipping. In hindsight, it is easier to say this than it would have been to act upon such notions in 1801. Nevertheless, the only way to disarm the Northern League was by force of arms. Most reports of the day said that it would require only twenty British sail of the line to blockade the Baltic Sea. By blocking the passage out of the sound, the League would be forced to come to terms with Britain, for lack of any way to trade with the world. Alternatively, a bold admiral could destroy the Danish, Swedish, and then Russian fleets piecemeal, as was the original plan of Lord St. Vincent and Lord Nelson. Tsar Paul resented the British occupation of Malta. Tsar Paul’s Francophile tendencies combined with Malta’s strategic location meant that they were reluctant to surrender the island to Russia. Especially since it would give Russia a warm water port in the center of the Mediterranean at the very moment Russia negotiated with the French.

The British Attack

The British decided the easiest way to destroy the Northern League was to remove the weakest link. Denmark was that link. Denmark was fearful for her dominions: the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, as well as Norway. Sweden schemed constantly to seize Norway, while Prussia or France could easily snap up Schleswig and Holstein, or the whole of the Jutland Peninsula. Count Bernstorff was in a difficult position. He had to decide which threat was more dangerous: the Russian threat, which could result in the loss of Schleswig, Holstein, and Norway, along with the cities of Lübeck, Altona, and Hamburg or the British threat, a threat which was not yet ready, and could possibly be avoided through diplomacy. Count Bernstorff decided that the British were the lesser threat. Count Bernstorff demonstrated Denmark’s fealty and loyalty to the Coalition with a hard line stance against the British. Count Bernstorff did not believe that Britain would fight a friendly power, and Denmark had historically been a friendly power. As a small maritime power, and gatekeepers of the Baltic, the Danish have always been very cordial with the English. Bernstorff was gambling that this international amity would prevent an English assault. The Danish government also believed their own propaganda that the batteries at Kronborg Castle could prevent any ship from entering into the sound.

The government of Denmark headed by young Crown Prince Frederick put a great emphasis on the national prestige of Denmark. Crown Prince Frederick’s government failed to negotiate even after it was evident that the British were serious and a British fleet anchored at the entrance to the sound. Apart from pride, the Danes were sick of British infringements on their neutrality and the inspection of their merchant ships by British men of war. Five years of inspections and seizures had embarrassed the nation and lowered her prestige. Crown Prince Frederick and Count Bernstorff remained unconvinced by British negotiators, and handled a mission by the British Finance Minister, Vansittart, incredibly poorly by returning the note he had brought from England, because it was written in English and not in French.7 

With the British fleet anchored nearby, Danish leaders still considered Russia as a greater threat than the British because of Prime Minister William Pitt’s resignation. However, Pitt’s resignation was due solely to domestic considerations and not foreign policy. Pitt had resigned because the King refused to grant Irish Catholics emancipation and allow them to hold government offices. Many foreign officials misinterpreted this domestic issue as a collapse of the British war party, and that the British people, weary of war, were going to make a peace with France. This was not the case. Pitt’s supporters formed a new British government and intended to carry the war to its rightful end: the destruction of the French republic, and the removal of Bonaparte.8 While diplomatic efforts stalled, the British fleet prepared to neutralize Denmark, by diplomacy if possible, and force if necessary.

While diplomacy withered, both sides looked to their arms. Admiral Hyde Parker, the hero of Dogger Bank, commanded the expedition. His deputy was Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte. Admiral Parker was expected to be the calm, diplomatic officer in the hopes that the Danes would seek a diplomatic solution. In case that failed, Admiral Nelson was the energetic, dashing admiral expected to chastise the Danes into submission. The Danish defenses were commanded in person by the Crown Prince, and at sea by Commodore Olfert Fischer and Captain Steen Bille. The British fleet composed 19 ships of the line, including two 98 gun second raters along with seven frigates and 23 smaller vessels. The Danes opposed this force with about 30 ships of various sizes moored in line to protect the city of Copenhagen, supported by the Trekroner Fort.9 Before the battle, Diplomat Johan Georg Rist regarded the defense of the sound as another Thermopylae saying, “viel Ehre, mit wenig Hoffnung” or “much honour with little hope.”10 As a member of the Danish Government, his opinion demonstrated how greatly the British had underestimated the Danes, who would rather fight a losing war than turn their backs on their allies.

Copenhagen lies on the island of Zealand, and partially on the tiny island of Amager. Copenhagen Roads, the easiest and most obvious route for an attack, is to the northeast of the entrance to the harbor. To the east of the island, about 2,500 yards from the island of Amager, and about 2,000 yards from the Trekroner Fort, lies the Middle Ground, a large shoal that splits Holland Deep from the King’s Deep and the entrance to the port of Copenhagen.

Depiction of the layout of the Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson suggested to Admiral Parker that Nelson take 12 of the ships of the line, four frigates, and several smaller vessels down the Holland Deep, around the Middle Ground, and up the King’s Deep to attack Commodore Fischer’s anchored ships. Parker agreed, and Nelson immediately set to work preparing the way. Nelson had the channel sounded and buoyed. He called his captains onboard to explain his plan of attack.11

On April 1, 1801, Nelson’s squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down their marked channel towards the Danish defense line. As the British approached, the Danes were unsure what to expect. Were the British really going to attack? Would they shell the city with bomb vessels and fire ships? Would they engage the anchored Danish fleet? As night approached, the British fleet was forced to anchor instead of proceeding down the unknown channel in the dark. The British fleet was just 3,000 yards away from the Danish fleet. Crown Prince Frederick gave the order for mortars in the Stricker Battery on Amager Island to open fire on the British fleet. Three shells were fired from the battery into the middle of the British fleet. However, from shore it appeared that the range was too great and the battery ceased fire.12 

The British fleet outnumbered the Danish fleet 262 guns to 150 guns. Nelson’s plan was for his ships to approach the enemy ships, bombard them into submission, and then reduce the Trekronner Fort. Nelson’s advantage in guns was matched by the maneuverability of his fleet fighting against a moored fleet, unable to maneuver. Yet, there were two factors that could make or break Nelson’s plan: wind and water depth. For success, Nelson needed the wind out of the south and water depth sufficient for his fleet to approach the Danish fleet. Throughout the night of April 1st, the wind veered into the south, promising victory on the 2nd. The British fleet could only sound the waters outside of Danish cannon shot. This left plenty of space for ships to run aground. The British Baltic Sea pilots that the fleet had brought with them refused to risk their necks or the ships on the uncharted waters. Instead, Sailing Master Alexander Briarly, of Audacious, volunteered to take responsibility and lead the fleet towards the Danes. Master Briarly had done the same at the battle of the Nile.13 Several British ships of the line ran aground on the Middle Ground Shoal. Nine of the 12 ships of the line were available to Nelson, but the fleet’s pilots refused to come within 300 yards of the Danish line for fear of the Refshale Shoal which was thought to be near the Danish fleet. Instead, the British would fight from 600 yards.

View of Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle with the Danes before Copenhagen. April 2, 1801. (William Elmes prints from Royal Museums Greenwich)

The battle began at 1000. The Danish fleet composed of man-of-war’s men, merchant sailors, and citizens of Copenhagen fought tenaciously. From his vantage point, Admiral Parker could see three of the ships, Agamemnon, Bellona, and Russell, not participating in the battle as all had run aground in the Hollander Deep. Admiral Parker saw that the Danish fleet had not been overwhelmed and at 1315, Admiral Parker signaled for the action to be discontinued. Upon being told this, Nelson asked if his signal to “engage the enemy more closely” was still flying. He then ordered that signal to remain flying. Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said, “you know Foley, I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Nelson’s captains saw both Admiral Parker’s signal and Nelson’s signal, and kept up the fight trusting Nelson.14 

Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye. April 1801.  

At 1345, Nelson left the quarterdeck to write a note. Nelson sent a flag of truce on shore with a note, “to the brothers of Englishmen, the Danes,” so that the wounded Danes could be evacuated and the captured ships could be taken into possession, as well as to spare further loss of life. Nelson also threatened to burn Danish vessels with their crews if they did not stop firing. Whether this was a ruse de guerre or belief in his victory, Nelson’s note had the desired effect. By 1400, there was only sporadic firing from the Danish fleet and the bulk of the ships had surrendered. Despite having beaten the Danish fleet into submission, the British fleet was still exposed to the fire of the Stricker Battery and the Trekronner Fort, as well as the dangerous shoals.15

The Danes and Nelson sat down to negotiate an armistice. Because Denmark could not leave the Armed Neutrality, she would halt all military preparations for fourteen weeks and the British would not come within cannon shot of Copenhagen’s fortifications.

Aftermath of the Battle           

News that Tsar Paul had been murdered, and that the new Tsar Alexander favored the British and disliked the French, meant that the Armed Neutrality ceased to exist. The neutralization of Denmark, combined with lack of Russian hostility to the British meant there was little to organize over. Tsar Alexander had renounced all claims to Malta and was ending the embargo against British ships. The Swedish fleet never left Karlskrona; it would certainly have met with defeat at the hands of the British fleet commanded by Lord Nelson. In Egypt, General Abercrombie had decisively defeated the French army, although he paid for his victory with his life. His army had ended French occupation of Egypt. Britain thought it was in a position to make peace with France on equitable terms and not from a position of weakness. However, that peace proved to be elusive; the people of Europe had to wait another 13 years after the Peace of Amiens for lasting peace to come. In 1800, the British took the lesson of 1780 to mind and met the Armed Neutrality head on. Through luck, skill, and the determination of the British Sailor, she defeated it.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.


[1] Feldbaek, pg 14.

[2] Tracy, pp 92-96.

[3] Feldbaek, pp 34-35.

[4] Harding, pg 247.

[5] Pope, pg 99.

[6] Ibid, pg 113.

[7] Feldbaek, pp 202-210.

[8] Pope, pg 135.

[9] Anderson, pg 304.

[10] Feldbaek, pg 151.

[11] Pope, 311.

[12] Feldbaek, pg 126.

[13] Feldbaek, pg 134.

[14] Feldbaek, pp 192-193.

[15] Feldbaek, pp 194-195.


Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Baltic. London: Francis Edwards, First Pritning 1910, Second Printing 1969.

Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Forces in History. New York: St Martins Press, 1998.

Feldbaek, Ole. Denmark and the Armed Neutrality 1800-1801: Small Power Policy in a World War. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1980.

Harding, Richard. Sea Power and Naval Warfare: 1650-1830. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Press, 1976.

Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organisation 1793-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Pope, Dudley. The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Tracy, Nicholas. The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War 1799-1804, Volume II. London: Chatham, 1998.

Featured Image: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801. The extremely young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men on his floating naval battery. (Painting by Christian Mølsted 1901. Willemoesgaardens Mindestuer, Assens)

LCS Versus the Danish Strawman

nils juel 2Many critics have assailed the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) program for its high cost in comparison with foreign, supposedly better armed and equipped equivalents. The Danish Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon class frigates are often cited as examples of cheaper, more capable small combatants in comparison with LCS. These claims are not well researched and are based on isolated points of data rather than any systemic analysis. Other nations may be able to build relatively cheap warships, but hidden factors not discussed by critics, rather than U.S. shipbuilding and general acquisition deficiencies make this possible. The Danish Navy, in conjunction with corporate giant A.P. Moeller have produced an outstanding series of warships, but a direct comparison between them with the LCS is one of apples verses oranges. It’s time to stop using this inaccurate strawman argument against LCS.

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The direct comparison of the Danish frigates to LCS is highly misleading due to significant differences in Danish shipbuilding practice and financial accounting. The Danish “StanFlex” system of “plug and play” weapons, sensors and equipment (including cranes!) officially separates these components from the advertised cost of the ship. A 2006 RAND report on the rise in warship costs specifically identified such systems as the principal drivers of warship cost inflation. The Danish concept of separating these more costly systems from their hull gives the appearance of a much less expensive warship. The ships were often accepted by the Danish Navy in an incomplete condition. The Danish Nils Juel, for example, was delivered in 2014 with 76mm guns scavenged from decommissioned ships. Danish figures suggest that the Iver Huitfeldt program used $209 million in reused equipment from scrapped vessels. Reuse, however, could not meet all system requirements. The planned 127mm (5 inch) gun system was deemed too expensive at $50 million a copy. The ship’s close-in weapon system mount was actually a dummy, wooden weapon due to a lack of certification. While equipped with a MK 41 vertical launch missile system (VLS), the ship deployed to the fall 2014 U.S. Bold Alligator exercise without the system certified for use or weapons purchased for eventual outfitting. That same reporting indicated that the ship was delivered with its damage control system incomplete and lacking a secondary steering control center. Much of the ship is built to merchant ship standards which are not as robust as those traditionally provided to warships. In addition, the Danish ship was forced to take on nearly 20 extra crew members when the lean 100 person complement was found insufficient for operational needs.

The Absalon class is more akin to a heavily armed, limited load amphibious ship rather than a surface combatant. It combines a number of warfare and expeditionary capabilities on a single hull, but excels at none of them. It is also significantly slower (at 24 knots maximum speed) than most other surface combatants. Both Absalon and her sister Esbern Snare were also delivered without their full installation of weapons and sensors. In the case of Absalon, this process took over three years. The Danish Navy has been open in regards to these conditions. U.S. advocates of adopting the Absalon or Iver Huitfeldt classes almost always overlook them.

The LCS, by contrast is delivered with significant systems such as its 57mm gun and point defense missile system incorporated into the overall cost. Scavenging of weapons from previous U.S. ships is extremely difficult due to a constant process of upgrades over time. Weapon systems, like ships also have service lives and U.S. ships being decommissioned often have equally aged weapons and supporting electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems that make a re-installation not cost effective. Unlike the Absalon class which is not equipped to master any one warfare area in any of its configurations, the LCS can be exclusively equipped to master one such discipline. It is purposely designed to operate in tailored flotillas designed to mitigate the risks incurred by one ship like Absalon. Critics often fail to note that both Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon are nearly twice the size of LCS.  Neither has the speed requirements that drove initial LCS design considerations. The size difference alone may explain the Danish ships’ much longer endurance. These differences in Danish and U.S. practices make comparisons difficult at best.

Finally, the Danish Navy contracted the building of both the Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon classes to a single firm, the A.P. Moeller Corporation. This multinational giant derives the vast bulk of its earnings from the more stable commercial market and its warship business is not dependent on government orders, which causes instability and cost overruns in its production process. By contrast, U.S. LCS shipbuilders Lockheed Martin and Austal serve government interests much more than private ones and are more dependent on government contracts to maintain stability in their operations. The 2006 RAND report also identified this process of divided warship construction as another factor in the increased cost of surface combatants.

The LCS program has been beset with a number of technological and systemic problems since its inception that have slowed the program’s progress and likely contributed to some cost overruns. On the surface, the Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon class frigates would appear to be cost effective alternatives to the LCS. Deeper investigation, however, reveals how the Danes achieved these substantially lower figures by separating higher cost equipment from that of the platform, scavenging weapons from decommissioned ships, accepting incomplete warships for service, and purchasing these vessels from a single, robust commercial shipbuilder not dependent on or affected by unstable government ship acquisition processes. In summary, these classes meet Denmark’s needs, but are an unsuitable substitute for U.S. Navy small combatants. LCS critics, however, should not use the Danish ships as strawman LCS substitutes. It is a most unequal comparison.

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. 

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Protecting the Exclusive Ecconomic Zone – Part II

Feature Picture: LÉ Samuel Beckett the latest OPV of the Irish Naval Service (Trilogy Corporate Site 2014)

Geographical and Oceanographical Factors

When designing OPVs the core question a nation will need to ask itself is how big in terms of area, where the EEZ is (i.e. Northern waters, or Equatorial waters), how far is it that area from the nation’s bases and how much is the EEZ worth.  Vessels which are required to operate in stormy or icy waters (i.e. those operated by Denmark) will need to be as structurally strong and survivable as possible, with a high freeboard to help with large waves, as well as having as much of their equipment internalised as can be, and all equipment that can’t be internalised made easy to clear of ice. In contrast vessels which are to operate in warmer areas (i.e. to an extent France) will need enhanced cooling systems, not only to keep the personnel at a workable temperature, but also the computers and machines. A vessel which could find itself in both situations equally (i.e. those operated by Australia or Britain), will of course need both attributes; it is very difficult to retrofit sufficient cooling into a small ship built to be strong, equally it is very difficult to strength a ship that is not built to be strong. Simply put, a lot of thought needs to be placed at the very beginning of the conception and design process with OPVs as to what is needed, what is wanted and what is best to make sure: because there is not the space available to do much rectifying at a later date.

  8Figure 8. Denmark’s EEZ, total area of 2,551,238km2 encompasses a large area of North Atlantic and the Arctic[i]
9Figure 9. France’s EEZ totals in at 11,035,000km2 and is spread all around the world[ii]
10Figure 10. Australia’s EEZ, total area of about 8,505,348km2 that straddles the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, whilst encompassing a large chunk of Antarctica[iii]


Supplementary Missions

OPVs, especially those deployed to patrol distant territories or honour commitments to allies, will often be the nation they represent first responders to natural disasters; therefore building a measure of preparation into the design, i.e. storage space for medical supplies, power tools, tents and portable water purification equipment would be of advantage. This is a situation where a nation has the opportunity to engage in a win-win scenario; they help another nation (nations are not altruistic but they do like to look good and earn favours), they get to build a closer relationship with the nation experiencing the disaster and that nation gets some help. Much the same can be said for an OPV’s role in Search and Rescue operations, most nations have some form of lifeboat organisation – whether it is part of the government, independent or a mix differs from nation to nation. OPVs are of course not lifeboats, but if they are present then they can again be crucial first responders, especially in the case of mid-ocean emergencies. There is though a war (or at least combat) orientated mission, which has been highlighted by the events of October 2014 in Sweden; anti-submarine warfare, or ASW[iv].

11Figure 11. HDMS Ejnar Mikkelsen a Knud Rasmussen class OPV of the Danish Navy[v]

Now it is reasonable to pose the question ‘how useful could a vessel without a sonar (with the exception of the Danish Knud Rasmussen class[vi] which take advantage of stanflex technology[vii] to acquire one) or torpedoes be to an ASW operation, after all it isn’t a frigate?’ In fact OPVs, even those being proposed in this paper are not even corvettes (being closest in armament to a gunboats), do have something to offer ASW operations, especially those with the ability to support helicopters and operate UAVs. Helicopters have become the cornerstone of ASW operations; whilst Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft and ships with towed sonar arrays are very capable assets which really do make a difference: a legacy of the Cold War has been an almost dominance of helicopters in the practice of ASW[viii]. Helicopters of course make use of sonar buoys and dipping sonar to locate enemy submarines, such equipment could also be transferred in time to suitably capable UAVs – some of which are already in operation[ix]. This is in many ways an argument for building in flexible spaces into ship designs, as the one thing that can’t be easily added into a ship is space, yet it is space which serves best to future proof it.

It’s not only ships though that need to be future proofed, so do crews and commanders. Small ships, like OPVs, offer almost unique opportunities for navies to test out commanders at junior ranks with a fair amount of responsibility; at a far lower risk than if the achieve higher rank and untested make their mistakes when in command of far more expensive vessels.  Furthermore, a naval commander will often find themselves acting in a diplomatic capacity[x] a fact which has been highlighted by Julian Corbett as well as other authors[xi] throughout the years. Therefore Command of an OPV, especially when despatched to the edges of an EEZ or to patrol distant territories will provide young officers a plethora of opportunities to develop their skills and gain vital experience in this role. The reason that OPVs are unique in this regard is because the other small vessel type, the mine countermeasure vessel (MCMV), is becoming more and more specialised – even as the equipment becomes more containerised and dependent upon unmanned vehicles (although divers retain a vital role in the work); meaning that command of such vessels acting in that role itself requires more and more specialised knowledge.

Possible Missions

“The unassailable political lessons of the Falklands are that disregarding a threat does not make it disappear”

James Cable[xii]

The same can be said for ships, and most definitely for OPVs – disregarding, or down playing the likelihood of circumstances that will require their capabilities doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Even in this work, there are possible missions which OPVs could be used for, beyond those it has discussed. For example, with a suitable CIWS, and dual-purpose deck gun these vessels could make a very much needed war time point defence assets for MCMVs, auxiliaries, ships taken up from trade[xiii] and amphibious ships (including landing craft). In a time of shrinking forces, these are not frigate or destroyer replacements, but they would be able to help; they are able to be the ‘quantity’. Which leads to another scenario for the future. That OPVs cease to exist as they are now, and that nations begin to pursue something more similar to where the Danish model has already gone.

Under this scenario the future is a ship of ~2400tons, with a range of 6-7,000nmi, and which in its basic OPV form is armed with probably either a 57mm or 76mm deck gun[xiv], a CIWS and two single 20mm or 30mm mounts, would carry a rotary UAV and have the ability to deploy and recover boats from a ramp. However, by making use of a system similar to that of the Stanflex modular system, can be quickly modified with additional modules[xv] to make it an MCMV, Oceanography vessel or Point Defence ship (with addition of self-sufficient surface to air missiles which don’t require specialist radar, like the C-Dome is reported to be[xvi]) as required by operation. Although to maintain those skills and to meet ongoing operational commitments some vessels would have to be virtually permanently tasked as the former two; with other ships taking over as required by maintenance. This is because as said above the work of MCMV vessels is particularly specialised, and requires a lot of practice to keep at the level it’s required for war time. Oceanography is of course and ongoing commitment, requiring its own cadre of specialised staff, and equipment, which are easier to leave in place as long as possible so they can ‘bed down’. This all though is not to mean that there are not significant requirements for British Patrol vessels, as Figure 12 (below) highlights; the British EEZ is very expansive.

12Figure 12. Britain’s EEZ incorporates an area over 6,805,586km2, and whilst world encompassing is concentrated in the Atlantic[xvii]

In the case of the Royal Navy which is currently upgrading its forces to seven River Class OPV’s, operates eight each of the Hunt and Sandown class MCMVs, two Echo Class multi-purpose survey vessels, representing a force of twenty-five ships. Now if all those ships were of the same design, then instead of it being seven OPVs, sixteen MCMVs and two survey vessels, it would be a pool of twenty five vessels (with operational cost savings from streamlining training and maintenance that could be twenty-eight, or even more should Britain continue its focus on reserves and decide to give the Royal Naval Reserve proper ships again[xviii]) that could be orientated as required by circumstance.

Now this is nothing new, the RN’s MCMVs already often do secondary duty as OPVs, and in fact the scenario outlined is to an extent (common hulls), what the Mine Countermeasures, Hydrography and Patrol Vessel (MCHPV) program envisaged[xix]. Unfortunately, and despite the publication of the Black Swan sloop Concept[xx], when the opportunity came to order three more ships for the OPV role – it was not this program which was sourced, but the existing River Class[xxi], suggesting that it has at least been put back if not having been sacrificed for the time being on the altar of the Type 26 Frigate. What is worse is actually the base design of the River class, with its proven track record, adaptability and RN operational experience, would actually (on the face of it) make the perfect base pattern for the MCHPV to be built from.  Britain though would not be the only nation which could benefit from such a design, so could other nations such as Japan, South Africa, India, Australia and Canada.

All those nations are nations which are building themselves up in the maritime sense, they have to really, as the world has got more complex and sources of danger have diversified the necessity to protect what is theirs has grown. For the Japanese who have a strong escort force they would be most likely less interested in the point-defence adaptability, but considering their ‘peacetime’ problems of East China Sea EEZ patrol and probable war time issues with mines an adaptable force could prove a very workable and cost effective solution. For Australia and Canada with such vast areas to cover in such hostile seas then the more OPVs the better, more importantly with their relatively small force sizes, some second tier fighting ships might well be an attractive foundation on which to grow operational capabilities. India which has for a long time prided itself on being the strongest Asian naval power, is now facing challenges and a future where there are now easy strategic choices or even black & white decisions – making procurement of a flexible asset of the form of OPV/specialist duty vessel a more practical methodology of future proofing.

This is though beginning to sound similar to a ship design which has dominated American procurement discussion in recent years, the Littoral Combat Ship or LCS[xxii]. This was billed as the go everywhere, do everything low level combatant. Which has become its millstone, because it was supposed to be a jack of all trades it is good at none. Everything was designed from scratch, tailor made to fit this new class of warship. Unfortunately that design included a fixation on stealth, primarily because of the ‘Littoral’, meaning close to shore, in its name. The important difference between the LCS, OPVs and even what is being proposed is that the latter two vessel types are not supposed to do everything. The whole way through this work a constant refrain has been, ‘not a frigate’; OPVs do not need to be stealthy to the extent of the LCS, they do no need multiple hangars or even custom equipment – because that level of equipment is not needed by their mission set. Everything that an OPV needs, even the adaptable ship proposed in this section, is procurable ‘off the shelf’ – theoretically offering governments the opportunity to keep very tight control of the costs because they are known in advance. Even with all its capability the LCS has because of its failure to be able to do everything, had its procurement cut short and the USN are now looking for a frigate. One of the options for which is actually an upgraded version of the Coast Guards National Security Cutter[xxiii].

13Figure 13. the Austral’s Independence class LCS, the second of the two designs, its trimaran hull form and distinctive menacing stealth design has already made it a feature of cinema, but also make it cost wise firmly in the frigate classification, despite its limited weaponry[xxiv].
14Figure 14. Russian Steregushchiy class corvette[xxv], the Russian equivalent of the LCS, it bristles with weapons and is not really adaptable: these vessels (like the Chinese Type 056) are most definitely small warships rather than a patrol vessel.


“…the greatest value of the Navy will be found in events that fail to occur because of its influence”

Prof. Colin Gray[xxvi]

As has hopefully been shown these words of Prof Gray could be the watchwords for OPVs.  Whether in terms of design or employment, the mission of such a vessel is to prevent events from happening through their own presence, and through the influence that being present gives a nation.

At the beginning of this work a very simple question was asked, ‘What do OPVs need to be able to do, to do what they do?’, the answer unfortunately is not so simple. The first part of the question though that needs to be answered is actually the second. This is because what a ship does is ultimately the crucial overarching idea which must dictate their design. In theory the OPVs overarching design idea is to be able to maintain their nation’s EEZ through patrolling, and maximise their nation’s security in general through presence. The trouble is that, whilst put like that it sounds like a two plus two sum scenario, the reality as has been discussed is far more complex. There are reasons that the Nigerian OPV version of the Chinese corvette displaces 300tons more; to start with it is operating primarily in the South Atlantic rather than the more gentle waters of the Pacific, beyond this is the fact that whereas the corvettes can call in support of larger ships – the Nigerian navy hasn’t yet reached that point. This serves as an example as to why it’s so difficult to compare one nations OPV to another’s, as every nation has unique needs, and  an its own global perspective which will impact upon what they think they need, therefore what they build.

This complexity then feeds into the first part of the question, for if a vessel is conceived to carry out a primarily fishery protection role then it’s armament beyond machine guns becomes rather unnecessary; if however it is likely to be facing off with other nations warships – then perhaps it needs to be more corvette/small frigate, less OPV. The trick for any nation will be in getting the balance right, because getting it wrong will be far more expensive in lives and treasure. To get it right though then a nation must first properly gauge the threat that its ships will likely face, and just as importantly what level of support they are likely to receive – for a ship that will be on its own and only receive support under the best of circumstance must by necessity be more self-sufficient than one for which possibly overwhelming firepower, medical support or stores are just a beep away.

OPV are because of all this a very revealing class of vessel to watch, by this it’s meant that a nation’s choices will demonstrate much about what their intentions are. The longer the endurance of an OPV the more a nation would seem to be intent on achieving constant presence within their EEZ. This though is not answering the question, the answer to the question is that once a nation has decided what it needs to do, and what it wants to do then it must equip its OPVs accordingly; but they can’t go too far wrong if that OPV is equipped with UAVs, a decent deck gun, a CIWS, the appropriate sensors and possibly most importantly the ability to rapidly deploy and recover boats. Everything beyond that is up to the nation involved.

Dr. Alexander Clarke is our friend from the Phoenix Think Tank in the United Kingdom and host of the East-Atlantic edition of Sea Control. 


[i]            (Wikipedia 2014, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) 2009)

[ii]           (Wikipedia 2014, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) 2009)

[iii]           (Wikipedia 2014, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) 2009)

[iv]           (Marzal 2014)

[v]           (www.prismdefence.com 2010)

[vi]           (CASR 2008, naval-technology.com 2014)

[vii]          (Seaforces.org 2014) – this is a brilliant system which allows for a whole range of mission modules to be changed in and out re-rolling a ship in a matter of hours; advantages of this system include reducing maintenance & upgrade costs – by being able to carry out the work inside at a pace dictated by the work, not by the need to get the ship back to sea.  The problem with it are that whilst it is really a better version of ‘fitted for not with’ (a famous phrase attached to many RN vessels), as the ships can be fitted very quickly, a small ship will always be restricted to being a general specialist rather a general purpose ship. That though is really not that big a bug to bear.

[viii]         (Holmes 2014, USN 2014)

[ix]           (Clarke, August 2013 Notes: Possibilities of Future RN AEW 2013, Clarke, August 2013 Notes: UAVs = Cruise Missiles = UAVs… what does the future look like for Navies? 2013)

[x]           (Clarke, August 2013 Thoughts: Naval Diplomacy – from the Amerigo Vespucci to a Royal Yacht 2013)

[xi]           (J. S. Corbett 1911, Lord Chatfield 1942, Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Political Applications of Limited Naval Force 1981, Mahan 1987)

[xii]          (Cable, Britain’s Naval Future 1983, xiii-xiv)

[xiii]         Which have been a part of warfare forever, and have been a core part of war time planning for many years – as best displayed in the work the USN did on War Plan Orange (Miller 1991, 86-99)

[xiv]         In the case of the UK which seems to have enforced a no new gun policy, then there would seem to be a perfect opportunity for some inter-service collaboration, the new army 40mm gun would seem ripe for a sea going conversion, and whilst not being much better than the 30mm option, it would provide a better than nothing increase whilst not requiring a new gun.

[xv]          Optimum number would probably be two – four, depending upon whether the CIWS and Deck Gun were also modular installations or were traditionally emplaced.

[xvi]         (Eshel 2014)

[xvii]         (Wikipedia 2014, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) 2009)

[xviii]        Yes this may look a little ‘pie in the sky’ in the light of recent decisions, but considering even a cursory glance at what this force is required to do includes:

  • Provide presence/maritime security patrols in the Caribbean, Gibraltar and the Falklands; the only one that a standing OPV presence is maintained at the moment is the Falkland’s, with the Caribbean being covered by a Bay class auxiliary, and Gibraltar having something only when it’s passing through.
  • Fishery Protection/Counter Terrorism patrol of the UK; the OPVs are constant alert for this, whilst Scotland maintains its own Fishery Protection vessels, they don’t do counter terrorism.
  • MCMV patrols in the Middle East, Faslane for the Strategic Deterrent, Portsmouth for the Carriers and Plymouth for the Amphibious Task Group; possibly the most overworked vessels in the fleet, with
  • Survey Ships are often either doing or doing the equivalent of around the world voyages in order to maintain up-to-date maps of the oceans beneath the waves to support ASW and submarine operations.

When that is considered, alongside the fact that many of these commitments requiring multiple ships, it could make anyone wonder how the RN manages it with a force of just 25 vessels – which are not ‘interchangeable’ as those proposed would be.

[xix]         (naval-technology.com 2012)

[xx]          (Ministry of Defence 2012)

[xxi]         (Navy News 2014)

[xxii]         (Defence Industry Daily Staff 2014)

[xxiii]        (Axe 2014)

[xxiv]        (Defence Industry Daily Staff 2014)

[xxv]         (naval-technology.com 2014)

[xxvi]        (Royal Navy 2014)




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