The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here.
By Mark Hay
Throughout the 1860s, the Russian navy felt lost and more than a smidgen inadequate. The recent Peace of Paris in 1856, after their trouncing in the Crimean War, had banished Russian warships from the Black Sea, making much of the nation’s naval strategy obsolete and leaving Russia open to bellicosity from its southern neighbors in the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the rise of monitors, first in America but then closer to home in Sweden, gave a shape to the fear that Russian technology was falling too far behind the curve to handle any future naval engagements. The Russian navy needed raw firepower, something so innovative in its brutality and strength that it could sit at the mouths of Russia’s rivers and utterly destroy any foreign notions of picking away at Russia via internal waterways.
Fortunately, the Czar had a man with a plan. Andrei Alexandrovich Popov, the newly minted rear admiral in charge of dry docks and ship design, had served in the Crimean War and knew well the existential fear his nation faced. In his search for answers, he became obsessed with a design being floated by the Glaswegian shipbuilder John Elder: circles. Circles would solve everything. Circular hulls, that is. In a fit of simple, geometric brilliance, Elder had pointed out—and Popov had readily internalized the fact—that a shallow, circular ship design would offer the greatest level of displacement on the water, allowing for the highest ratio of gun weight to ship area. As a bonus, the ship’s rounded edges would expose only slivers of the hull to direct fire at any point, deflecting the brunt of a shell’s impact and requiring minimal armor. Sitting low in the water, not much would be exposed anyway, so the small target’s large guns could rotate with ease in any direction and launch intimidating salvos from the Kerch Strait of the Dnieper River, mutilating any Turkish incursion into Russian waters. Popov ordered the construction of ten perfectly round ships, plated in metal armor and based on Swedish monitor designs, to create a solid blockade. In the end the ailing Russian treasury was only able to fund two: the Novgorod and the eponymous Admiral Popov. Commissioned in 1871 and launched in 1873, the two ships bore some subtle differences, but for the most part they shared the same design: 2,491 tons when empty, 30.8 meters in diameter, a 3.7 meter draught and 7-knot best speed, and a ring of armor 12 to 16 centimeters thick. Each sported two 26-ton 11-inch guns on revolving turntables, capable of moving independently or in unison, using wood wedges and hydraulic frictional compression devices to stabilize their fire. Aside from the big guns, each ship carried two 4-pound and sixteen 37 mm guns. Each ship ran on the power of six engines, each connected to its own propeller shaft—the engines and boiler took up half of the hull of the ships. They were truly imposing monstrosities.
Unfortunately they were green-lit with almost no testing. Popov offered a 24-foot model for inspection in the placid Neva River in 1870, but did not test the propulsion or gunnery on the toy ship. His sole intention was, single-mindedly, to demonstrate the visual allure, displacement potential, and novelty of the round hull.
The problem with a circle, though, is when one fires a shot with a massive gun, there’s something called centrifugal rotation. With no keel to cut and hold water, the lore goes, the first shots fired by the ships—nicknamed popovas after their inventor—sent them careening off wildly down the river. This dim view is overstated. While the first gunnery test revealed what should be deemed—at minimum—severe problems, coordination with the rudder and contra-rotation of the propellers helped to stop the ships from spinning off like tops in the field. However, the underlying problems of mobility could not be overcome. The rudder and propeller were undersized compared to the task of handling the unmoored disc, which rolled and pitched about in the waves of any river choppier than the Neva.
The result was poor aim, a 12-minute reload time, and a top speed less than half of that predicted by Popov and his acolytes. Not to mention that the designers had thought little of the crew, boiling in the poorly ventilated hull in the midst of brutal Ukrainian summers. Not even the compensations for the spin of the guns could salvage the round ship design.
Eventually the Peace of Paris lapsed and the Russian fleet moved back into the Black Sea, taking the fight on the offensive. In the next confrontation with the Turks, the popovas were taken to shore and anchored taut to prevent their spinning off. With too little endurance to make the trip across the waters to plot and fire at Turkey, they became defensive batteries never used in the conflict. After their failed service in the Danube Flotilla during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, they were put into storage in 1893 and finally scrapped in 1912.
None of this was inevitable, nor was it the fault of the round ship design inherently. Even with news of the follies and failures of the popovas, British shipwrights continued to extoll the virtues of the round ship in naval conferences well into the 1870s, drawing lessons from Russia on how to overcome the mobility and stability issues of the shape. Popov and John Elder’s company (he died in 1869) even collaborated in 1879 to build the Czar’s new yacht, theLivadia, on the round ship design, elongating the stern and bow to help break the rotation of the ship, elegantly eliminating almost every flaw of the popovas.
The problem of the popovas was Popov and his obsession with a magic bullet solution to every problem of the Russian navy. His incessant belief in the power of fluid geometry (even after his brainchildren’s spectacular failure, he suggested building a larger ship with 16-inch guns that could reach 14 knots, but scrapped the idea when he realized he’d need five times normal horsepower to make it move) led him to ignore basic physics and easily intuited complications. And perhaps the design would have worked, if the money for ten had existed and the strategic importance of the Kerch Strait remained a constant for several decades. But the world is not ideal, strategic factors change, and while a circular peg may fit a circular hole, there are almost no such simple geometric equations to be filled in peace or war.
Mark Hay is a freelance writer and University of Oxford graduate student who works on political, material and strategic history.
“The past isn’t dead.It isn’t even past.”– William Faulkner.
The crisis in Ukraine highlights a shortcoming in materialist theories, and a derivative shortcoming in our foreign policy process: the rhetorical battle between Russia and Ukraine is presently jumping across eleven hundred years of history, invoking symbols and identities from at least five different eras simultaneously into the present. Our policy-making ‘now’ is the last election, while the Russians and Ukrainians are all drawing on a millennium-long ‘now’ in their argument with each other. We are missing most of what is being said with our myopic lens, and much of what ‘power’ means hinges on these identity questions.
First, two ideas from academic literature help explain what’s happening.
–‘Master Cleavage’ – Stathis Kalyvas describes how local leaders invoke larger narratives to address local issues during civil wars.What is presently happening is a dynamic, inside-out version of that process.There are any of a number of potential historical cleavages, depending on which pieces of the past are more present at any given time.For instance, to energize Ukrainian nationalists, the Red-and-Black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) speaks of fierce resistance to both Soviets and Fascists during the Second World War.However, the UPA treated Poles brutally between Ukraine and Poland, so the Ukrainians would greatly prefer to decouple the UPA from their framing with Poland, and instead situate that relationship within the era of Soviet Occupation. What era is present, and with whom, is a key aspect of the current struggle.Whoever builds a better pastiche of history gets to choose the identity frame.
–‘Polychronic’ Cultures – The ability to navigate this space hinges on a culture’s mode of interacting with the past.Hall, in his work on culture, describes two broad views of time – monochronic, where a culture experiences the flow of time as a linear progression of events, and polychronic, where a culture experiences multiple timeframes in parallel. In a monochronic culture, the past is ‘how we got here,’ but it’s not ‘here.’In a polychronic culture, the past is ‘here’ in different ways for different things.The United States foreign policy process is explicitly monochronic.While many of those who inhabit that process are polychronic, ideas from these frames rarely last long in institutions to whom they are foreign.This is a problem when trying to understand polychronic identity struggles.
Second, since history is a battlefield of this present crisis, here’s a quick and semi-humorous video crash course on Russian history. There are at least five eras currently in play – these are horribly over-simplified, and I highly recommend reading a proper history on them.
First, the Kievan Rus’is the most fundamental identity dispute between Russia and Ukraine. The Rus’ was first identifiable state of the Eastern Slavs (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus,) the Kievan Rus’ was founded by Vikings in the 9th Century AD, and lasted until the 13th Century, when it was destroyed by the Mongols. During this time, the Rus’ converted to Christianity and aligned themselves with Constantinople. This was a golden age of sorts, at least in memory, and both Russia and Ukraine claim the mantle of the Kievan Rus’. Russia’s claim derives from being the strongest successor state to the Rus’, and from an influx of immigration following the Mongol conquest. In this version, Moscow leads the eventual resistance to the Mongols, and evolves as a Eurasian state. In the course of this evolution, strength and autocracy become necessary defenses; the consolidation of power under the Czars and the concomitant management of rebels is the natural state of play.
Ukraine’s claim derives from geography – Kiev was the leading city of the Rus.’ In this, the Rus’ provided a source for deep Ukrainian national identity – in the 1990s, the Ukrainian state shifted toward the hrivna currency, the same name as that of the Rus’, and the Trident symbol was a royal seal of the leaders of the Rus’. Soviet historiography declared the Kievan Rus as a feudal state, in order to fit a dialectical materialist model of history, while Ukrainian historians generally see the Rus’ as a proto-republic, proto-capitalist confederation. From this retelling, Moscow served as tax collectors to the Mongols, and the increasingly powerful city-state drifted toward autocracy. Therefore, the corruption of Yanukovych hearkens to the Mongol yoke, and the natural orientation of the Rus’ is toward Europe.
A second frame is the 16th to 18th Century Cossacks, and their conflicts with both the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Russian Czars.This was a tremendously tumultuous period for all parties involved, and too complicated to meaningful recount here.In present memory, the Cossack culture of freedom and their Hetman leaders provide identity markers for Ukraine, and a basis for the rejection of autocracy.Conversely, this was a ‘time of troubles’ for Moscow, and the Russians the Cossacks more as raiders and bandits.What this period means for modern interpretations of Ukrainian identity vis-à-vis their neighbors depends greatly on the interpretation of this time – the Cossacks alternatively supported and fought almost all of their neighbors during this period.
The Second World War provides the third frame for this argument.As described before, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s (UPA) red-and-black banner was a common sight in EuroMaidan – this is a direct challenge to the Russian leadership, who transpose onto the Soviet Union in this frame.The Soviets were deeply invested in framing the UPA as Fascist collaborators; while it is difficult to capture the entirety of a guerilla movement, the UPA described themselves as at war with both Soviets and Nazis.In the current struggle, Putin continues using the Soviet frame, with Russia Today describing the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis.(This echoes a refrain from Yugoslavia – the preferred anti-Croatian slur referred to a WWII collaborationist government.)The general Ukrainian framing takes the UPA at its word and sees it as a nationalist movement.Interestingly, in present memory, the UPA’s symbols have become more inclusive than the UPA itself likely was.The UPA’s hallmark phrase, ‘Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava,’ (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to her heroes,) is now being applied to the protestors killed in Kyiv’s Independence Square during the recent protests – East and West Ukrainian alike.
The Communist domination of Eastern Europe, in particular the Soviet interventions into Prague and Budapest, provides the most useful frame for the Ukrainian to reach out to their immediate Western neighbors. Framing the Soviet invasion of the Crimea in these terms invokes these memories amongst the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians. For obvious reasons, the Russian government has little to gain from invoking this era, and their narratives steer clear of it.
Finally, the most recent memory frame is the chronological present and the contrast between the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Union.This is the frame best understood by our policy process, but it is misleading to view the previous eras as prologue rather than present.Note that the flags from these eras fly alongside each other – these symbols are all invoked in parallel.To some extent, all nations use parallel symbols, but what is particularly fascinating here is that the Ukrainians are making multiple identity bids to different eras all at once.
How does all of this matter?First, in this case, materialist approaches actually turn on identity.Russia obviously overmatches Ukraine in any sort of a tank-count.But it is a quite different overmatch if the Russians pin the Ukranians in the 17th Century as the rebellious Zaporozhian Cossacks fighting the Tsar than if Kiev traps the Putin in the 10th Century by claiming the mantle of the Kyivskaya Rus’ against the Mongol thralls of Muscovy.If this is the story of the Ukrainian language against the dominion of Greater Russia, then East Ukraine is properly on the Russian side of the struggle; in this story, the Ukrainians would be fighting on Russian turf until they reached Kyiv, and defections of Russophone units should be common.Conversely, if this is about the idea that the greater Rus’ is by its nature both European and free, then command and control becomes far easier for Kyiv, and Russian supply lines in Donetsk or Khar’kov would find themselves under partisan attack.The realist tank-count turns on the remarkably fluid identity contest.
Second, we cannot interpret many of the actions of either side without access to these texts and without the understanding that they run in parallel.Most dramatically, the battle over the mantle of the Kievan Rus’ has profound implications over the significance of the outcome of this crisis.If the Ukrainians can sustain the argument that descendants of the Rus’ aren’t inherently predisposed to autocracy, this immediately links to Belarus and even Russia itself.If the Ukrainians can do so in a way that fully incorporates East Ukraine in the project, then Putin’s irredentist strategies turn back on him, and Russophone Ukrainians become a visible threat to the narrative he is advancing.
To this point, the hub of Ukrainian nationalism, Lviv, spontaneously chose to speak Russian for a day a few days ago in a show of solidarity with East Ukraine.Donetsk, the easternmost major city in Ukraine, reciprocated by speaking Ukrainian for a day.The now-famous Colonel Mamchur of the Ukrainian Air Force, who marched his unit back onto their base, similarly demurred from ethnic chauvinism:
“It makes no sense. I can’t even say whether I am Ukrainian or Russian – it’s not a choice any of us can really make. My wife’s Belarusian, her mother is Russian. We’ve all got relatives on both sides,” said Col Mamchur. “When all this started we got calls from friends in Moscow who were simply in shock.” “Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are really one Slavic people,” said the Colonel. “The divisions are only formalities. Whoever gave the order for this operation set brother against brother. It’s a crazy situation.”
Note that in the Euromaidan protests, the previous Belarusian flag flew alongside the Ukrainian flag and the EU flag, and the Ukrainians are using a Belarusian protest rock song from as an anthem.(The lyrics are hardly ‘Winds of Change’ – the chorus goes, roughly, “Warriors of the Light.”The band actually played for EuroMaidan last December.)Moreover, the phrase ‘Slava Ukraina, Zhivye Belarus’ pops up fairly often in the comments section of viral videos from EuroMaidan supporters – “Glory to Ukraine, Long Live Belarus’.”These phrases and symbols are attempting to harmonize these different eras, all in the present – a spray painted trizub symbol [photo] speaks to this idea.At least in part, the identity challenge is intertwined with the strategic challenge; ‘who are we’ is as much a battleground as ‘what do we want.’
Our monochronic, rationalist, materialist foreign policy process deals well with answering the latter question. We have a deep problem, especially when dealing with peoples adept at harmonizing polychronic time rather than sequencing monochronic moves, in dealing with the former question. Recalling the painful market transitions of the 1990s, along with the technical economic issues, nations that synthesized liberal reforms into their national identity found the social capital to continue through difficult times. Poland was ideologically committed to reform, and was able to persist in part because of this. These reforms were generally presented as ‘Western,’ in contrast to a ‘traditional’ model in Russia. Mining the past would have perhaps provided deeper national connections to these projects – it is always easier to rediscover your golden age (even if you have to update it a bit) than to accept someone else’s vision of who you should be. Doing so requires skill and knowledge, but not a tremendous amount of cost.
Similarly, in the counter-terror world, we generally took al-Qaeda’s word for what the Caliphate looked like.Bin Laden was no Salah ad-Din, and Zawahiri is laughably distant from an Averroes or an Avicenna.The Caliphate was, in many ways, a customs union and an empire of trade; through this lens, Dubai is a more legitimate successor to the Caliphate than anything that al-Qaeda built in the mountains of Afghanistan.We should have contested the past rather than agreeing to our adversary’s framing by presenting the future in its stead.
While mastering the mechanics of polychronic time requires far more than a simple transpose, we cannot afford to be blind to the present memory of history nor deaf to the symbols through which that history is contested.We certainly cannot afford to do so in this conflict, where history is so present in the present.At least amongst the Rus’, the past is hardly past.
Dave Blair is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and a PhD student at Georgetown University. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force, the DoD or the U.S. government.
Sometime in the year A.D. 410, Honorius, the last Roman emperor to rule the Western Roman Empire before the sack of Rome by the Visigoths that year, received a request for military aid from Britain, then a Roman province. The island was under attack by barbarians. We do not know exactly what the letter to Honorius contained, but Honorius’ response, now referred to by historians as the Reply of Honorius, essentially told the Britons – theoretically Roman citizens who could count on the protection of the Empire – that they would have to make do on their own; Rome had troubles of its own and could not send help this time.
The Reply of Honorius is often considered to mark the end of Roman rule in Britain, as well as the end of Rome’s military dominance over any part of the empire. Rome had all it could do to protect itself; imperial clients, whatever their legal claims to help from the central power, would have to fend for themselves. Though the Roman Empire sputtered onward for another two generations after Rome was sacked in 410, this was the point where the central tenet of Roman rule – that Rome protected its own – was exposed as a fiction. Nothing was the same after that. Where Britain was concerned, the island was cut off from the Empire and never returned to it; it did, indeed, fend for itself.
There are a lot of bad comparisons made between America’s worldwide defense posture and the Roman Empire. The two do, however, have one obvious thing in common: in both cases a powerful state made promises to defend far-flung territories. As with Rome, the U.S. is finding out how expensive such promises can be to keep.
As of this writing, Russian forces in Ukraine have seized the Crimea. Ukraine is in the process of a general military mobilization, but Russian forces are already securing the strategic Perikop isthmus to the north of the Crimea, which controls access to the rest of the country; unless Ukrainian forces, with or without assistance, can similarly entrench along these lines, Russian forces will be able to break out of the Crimea and move toward strategic crossing points along the Dnieper river. If that is the case, protecting Kiev will become very difficult, if not impossible. It remains unclear how many Ukrainian units are even active at this point; units in the predominantly ethnically Russian east of the country have already defected or surrendered, including the Ukrainian navy’s flagship frigate. There are an unknown but sizeable number of Russian forces on alert along the northeastern border of the country, leaving open the possibility of a general invasion.
President Obama has publicly stated that Russia would face “serious costs” were it to go forward with plans to invade Ukraine. It is a matter of speculation what those costs may be, although it is becoming clear that there is little that the U.S. and its allies can do to stop the invasion without intervening directly. As German Marshall Fund analyst Joerg Forbrig has remarked, there is very little evidence up to now that Putin’s government is motivated by an economic cost-benefit analysis, as opposed to nationalism and, perhaps, calculations of security. Although the majority-ethnic Russian east of Ukraine may indeed make more sense as a Russian satellite than a fractious part of Ukraine, it is likely that Russia will seek to take Kiev, both to send a message (as was the case with its seizure of Gori in the 2008 invasion of Georgia) and because, as the ancient capital of one of the earliest Russian kingdoms, it has sentimental importance for Russian nationalists. There is little reason to believe sanctions, or any similar actions, will stop Russia from seizing at least a part of Ukraine, or inflict any meaningful punishment on it for doing so. Indeed, such sanctions will be hard to impose: Europe is more dependent on trade with Russia (most notably natural gas shipments, many of which go through Ukraine) than the other way around.
From the point of view of several of the U.S.’ NATO allies, on the other hand, imposing “serious costs” on Russia, even if it could be done, means the game has already been lost: the challenge is to prevent Russia from taking Ukraine, not punish it once it has done so. This especially applies if Russia is not content to take the Crimea and the pro-Russian east, but decides to seize Kiev and control the entire country. Ukraine borders on four NATO member states – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania – and up to now has served as what might pass for a buffer zone between the Alliance and Russia; Russian ground forces in Ukraine in force – particularly western Ukraine – are therefore literally too close for comfort. What applies to these states applies even more strongly to the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – all of which are also NATO members, have minimal strategic depth or defensible terrain, and share a border with Russia – and are therefore quite concerned about U.S. resolve in the face of Russian aggression.
It might have been advisable in the past to debate or question the appropriateness of NATO expansion or consider the merits of negotiating an arrangement with Russia with regard to eastern Europe; now, however, the U.S. has given its word to defend practically all of eastern Europe from Russian military attack, Russia is now expansionist and hostile to U.S. interests, and the eastern European states are understandably curious whether the U.S. is serious about its commitments. The legal argument that Ukraine is not a NATO member and that therefore the U.S. has no obligation to it is a hair they are unwilling to split. What they see is an American patron that was caught flat-footed by a crisis, made empty threats, was unwilling when the time came to confront Russia, and was not substantively concerned about their well-being. If the situation in Ukraine is not quickly brought under control, America’s nominal allies in eastern Europe may make the same difficult calculation that Finland made in the last century: that no outside ally can be relied on, and that they would do better to make their peace with Russia. The result would be a hollowed out NATO, perhaps even leading to a disintegration of the Alliance over the longer term.
Although eastern Ukraine, as a pro-Russian region at odds with the new government, may be too far gone to save, and although its detachment (de jure or de facto) from the rest of the country might in any case form part of a negotiated settlement, there is a rapidly closing opportunity to stave off the worst possible outcome of the crisis – Russian conquest of the country with no meaningful U.S. response. To deter Russia from making further inroads into the country, the U.S., with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s consent, would need to deploy a rapid reaction force to western Ukraine, effectively signaling that it might become involved if Russia moved to take the western half of the country, and hopefully deterring Russia from moving on Kiev. (It might still be possible to secure the neck of the Perekop Isthmus and block off the Russian forces’ main route out of the Crimea, but if reports are true, it may be too late.) The next best option could be the placement of a similar force along the border of any of the neighboring NATO states, as a precaution and show of resolve, and to preserve some options if the situation got worse. (CIMSEC’s Robert Rasmussen has eloquently summarized the available forces and possible order of battle.) Unfortunately, the window for action is closing, if it hasn’t already: it would take a while for forces from EUCOM to get to Ukraine, and time is becoming scarce; arranging logistics would likewise be difficult. If there was a time for action, it was when Russian forces along the border went on alert for an “exercise” last week – precious time has been lost. As goes the U.S., so will go other NATO states. The NATO states that border Russia and Ukraine will be watching what happens.
It may well be the case that a negotiated solution to the conflict is both the best option and even the inevitable one. Unless the U.S. moves directly to deter a general assault on Ukraine, however, there will be little to negotiate with.
But in fact the U.S. faces a much more difficult set of options than even all this would suggest. Russia and the U.S. have been cooperating on Afghanistan; as has been noted, Russia is a major link in the tenuous supply line that supports U.S. operations there. Confronting Russia over Ukraine could jeopardize not only operations in Afghanistan, but potentially the safety of U.S. forces there. It might be possible to find alternate supply routes, but not at short notice. The ugly reality is that the U.S. might have to choose between breaking its promises in Afghanistan – drawing down faster than it otherwise would – or failing to demonstrate sufficient resolve in eastern Europe. At least in terms of preserving a global balance of power that keeps America safe and powerful, Europe is undoubtedly more important – but it will hurt either way, if the choice does ultimately have to be made.
Either way, the U.S. is in danger of issuing its own Reply of Honorius – those whom we have promised protection may have to rely on their own resources. There may still be opportunities to make the best of this situation and even turn it around, but time is fleeting: what happens this week may make all the difference in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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 class252 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).
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.
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.
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.
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) andFlorealclass (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 Andradeclass 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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