A Dumb Question on Ship Design

USS Cairo

Being a landlubber and not at all versed in matter nautical thought I would post a dub question on ship design, specifically, the matter of protection again anti ship missiles.

Unlike older ships that were designed to slug it out with big guns, and therefore armoured appropriately, modern ships have reduced physical resistance to attack but compensated by having a comprehensive and layered onion skin approach to self defence. Because of the value of the ship, the value of the self defence systems have risen dramatically, self defence systems now account for a significant proportion of the total cost.

Because modern anti ship missiles are so devastatingly effective the protection concept has migrated to that of avoiding getting hit at any cost, not being able to take a hit.

Despite lightweight composite armour, very selective steel armouring and systems duplication, a modern frigate or destroyer is as resistant to taking a hit as…

Paper Bag

A paper bag that is surrounded by layers of very expensive active and passive self defence systems, but a paper bag nevertheless.

This inability to stand, fight and take hits can be seen writ large in the the amphibious combat operating concepts that either choose to completely avoid the littoral direct fire zone or chose to stand off the shore. Large ships are being increasingly forced offshore, thus compounding the the logistic and planning problems of mounting operations against the land from the sea.

One might reasonably ask of the move offshore, hang on a minute, how much are we spending on CIWS, decoys, anti aircraft missiles and signature reduction.

Despite the billions being spent on these systems we still find ourselves unable to risk heading into a a direct fire zone.

Contrast that with the land environment where the last decade of operations has forced an increasing recognition that protection counts. A good example is FRES Scout which clearly favours protection in comparison to CVR(T). Look at any nations vehicles in Afghanistan or Iraq and the trend is obvious, hull shaping, slat armour and extra armour blocks lean to a clear philosophy of being able to take a hit and keep on going, or at least survive the hit.

This is in complete contrast to naval platforms where the approach is to clearly avoid getting hit no matter what the cost. Don’t get me wrong, you can counter that by pointing to damage control training, resilient systems design and careful selection of materials but modern ships still aren’t designed to slug it out.

In small craft the trend is more like that of vehicles, instead on RHIB’s with no armour, the Royal Marines have migrated to the Offshore Raiding Craft with their Dyneema armour panels and the latest 2400TD Hovercraft that has much more protection against small arms than the 2000TD’s

Royal Marines Offshore Raiding Craft (ORC)
Royal Marines Offshore Raiding Craft (ORC)

Why is this.

Direct operational experience.

We could have a discussion about whether the addition of lightweight composite armour panels goes far enough but the trend is self evident.

I keep coming back to two ideas.


Slat armour


USS Cairo
USS Cairo

If we think that operations in the littoral or near onshore areas are likely to be the norm and we wish to influence matters in those regions it logically demands an ability to operate in them when others wish to deny it.

Which brings me back to my dumb question on ship design.

Have we surrendered physical robustness and the ability to absorb damage yet keep on fighting and thus surrendered the ability to operate in a direct fire environment.

I don’t know

If they are, is there any alternative to increasingly expensive layers of the protection onion and would shaping and armour provide enough protection in any case when being bombarded with ATGW’s at ultra close range and modern anti ship missiles further out.

In short, are current designs self licking lollipops that are too fragile to operate in likely future operating environments?

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments