A Post from Keith Campbell
One of the problems in considering British defence issues is that, while reliable information on the British armed forces is quite easy to come by, the same is not the case for the contemporary state of the armed forces of other countries. Wikipedia might be accurate but then, again, it might not. The number of truly credible sources is very small indeed and, as a result, they have been able to maintain tight control of their information, even in the internet age. Whether in book form or online, you still have to pay to access the publications in the Janes series or by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, to give just two examples. And access to such sources is not cheap. As a result, many people interested in defence unconsciously compare the strength of today’s UK armed forces with memories of the armed forces of other countries of years ago (even decades ago – time flies!).
So, I decided to give some scale to the debate. I decided to draw up a table of countries that operated surface combatants (or escorts, as the Royal Navy [RN] tends to call them) with a full load displacement of 4 000 tons or more, and give the size of their forces of such ships. I chose these vessels because they represent the high end of modern naval escorts, ships with long range, high endurance, high seaworthiness and able to engage in high intensity three-dimensional warfare – anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine wafare (AAW, AsuW and ASW respectively). While they may be divided into specialist ASW and AAW units, they have (or have the capacity to be fitted with) important capabilities in all three domains. Thus, ASW ships with local area, and not just point defence, air defence capability (such as RN Type 23 frigates with extended range Seawolf and, in due course, Sea Ceptor). And AAW shipes with local area (and not just self-defence) ASW capability, like RN Type 45 destroyers with bow-mounted medium-freqency sonars and Lynx or Wildcat helicopters (of which two will most likely be deployed on each ship in a combat operation) – since the Westland Wasp first entered service in 1963/64, the primary ASW weapon of British escorts has been the shipboard helicopter.
A key point about these large vessels is not that they carry more weapons than smaller ships – you can cram a lot of surface-to-surface missiles into a small corvette, in you want or need to (like the Taiwanese Navy’s new Tuo Jiang-class) – but their great superiority over the smaller vessels in C4ISTAR (Command, Contol, Comunications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance). The larger ships can carry more, and more powerful (or, if you prefer, more sensitive), more complex sensors and can carry them higher because they have taller masts (look at a picture of a Type 45), pushing their line-of-sight horizon further out than that for smaller ships. When considering naval operations, the curvature of the Earth must never be forgotten. This is the fundamental fact that has always given bigger ships almost always the advantage over smaller ones. With more power and greater internal volume, the larger vessels can also carry more computers and consequently have significantly greater processing power. They can thus resolve targets that, for a smaller craft, would be lost in clutter. You can only use your weapons, no matter how powerful or long-ranged they are, if you have a good idea where the enemy is. Knowledge is, indeed, power. And this superior processing power also gives larger ships an advantage when operating closer to shore. Futhermore, large ships have superior aviation capabilities, being able to carry more and/or larger helicopters.
But what about ships in the 3 000 t to 3 999 t full load displacement range? These include ships that were the top-of-the-range surface combatants/escorts of the previous generation, often updated and still quite capable, as well as modern light frigates (like the South African Navy’s Valour-class) which again, are quite capable, even if both of these categories are not in the same league as the larger ships. So I have included a column listing these vessels as well.
Finally, my source for the numbers. Traditionally, in the Western world, there were three authoritative reference books on global naval strengths – one in each of the English, French and German languages. The English one is, of course, Jane’s Fighting Ships (originally Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships); the French one is Flottes de Combat and the German one is Weyers Flotten Taschenbuch. Fortunately, the French work has been available in English for 30-40 years now as Combat Fleets of the World and Weyers has long been bilingual, its English title (more accurately, subtitle) being Warships of the World Fleet Handbook. My source is the latest (2013/2015) edition of Weyers (because I can afford to buy it!). Of course, the book gives a snapshot, correct when it was closed for press, and some things have changed since. But it still gives a good idea of fleet sizes. There are a couple of notes at the end of the table.
|Country||4 000 t and greater escorts||3 000 t to 3 999 t escorts|
|Denmark||3 + 2*||4**|
|* The +2 are the Absolon-class multirole ships, with frigate armament but L pennant superior.|
|** These are the Thetis-class: effectively coastguard patrol ships, with little combat capability.|
|***This figure excludes the four Holland-class patrol ships, or sloops, whose top speed is only 22kts, making them a bit slow for a surface combatant but meaning they are capable of serving in an escort role in certain circumstances – for example, of amphibious or auxiliary vessels. But they are not three dimensional warfare ships.|
|**** Two of these vessels are ex-US Coast Guard (USCG) high endurance cutters, with limited armament.|
|# Both of these vessels are ex-USCG high endurance cutters, sisters to the Nigerian ships, but the Philippines Navy is seriously considering upgrading them to frigate armament and status, which can be done (the USCG did it once itself, near the end of the Cold War).|
|## Four of these are littoral combat ships (LCS). These, despite their size are not, in my opinion, three dimensional warfare vessels; they are rather oversized corvettes or over fast sloops.|
Just to remind everyone, the RN now has 19 surface combatants/escorts, all of them displacing more than 4 000 t full load.
Some observations from this list.
There are only 40 countries in the world (including the UK) with surface combatants that exceed 3 000 t in displacement. Only 26 have surface combatants that exceed 4 000 t in displacement. Only 19 have fleets of eight or more 3 000 t + displacement surface combatants. A mere ten have fleets of eight or more 4 000 t + surface combatants. So, while there may be lots of one- and two-dimensonal warfare surface combatants (or, in other words, missile boats and corvettes) around, three dimensional warfare surface combatants are not that common. For most of the countries that possess them, they are clearly their fleets’ “capital ships”. Only six navies have more 3 000 t surface combatants than the RN (perhaps the most surprising one is the Republic of China – or Taiwan – Navy). Only five navies have more 4 000 t + ships than the RN. (Feel free to check that I have counted correctly!)
For me, the two big surprises – nay, shocks – that this exercise gave to me were the (mainland) Chinese Navy (which is now its official name in English), whose ocean-going surface combatant fleet, at 52 vessels, is much bigger than I thought, and the US Navy (USN), whose surface combatant force (98 + 4 LCS) is much smaller than I thought. One of the reasons for this surprise is that the Americans tend to talk about their “deployable battle force” which, this year, totals 291 vessels.
Of course, the real power of the USN is vested in its carriers and nuclear attack (SSN) and ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines. The USN has ten carriers and (Weyer’s figures), 57 SSNs and 14 SSBNs. Add these to the surface combatants (excluding the LCS) and you get a total of 179 vessels.The remaining 112 are composed of LCS, amphibious ships, minecountermeasures vessels, combat logistics ships, coastal patrol vessels and, incredibly, two hospital ships. (Hospital ships are strictly forbidden, under the Geneva Conventions, from undertaking any military activities at all: if I remember correctly they are not even allowed to report the presence of hostile forces. This is why the RFA Argus is a “primary casualty reception ship” – as such, she can be armed, painted grey, and undertake not only military but combat roles.) If Britain used such a concept, we would probably be talking about an RN “battle force” of about 83 vessels!
Now, I happen to have a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships 1962-63, so I can compare the size of the USN surface combatant force today to what it was then. In 1962-63, the USN had 718 destroyer escorts, destroyers and cruisers. If I read the notes correctly, 499 of these were in the active fleet and 219 in reserve. Of those in reserve, however, 109 were destroyer escorts that were clearly totally obsolete and of little or no combat value. So the credible mobilised fleet would have come to 609. (Interestingly, this edition of Jane’s doesn’t list the battleships that would later be recommissioned into USN service.) So, today’s force of 98 USN surface combatants amounts to 19.6% of the active surface combatant force in 1962-63 and 16% of the credible mobilisable fleet. (Feel free to check my calculations!)
How does the RN compare? In 1962-63 its surface combatant force comprised 101 ships (cruisers, destroyers and frigates) of which only one was in reserve. So today’s force is clearly 19% of that 51 years ago. But, of that force of 101 ships, 12 were the Type 14 ASW utility frigates, one dimensional warfare ships that were already becoming obsolete even then and which spent their lives operating as offshore patrol vessels. Exclude them, and today’s force becomes 21% of the 1962-63 force.
In 1962-63, the RN surface combatant force (including the Type 14s) was equivalent to 20% of the USN’s active surface combatant force and to 16.6% of the credible mobilisation force. Today, the RN surface combatant force is equivalent to 19.4% of its USN counterpart (excluding the LCS). There has been no significant change in the ratio.
This brings us to the rather startling conclusion that the USN and RN surface combatant forces have declined by the same degree over the past half-century.