Without a doubt, surface warships are one of the most complex weapon platforms developed by humanity. They represent inherent compromises between safety and comfort in nature’s largest and potentially most dangerous environments, while simultaneously providing the ability to dominate a sphere (sub-surface, surface and air) often with radii measured in hundreds of miles protecting other naval platforms, merchant ships and littoral regions. The ability to dominate such volumes is fundamentally reliant on the capability of on-board sensors and the rapid and robust communications with external sources, coupled with the capability of various effectors to leverage the volume as necessary. All measured against financial constraints and dominance superiority. Often, to complicate matters further, warships have non-combat roles that drive their capabilities and increase their size, requiring a balance to be found with the principle roles, although 99% of platforms never actually fulfil their originally envisaged combat roles.
The raison d’être for a naval platform is to dominate a volume, relying on sensors and communication systems. These systems need to have inherent capabilities to support the mission, which in turn influences the performance and thus the cost of individual elements making up the sensors and communications. Hence, nations must balance the risk of conflict over the life of naval platforms against fiscal requirements and necessary platform capabilities; such a balance is not always achievable, especially in contemporary financial environments.
For this reason it is essential that both platform and system manufacturers develop systems quicker, cheaper, better and with reduced through life costs. However, since the closing years of World War II, platform development costs and time from drawing board to realisation has increased dramatically. The Battle class Destroyer HMS Agincourt cost around £34 million (corrected for inflation), compared with c.£1 billion for a Type 45 Destroyer. Much of this is due to the significant increase in the complexities and development costs of the weapon, sensors and communication systems. Compare the cost of the three MkIV twin 4.5” turrets making up Agincourt’s main weapons system, to the Sea Viper system for the modern Type 45.
During the gunboat diplomacy era, for the UK, it was relatively easy for the Government to despatch a warship or two to a potential trouble spot, often instantly resolving any issues. Such episodes occurred when the numbers of available platforms numbered around a hundred, albeit of varying capabilities from brigs through to first rate’s. Today, when the RN escorts are numbered around 20 and decreasing, performing such activities is a much more complex affair and in reality this is now only the preserve of the U.S. Navy. The convention for permanently maintaining a single platform at sea, suggests that three platforms are required, one undergoing maintenance and one performing training activities. Hence, from the six Type 45s that the RN has, the expectation is that only two will be fully operational available at any one time. Many navies, under financial pressure, have attempted to buck this trend, often to the detriment of quality and crew capability.
In the context of increasing complexities and costs, reduced funding and increased capabilities of anti-naval effectors, the potential future for naval platforms is complex and becoming increasingly the preserve of richer nations to own and operate an effective number. Arguably the current threat paradigm, based primarily on air, sub-surface and surface launched anti-ship effectors (missiles and torpedoes) with ranges measured in 10s to 100s of miles has remained stable for the last 20-30 years. The development of the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) threat, in the form of the Dong Feng 21 (DF-21), while currently only a real danger to larger platforms such as aircraft carriers, threatens to shift this paradigmsignificantly. Defending against ASBM threats, with their ranges measuring 1000s of miles, while not entirely impossible is incredibly challenging and is increasing the need for robust and rapid data and communication networks to enable suitable tracking of such challenging targets.
To mitigate against these costs increases, some quarters suggest multinational collaborations to develop naval platforms and their systems. On the face of it, this sort of collaboration certainly appears attractive. However, peel away the layers of attractiveness and look at the individual elements of national requirements and the compromises necessary to achieve such collaboration is very challenging. This is particularly the case in Europe where navies with proud histories have differing ideas on how things should be done. One only has to think of the abortive NATO frigate replacement for the 1990s, followed by the slightly more successful Horizon programme between Italy, France and the UK, with the UK eventually pulling out to pursue what became the Type 45, to recognise the challenges of naval collaboration. This said such collaboration should always be explored in the context of reducing costs, perhaps in a modular manner if a platform level collaboration cannot be achieved.
In summary, the need for naval platforms will continue for the foreseeable future, but the perceived capabilities required may make such platforms increasingly expensive, resulting in a compromise between hull numbers and capabilities. The fact that hull numbers are decreasing for the majority of navies validates this to some degree. This compromise is already driving some navies down the line of high-low platform mix, while such an approach may be valid in itself, it has potential problems, such as logistics, training and overall ability to project and dominate far from home waters. The development of ASBMs challenges the larger naval platforms, potentially driving the size of platforms down, against the wider non-combat roles, driving sizes upward.
The conclusion must be that nothing is set; naval platforms will always be required, however, their mix of capabilities and the affordability of these capabilities are the areas of most variance. Nations have to decide on the capability and structure of their navies in the context of their defence environments, but more often than not fiscal policy always outweighs defence requirements, meaning that the downward trend in the number of hulls and of overall platform capability is set to continue for the foreseeable future.