Corvettes to sail smartly: nearly half a century ago the major navies' last corvettes were being towed ignominiously to the scrap yards. But over the past two decades there has been a renaissance in this category; not just among Third World navies but also some of the major naval powers, indeed even the Royal Navy has shown interest in this type of warship.

Author:Hooton, E.R.
Position:Naval: corvettes

The modern corvette owes its origins to a British requirement for what Churchill referred to as a 'cheap and nasty' anti-submarine vessel. Designed to operate over the continental shelf the corvettes evolved into small, general-purpose escort vessels, but even the improved designs were slow, had range restrictions and limited capacity for antisubmarine sensors and weapons so in their original role they were gradually replaced by frigates. These limitations accelerated their post-war demise in most major navies, especially their poor anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities as the Cold War saw the growing threat from submarines with high underwater speeds.

However, the Soviet Union did not regard these limitations, especially the restricted anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, as relevant because their ships would operate behind the shield of land-based air power. Corvettes were produced in considerable numbers to augment fast attack craft and the most notable vessels were the Pauk, Nanuchka and Tarantul classes. The Tarantuls displace 455 tonnes, are 56 metres long and armed with four surface-to-surface missiles (usually SS-N-2 'Styx'), a 76 mm gun and two AK 630 close-in-weapon systems. Unusually, they are powered by gas turbines, and in addition to an air/surface search radar and a fire control radar they have variable-depth sonar but no antisubmarine weapons.

Many smaller navies had similar operational scenarios and acquired Russian or Russian-designed corvettes, while India built the Tarantul I as the Veer class and improved versions as the Khukri and Kora classes. During the 1970s and 1980s Ecuador, Italy, South Korea, Portugal, Iraq and Saudi Arabia all acquired corvettes, many from Fincantieri. The Iraqi Assads would eventually be sold to Malaysia as the Laksamana class. These ships differed from the Russian corvettes in having a better ASW capability in terms of hull-mounted sonar and lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. It might well be argued that Washington also adopted the corvette philosophy during the 1960s, when the US Coast Guard's Hamilton/Hero high-endurance cutters were equipped with sonars, surface-to-surface missile systems and torpedo tubes to augment the US Navy's escort forces, although the missiles and ASW equipment were removed with the end of the Cold War.

The Western renaissance began in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the back of the boom for fast attack craft. After an Egyptian Osa class vessel sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967 there was a surge in orders for fast patrol boats equipped with surface-to-surface missiles, which many smaller navies regarded like the Colt revolver as an equaliser with the major navies. The potential of fast attack craft both for anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and land attack was demonstrated in the early 1970s, but in the following decade the limitations of the concept also became apparent.


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