Having evolved from the humble gunboat in the latter half of the 20th century, the missile boat gained notoriety through its massive successes in the Egypt-Israel war of 1967 and the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Here it was proved that a small 200-ton boat, equipped with cruise missiles can wreak havoc on larger warships and land targets. A missile boat-boom followed, and countries all over the world scrambled to acquire this marvelous piece of technology, which was so small, yet so powerful.
It was a true David vs Goliath scenario as countries with smaller budgets scrambled to acquire dozens of such boats in order to gain an upper hand over their enemies with larger budgets and bigger toys. The missile boats were popular with even some powerful militaries, as they considered them to be a means of augmenting their fleet numerically, without spending a bombshell on larger platforms. The Soviet Union, having pioneered and perfected the missile boat, sold them countries around the world, resulting in many countries developing their own, thereby changing the face of naval surface warfare.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A MISSILE BOAT?
There is no fixed definition for such a ship. They are interchangeably called missile boats and corvettes all over the world and such a usage are widely accepted. Hence Defencyclopedia defines a modern missile boat as
A vessel displacing less than 1000 tonnes, having a high speed, carrying 4-16 cruise missiles to attack surface and land targets.
Usually, these boats are less than 90 m long, have a small/medium caliber main gun and secondary guns to complement their main armament of cruise missiles. They do not have sophisticated electronics and have a search radar to scan for targets along with a missile guidance radar. Missile boats can be considered as ‘hitmen’ as they come, strike and return, with impunity. Despite being puny, they can sink vessels 10 times their size. But if you look at the other side of the coin, missile boats can end up as vulnerable targets and the war can quickly turn into a turkey shoot if the missile boats aren’t using proper attack tactics.
ROLE OF SMALL MISSILE CORVETTES
The primary role of the small missile corvette is to act as a floating launcher for cruise missiles. Since these ships are designed to be inexpensive, they are not usually equipped with sophisticated sensors or defensive systems. Their speed and small size are their biggest strength, as it allows them to reach an area quickly, fire its missiles and exit the area while being tough to detect on radar.
The Soviet Union developed and fielded hundreds of missile boats in order to give them an edge over the American carrier fleet. These boats were designed for coastal defense missions and were organized into brigades, which could unleash over 100 cruise missiles at once on an invading force. Such incredible firepower could annihilate any invading fleet considering the missile defense technology of that time.
Nowadays, navies deploy small missile boats to complement the firepower of their larger vessels. The advent of small land attack cruise missiles has given missile boats a different dimension of capability. The platform designed to engage targets 50 km away initially, can now engage targets 2500 km away if equipped with the right missile.
Ease of operation
Any navy can procure and operate them. Even a moderately trained crew can cause massive damage in a confined littoral environment with the right vessel equipped with the right missile. Modern fire and forget missiles have made the task even easier. Also, since these missile boats are small, they can be deployed from any small port or harbour.
The overall firepower of a fleet can be augmented by a bunch of missile boat. Consider a frigate armed with 8 cruise missiles used for defensive duties. If it is accompanied by 4 missile boats, each also armed with 8 cruise missiles, it will add the firepower of 4 more frigates, without the additional investment.
For the price of 1 fully equipped modern destroyer having 16 cruise missiles, China builds and deploys 25 missile boats having a total of 25 x 8 = 200 cruise missiles. Missile boats are incredibly cost effective as cruise missile launch platforms and countries can easily afford to operate them by the dozen if there is a need to do so.
A small size allows the missile boat to blend with its surroundings and disappear among the hundreds of fishing and commercial boats on the enemy’s radar screen. It is also an advantage in a cluttered island environment, where larger vessels cannot maneuver easily.
We may thank that a warship’s speed makes no difference in this age of supersonic missiles and high-powered radars. But a high-speed dash capability allows a missile boat to escape from trouble very quickly. An enemy submarine may engage the attacking missile boat, and top speeds of 40-45 knots will permit the missile boat to outrun the chasing torpedo and submarine. This however possible only if sufficient early warning is provided. High-speed maneuvers also make missile boats difficult target using subsonic anti-ship missiles.
Although no military would officially acknowledge this, missile boats are treated as expendable assets. They are inexpensive, carry less crew and take on high-risk missions with minimal or no protection in many cases. The expendable nature of a missile boat allows military planners to make bold decisions with very high stakes, which they would not make if they were at risk of losing an expensive capital ship.
Hopelessly vulnerable to submarines
All surface warfare corvettes lack submarine defenses and are extremely vulnerable to an underwater attack. A modern submarine launched torpedo could disintegrate these sub-1000 ton boats without any trouble. Hence missile boats always need an anti-submarine escort in the form of an ASW vessel, submarine or ASW aircraft.
Minimal/Non-existant air defense
Aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles or even small air to ground missiles would be the nightmare of any missile boat captain. Some of these boats, however, are equipped with anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-launched missiles which offer mediocre defense against anti-ship missiles. However, newer missile boats are increasingly having better air defenses which allow them to survive an enemy counter attack.
Since the missile boats are designed to be small and to operate close to shore, they have an endurance which limits them to short range operations. Most missile boats cannot be deployed more than a few hundred kilometers beyond their base. This was one of the driving factors behind the emergence of larger missile boats in the 700-1000 ton category, which offer a semi-blue water performance.
Small low-power radars
A missile boat may carry a cruise missile capable of targeting ships at 200 km, but if the boat’s search radar has a limit of 100 km, then the potential of the missile is wasted. In such a situations, offboard sensors such as helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft, and UAVs are used for targeting. Most missile boats have this limitation while attacking surface ships, but while attacking land targets using pre-defined coordinates, small radars won’t be an issue.
The scenarios depicted may be based on actual events or hypothetical situations.
Scenario 1 :
A major crisis looms in a certain country in the middle-east. Russia decides to attack enemy installations from a safe distance. They deploy a flotilla of Buyan-M corvettes armed with 8 x Kalibr land attack cruise missiles each. These ships fire off a salvo and the missiles travel 1500 km to hit their target with pinpoint accuracy. The 2500 km long range of the missile enables the short range corvette to stay in its territorial waters and still attack targets over a thousand kilometers away.
Scenario 2 :
Your enemy is a neighbouring state whose coastline is close to yours. You send a fleet of missile boats on a hit and run mission to fire their complete missile batteries at the enemy harbours and the ships docked there. The coastal factories, refineries, and offshore oil rigs are targeted in a coordinated missile boat strike. Such an attack is usually accompanied by airpower and submarine escorts for protection, targeting, and additional impact.
Scenario 1 :
China is in a naval standoff in the south China Sea with the US Navy. American carriers are moving closer to Taiwan along with their battle group comprising of a dozen destroyers. China decides to halt this advance, but US Navy airpower is very powerful and they can’t risk losing planes. A flotilla of 24 Type-22 missile boats is sent on a high-speed hit and run mission with 4 Type 54A frigates and 2 Type-52C destroyers as escort. The flotilla fires 24 x 8 =192 missiles at the American warships and goes back. Realistically, the missile boats will be destroyed by enemy submarines if the Chinese don’t have their own submarines and aircraft to act as escorts. Such missions usually end being a one way trip. This is a typical saturation attack scenario, which the USN is preparing for since the Cold War.
You are a country which has hundreds of islands as a part of your territory. There is an adversary which also lays claim to your territory. If they try to send a naval flotilla with assault ships, landing craft and troops to capture your islands, your missile boats scattered among the islands can launch a surprise and coordinated attack on the enemy amphibious forces. This will result in massive casualties and your adversary will not try to be so adventurous again. However this plan will succeed only if your have air superiority over the region. Or else, it becomes a one way trip for the defending force.
MODERN SMALL MISSILE CORVETTES
Here is a list of some of the modern and modernized missile boats in service around the world as of today. Most of these vessels displace less than 500 tons but are capable of targeting ships at ranges of 100+ km. Some of them even have land attack capability. These vessels will be dealt with in detail in a future article dedicated to analyzing their capabilities individually.
Type- 22 Houbei class [China]
Hayabusa class [Japan]
Veer class [India]
Buyan-M class [Russia]
Visby class [Sweden]
Skjold class [Norway]
Tarantul IV [Vietnam]
Hamina class [Finland]
Gepard class [Germany]
Sa’ar 4.5-class [Israel]
Ambassador class [Egypt]
Gumdoksuri-class [South Korea]
Tuo Chiang-class [Taiwan]
SHIFT TOWARDS LARGER CORVETTES
Although small, heavily equipped missile boats were the flavour of the day during the latter part of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War and the rise of asymmetric threats in distant seas, led to a policy shift with respect to small missile boats. Countries which operated small, heavily armed boats, now preferred larger missile boats with similar armament, but longer range and blue water capabilities. This saw the emergence of missile boats in the 800-1500 ton category, with better electronics and self-defense suites. The word ‘boat’ doesn’t suit such large warships and they are popularly referred to as missile corvettes. These ships now serve along with the smaller missile boats as many countries prefer larger ones for offensive, semi-blue water roles and smaller ones for defensive green water roles.
Countries like China, India and Russia operate larger missile corvettes along with their fleet of smaller missile boats. Let us take China for example. They operate the 1500 ton Type 56 corvette used for longer range duties along with the 220 ton Type 22 missile boat which is designed for short range defensive roles. Russia operates the 800 ton Buyan-M along with their 2000+ ton corvettes. India operates the 1200 ton Kora class along with their 450 ton Veer class. This shows that, even though countries may be moving towards larger vessels, the smaller missile corvette is equally important and remains a part of their naval strategies.
- The term ‘missile boat’ may be dying, but the missile boat itself has a bright future.
- Many countries around the world are fielding increasingly more capable and modern designs, and designating them as ‘corvettes’, instead of missile boats.
- These corvettes possess enormous firepower relative to their size and are cost effective.
- The usage of missile corvettes worldwide is seeing an upward trend, and this is only expected to increase in the future.
- The advent of smaller, longer ranged and more lethal missiles will only increase the demand for missile corvettes with many navies.
- The 150-500 ton range missile corvettes still reign supreme in confined waters as they can inflict massive damage.
- The larger missile corvettes are slowly taking over the role of light frigates. They will dominate the littoral and semi-blue water battlespace.
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