Analysis: Are missile ships still relevant in modern warfare? Author: PhD CONSTANTIN CIOROBEA
Missile Carriers/ NPR – They provide a high hit-to-target effect, with acceptable construction and maintenance costs, through the use of anti-ship missiles.
Launch of anti-ship missile by NPR and Frigate 111
Missile Carrier Vessels (MCVs), which are in principle the next step after gunboats (small artillery-carrying vessels), have gained an important place among military ships through their successes in the 1967 Egypt-Israel war and the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
In OCT 1967, two USSR-built Egyptian missile carriers (P-15 anti-ship missiles) of the Komar class sank the Israeli Navy’s Z-class destroyer “Eilat” in the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptian ships attacked from the port of Port Said, and this is the first action in naval history in which an anti-ship missile has been used to sink a ship.
Looking at actions during the Indo-Pakistani war in 1971, we can mention “Operation Trident”, which was an offensive operation launched by the Indian Navy on the port city of Karachi in Pakistan. Operation Trident was the first use of missile ships (Vidyut class a variant of the Osa I/USSR class) in combat in the region. The action was carried out on the night of 4-5 December and resulted in the striking of Pakistani ships and port facilities. While India suffered no casualties.
An unprecedented development of missile-carrying ships followed, with countries around the world acquiring or developing this type of ship, which was small but very powerful. The purchase of these ships by countries with smaller budgets ensured that they had an advantage, or at least a level playing field, over countries with larger budgets. But such ships were also built by countries with strong naval forces because that way more ships with smaller budgets were built. The Soviet Union developed the first types of missile-carrying ships and continued to refine them. At the same time, it sold such ships to countries around the world, which began to develop their own designs, changing the way action was taken at sea.
The main role of small missile ships is to act as a launcher for anti-ship missiles or for striking targets off the coast. Their high speed and small size is their main advantage, as it allows them to get to the target area quickly, launch the missiles and just as quickly get out of the area, making them difficult to detect on radar.
Rocket ships in the world
Today, some countries’ naval forces are developing missile-carrying ships for coastal defence missions and to complement the firepower of their larger ships. The advent of smaller cruise missiles has given missile ships a new dimension of capability. Platforms that were designed to engage targets 50 km away with 2-4 missiles on board can now engage targets 2500 km away with up to 8 missiles on board if equipped with the right missile.
The NPR is a very good strike power multiplier for naval forces. Consider a corvette or frigate with 8 cruise missiles, on a coastal defence mission. If such a ship is accompanied by 4 NPRs, each armed with 4-8 cruise missiles, these using data received from the corvette, frigate or air assets will add the firepower of at least 2 more corvettes/ frigates.
The small size allows the NPR to be more easily masked near the coastline making it harder for the enemy to detect.
The main disadvantage of the NPR is its limited air defence capabilities and as the war in Ukraine demonstrated against unmanned assets. Some NPRs are equipped with anti-aircraft guns and low and very low-yield missiles, but these provide modest defences against anti-ship missiles and unmanned assets. However, new NPRs have better anti-aircraft defences, allowing them to survive an attack from the air.
Another limitation is that NPRs are designed to be small and operate close to shore, they have a short range (10 days or 4000 km). This has been one of the driving factors behind the emergence of larger missile boats in the 700-1000 tonne category, which offer performance in semi-shore waters (at greater distances from shore).
NPR actions may also be limited by the discovery capabilities of on-board radars. But in such situations, NPR can benefit from intelligence from helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles/UAVs. NPRs have this limitation when attacking surface ships, but for land targets they use predefined coordinates and radar is no longer an issue.
There are several countries in the world today that are keeping operational, upgrading or even building NPRs. Most of these ships have displacements of around 500 tonnes, but are capable of striking ships at distances of over 100 km. Some ships also have the capacity to hit targets at the coastline.
Houbei”/Model – 22 class – China: 60 ships in operation (currently still in production); Displacement 220 t; L – 42.6 m; W – 12.2 m; Missile – 8 (YJ-83/ 200 km)
Hayabusa class – Japan: 6 ships in operation (last one entered operation in 2004); Displacement 200 t; L – 50.1 m; W – 8.4 m; Missiles – 4 (SSM-1B/ 200 km)
Veer class – India: 7 ships in service (last entered service in 2002); Displacement 455 t; L – 56.1 m; W – 11.5 m; Missiles – 8 (YJ-83/ 200 km)
Tarantula class: – ships in service (different variants), Russia: 21; Bulgaria: 1 ship; Egypt: 1 ship; Romania: 3 ships; Vietnam: 4 ships; Turkmenistan: 3 ships; Nicaragua: 2 ships; Yemen: 2 ships; Displacement 385 t; L – 56.2 m; W – 11 m; Missiles – 4 (P-21/ P-22/ 80 km)
Buyan-M class – Russia: 13 ships in operation (currently production has been stopped for modernisation due to lessons identified in the war in Ukraine); Displacement 950 t; L – 75 m; W – 11 m; Missiles – 8 (Kalibr/ 1500 km)
Visby class – Sweden: 5 ships in operation (last ship entered operation in 2006; all ships are undergoing modernisation to be completed in 2030); Displacement 640 t; L – 72.7 m; W – 10.4 m; Missiles – 8 (RBS15 Mk2/ 300 km)
Skjold class – Norway: 6 ships in operation (last ship entered into operation in 2012; all ships have entered into modernisation process to be completed in 2024); Displacement 274 t; L – 47.5 m; W – 13.5 m; Missiles – 8 (NSM/ 250 km)
Class “Tarantul IV/ Molniya” – Vietnam: 8 ships in operation (last one entered into operation in 2017); Displacement 563 t; L – 56,9 m; W – 10,5 m; Missiles – 16 (Uran-E / 300 km)
Hamina class – Finland: 4 ships in service (last entered service in 2006; all ships completed modernisation in 2022); Displacement 250 t; L – 51 m; W – 8.5 m; missiles – 8 (RBS-15 Mk2/ 300 km)/ after modernisation 8 (Gabriel Mk.5/ 400 km)
Sa’ar 4.5″ class – Israel: 10 ships in operation (2 Mexico and 8 Israel) (last one entered operation in 2003); Displacement 490 t; L – 61.7 m; W – 7.62 m; Missiles – 4 (Gabriel/ 200 km); 4 or 8 (Harpoon/140 km)
Ambassador class – Egypt: 4 ships in operation (last entered operation in 2015); Displacement 600 t; L – 63 m; W – 10 m; Missiles – 8 (RGM-84 Boeing Harpoon / 140 km)
Gumdoksuri class – South Korea: 12 ships in service (last entered service in 2014); Displacement 570 t; L – 63 m; W – 9 m; Missiles – 4 (SSM-700K Hae Sung / 150 km)
Tuo Chiang class – Taiwan: 3 ships in operation (last entered service in 2022 / 12 ships project); Displacement 570 t; L – 60.4 m; W – 14 m; Missiles – 12 (Hsiung Feng III / 400 km)
FAK 55′ class – Turkey: construction of the prototype started in 2022; Displacement 535 t; L – 62.7 m; W – 9.84 m; Missiles – 8 (Harpoon / 140 km or Atmaca/ 250 km)
As can be seen worldwide, the NPR is being used by several naval forces, some countries have plans to modernise their existing ships (Finland, Sweden and Norway), while others, such as Turkey, are planning to build a new class of fast attack ships, the “FAK 55” class.
It is worth mentioning the agreement signed in OCT 2020, between the UK and Ukraine on the purchase of 8 NPRs (2 built in the UK and 6 in Ukraine), the programme was apparently delayed due to the outbreak of war in Ukraine. These ships were to be similar to the “Barzan” class in Qatar’s fleet, displacement of 380 tons, a maximum speed of 35Nd with a range of 1800 Mm. Armament: a 76mm Oto Melara calibre fast gun, a CIWS Goalkeeper, a “Sandral” launcher with six “Mistral” aa missiles and eight Excocet MM 40 anti-ship missiles in two quadruple launchers (with the possibility of adapting Ukrainian “Neptun” missiles). The missile-carrying ships to be built in Scotland for Ukraine are shown below.
The important role of the missile ships is also well described in the article published by Commander (rtr) Andrii Ryzhenko on the Jamestown Foundation website (https://jamestown.org/), “Warfare in Kinburn Spit Emphasizes Ukrainian Navy’s Utility in Coastal Combat Operations” published in
“To be successful in addition to ground and air fire support, amphibious raids on the Kinburn peninsula must be supported with fire from maritime platforms. Fast, maneuverable assault ships equipped with automatic guns and missiles would be highly effective in supporting these efforts. …
Ships currently used by the Ukrainian navy, including the “Gurza-M”, “PO-
2″, “Zhuk” and “SeaArk SeaArk Dauntless” classes, are significantly less powerful and maneuverable and will make a minimal contribution to the success of such operations at sea (The Drive, 24 June 2022 ). Larger combat ships, such as corvettes or frigates, would be very useful, but in the enclosed waters of the Northwest Black Sea region, they are easy targets for a more powerful enemy that dominates in the air and at sea. However, missile-carrying ships, which are fast and have good firepower, can deny the enemy the exercise of sea control by using a combination of maneuver and missile attack to strike and sink Russian ships in littoral waters supporting ground troops in the occupied territories of Ukraine.”
Romanian Naval Forces NPR Modernization
The security situation in the Black Sea is becoming more and more complex, under these conditions Romania must become a main security pillar of NATO and the EU in the region. And in this context, defining the directions of action to face the growing and complex challenges in the region, but also to adequately combat the threats in the region, becomes increasingly important.
This summer it will be exactly four years since the Ministry of National Defence declared the partnership between the French giant Naval Group and Constanta Shipyard as the winner of the tender for the “Multipurpose Corvette” programme. And January 2023 marks 365 days since former Defence Minister Vasile Dîncu announced at the beginning of 2022 that the MApN, waiting for Naval Group to sign the contract, would settle the matter by 31 January 2022.
With a tender for the supply of corvettes and the modernisation of Tip 22 frigates blocked, the Romanian Naval Forces are suffering in terms of equipment and their combat capabilities at sea are greatly reduced. In the context of the war in Ukraine, with an increasingly aggressive Russia in the Black Sea, the provision of modern combat assets to the Romanian Naval Forces is taking too long, and the situation may even become dangerous at some point. If the contract is signed now, the first ship would be ready in at least three years, and we don’t have that much time when the Black Sea is boiling.
Until a solution is found for the corvette programme, something has to be done. One possibility would be to initiate a programme to modernise the three missile-carrying ships. They are small, very fast ships that can be lethal in the Black Sea, equipped with high-performance missiles. These ships entered service relatively recently, in 1990-1991, but are now equipped with Soviet radars and missiles, which are no longer effective, especially in the current context.
In the process of modernisation, the communications and radiolocation systems need to be replaced, and the massive hangars for Soviet anti-ship missiles will be replaced with modern launch systems adapted to the type of ship-to-ship missile to be fitted to these ships.
Modernisation must also take into account some of the lessons identified from the conflict in Ukraine, and here I highlight the lack of effective air defence systems on board the Russian Federation’s Project 22160 – “Vasily Bykov” class patrol ships. This has made it possible to attack them with missiles or drones and has meant that these ships cannot act independently.
Under these conditions, it is necessary to supplement existing air defence systems with powerful anti-aircraft systems, such as the “RAM/Rolling Airframe Missile” guided missile system. This system is the world’s most modern ship air defence weapon and is designed to provide exceptional protection for ships of all sizes. It is currently fitted to more than 165 ships in 11 countries, ranging from fast attack vessels to 95,000 tonne aircraft carriers. This system provides defence against supersonic and subsonic threats, including cruise missiles, drones and helicopters. The work would also include overhauls to the propulsion side and power generators.
The modernisation process could ensure that these ships remain in service for at least another 15 years. However, until the contract for the corvettes and the modernisation of the Type 22 frigates is unblocked, this may be a viable option to overcome the Romanian Navy’s poorly equipped strike ships.
We could take from the Allies ships from the 1980s, which are on the market, but even these would require modernisation and equipping with high-performance missiles, so we’d better modernise our ships. As for dredgers or minehunters, which are much needed in the current Black Sea context, they are on the market and can be relatively easily identified and purchased from the Allies.
In the early 1970s, the novelty was the missile ships, which practically changed the way of doing business at sea. In the modern era, a new change in the maritime domain is emerging, driven by the emergence and development of unmanned assets for scouting missions and target attack. For land actions, unmanned vehicles (UAVs) are becoming increasingly effective, and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, but especially Ukraine’s successful defensive actions against Russia in 2022, have marked this change in the way combat is fought using UAVs.
In the case of naval actions even if some victories have been achieved, the attack executed by Ukraine against Russian ships near Sevastopol in OCT 2022, we can consider that these means are still in the development phase and the technology has not completed the testing stage. Electronic warfare and cyber actions can particularly affect VFPs and without a crew to identify the existence of jamming, unmanned craft can be taken out of combat relatively easily.
On this basis, I believe that missile-carrying vessels can still have an important place in the national defence system. These upgraded ships with modern weapons systems and technology are a quick and cost-effective way to increase striking power and can be an effective means of deterrence. These ships have the key qualities of modern combat power, speed and manoeuvrability. Upgrading the NPR and perhaps acquiring at least three more ships would enable the Navy to respond to a variety of challenges and threats by increasing the number of combat ships available with such affordable and lethal platforms.
Actions at sea during the war in Ukraine demonstrated the need for forces engaged in combat to be hard to find, hard to destroy and with superior strike capabilities. The existence of NPRs and their use in combat in cooperation with coastal missiles could provide adequate strike capability at relatively low cost.
For the combat use of NPRs it should be borne in mind that in addition to on-board systems, the provision of target intelligence can easily be supplemented by data from aircraft or other allied research platforms operating in the Black Sea area. Such cooperation ensures that the NPR is able to launch missiles at enemy ships before they discover the launching ship.
NPRs equipped with long-range missiles can provide Romania with a strong position in the Black Sea. In addition to their defensive capabilities, these ships can sneak close to the enemy’s coastline and wreak havoc in the enemy’s ports and cities.
Along with corvettes, respectively the modernisation of frigates and the equipping with submarines, fast missile ships should be a priority objective for the Romanian Navy, at least in view of the fact that with a relatively small investment we would obtain a considerable strike force.