The Small Navies Thread - Historical and Current

pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,008
There was an article published a few years ago entitled "It's a Rough World Out There for a Small Navy." (The Diplomat.com, 2014).

I would say it always was, but in the 16th century it was more doable than in the 20th or 21st centuries. If anyone is interested in discussing this, I suggest selecting the naval forces of a smaller country and prefacing comments and opinions with the following basic details:

1) Order of Battle (OoB) - numbers of most important ships/tonnage. Not all small navies include capital ships.

2) The most important adversaries.

3) Geographic factors - distances and choke points/narrow seas.

4) Logistical realities - how to support the small navy at sea and overseas.

It can be argued that economic resources are critical, and that is more true in the modern era than centuries ago. That consideration can be included of course, but there are vast differences from the English Royal Navy of 1588 and the modern navies of the last century and today.

Not to immediately derail anything, but I will start with a survey of the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), as it was brought into existence as the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy from 1921 until WW II. From 1941 it was the RNZN. New Zealand had paid for the British battle cruiser HMS New Zealand, but it was operated by the Royal Navy in WW I; scrapped in 1922. AFAIK, the order of battle in 1941 was:

1) OoB: 2 - 1930s Leander class light cruisers (HMNZS Leander and HMNZS Achilles)

1 sloop; 1 minesweeper; 1 auxilliary cruiser.

2) Adversaries: Germany, Italy and Japan.

As the war developed, the RNZN grew to about 60 vessels, including destroyers and corvettes detached from the RN. Some ships were returned to the RN, and a few were retained. The navy served at River Plate against the Graf Spee (HMNZS Achilles) in the Mediterranean against Italy (HMNZS Leander), and in the Solomons and at Okinawa against Japan.

3) The RNZN could only operate at the vast distances involved during its WW II service as part of larger navies (the Royal Navy and the US navy). The relatively small number of ships, and New Zealand's small population, allowed the country to contribute to the Allied war effort, but in a limited way.

4) The logistical realities were reflected in # 3 above. The RNZN dockyard at Auckland (Devonport) had been in use since the late 1800s, but there was no industrial base for constructing warships.

New Zealand had to participate as an adjunct to much larger navies from its inception in 1941. In modern times, the RNZN has been described as "The best small nation navy in the world" (Australian Journal of Maritime Affairs, 2016). Let's take a look:

Royal New Zealand Navy today

1) OoB: 2 - Anzac class frigates built in Australia, commissioned 1997 and 1999. These are the same as 8 Anzac class with the Royal Australian Navy, and will be undergoing mid life refits and upgrades. Replacement of these two is anticipated in the 2030s.

1 - multi role auxilliary commissioned 2007. This ship is capable of sea lift, troop transport and disaster relief operations.

1 - hydrographic survey ship comm. 2019. The purpose of this ship is in relation to maritime resources of both Antarctica and the New Zealand continental shelf.

2 - offshore patrol vessels, comm. 2007 and 2008, for sovereignty presence and fisheries protection of NZ's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

2 - coastal/inshore patrol vessels, comm. 2007 and 2008, for interdiction of smuggling, contraband and pollution control/illegal substance disposal. Two other similar patrol vessels have been withdrawn from service as not being adequate for the sea states in which the RNZN must operate. Discussion to replace these inadequate vessels is apparently underway.

2) There are no other adversaries except for smuggling, and in some instances piracy, that NZ faces in the foreseeable future.

3) A challenge for such a small nation is the enormous EEZ for which NZ has responsibility. The astounding area of 4,083,744 sq km must be patrolled by two frigates and two offshore patrol vessels. In addition, NZ has responsibility for other Pacific islands north and east of the country. A concern has to be the stress on the ships because of operational tempo - how long the ships will last and how often they will be out of operation for repair and refit.

In addition, the RNZN relies on the air force for most of its aviation capability. That can dilute operational control over maritime patrol responsibilities.

4) The ships of the RNZN have been built in Australia and one was just purchased from Norway (hydrographic survey). A large 24,000 ton replenishment/fleet sustainability ship is under construction in South Korea. The RNZN dockyard at Auckland has sufficient repair and support facilities, but there is no indigenous ship building industry.

In conclusion, the RNZN is transitioning from a former combat oriented fleet to one that more adequately meets the needs of a small maritime nation. The modern concept of an exclusive economic zone that encompasses both marine/fisheries resources, as well as hydrocarbon and mineral resources, points to a navy focused on offshore constabulary and resource management functions rather than war fighting.

More and better patrol ships, both offshore and coastal, appear to be called for, and auxiliary ships that can support the protection and management of the EEZ and its resources are a recognized requirement with recent purchase and purpose-built ship acquisitions.

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I hope this wasn't too boring. Everyone loves battleships and aircraft carriers, but in the 21st century the prospect of naval operations promises to be much more mundane. Service at sea is always hazardous, but the potential of naval conflict is probably less than we think. Navies in many cases - the small ones at any rate - have other things to be concerned about. In combat operations, the RNZN could only function as an adjunct to either the Royal Australian Navy or to the USN, and then only where New Zealand vital interests are involved.
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,768
Dispargum
I think the technology of the past 50 or 60 years has moved in the favor of smaller navies, at least in their own littoral waters. Some very powerful technologies like anti-ship cruise missiles and smart mines, are becoming cheaper and simpler to use.
 

pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,008
I think the technology of the past 50 or 60 years has moved in the favor of smaller navies, at least in their own littoral waters. Some very powerful technologies like anti-ship cruise missiles and smart mines, are becoming cheaper and simpler to use.
I would agree that in some cases the technology is a huge force multiplier for small naval forces. However, it is enormously expensive in most cases. The costs of the sensor suites and the weapons systems can be 60% or more of the cost of a warship. Countries like Singapore (a fascinating small navy) can afford it for now, but even countries that can afford it are more reluctant to build new or to upgrade the ships they have (Canada for one).

Another continuing issue has been manning requirements. That is one reason for expensive technology as navies are finding it difficult to recruit and to retain personnel. The Royal Navy has problems manning the fleet, and others - Canada, Australia (and New Zealand) are having similar issues. I don't have ready access to sources for small navies other than in English, so I don't know enough to speak about France or Japan (or Singapore). In any case, most of those navies are not that "small."
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,768
Dispargum
I was thinking of much smaller navies than France or Japan. I was thinking more like Singapore or other smaller countries that would only equip their navies with small missile patrol boats or a handful of maritime strike aircraft. 60% of a small missile patrol boat is still quite a lot of bang for the buck.
 

Belgarion

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,776
Australia
The RNZN has reoriented itself over the past couple of decades from a fighting force capable of operating with allies in a conventional task force to a coast guard / police force. This is in line with government policy over the last 30 years or so. There was some annoyance in Australia when the NZ government cancelled the order for 4 ANZAC class frigates, saying these ships were no longer required for the role the RNZN was expected to play in the future. As it was they had to accept the two that were almost complete and cancelled the other two. This is the only reason the RNZN has frigates today. They have also lost the capability of at sea replenishment that is vital for an extended deployment.

The RNZN is still a capable force for its current role, however it has lost/is losing its ability to operate with its allies in a warfighting situation, as opposed to humanitarian/fisheries protection efforts.

As an aside, the RNZN still had the traditional rum issue until the mid 80s. I was quartered in the barracks at HMNZS Philomel in Auckland at one point and was entitled to a 'tot' at 1100 every morning. :)
 
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pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,008
I was thinking of much smaller navies than France or Japan. I was thinking more like Singapore or other smaller countries that would only equip their navies with small missile patrol boats or a handful of maritime strike aircraft. 60% of a small missile patrol boat is still quite a lot of bang for the buck.
Yeah, I am thinking more on the lines of Singapore or even Viet Nam. I think you will find Singapore has more naval capability than just patrol boats. The navy has submarines, frigates and corvettes, and four amphibious assault ships.
 

pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,008
As Chlodio brought up the Republic of Singapore navy, let's look at it.

1) OoB: 2 - Challenger class submarines purchased from Sweden and commissioned 2001 and 2002. (Two others decommissioned in 2015)

2- Archer class submarines also from Sweden and commissioned 2011 and 2013. Significant upgrades completed 2018 and 2019.

These vessels were acquired to gain technical and operational experience for the RSN. At present there are four submarines contracted with ThyssenKrupp of Germany. One has been launched with three others to follow.

1 - Submarine tender and rescue ship

6 - 3200 ton frigates commissioned 2007 to 2009, based of French La Fayette class frigate.

6 - 600 ton corvettes commissioned 1990 and 1991. One built by Lurssen Werft of Germany; the other five by ST Marine of Singapore.

8 - 1200 ton littoral mission vessels 2017 to 2019. These ships were all built and equipped by ST Marine of Singapore.

4 - amphibious transport docks (amphib assault ships) comm. 2000 to 2001. All built by ST Marine.

4 - mine countermeasures ships commissioned 1995. One built in Sweden three in Singapore

2 - unmanned surface vehicles (developed for the Israeli Defence Forces). These are armed and have been deployed on operations in the Sea of Japan and in the Persian Gulf.

2) The RSN has been heavily involved in anti piracy operations around the Malacca Straits and in other littoral waters. Singapore has also operated joint patrols of the Straits and associated waters with Indonesia and Malaysia. Anti piracy operations have also been conducted in the northern Bay of Bengal.

3) The Straits of Malacca are the heaviest transited 'narrow sea' in Asia and one of the heaviest in the world. Security of commercial traffic through these waters is a critical vital interest for Singapore. The RSN has participated in trans regional, multi national operations in the recent past, but has been reevaluating the costs and benefits of larger scale participation.

4) Singapore has an increasingly sophisticated defense industry including ST Marine that can build surface warships and also provide them with technological equipment including sensor systems and software. The RSN has two naval dockyards that can service and repair the ships of the fleet including the former Royal Navy dockyard at Singapore.

The Republic of Singapore is an oddity. It is a city-state that has major defense needs in an extremely critical geography. Its navy is designed around a combat capability even as it is involved in joint patrol/constabulary operations with its neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore desires to be a good neighbor and also a responsible international partner engaging in naval activities away from its immediate geographical area. With new attack submarines, new littoral mission vessels and an amphibious capability, one may wonder how the RSN is viewed by its neighbors' intelligence services. However, the RSN may be a demonstration of deterrence since such a small state must be taken seriously by others. They may never use it, but it is well that the navy is modern and highly thought of.
 
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