There are some analysts who believe the day of the ocean-going warship has passed and that smaller vessels, designed to counter littoral threats such as terrorism, smuggling and piracy, are the future of surface combatants.

“Wrong,” says Stephane Fremont, deputy director of surface ships and naval systems at DCNS, France's naval systems giant. “It's not only major countries that need to have the naval means to protect their trade interests,” he explains, but smaller ones whose location at strategic points around the world make the ability to deploy oceangoing vessels a must.

“Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are surrounded by straits through which sail more than half the world's trade,” he says. “They are fully aware that a few mines or a threatening submarine in these waters could cause chaos to global trade and local economies. They need oceangoing vessels to maintain open seas.”

The South China Sea, for example, is near the coastal waters of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Each of these countries has an interest in being able to counter threats that emerge in this area, which means their fleets must be capable of operating in this environment. “The South China Sea,” Fremont says, “is deep and has violent storms. A littoral patrol vessel is not designed for this sea and its weather conditions, much less for antisubmarine and countermine missions.”

Vice Adm. (ret.) Olivier Saint Martin of the French navy agrees. “A surface warship is a major, unavoidable item for an oceangoing navy because it is robust and rapidly reconfigurable according to the mission: surveillance, force projection or action, and to the weapons used by an adversary.”

Saint Martin says that the design of surface ships must include accommodation, launch and recovery support for modern weapons, such as helicopters and unmanned vehicles.

Adm. (ret.) Jose Manuel Sanjurjo Jul of the Spanish navy, a military adviser to Spain's naval systems group Navantia, believes frigates should carry at least four unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which he finds preferable to helicopters since they require fewer personnel to operate. This point is also made by Saint Martin, explaining that in the French navy, personnel must multitask; it is often the supply officer who doubles as flight officer for UAVs.

Fremont calls the shipboard use of unmanned vehicles a revolution, since they can deploy from multimission ships to find and destroy mines.

Angelo Fusco, executive senior vice president for Italy of Fincantieri, also believes the future of surface ships will “include on-board UAVs.” One reason is downsizing of crews. He says navies are going to downgrade the type and number of ships in their fleets since “there is no tension between countries with big navies.” As a result, force projection will involve ships that are smaller than conventional surface warships and simpler to run, versatile in mission capabilities and seaworthy enough to operate in remote waters.

The Royal Netherlands Navy's new Holland-class oceangoing offshore patrol vessel (OPV) meets these needs. Designed to be a small, flexible patrol ship for missions such as counter-piracy, narcotics interdiction and coast guard missions, the OPV has a crew of just 50.

Similar to this OPV, the German navy's K130 Braunschweig-class corvette, built by Lurssen, is suited for littoral operations with its reduced radar and infrared (IR) signatures and specially adapted weapons, sensors and communication systems, but is also capable of long-range missions. The navy says the K130 represents a major leap in technology, notably in its high level of computer-supported automation. The corvettes can operate for 21 days out of port. Their computers and sensors simplify navigation, data and target acquisition, and allow the ships to be operated with a reduced crew.

Closer to home, the Belgian navy's three aging ready-duty ships (RDS) are being replaced by two new vessels for coast guard duties such as pollution control, guarding fish stocks, countering smuggling, monitoring maritime traffic, search and rescue, and disaster response. Built by French shipyard Socarenam, the new RDS will each have a fixed crew of 12, which can be augmented by 18 personnel from other public services such as the police or customs.

Belgian and Dutch multipurpose M-class frigates, launched in the 1990s for blue-water air defense and antisubmarine warfare, are now used mainly in littorals to monitor borders, pollution, drug trafficking and piracy. But they are being upgraded with combat management systems and new masts and sensors that will broaden their area of operations.

Thales Netherlands' Seastar and Gatekeeper sensors will provide the frigates with the capability to detect small targets as well as border violations, pollution, drug trafficking and piracy. Seastar—comprising four fixed active, electronically scanned array antennas—automatically detects and tracks small objects such as swimmers and periscopes in all weather, and guides helicopters. Gatekeeper is a 360-deg. electro-optical surveillance and alert system that uses IR and TV imagery to detect threats such as small boats and swimmers. The sensors will be matched with the M-frigates' Smart-S surveillance radar and the Thales STIR medium-to-long-range tracking and illumination weapon-control radar.

Under NATO's Smart Defense initiative, the Netherlands is proposing that the early-warning upgrade of Smart-L D-band volume-search radars on LCF air-defense and command frigates for ballistic missile defense (BMD) be extended to include Germany and Denmark. In June 2012, the Dutch government awarded Thales Netherlands a full-scale development and production contract for a BMD upgrade of the Smart-L radars on all four of its LCF frigates, whose current missions include counter-piracy patrols off Somalia.

Smart-L radar is also in service with Germany's three F124 Sachsen-class air-defense frigates, and is a major component of the anti-air-warfare suite of the Royal Danish Navy's three new Iver Huitfeld-class frigates. Thales Netherlands also sees opportunities for the derivative S1850M radar, which uses the same technology as Smart-L and is installed on the two French and two Italian Horizon air-defense frigates and the six Royal Navy Type 45 destroyers, under the designation Radar Type 1046.

Saint Martin concedes that the French navy can no longer afford to procure specialized ships such as the Horizon class, or frigates that are, as they were in the past, built for specific missions—for example, anti-air defense, antisubmarine warfare or surface combat. Instead, the multimission Fremm-class frigates have replaced these types of ships. Fremont believes “there will be a need for [Fremm-type] frigates for decades to come.”

Fusco remarks that one of the “constant themes under evaluation” is to have a simple, basic ship onto which can be installed additional components in the form of modules, and that in the future classification of ships by mission will be much less stringent. “At certain times a ship could have the role of a corvette and at other times that of a frigate,” he says.

But Fremont cautions that the idea of having a single platform that can be modified with modules “just doesn't work because once one adds together all the constraints of the different missions, it becomes impossible to [meet these needs] with just one ship.” A countermine ship, for example, has specific characteristics, principally that it must be antimagnetic so as not to inadvertently detonate mines. The hulls can either be antimagnetic steel, as is preferred by Germany, or composites, as used by France. The ships also have to be degaussed. Countermine ships are not silent, whereas were they to assume an antisubmarine role, they would have to be extremely quiet.

He and Fusco point out that another issue with modularity is it takes one to two months in port to change modules because plug-and-play capabilities are not well developed in the naval sector.

Moreover, one of the world's most modern and modular ships, the French navy's 21,500-ton BPC, relies on frigates for defense. The BPC, which is 199 meters (653 ft.) long, 32 meters wide and displaces 21,500 tons, has many roles: as a helicopter carrier for 16 NH90/Tiger-type aircraft; wet dock for four landing craft or two LCACs (landing craft air-cushioned); serving as a NATO-level 3,750-sq.-meter (40,350-sq.-ft.), 19-bed hospital, with two operating theaters and a radiology center; accommodation for 450 passengers or 1,008 troops; and as an 850-sq.-meter convertible space for an embarked command-and-control center. Nevertheless, it must be escorted by a frigate, which provides the anti-air-defense, antisubmarine-warfare and countermine protection that these high-value vessels don't have.

So, while the one-ship-for-all-missions idea via modules is difficult to achieve, at least for now, assets such as unmanned vehicles are attractive, mission-enabling alternatives. They allow a ship to sail within a safe distance of a crisis zone and deploy whatever robotic vehicle meets mission requirements. For a suspected minefield, a sacrificial autonomous underwater vehicle could be used to locate and destroy mines. For combat, a UAV could overfly enemy territory, transmitting imagery that allows the ship to accurately launch missiles at targets while avoiding civilian infrastructure.

There are consequently many ways to fulfil diverse mission requirements, but first a ship has to be able to sail where it will be most effective, and this usually means well beyond the littorals. Thus surface warships will continue to have oceangoing capabilities, while meeting budget and personnel constraints with technology and design ingenuity.

For now, that will have to do.