Time was that naval planners, to say nothing of the public at large, expected their ships to loom over the competition – literally. In the years leading up to the First World War, for example, the UK and Germany battled to build ever-larger vessels. For instance, 1906’s HMS Dreadnought stretched to a bewildering 527ft, its 18 massive boilers capable of carrying the ship over 7,000 miles. This obsession with size continued through much of the past century: from the aircraft carriers at Midway through monsters like the USS Enterprise, the US’s naval rivalry with both the Japanese and the Soviets was largely seen through the prism of square footage and engine size.

However, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the later rise of so-called ‘grey zone’ conflicts in the Middle East, naval planners on both sides of the Atlantic soon changed tack. “Specifically during the Global War on Terror,” says Dr Jason Thomas, vice-president and director of the operational warfighting division at the Center for Naval Analyses, “smaller vessels came to influence a range of operations, from combatting pirates to deterring terrorists”. This can be seen in practice too, with offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), as well as patrol boats, lately used solely in these operations everywhere from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. The recent importance of these vehicles, moreover, is reflected in the numbers. According to work by Coherent Market Insights, the global market for OPVs is currently $1.4bn – a figure expected to rise to nearly $2bn by the end of the decade.

Certainly, there’s plenty of enthusiasm for new OPVs as well, with the Indonesian and Vietnamese navies just two of those investing heavily in new models. But with the end of Pax Americana, and the related rise of serious naval rivals like China, some insiders believe that, especially for the US, larger vessels may soon be making a decisive comeback. That’s shadowed by a range of practical challenges, with several OPVs suffering from awkward delays or malfunctions. Not that the era of the small ship is necessarily vanishing forever. Especially for countries with long coastlines, they’re still vitally important for scouring lonely bays and inlets. Bolstered by developments in new technology, it seems clear that OPVs are here to stay – if construction gremlins can be banished, anyway.

Size matters

Spend time exploring the roster of new OPVs and it’s obvious that they’re a vital part of military thinking the world over. In September 2022, to give one example, France announced plans to order six such vessels from a pair of local defence companies, a contract coming in at around €110m. On the opposite side of the world, for its part, is Japan, which in June 2022 unveiled a “next generation” series of OPVs each costing the equivalent $66m. Countries as varied as Israel and the Philippines are moving in a similar direction too.

It may not have OPVs of its own, after all, but the US is investing in the so-called 40-Foot Patrol Boat (40PB). Replacing its 34ft predecessor, Tiara Robinson, a public affairs specialist at the US’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), explains that “the 40PB will provide improved performance, endurance and survivability over the previous platform”. Beyond specifics in size and nomenclature, indeed, the continued popularity of OPVs and similarly small vessels can partly be understood in terms of how they’re using new technology. To return to the Japanese example, for instance, the country’s new OPV will boast such titbits as low fuel consumption and easy maintenance options for the 30-strong crew. Not to be outdone, the 40PB will be armed with autocannons and machine guns, while Thomas notes that the use of remote weapons may be able to reduce crew exposure to enemy attack.

Naturally, all this technology would be a waste of money if OPVs and their crews didn’t have anything to do – but here, too, it’s clear they do. Buoyed by the post-9/11 focus on small-scale projects, and famed for their manoeuvrability and speed, over recent years they’ve supported civil and military forces across a range of operations. In Australia, to give one example, the OPV Nemesis has helped the New South Wales Police Force detain illegal migrants and foil drug smugglers. Based in Marseille, the Gyptis is set to have a similarly idiosyncratic career, with the French government tasking the OPV with monitoring the stock of red tuna in the Mediterranean. Other work in that particular sea transcends specific countries. “OPVs have been deployed, among other missions, on Nato’s Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea,” says Lieutenant Commander Baldur Gudjonsson of Nato Allied Maritime Command, noting that the maritime security mission has significantly bolstered the fight against terrorism in the region.

Sinking feeling

It’s surely relevant, meanwhile, that most enthusiastic supporters of OPVs are ones with the longest shorelines. Indonesia – its 18,110 islands altogether encompassing some 61,000 miles of coast – is a case in point. In 2021, a shipyard near Jakarta cut the steel for two new OPVs. And while the US Navy lately decommissioned the last of its Cyclone patrol ships, it’s telling that two such vessels were duly transferred to the Philippine Navy who, like its Indonesian neighbour, is a country with a mammoth seaboard to patrol. And, as Thomas explains, this fact arguably speaks to the role many navies have beyond straightforward warfare. “For the US,” he says, “these ships do not generally play a role in high-end combat,” adding that they tend to have “security-related” missions like harbour security or force protection. At the same time, Thomas notes that other navies, especially smaller or regional ones, “play a mission more akin to a coastguard”.

The predicted global market value for OPVs by the end of the decade.
Coherent Market Insights

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to imagine that OPVs and smaller patrol boats enjoy an unassailable place in the minds of military leaders. In truth, however, that may not be the case. For one thing, there’s the challenge many countries have had in actually getting OPVs from shipyards to naval bases. An obvious case study here is Australia, whose Guardian-class vessel has suffered a range of embarrassing setbacks in construction. Despite altogether costing AU$2.1bn, for instance, the boats apparently leak carbon monoxide into part of the boat. Together with cracking in the coupling between the engine and the gearbox, it’s unsurprising that the Pacific Island buyers of the vessels are considering returning their purchases. Nor is Australia by any means alone here. In January, the Royal Navy announced that the HMS Trent would temporarily be unavailable for operations from Gibraltar due to an unspecified maintenance issue aboard the OPV.

Of course, these snafus beg the question of why OPVs and similar vessels sometimes struggle. Examine another Australian muddle, this time that of the Arafura-class OPV, and you get the sense that a lack of cooperation between military and civilian stakeholders provides something of an answer. Among other things, Australian naval brass initially approved one offer from gun manufacturer Leonardo, only to back out of the deal and go with an Israeli alternative. But now that the Arafuras are almost ready to sail, they risk being deployed before these Israeli weapons are built.

With this in mind, it’s probably unsurprising that Robinson is careful to highlight the close relationship between NAVSEA and its colleagues in the private sector. For starters, the organisation works closely with the Pentagon to understand “high-level requirements” around what’s needed. From there, Robinson continues, these requirements are “discussed with industry partners” at a range of events, including trade shows and conferences – before projects are finally put out to tender.

A role to play

With such a comprehensive system at their back, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Robinson and NAVSEA seem optimistic about the military possibilities of smaller vessels. “The 40PB,” she says, “will conduct maritime expeditionary security operations across all phases of military operations by defending high value units, critical maritime infrastructure, ports and harbours both inland and on coastal waterways.” Given continuing challenges around areas like migration and drug smuggling – Australian police recently seized enough cocaine off the coast of the Pacific to supply the entire country for a year – and civilian security concerns are bound to be well-served by OPVs too. Gudjonsson, for his part, emphasises the continuing importance of OPV interoperability across different Nato navies, explaining that shared training, tactics, weapons and communication equipment can all boost the “defensive capability” of the alliance.

Yet, if the need for smaller vessels isn’t going away, Thomas isn’t sure that broader military operations will necessarily rely on them as much. With recent versions of the US’s National Defense Strategy focusing more on great power rivalry – China and Russia are two obvious candidates here – he wonders whether OPVs may “only serve a meaningful role at best in the competition phase and not in a conflict scenario”. That seems reasonable: however good they may be at catching smugglers, any future defence of Taiwan surely can’t be achieved by OPVs, let alone the minnow 40PB. In short, the age of the Dreadnought may not quite have returned, but it may be re-emerging in spirit.