Today’s navies face a staggeringly wide range of threats. From piracy to people smuggling, territorial disputes to terrorism, these challenges are highly varied, which is testament to the complex nature of maritime security.

In a sense, this has always been the case. Piracy has existed for as long as the oceans have been sailed for commerce, but today’s pirates are typically more sophisticated – and therefore dangerous – than those sailing under the black flag.

“The general threats to surface ships operating in littoral regions have substantially increased,” says Lieutenant Commander Steven Wills, a research analyst at CNA Corp. “The proliferation of cruise missiles of all sizes and improved targeting through automatic identification systems (AISs) and GPS mean a much more dangerous littoral environment.”

An expert in US Navy strategy and policy, Wills comes at the issue from an academic and real-world angle. Prior to joining CNA, he spent 20 years as an active duty US Navy officer, serving on a variety of small and medium surface combatants.

“Navies and coastguards must have a heightened sense of awareness that even small militant groups can target and potentially destroy warships operating out of sight of land, in what had been relatively safe operating environments in the recent past,” he says.

He cites a key example: the recent Yemeni Houthi rebel attacks on Saudi coalition warships. Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, Houthi rebels have targeted these vessels via missile and drone boats. The most notable incidents came in January 2017, when an unmanned Houthi attack boat exploded near a Saudi frigate, and again in June, when the rebels assaulted a UAE Navy vessel.

Evolving threat

The rebels also launched a devastating cruise missile attack on the former US Navy vessel HSV-2 Swift, and later targeted the US destroyer USS Mason, albeit unsuccessfully. Most recently, the Houthi movement has threatened to sink Saudi battleships and oil tankers if Yemeni ports are not reopened.

As Wills explains, future patrol craft will be forced to contend with the likes of maritime IEDs, mines and cruise missiles.

“Some organisations, such as the Houthi rebels, possess most of these capabilities, as well as conducting piracy, terror attacks and human trafficking,” he says. Most navies and coastguards do not have the funding to respond to all of these threats.”

Commander Graham Edmonds, a retired naval commander and member of the UK National Defence Association, comes at the problem from a UK-based perspective. He feels that the threat landscape itself hasn’t changed substantially in recent decades. What does concern him, though, is the much-lamented decline of the British Navy.

“The demands placed on patrol boats are not new, but the fewer the patrol vessels, the more work they have to undertake,” he says. “In the 1970s and ’80s, the Royal Navy had nearly 30 patrol vessels of various sizes, mainly engaged in fishery protection and coastguard-type activities. The Navy also used the Ton-class MCMVs, of which about 50 were in service. Three new River-class OPVs are now being built to replace – not augment – the three slightly smaller River-class currently in service.”

As Edmonds sees it, the primary issue is a lack of resources, meaning naval capabilities are not always commensurate with the demands they’re facing. He feels this issue goes beyond naval security, and applies to the UK’s maritime industry in general.

“This maritime nation, gripped by a misplaced continental policy, has destroyed its merchant shipbuilding industry, nearly lost control of its EEZ, sacrificed its fishermen and, with the forthcoming Brexit, has insufficient maritime power – military and civil – to do the job,” he opines.

Littorally overstretched

One of the main ways this manifests is in the realm of policing. While navies and coastguards have always performed this role, Edmonds feels that the personnel and equipment resources have not increased in proportion to their workload.

“Coastal control stations, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and ships are needed to protect innocent passage and prosecute wrongdoers, and the physical governmental resources available are insufficient,” he says. “Turning to military security, the UK’s defence commitments require an investment in sufficient ships, submarines, aircraft and marines to provide the confidence that the UK will honour the commitments should it be required. The UK’s maritime forces are not adequate.”

Moving beyond the Royal Navy specifically, Edmonds points out that many of today’s littoral threats have a long and gloomy precedent.

“Piracy decreased somewhat in the 1960s and ’70s, but is as rampant now as it was in the days of Edward Teach [Blackbeard], and the threats of bombs on ships is not new,” he points out.

Over the past decade or so, piracy has been particularly prevalent in West Africa, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits. According to a report by the International Maritime Bureau, there were 121 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the first nine months of 2017.

The issue attracted particular media attention around 2009, which saw 306 attacks between January and September, predominantly off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. From 2008 to 2013, pirates operating here made profits of around $120 million a year, with the additional annual costs to the shipping industry (in terms of armed security, ransoms and safer ships) reaching a peak of $3.3 billion.

As Wills explains, the rise of piracy came down in part to the widespread deployment of AIS. Although it is a useful monitoring system, and can be used to detect pirates, it may be exploited by those very same pirates to spot vessels coming into range.

“The decentralised Somali pirates operation took advantage of AIS data readily available through commercial means to improve their targeting ability against ships they could not see or otherwise detect through traditional means,” he remarks.

While the total number of piracy cases has dropped over the last few years, hijackings and kidnappings are still a problem. This year, Venezuela has witnessed a rise in maritime violence and Nigerian waters remain risky.

Complex problem

Another widely discussed problem is people smuggling, particularly as it pertains to the movement of refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war. Globally, there were more than 3,800 deaths from migration in 2015, and the social and economic impacts are notoriously complex.

On top of that, recent years have seen several terrorist attacks launched from the coast. One prominent example was the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which the attackers reportedly hijacked an Indian fishing trawler, before entering Mumbai on rubber speedboats and opening fire in various locations. Then there was the 2015 mass shooting in a coastal Tunisian resort.

Piracy decreased somewhat in the 1960s and ’70s, but is as rampant now as it was in the days of Blackbeard, and the threats of bombs on ships is not new.

There are also concerns that large cruise ships might one day be targeted. To date, the world’s worst attack on a passenger ship was the 2004 sinking of Superferry 14 in the Philippines, which killed 110 people. A number of naval security experts fear we might see more attacks of this kind – retired admiral James Stavridis recently said in an interview that cruise ships were potentially lucrative targets as they were “not very well defended… you could see terrorists actually trying to infiltrate a cruise ship and acting on a captive audience at sea”.

It is clear, then, that patrol boats will have their work cut out for them in future, particularly when it comes to supporting complex missions. Wills feels that as the patrol boat mission list continues to grow, ships will need to become more flexible and mission-responsive.

“Larger patrol craft that can support unmanned systems, with armament sufficient to deal with ‘grey-zone’ threats such as piracy, armed smugglers and hostile maritime militias, are likely to be more versatile then past examples that were purposely designed for fisheries patrol, rescue and counter-narcotics operations,” he says.

He adds that modular capabilities – such as those pursued by the Danish Navy, and more recently by the US Navy with the Littoral Combat Ship – might hold promise in this regard.

“A missile corvette may be ill-suited to countering human trafficking and an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) not a good choice to defend against cruise missile attacks,” he explains. “A common hull form that can support both mission sets is a good idea.”

There’s also a more effective deployment of unmanned vehicles, which are smaller and longer ranged, as well as improvements in network connectivity on a global and local scale.

“This has dramatically improved the single patrol craft’s range and depth of action,” Wills continues. “While global networks might be lost in a major war, local networks sustained by high altitude blimps, UAVs, coastal radars, and patrol aircraft can continue to support extended patrol craft operations. The extension of the patrol craft’s range of detection and action via the use of unmanned systems and networks could be the most significant technological advancements for patrol craft in upcoming years.”

Dual function

Edmonds says that while recent years have seen “nothing staggeringly changing” in terms of patrol boat design, they often now perform a dual role as minor fighting ships, with space for surface-to-surface missiles.

“They have comprehensive navigation equipment, as accurate evidential facts are required for any arrest or legal action,” he points out. “And the latest Royal Navy patrol vessels have a heavier displacement than their predecessors, at about 2,000t.”

Although the emphasis these days is typically on rapid response, he points out that there are trade-offs to be made between endurance and speed.

“There have been very fast ships in service (50kt and quicker), but generally the line is drawn at 30kt,” he says. “Most engines’ diesel or gas turbines can achieve about 25kt, butt o go faster requires a considerable increase in fuel consumption.”

One final issue for navies is the mounting spectre of climate change. Aside from the ways that rising sea levels may affect infrastructure, it could also have ramifications for security. The US Department of Defence has warned that climate change could function as a ‘threat multiplier’, aggravating the kinds of stressors that enable terrorist activity and other violence.

“My climate-change knowledge is limited,” says Wills, “but it would seem that maritime forces, and especially patrol forces, can help to mitigate climate-related disasters by preparing to conduct humanitarian assistance missions. Patrol craft are on the front line of such operations and must be ready to conduct them at very short notice.”

He adds that that he observed such operations himself when serving at NATO, with its forces providing humanitarian relief to Somali mariners affected by pirates. It seems clear that, however the specific threats evolve, patrol boats will continue to play a very important role.

“As the Naval Prayer states, our ‘broad mission’ is – ‘to be a security for those who sail upon the seas on their lawful occasions’. So in broad terms, hardly anything has changed,” says Edmonds.

All views expressed in this article are the interviewees’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of their employers.