Until Passchendaele and the Somme dragged Europeans into a blood-soaked 20th century, military planners in Berlin and Whitehall looked not to the fields of Belgium, nor the endless Russian steppe as the future of warfare – but out to the open sea. They saw there a way of ruling their empires, securing friendly markets and proving the maxim, to quote one British admiral, that “our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy”. And so, in the years before the First World War, Germany and the British Empire embarked on one of the wildest sprees of naval construction ever seen. By the time hostilities finally began in 1914, the rivals had spent millions of pounds and amassed over 250 ships between them. That included 35 dreadnoughts – floating fortresses over 500ft long and boasting dozens of 27mm guns.

In the end, the clash of the dreadnoughts at Jutland in 1916 proved mercifully underwhelming – compared with the slaughter in the trenches, anyway. Yet for many decades after, their size and firepower would cast long shadows. Think of the epic clash at Midway or how aircraft carriers, big enough to fit dozens of aircraft, would rule the waves throughout the Cold War. To put it another way, though carpet-bombing and jet fighters quickly put the dreadnoughts out of style, the fundamental idea that naval supremacy is predicated on the scale of the ship – its length and its bristle of artillery – never really went away.

Now, however, things are starting to change. Recognising that the gigantic naval clashes of earlier centuries are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, naval planners are instead looking to downsize. Not that this necessarily means a reduction in efficiency. On the contrary, in the fight against pirates, insurgents or the many other threats of modern life, having fast and versatile vessels is a boon. Even better, navies are starting to examine the potential of autonomous boats. What if the maritime clashes of tomorrow could be fought remotely, from a landlocked barracks hundreds of miles away? An intriguing possibility – even if technology has some distance to catch up first.

Navy blues

When he joined the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, set near the oak trees and handsome 19th century avenues of the Bulgarian port of Varna, Rear Admiral Kiril Mihaylov was entering a world of big ships. Mikhail Gorbachev may have just become premier, but the Soviet Union and Nato were still rivals – and the iconography of seapower still mattered. Big ships like aircraft carriers “played a great role for projecting power at sea during that time,” says Mihaylov, now a senior officer in the Bulgarian Navy.

That’s clear even looking at Mihaylov’s own country. By the time the communist regime in Sofia collapsed in 1990, the so-called ‘People’s Navy’ had an impressively large spread of ships, including 11 frigates, with names like ‘Cheerful’ and ‘Bold’.

What Mihaylov implies of the Warsaw Pact countries, Bryan Clark confirms of their Western opponents. “The US Navy had the responsibility for guarding sea lanes and threatening the Soviet periphery, while Nato navies focused on sea control in the European theatre,” says Clark, senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. It goes without saying, he adds, that this positioning needed big ships with enough fuel to sail vast distances and that were large enough to hold plenty of ammunition. A perfect example of the size of ship required is the USS Nimitz. Commissioned in 1975 – the aircraft carrier extends for over 1,000ft and can host 90 aircraft and helicopters.

To a certain extent, navies are still interested in marquee builds like the Nimitz. In November 2020, for instance, the Royal Navy announced an order of five new Type 26 frigates. That shadows the HMS Queen Elizabeth class, a pair of new aircraft carriers (the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) costing £7.6bn and due for deployment over the next few years. Across the Channel, meanwhile, President Macron recently unveiled France’s own next-generation aircraft carrier. Weighing almost double its predecessor, it’s clear that size really does matter to the Europeans. And that before we even consider China (three new aircraft carriers, 38 new frigates), or the US (16 new aircraft carriers, 15 new frigates).

Yet, as both Clark and Mihaylov make clear, these modern-day dreadnoughts are not the sum total of naval ambition. That’s primarily down to a change in the way defence planners think about their shorelines. Put it like this: except in nightmares or pulp fiction, there was little chance that the Soviet Union was ever going to launch a naval invasion of western Europe – let alone Alaska. But new dangers – from the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean to seafaring terrorists in India and ‘grey zone’ infiltrations by hostile powers – all mean that navies now think more carefully about coastal defence. If you reflect for a moment on a ship like the Nimitz, it becomes clear, says Clark, that these monsters are totally unsuited to patrols in shallow waters or night-time raids on enemy camps.

“The US Navy had the responsibility for guarding sea lanes and threatening the Soviet periphery, while Nato navies focused on sea control in the European theatre.”

Bryan Clark


Approximate length of the USS Nimitz

Naval Technology

Small but mighty

When it launches in the middle of this decade, the multipurpose modular patrol vessel (MMPV) promises to revolutionise the Bulgarian Navy. Barely 250ft long, and boasting a crew of just 40, Mihaylov says it will greatly increase his country’s capability to counter “air, surface and subsurface threats”. Delve into the details of what the MMPV can do, and this seems fair. Despite its bijou proportions, after all, the ship comes with an impressive list of weapons. That includes machine guns, naval artillery and EXOCET missiles. The new model even comes with a helipad. And if you were in any doubt about the MMPV’s purpose, Mihaylov explicitly links it to the new focus on coastlines. “We realised that successful defence of the littoral,” he emphasises, “is not always a matter of maintaining large and costly fleets – but rather relying on small, agile and hard-to-detect vessels.”

Though the MMPV is one of the most striking examples of this shift, Bulgaria is far from alone in investing in smaller ships. In Scandinavia, for instance, the Royal Norwegian Navy is updating its Skjold-class coastal corvettes, increasing their firepower and making them cheaper to maintain. Further afield, US planners are pressing ahead with the Light Amphibious Ship, expressly designed to land marines on rocky islands in the South China Sea – exactly the kinds of hotspots that might eventually force the Pentagon into skirmishes with Beijing. Beyond geopolitical pressures, Clark suggests these developments are being prodded along by better technology. “It means that these small ships can be pretty capable,” he says. Mihaylov makes a similar point. “The development of more modern technologies like smart high-precision weapons, communication equipment and systems for maritime situational awareness lead to another decrease in the need for larger vessels.”

The proliferation of cutting-edge technology also makes smaller ships cheaper to build. To explain what he means, Clark takes the example of vertical launching systems (VLSs), which can fire missiles from cells mounted onto vessels. “They’ve refined the manufacturing process to the point where it’s actually quite inexpensive to put a VLS on a ship,” he explains. “And then you’ve just got to buy the missiles. So, the ship itself doesn’t have to be that sophisticated, because the missile carrier is sophisticated.” That’s true of other equipment, like radar, which makes small vessels considerably more appealing for parsimonious defence reviewers and cash-strapped finance ministers. In the same vein, increased firepower now means that small ships can look after themselves.

An empty vessel

Taking this principle further still, some navies are even investigating the feasibility of unmanned – or indeed totally autonomous – vessels. One of the most interesting projects here is the UK’s PAC24. First tested in 2019, it was controlled from a nearby frigate. That might not sound like much – until you realise that this was perhaps the first time in the Royal Navy’s 475-year history that one of its vessels has sailed without a single sailor aboard. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the US Navy is pursuing its own programme. From a port in Virginia, for instance, it recently showcased the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV). Armed with sensors and cameras, it’s perfect for catching smugglers. A remote machine gun also makes it suitable for more strenuous activity. Another US system, for its part, is being built for minesweeping, all part of what Clark calls a “really versatile” set of options.

With so much activity, might the Jutland of our century be fought by unmanned vessels, their crews in some bunker miles away – or even totally autonomous ships that sail and fight without any human interference. Clark is unsure. Though he says that small, unmanned boats are “starting to emerge”, he emphasises that a ghost ship battle royale is still a way off. For starters, there’s the question of maritime law. At the moment, an unmanned ship can be legally boarded and taken if it’s in international waters. That obviously poses problems for unmanned vessels whatever their size. The law can be tweaked, of course – but what about more practical challenges? A militarised dinghy might be simple to maintain, but frigates and destroyers often come with a host of technical hitches. Without a permanent crew to make repairs, these ships risk breaking down, floating helplessly until they’re captured by the enemy.

Once again, Clark suggests technology might offer a solution. He imagines a world where, if an unmanned ship is boarded, key systems could be disabled remotely. In the worst-case scenario, vessels could even sink themselves if threatened. Mihaylov agrees, but stresses that it’s too early to really know how unmanned ships will fare in the heat of battle. “We will only have a clear picture of their real capabilities,” he says, “after their mass adoption and prolonged exploitation”. While the world shepherded in by the dreadnoughts seems numbered, in other words, we should probably expect sailors and gunners to crowd ships like the Nimitz for just a while longer.


The cost of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.

Global Defence Technology