The escort fleet of destroyers and frigates provides the combat backbone of the Royal Navy. Whilst capabilities have certainly increased the so called ‘tyranny of distance means that however more capable the Type 42 is than the Type 45, it cannot be in two places at once. It might be obvious but worth saying anyway, ships do not deploy at the speed of aircraft, so reducing numbers has a dramatic affect on the ability of the Royal Navy to fulfil its missions.
Increasing costs and reducing budgets conspire to produce a procurement ‘death spiral’ where increasing cost means fewer can be purchased which increases costs again and so on. The Type 42‘s replacement, the Type 45 is a good example. The Type 42 was arguably too small and too ill equipped for its primary mission of air defence, its ultimate replacement is the Type 45. An all too familiar tale of acquisition blundering means that each Type 45 is in the order of a billion pounds, we have only ordered 6, replacing 14 Type 42’s
However capable they are, they can only bring this capability to bear if they are where they are needed. Six is a dangerously low number and full 50% of the planned order.
Compounding this problem is the ever widening mission and geographical nature of what the RN is being required to fulfil. When the Type 45 was conceived as part of the ultimately doomed NFR-90 programme in the mid 1980’s the Cold War was still the only game in town. The asymmetric nature of warfare has impacted the maritime domain as much as any other with missions and threats being more diverse.
Traditionally the Royal Navy has concentrated on high end escorts as befitted its role in the Cold War but the changing nature of missions and threats has led, at last, to the recognition that a single fleet, optimised for high intensity war fighting but in small numbers because of economics, would no longer be viable. Various design studies have led to an acceptance that a two tier fleet is required; the culmination of these studies is the Future Surface Combatant.
The FSC describes two classes of flexible vessels to replace the existing Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates.
C1, Task Enabled Surface Combatant for force Anti Submarine Warfare and Precision Strike in high threat environments and medium to large scale warfighting operations
C2, Stabilisation Surface Combatant (General Purpose), this is a lower cost and lower capability design designed for lower threat environments or where smaller scale war fighting operations are required. It will also be able to contribute in a meaningful way to the larger operations.
C3, a common small design to replace the various mines countermeasures, patrol and survey ships, these are not included in the FSC concept but are worth including here
The key to FSC is timing, a reduced Type 45 requirement, CVF build and the Type 22/Type 23 decommissioning presents an obvious construction management problem, another way in which military requirements are subverted by the needs of industry.
With the reduction to 6 Type 45’s the pay off was an earlier introduction of the FSC but the newest Type 23 is only 8 years old. The Type 22 Batch 3 frigates will of course be withdrawn sooner although when exactly is not clear. It was hoped that FSC would be entering service in 2019 to coincide with the first withdrawal date of the Type 23’s (the Type 22’s having gone by then).
Subsequent to this the out of service dates for the Type 23’s have been extended, the first one planned for 2023 and the last, 2036.
The Chief Executive of BVT stated that building could start as soon as 2013 to coincide with the 2019 expected first entry into service. The dangers of creating a large gap between shipbuilding contracts are writ large in the Astute programme so if the UK wishes to retain any semblance of ship building industry, even if it is to all intents and purposes a publically funded private monopoly, then we have to take account of the timing.
It is a complex game of three dimensional chess, where the shape of the board keeps changing and someone regularly steals the pieces.
The FSC programme has attracted little public attention but arguably is more important to both the Royal Navy and the UK’s security than CVF or perhaps even, Trident.
Our earlier discussion on cancelling CVF/JCA all together was primarily around costs, removing this significant cost area would free up a significant portion of the RN and wider defence budget.
I think the FSC programme, along with Type 45, Astute, the RFA and C3 has a greater strategic significance for the UK and RN than naval fast jet aviation and it is along this principle that the next series of posts will examine options for a more numerous, useful and relevant surface and sub surface fleet.