The Royal Navy either is or should be involved in a wide range of missions that manifestly do not need a high end warship either in construction, sensor or armament terms, yet because of a lack of any credible alternative we often send the escort fleet; over stretching crews and vessels alike.
The old saying applies, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Some of the standing patrol taskings have recently been completed by RFA vessels; much to the horror of the Daily Mail, however, there is a sneaky suspicion among many that RFA type ships are actually much better suited to some tasks than frigates. A towed sonar array or Harpoon missile are not actually that useful in drugs interdiction, anti piracy or disaster relief operations. The standing patrols are often dual hatted with an escort and RFA vessel working together now, is this overly resource intensive.
The C3 concept envisages a low end ship that can support these low end tasks but also contribute in a meaningful way should the bullets start flying. This is a fundamental problem C3, the requirements for offshore patrol and warlike capabilities push the design towards a warship, increasing cost and inevitably decreasing number. It is the numbers that count and what will make the concept work. Because it will have to self deploy at across oceanic distances and have good sea keeping qualities the size starts sneaking up. As size increases so it seems does the crew, there is then a temptation to add more and more armament and sensors until you have turned a cheap multi-purpose vessel into a light frigate or corvette, a more warlike than utility vessel with the attendant compromise in the capacity for carrying useful payloads.
The end result is a design that is unaffordable in the kind of numbers needed.
Although proposals for C3 seem to be as numerous as the other FSC concepts there seems to be an inevitable drift towards a corvette type design i.e. a small warship, with all that entails.
There has been some discussion about so called influence squadrons, a term coined by Commander Hendrix of the US Navy, that combine soft power capabilities such as medical support, disaster relief and training backed up with a medium scale expeditionary ground component and the ability to conduct piracy or drug smuggling interdiction in the littoral environment. The squadron would have its own logistics and be covered by a missile armed destroyer. It’s a very interesting concept and although worthy of some discussion the concept would probably not suit the RN, a less patronising name might be needed as well.
It sparks a debate though, a different might be needed; an area ripe for the traditional Royal Navy innovation that has eluded us for so long. There have been many other studies and subsequent discussion on and off line, there does seem to be an awful lot of intellectual capital being invested in the concept but very little in terms of real capital. The area of most innovation seems to be in cost reduction and through life management rather than doctrine or design.
Of course the Royal Navy can and does assemble multi-purpose task groups as demonstrated on many occasions but these will generally comprise multi-purpose warships and RFA vessels, not always entirely suited to the task. Exposing very expensive frigates and destroyers to environments where a lucky RPG shot might put that very scarce resource out of action for an extended period is not a sensible use of resources.
We have made the point previously that the UK is actually doing very well out of piracy but this is short term, if we allow piracy to continue making a mockery of the rule of law then the effects will be significant and there are increasing signs of potential exploitation by terrorist organisations. African pirates seem to be doing a reasonable job of carrying out elements of sea denial operations and the massed ranks of the worlds navies seem to be only partially successful at their old fashioned role of sea control. Naval activity has concentrated on projecting force onto land and neglected the ability to deny and control the maritime domain to others.
Drug interdiction is also a valuable mission to carry out, despite the raging debate over legality, drugs have a corrosive effect on producer nations and beyond, it is likely to remain a key mission for the Royal Navy.
Weapons smuggling interdiction will also be a common mission.
These requirements need a blend of capabilities but none of them require anti aircraft missiles or dipping sonar and small patrol vessels like the River class are simply too small to be of use in missions that require stores or helicopter support, as many of them do.
Drugs interdiction, anti piracy, training/mentoring (an area that should be expanded), medical support, disaster relief and explosive munitions clearance would be typical missions.
In a higher threat environment whilst operating under the cover of the Type 45’s and C1’s, mine clearance and amphibious survey could be added. Patrol and presence type operations or amphibious force support may also be undertaken in the littoral in support of onshore operations
The list seems to be endless but all of them fall short of requiring a ‘warship’
Our modest proposal is to create a number of standing formations based on a four tier structure, a logistics support vessel supporting a number of general purpose vessels and two classes of inshore/offshore patrol boats. Force structures would flexible, being able to be supplemented with other vessels as needed but the general thrust is to create a flexible force that can deploy together as a package.
There is no point creating a force structure if no mandate exists for it to operate so at this point it might be a good time to review how the UK contributes to standing patrol requirements, with what equipment or if at all. Maritime defence diplomacy or soft power is under resourced and its effects under appreciated, this needs to change. This review would be the result of a wider review, of NATO for example. We will discuss this a little further in future posts, including forward basing and where our resources should be focussed for the benefit of the UK.
To counter asymmetric threats a network of vessels needs to be maintained, remote sensors or UAV’s are means to extend this network but are no substitute for boats on the water. The only way to achieve numerical advantage, unless a pot of gold is found at the end of the rainbow, is to recognise that miniature warships in small numbers is not the answer.
With our back of the fag packet costings we could afford 2 LSV and 8 GPV’s with its helicopters, patrol boats and UAV’s for a billion pounds, a reasonable sum given the costs of other naval equipment and the estimated cost of FSC.
When you read the key features it will become obvious that they are not warships, the main components are slow and have very little offensive armament but the utility is derived from numbers and its embarked capabilities.
This is quite removed from the original C3 concept and definitely creates a capability that would not be particularly survivable in a hostile environment of anti ship missiles unless it had cover provided by the escort fleet, but that is not its purpose.
Comparative costs and effects between a task group comprising this concept and others would be an interesting exercise.
With this concept the delineation between war fighting and other roles is very clear.
Basic design features as follows.
Logistics Support Vessel (LSV)
Providing logistics support and crew sustainment would be a single multi-purpose logistics and support vessel, persistence in the area of operations is a key success factor for this concept so crews could rotate in and out as required.
Key features would be…
- Able to carry significant sustainment supplies (fuel, water, food, spares & ammunition etc), disaster relief supplies, a range of mobile plant, transport vehicles and other equipment
- Appropriately scaled at sea replenishment capability, able to support a force of between 4 and 6 General Purpose Vessels (GPV)
- Containerised auxiliary water purification equipment, able to operate dismounted from the ship
- Containerised auxiliary power generation equipment, able to operate dismounted from the ship
- Containerised hospital, lab and diagnostic facilities, able to operate dismounted from the ship. Basic hospital facilities would also be retained as an integral feature
- Extended accommodation for embarked force (training, construction, signals, logistics and medical specialists)
- Equipment maintenance facility for vehicles, maritime and aviation equipment
- Enhanced command, control and communication facilities
- Able to load and offload in austere locations, damaged port facilities and at sea using mexefloat, RORO ramps, high capacity cranes and a vehicle landing craft in a well deck
- Roll on roll off loading facilities and high capacity deck cranes (100 tonne)
- Soft kill self defence systems and small calibre automatic weapons carried as standard
- Fitted for but not with Phalanx CIWS
- Weapon container position for possible future containerised CAMM
- Basic sensor fit
- 15-20 knot speed, standard electric diesel propulsion
There is any number of potential off the shelf or easily modified designs to fulfil this requirement but the most obvious one would be a modified Bay class or another derivative of the Royal Schelde Enforcer class.
Construction needs to be sturdy but not necessarily to full naval specifications and we should strongly consider building offshore. These should not be complex and any sensitive equipment can be fitted in the UK. Whilst the Bay Class would hardly be a shining example of low cost construction a follow on design, suitably modified and constructed as a result of international tender should not cost any more than £200million
General Purpose Vessel (GPV)
The GPV is the jack of most trades, definitely not a warship but possessing some warlike capabilities. The real utility of this vessel will be in what it carries (6 patrol boats, a light helicopter and mission modules), not what it is fitted with.
Key features would be…
- Able to operate a light utility helicopters including hangar, likely the Wildcat although a lower cost alternative like the AW139, Agusta Westland A109, EC135 or similar would be more appropriate as discussed many times on Think Defence
- The landing spot should support a medium sized helicopter like the Merlin but this would be the exception
- Capacity for large number of containerised mission modules on an open deck
- Carry a number of small UAV’s, the Boeing Insitu Scan Eagle as per our UAV post would be ideal as it is compact and easily operated from small vessels
- Able to operate a wide range of UUV for mine clearance, survey and other support tasks including the Sea Fox and Remus types already in service
- Able to carry, launch and recover 6 small patrol boats whilst under way
- Accommodation for mission specialists, boarding parties or other embarked personnel
- Moon pool for covert and convenient UUV deployment
- 12-15 knot with extended range and endurance
- 2x Containerised weapon positions
- Basic sensor fit
- Fuel for embarked boats, unmanned vehicles and helicopters
- Small command, control facilities with extensive communication support
- Soft kill self defence systems and small calibre automatic weapons carried as standard
- Fitted for but not with Phalanx CIWS
- Large open deck with power, data, water and sanitation connections for mission containers
Again, there are several construction options but a modified, sturdy and very low cost offshore support vessels from Rolls Royce UT, STX Europe designs or Ulstein S Series would be an interesting option to fulfil this role. There is a great deal of worldwide design and construction experience, with operation and construction costs been driven relentlessly down and and they are generally very sturdy and durable. Modifications would of course have to be designed in but even the larger offshore support vessels tend to cost as little as £30million although some of the more complex designs cost considerably more. It is presented here merely as a possible design route, using simple and economic designs and evolving them, rather than starting from scratch.
As with the LSV the design and construction could be split with the construction being subject to international competition to drive costs down. Even if we budgeted £75million that price would likely include the patrol boats (about a million pounds each) and a helicopter.
Could it replace a frigate or destroyer on a typical solo patrol, that would depend on where and when I guess but in many cases, yes it could.
The patrol boats will operate both on the open ocean and in the littoral so competing mission requirements might conspire to create separate designs. In this role, speed, reduced signature and toughness are key attributes.
The Royal Marines operate a number of assault boats, rigid raiders and other similar designs but they are more suited to assault type operations rather than sustained patrol.
Small arms, automatic weapons and RPG’s are likely to be ranged against it, so as ground vehicles are having to relearn old lessons about survivability so should patrol boats. All the current designs are lightweight or based on RHIB’s and against an RPG or sustained automatic fire are vulnerable. Speed and mobility provide significant defence but it is not enough and some form of armour must be a design priority.
Existing RHIB’s might be suitable for some roles but are vulnerable to small arms and the exposed crew will suffer in rough seas, however the situational awareness afforded by the open design may be advantageous in the littoral environment.
An obvious choice for the smaller type would be the Combat Boat 90 from Docksta Varvet, equipped with a remote weapons mount and heavy machine gun or grenade machine gun. Other light weapons might include anti tank type guided weapons or lightweight automatic cannons.
It is essential that this variant is fitted with additional protection against small arms and RPG’s, slat armour or even the Tarian cloth armour panels if they could be suitably marinised should be considered. A principle design objective is to retain the speed but improve protection for when operating close inshore. The CB90 is more of an assault boat than a patrol boat and Docksta Varvet make a number of larger, longer ranged designs that might be more suitable for offshore patrol in conjunction with the General Purpose Vessel.
Whichever designs are chosen the objective is to create a flexible force of differing capacities and characteristics that can be supported from the GPV and LSV as required.
When BMT looked at concept of containerised mission modules using the standard 20foot ISO container they concluded that it was sub optimal and recommended a bespoke design. The advantages of standard ISO containers is their ubiquity and low cost, so it might be worth another look in the context of this proposal, especially as the BMT study looked at a relatively standard warship design rather than the more utilitarian proposal above.
The Danish Stanflex concept of mission and weapon modules is also worthy of a further look but there are disadvantages to this approach.
In one of our earlier posts we looked at the utility of ISO containers and the creation of a series of self contained systems, for example CAMM or other guided weapons for surface or land attack. These could be plugged into the power and open architecture combat management system and could augment the combat power of the GPV on a needs basis.
More conventional ISO containers can be used for accommodation, briefings rooms, medical facilities, stores, decontamination equipment, liquid tanks, generators, communications equipment and all manner of other ‘useful things’
Modules and containers should be obtained in quantity to provide flexibility and they could be forward based.
Extending the Concept
One of the main problems for the adoption of smaller patrol vessels is range, sea keeping and endurance. All these factors push up size and although size and cost are not directly related the general trend is. One promising idea is that of the semi submersible mother ship. Navies already practice this to greater or lesser degrees with bulk deployment of mines countermeasures vessels being transported to the Gulf region by semi submersible bulk transporters from Dockwise.
The Australian Armidale Class Patrol Boat would be an interesting choice for a more muscular patrol boat (once they get the toilets sorted) but at nearly 300 tonnes and 60metres is too big to carry on a conventional ship but is too small to self deploy and stay on station for any reasonable length of time.
Austal also have a multi role corvette design that looks novel, this could also be transported to its area of operations and the crew flown out to meet it.
Another idea worthy of some discussion would be to create a semi submersible mother ship with fuel, crew accommodation and stores and marry it to a squadron of patrol boats like the Armidale. The Dockwise Yacht Transporter could accommodate 12 Armidale’s, transport them to an area and retire to a safe distance. Although the embarkation process requires benign inshore sea conditions it could be a workable solution.
The semi submersible does not have to be large either, there has been proposed semi submersible version of the US Frank S Besson logistic support ship and this could be a smaller alternative.
There may be gaps in this concept, it might be total nonsense but is intended, as with all our stuff, to encourage discussion.
There have been several other interesting ideas on low cost but more numerous maritime security forces that can counter proliferating asymmetric threats but all of them are characterised by a move away from frigates and towards lower cost platforms, trading capability for quantity.
So, get discussing:D