This is the final post in our FDR Maritime section and I have decided to go ‘off piste’ with some hair brain schemes and mad ideas, don’t take this one too seriously but treat it as a discussion piece.
We asked about naval innovation in a previous post and there are a some superb maritime focussed blogs like New Wars, Information Dissemination, CDR Salamander, Eagle Speak and G Captain that do a great job looking at what some might call revolutionary concepts, some even more hair brain than of ours!
The Royal Navy has rather a proud tradition of breaking the mould but as equipment became significantly more expensive and budgets increasingly restricted the opportunity for innovation has gradually reduced. The UK has had various dabbles with unusual designs, for example the RV Triton and several of the early CVF illustrations showed pentamaran hull forms. Other nations have taken various ‘anything but mono hull’ concepts forward including the US, China and Norway. Interesting concepts include the Stiletto, DDG (1000), Sea Slice, Sea Shadow and Sea Fighter (designed by our BMT), HSV-X1 Joint Venture and the US Army HSV-2 Swift.
Despite this, naval architecture continues to be relatively conservative and it’s quite easy to see why. New hull forms seem to come in and out of fashion on a regular basis but only a very few actually make it in to production; the sea is a harsh place, combat at sea more so.
Outside of the military it is fair to say that commercial pressures, the need to reduce cost or operate in new environments has produced many concepts and techniques that seem mundane now yet no less revolutionary in their day; the ISO container, semi submersible drilling rig or offshore pipe laying barge for example.
The question arises, is there anything in the commercial sector that the RN and RFA can take advantage of, designs and ideas that may be unusual militarily yet are established and thoroughly de-risked in the commercial sector?
Or even using tried and tested concepts in a new way?
In starting this post I looked at three areas not covered in much depth so far.
- Forward repair and maintenance
- Mine warfare and Dive Support
- Elements of Naval Diplomacy and Disaster Relief
Forward repair and maintenance is carried out by RFA Diligence. She was converted from a North Sea oil rig supply vessel, the MV Stena Inspector, after providing sterling service in the South Atlantic. Entering service in 1984 after a refit, RFA Diligence has been in constant service since and is approaching 30 years of service Although she had a refit in 2007, is definitely due for replacement, 2014 being the planned out of service date. In addition to repair, maintenance and other ‘engineering’ type functions RFA Diligence has provided invaluable support to mine warfare operations.
Mine warfare is another Royal Navy specialism that has suffered from under investment in recent times. The mine warfare fleet has been continually reduced and investment in mine warfare systems, particularly underwater unmanned vehicles UUV, has been patchy. Mine warfare technology has recently experienced rapid technological advancement, the days of ‘sweeping’ have given way to intelligent high frequency sonar, semi autonomous UUV’s and even super cavitating airborne automatic cannon rounds. Mine warfare vessels have traditionally been quite small, they don’t need to be large but this limits sea keeping and endurance, in response the Royal Navy proposed C3 class is meant to carry out these roles and the deployable systems now available mean that an effective capability can be hosted on almost any maritime platform, flown out from the UK with its operators.
Mines are the archetypal asymmetric weapon, cost effective, deniable and relatively risk free, yet enormously effective and very difficult to counter. Even simple mines can deny large areas to surface traffic and take a long time to clear, evidenced by operations around Umm Qasr during 2003. Although not as easy to manufacture as IED’s there is no doubt the technology and capability will proliferate. Not every nation can deploy mines as advanced as the Royal Navy’s Stonefish but equivalents do exists and will be a considerable threat. The UK should be spending more in this area, not less.
The US response to the Haiti disaster has shown many things, the need for competent public relations, the obvious need for competent over the beach logistics and construction capabilities and the even more obvious need for a coordinated multi agency approach. When the dust settles it won’t be the UN or OXFAM that people remember, it will be the US armed forces.
In a number of previous posts we have pondered the value of these types of operations, wondering that despite the undoubted good image it portrays is it worth denuding the armed forces of its core capability (doing violence unto others) by turning them into the armed paramilitary wing of OXFAM.
It’s an interesting debate to be had, the degree by which the armed forces contribute to national security with soft power capabilities and the resource split between those two areas. The UK is a very giving nation, look at the various charity campaigns; consistently we are one of the largest charity donors in the world whether by individuals, government, as a percentage of GDP or absolute terms. There is very clearly a demand for this capability.
Back to the three capabilities, RFA Diligence and its potential replacement, BMT carried out a study in 2008 on the Future Operational Maintenance and Repair (OMAR) capability and described a number of options for this so called Cinderella capability, including custom designed vessels, converting commercial vessels, a modular deployable capability and finally an offshore barge that can be transported by a Float On Float Off (FLO-FLO) heavy lift carrier.
The study concluded that the offshore barge option was the optimal solution and made specific reference to the availability in the commercial sector of heavy lift vessels. Today, the availability of FLO FLO heavy lift ships is acute, the charter market is expanding beyond capacity, forcing new ships to be designed and constructed; availability cannot be assured from the commercial sector.
So let’s buy our own and see what use we can get from them.
The BMT study proposed a large (sized to be compatible with the Dockwise heavy lift vessels in service at the time) offshore barge to fulfil the OMAR requirement. This would be equipped with a range of cranes, workshops, accommodation for 200 persons, stores, aviation facilities and displace approximately 3,500 tonnes. It would also be equipped with some propulsion to support limited repositioning and station keeping.
The heavy lift FLO FLO vessel would have a number of modes of operation; it could deploy alone to recover a damaged vessel, deploy the barge and withdraw or deploy with the barge, offload it, lift the damaged vessel for repair before returning it to the sea and picking the barge back up.
It would be a hugely flexible capability.
But what else could we use it for?
A number of things spring to mind besides the OMAR barge so here are the official Think Defence hair brain scheme list.
- Hospital barge
- Shallow draft lighterage and landing facilities
- Transport and support for small vessels
In our previous post on the RFA we looked at a replacement for RFA Argus and suggested that the role of casualty receiving could be placed aboard some of the newer RFA vessels, particularly the large Joint Support Ships we proposed as a replacement for the Fort class. In addition, a number of factors reduce the need for a dedicated casualty receiving ship; the UK maintains a modular hospital capability that can be hosted on a wide variety of ships, casualty treatment is now carried out closer to theatre with repatriation to the UK happening sooner than has been the case in recent conflicts. In a previous post we also suggested a small but dedicated fleet of casualty transfer aircraft.
But is there a need for a quasi military capability?
The USNS Comfort and Mercy hospital ships, besides their obvious war role, deliver a tremendous amount of good will for the US, real soft power in action. The UK Charity Mercy Ships also operate a large hospital ship with an operating budget of less than £30million per annum. The Conservative security policy calls for greater integration between security and development and one might reasonably argue that in the context of DFiD’s annual budget of over £2.2 billion pounds a UK Aid facility that had a secondary war role would be a good investment.
At nearly 70,000 tonnes displacement the Mercy class are very large and their 10m draft means berthing options are limited. This means patient transport becomes a difficulty, helicopter or small boats are the only option.
A hospital barge could be carried aboard a heavy lift vessel and used in the traditional manner, offloaded and moored close to shore or in berthed in a wide range of port facilities, with obvious patient access advantages although in some situations being moored offshore allows access to the ship to be tightly controlled. The Mercy class are incredible with almost every type of acute care and supporting facility onboard so an equivalent facility could not be accommodated on an OMAR size barge but it would still be a significant capability able to carry out a range of treatments in both a planned context and as part of a disaster relief response.
The previous Joint Casualty Receiving Ship project looked at PFI and possible resource sharing with NHS trusts or private healthcare but as might have been predicted, there was no interest. The NHS and private healthcare want assured access and so would the armed forces, a conflict that had no chance of being resolved, the project was quietly dropped.
This would place the facility firmly in the internal aid camp with a secondary war role.
Amphibious Logistics Support
The operations in Haiti have reinforced the need for a capable delivery capacity that does not rely on fixed infrastructure. The damaged harbour and cranes in Port au Prince were a significant roadblock to the bulk delivery of stores. Equally, it is easy to replace Haitians with ashore forces and instead of an earthquake a military or terrorist attack. The bulk delivery of personnel, fluids and stores is a capability that the UK has gradually eroded
The UK does have some over the beach delivery capability with the Albion, Ocean and Bay class, backed up with the Point class when proper port facilities have been secured. A combination of helicopters, landing craft and mexeflotes are sufficient for initial operations but would struggle with sustained operations in a permissive or semi permissive environment without intact port facilities. There are some legacy capabilities such as bulk fuel but at what level of readiness is unknown.
Haiti will deliver a whole classroom full of ‘lessons learned’ and a small section of one blog post isn’t going to even scratch the surface, we intend to look in some depth at the topic later on.
Back on FLO FLO and barges though
Over the beach assumes there is actually a beach available, this is not always the case. A beach also needs connecting roads and for a sustainment operation would need stores and onward transport facilities. Activity after combat operations would concentrate on securing port facilities, ensuring they are free of mines and other ordnance and repairing any materials/fuel handling transfer and storage facilities. All this needs to be done before (in the UK context) the Point class RORO and chartered civilian vessels can start the process of high volume transfer operations.
The US has a significant capability in this area (JLOTS) and are investing in a number of sea basing concepts. This is an ambitious programme, even though some of the more ambitious concepts have been dropped.
Apart from Mexeflotes, landing craft and 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, the UK has only a limited capability. A series of barges would provide a significant uplift at relatively modest cost.
RORO barges could open up a number of port options, inland ports for example, due to their shallow draft.
Crane barges could be used to offload vehicles, ISO containers and other materials from barges or other vessels where drive off facilities have been damaged or are not available
Salvage barges can remove underwater obstacles, dredge and make port facilities available for use.
To supplement the existing Mexeflote floating causeway and powered lighters an elevated causeway (similar to the US ELCAS system) could be carried aboard and deployed using a powered barge, shades of the D Day Whale, Spud and Beetle components of Mulberry. Incidentally, parts of ELCAS are carried by semi submersible barge carriers.
Small Vessel Transport and Support
Operating in the littoral is likely to be a more common mission for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. The Type 45 and C1 are much too valuable to operate close inshore so in the various C2/C3 proposals on Think Defence a number of low cost options have been suggested but some of the smaller options like Combat Boat 90’s or similar cannot practically self deploy. A FLO FLO vessel could deploy a support barge and a large number of these smaller armoured patrol vessels. The US Army had considerable experience in the inland and littoral environments of Vietnam but the obvious need for armoured craft seems to have been forgotten. Even the experienced Scandinavian forces have favoured speed and agility over protection but one only has to look at the experience of the Argentine corvette ARA Guerrico during operations around South Georgia the Falklands Conflict where it was more or less disabled by small arms and 84mm Carl Gustav rockets to see the utility of armour.
The support barge could operate close inshore or stand-off over the horizon, supplying aviation support, resupply and command and control functions.
When employed without the support barge an accompanying RFA vessel could support a large number of patrol vessels or corvettes carried to the operating area by the FLO FLO carrier. Crews could be flown directly out without spending time on a long deployment transit and rotated in area.
Mine countermeasures generally concentrates on defined geographic areas, approach lanes and port areas for example. The RN mine countermeasures fleet has been diminishing yet the threat remains and is likely to increase; they are an almost perfect asymmetric weapon. The FLO FLO carrier could deploy to an area of operations a number of craft that might host the various helicopters, UUV and USV that are likely to comprise future mine countermeasures equipment.
Getting them there
In order to make use if these barges or small craft there has to be some means of getting them into the area of operation. There are a broad range of options available, some immediately available and some requiring some development
The traditional barge carrier or FLO FLO heavy lift vessel would be the least risky, immediately available from commercial vendors and they could easily perform the basic mission.
Offering perhaps a little more flexibility are the yacht carrier or heavy lift vessels from Dockwise and Rolldock. Not only are these semi submersible Float On Float Off designs but they also offer combinations of extended quartering, flexible dock accommodation or heavy lift cranes.
The Roll Dock design is similar in many ways to the Dockwise yacht transporters but has a number of unique innovations with three load and unload modes; roll on roll off, float in float off and lift on lift off. The deck can be positioned at varying heights for loading and unloading flexibility and fully loaded has a cruising speed of 18 knots. The cranes are long reach and high capacity (350 tonnes each) so could be used for unloading and loading other vessels, transferring between vessels etc.
An interesting concept is the Trans Sea Lifter from Navtec that incorporates a large SWATH hull and carriage of integral tugs for barge handling.
Whichever means of delivery is chosen there would be a need for two to assure availability and whatever barges were used would have to be sized appropriately.
So hair brained or does this concept have any shred of common sense?