Is the UK C3 a Littoral Combat Vessel?
When I started looking at the type of tasks that the proposed C3 or Future Mine Countermeasures/Hydrographic/Patrol Vessel (FMHPV) was to carry out there was a lot of crossover with what might be called a littoral combat ship, perhaps it is an artificial distinction, a ship that has utility in the littoral environment is just as useful elsewhere and most ships in a fleet have to operate inshore at some point anyway.
So beyond the wider debate of what exactly is a littoral ship, in this post I revisit the C3/minor combatant/FMHPV concept. Interestingly the RN has disassociated the former C3 programme from the word combat, wouldn’t want it getting confused with C1/C2!
For the purpose of the rest of the post I will call it a C3, just because its a term we all know.
Some of my blogging contemporaries like New Wars, Eaglespeak and Information Dissemination have been advocating a new approach for a long time, well before I started, this is my contribution to the debate they and others have well underway.
Thanks for the inspiration fellas!
The argument between few/expensive and many/cheap seems to be swinging firmly to the few/expensive camp; CVF the Type 45 and Type 26 continue to travel upwards on the cost escalator. Type 26 may well be over £400 million each, Type 45 is likely to work out at over £1.2billion each when fully operational and CVF close to £3billion.
High cost means only a small number can be afforded, each one then becomes a strategic asset, almost too precious to use and catastrophic to lose. The Royal Navy has suffered at the hands of the archetypical procurement death spiral as much as any other. The desire to be at the cutting edge of capability forms an unholy alliance with political meddling and industrial issues results in over inflated costs and reduced numbers. As costs rise, numbers are inevitably reduced and the fixed development costs have to be spread over a decreasing number of production hulls. With limited export potential to spread the development costs and drive economies of scale, the whole thing spirals out of control; ladies and gentleman, I give you the Type 45, a design with plenty of potential but falling short of the superlatives heaped on it because of a lack of cash. It should have CEC, a larger and location diverse silo fit and a proper CIWS, but there is just no money for them and likely will not be.
Ray Mabus, the US Secretary of the Navy made a rather brilliant observation recently;
if we keep building ever more expensive, ever more exotic, ever longer build times for ships, we are unilaterally disarming ourselves
However, there is an entirely understandable desire for any naval vessel to be as capable as possible, have the latest technology and be at the cutting edge. After all, one of the many factors that made the Royal Navy the worlds pre eminent maritime force was its approach to technology and innovation. Another way to reduce costs is to standardise on a single design and purchasing in quantity to simplify training, streamline logistics but even this seems like a compromise too far for the Royal Navy. The design for the Type 26 might have been based on the Type 45 but whilst the final configuration has yet to be realised, it would seem that a new design is the preferred option.
One might be tempted to say that high cost is just the price of doing business, defence equipment is expensive and that’s that. This is to some extent a reasonable argument, but ignores the very real fact that all military forces have a finite budget.
Of course, breaking the link between naval vessels and eye watering cost is easier said than done.
The Royal Navy recognised that there is a need to tackle cost escalation with the various studies around the Future Surface Combatant programme and its predecessors, out of which came the concept of a three tier surface fleet.C1 and C2 would be ‘warlike’ and C3 would replace the plethora of smaller ships performing less warlike roles like survey, mines countermeasures and offshore patrol but has this been realised?
In a previous post I suggested collapsing C1 and C2 into a single design based on the Type 45 hull form to squeeze out maximum cost savings by enforcing commonality. My proposal was to have a smaller number overall but to make the resultant design, extremely capable, supplementing that smaller core with a larger number of C3’s. Pegging the Type 45 and Type 26 at six each creates a small but highly effective central core around which we can then surround with larger numbers of much cheaper designs to create a resilient and ‘good enough’ force for missions other than high intensity combat. Rather than burdening the C1/Type 45 with routine patrol taskings they can be used to surge, reacting as needed.
This smaller, high specification core, allows perishable skills to be retained and provides a hedge against emergent strategic threats but frees up funding for more relevant capabilities that are needed today. In a ‘hot war’ we would need every ounce of capability offered by a fully specced up Type 45 or Type 26 and we must not lose sight of that but the old saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, is particularly relevant here and we don’t have enough hammers either!
Like a child in a sweetshop unwilling to decide what to buy but wanting everything, the Royal Navy needs a mother to come and deliver a clip around the ear, reminding it that money doesn’t grow on trees.
We use frigates and destroyers for tasks they are not particularly well suited to, placing great strain on crews and equipment alike. The overall effect is one of decline, gapping patrol slots and generally robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The Royal Navy needs hulls in the water and to do that it needs low cost hulls and a healthy dose of pragmatism.
Holding out for the promised land of more money is simply naive, a revolution in thinking more than design needs to take place and this thinking should be that the start AND end point for such a vessel should be its cost, not capability. Any resultant design must be single minded in its cost driven approach.
This type of vessel might be called a minor warship or naval auxiliary but we should not get too hung up on names, its a vessel for today’s operations.
Although the Royal Navy C3 concept seems to have gone quite as everyone gets over exercised about the Type 26, I think C3 has the ability to transform the RN. It is interesting to note that the Army and RAF have changed to some extent in the face of changing realities, protected patrol vehicles or specialist SIGINT turboprops for example, yet the RN seems unwilling to face the same reality, insisting on exquisite platforms and tacitly accepting a reducing vessel count yet complaining about the smallest navy since forever ago.
Missions and Requirements
Looking at the missions for such a vessel they are quite varied but I think the RN needs to shed itself of is fisheries protection, anti immigration and home water EEZ protection, these missions should really be carried out by the coastguard, police or the borders agency. Their only value to the RN is to provide training and career development so in this post I make the assumption that the job of checking fishing net sizes and stopping immigrants or smugglers sailing across the channel is carried out by others.
The majority of these missions therefore, become out of area.
The types of operation we could reasonably expect such a design to carry out are;
- Patrol, presence and diplomacy
- Mine countermeasures
- Piracy and smuggling interdiction
- Special Forces and intelligence support
- Disaster response
- Aviation training
- Light maintenance and repair
- Non combatant evacuation
Most of these would be in a relatively benign environment. Where the threat is greater, they would be carried out in a larger task group and under the protection of the big boys.
Most of the C3 proposals seem to be a mini frigate, with space for 2 or 3 ISO containers and a couple of small boats, we have to be more imaginative because these inevitably become corvette capable but frigate cost. Many of its operations are carried out in relatively benign environments, yet because we must always (it would seem) make any design able to operate in a hot war, costs rise; yet for the most part, the capabilities that allow it to operate at the high end of the threat spectrum are seldom used.
When I last looked at the C3 I touched on the possibility of using a heavily modified offshore platform support vessel rather than a traditional naval design, when looking into the ship to shore logistics posts I did some more thinking on this and maybe it is worth taking further but in a related post, Jed made an excellent case for a more conventional design.
Speed is never a bad thing in itself, it supports rapid reaction, manoeuvring for tactical advantage, shortened mission times and protection against a range of threats. Unfortunately it comes with a significant price tag; to support high speeds in medium sized vessels, the extra propulsion and fuel space needed reduces volume for other things like aviation, sensors, crew space and weapons. Fuel consumption at high speed means that should that speed be utilised, the vessels endurance will be hugely reduced, so a long logistics tail simply transfers problems elsewhere. Dual propulsion systems can negate some of these disadvantages but at the cost of even more volume reduction, cost and weight. Speed also has a large bearing on capital and running costs, high speed engines and fuel are not cheap, maintenance requirements are likely to be high and when taken in the round, a fast ship is likely to be much more expensive than a slower ship of similar capabilities and capacities.
There are no wrong or right answers on speed, merely competing priorities that designers and users must balance, so whilst speed is useful, it comes with a high price tag in more ways than one. The fundamental question one must ask is, is speed worth the space and endurance penalty in this context?
For this application, I think not.
So instead of fast and sexy, I favour slow and frumpy, if there is a need for speed, we should rely on helicopters and embarked small craft.
One of my recurring themes is that there exists in the civilian market, technologies, concepts and ideas that should be fully exploited by the military yet often are not.
The sturdy, simple, offshore Platform Supply Vessel (PSV) and its more powerful and complex Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel (AHTS) relative form the basis for my proposed C3 or naval auxiliary. In the harsh conditions of the North Sea and other areas the designs have been refined over the decades, they are sturdy, versatile, capable and more than able to handle high sea states and bad weather. Above all else though, they are cheap to buy and even cheaper to operate, it is this that draws me to favour a PSV as the base design.
Competition amongst yards, sustained by a steady demand, evolving designs based on operational experience, common machinery and increasing automation have relentlessly driven costs down. This commercial imperative to reduce cost kept the pressure on in a way that simply does not happen with military designs.
There are many variations on the theme; the Platform Supply Vessel is the simplest, designed to carry bulk and liquid supplies like containers, pipes and drilling fluids, prices range from as little as £20million for a small Rolls Royce UT755 to £60million for the largest designs. Equipped with anchor handling cranes, greater engine power and powerful winches, the Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel can range from between £25million to as much as £200 million for the very largest designs. The Multi Purpose Service Vessel is the Swiss Army Knife of the offshore industry and these large designs incorporate extensive diver support equipment, ROV handling and heave compensated heavy lift cranes. In addition to the three basic types there are also a number of specialist types including dedicated rescue, seismic survey and even coastal patrol vessels. They key to their success is an evolutionary approach to change and adapting the basic design to specialist requirements as needed. They show an interesting approach to innovation, one might imagine there is an inbuilt conservatism but this is not the case; diesel electric power, combined propulsion/steering, the Ulstein X Bow and even LNG engines demonstrate that if innovation has a practical advantage, usually related to cost, it will be adopted.
Going against the small is beautiful mantra, I propose to create a class of vessels built around a roomy medium sized platform supply vessel with an open equipment architecture that decouples the means of transport from the payload.
With excellent sea keeping the basic design should have a very long range, typical figures for this type of design are between 10 and 20 thousand nautical miles. Many people state that naval construction is much more sturdy and can only provide the kind of NBC protection and damage control that a naval vessel requires. This is not the case though, BMT have produced a number of papers that show how civilian build techniques can be adapted for military use. Offshore vessels are certainly sturdy enough so as little design change as possible should be allowed, remember, cost is the primary driver.
Using offshore vessels as the base for coastguard and naval vessels is not a new concept, Rolls Royce have sold a number of UT designs for coastguard use and the Turkish submarine rescue tender project has attracted a number of interesting designs from Istanbul Shipyards and Meteksan, the latter based an an Ulstein X Bow design.
Propulsion, manoeuvre and power generation will be a direct lift from existing designs, nothing exotic. Sacrificing speed for low cost and endurance, a speed range of between 12 and 18 knots would be sufficient
Approximate dimensions would be 100m length, 20m breadth with a draught between 6m and 8m and a deadweight between 4,000 and 5,000 tonnes. Of course, this is a large vessel, much larger than the Sandown or Clyde class but we should not equate size with cost. Large and simple vessels, without high speed propulsion systems and over expensive weapons can be very cheap.
It should also be fitted with an off the shelf, open architecture, combat management system and accommodation spaces for approximately 30 people, although hotel services (food prep, ablutions etc) should be scaled for 100 personnel. An offshore support vessel usually has large bulk fluid and dry powder storage tanks under the main deck. Some of these clearly will not be needed and could be replaced with dry stores or magazines but excess potable water, fuel and other liquid storage facilities increase flexibility and would also come in handy, so worth retaining.
The base vessel is therefore, quite simply, a maritime truck.
This is normally were we start piling on the pounds but we must be disciplined.
Straight away I am going against my low cost mantra (see how easy it is) and wanting a reasonable sensor/communications fit, sensors are perhaps ones of the capabilities that are difficult to just add on.
The Thales i-Mast is a plug and play family of integrated sensor and communication masts that are designed to provide significant through life cost savings by making maximum use of an open source architecture and off the shelf components. Masts are delivered as a complete, fully integrated and tested package, that is simply fixed and connected by the shipbuilder. The benefits of using a standardised mast are self evident, a little over specified for this basic vessel but it can be selectively upgraded from a baseline fit, rather than having top of the line sensors from day one.
Each vessel would be equipped with a medium calibre weapon, the MSI SIGMA A2 would be the obvious choice, a remote controlled system that mounts a 30mm ATK Bushmaster cannon and a 7 cell launcher for the Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile. It is a compact, relatively low cost mount, already in service (in its basic form) with the Royal Navy and appropriate in terms of firepower. In a previous post on littoral concepts I proposed a containerised SIGMA mount for use on a gunboat variant of the LCVP and it would be sensible to reuse the same.
A couple of pintle mounts for miniguns or GPMG’s should also be fitted but nothing more. In a recent post from the Combat Fleet of the World blog, just how ineffective automatic weapons can be against high speed small craft is bought into stark focus, so the LMM is a vital addition.
Although normally operating in low threat environments a modular fit of self defence soft kill systems should also be allowed for.
Some of the emerging C3 concepts make room for a mission deck or flex deck, mission modules are container sized and the deck includes handling facilities. The only problem with these is their small size, it almost looks like they have taken a corvette design and hastily tacked on some space for 3 or 4 containers and a couple of RHIBS and called that job done.
We need more than this
In a typical 100m offshore design the shelter deck is usually around 60m long and 20m wide. In this proposal a large open deck would still be very useful but would limit helicopter operations so the simple answer is to build a mezzanine deck.
At approximately 40m length, the helicopter mezzanine deck could support large helicopters like Merlin or Chinook and a telescoping hangar fitted to provide shelter for a small/medium sized helicopter like a Wildcat or AW139. This type of telescoping hangar has seen widespread service with many military and civilian operators, available from a number of manufacturers including Indal Technologies and Aljo.
The single 60m main deck would still be retained but 40m would now be covered and protected from the elements by roller shutter doors. The open deck area would therefore be approximately 20m long.
The full length of the cargo deck would have multiple ‘docking’ spots for payload containers; each spot having power, water, waste water, compressed air and network/combat system connectivity. A gantry crane will support container handling in the sheltered area and a larger, heave compensated crane, on a travelling rail will be provided for the open work deck. This crane should be able to transfer equipment and containers from the helicopter deck or shore facility. In addition to the main and gantry cranes there would be a loading RORO ramp and even a stern ramp for easier loading and unloading of small ships. Some container space could be sacrificed for side loading davits.
Height of the sheltered deck should be at least 4.5m to accommodate large vehicles, small surface craft and HiCube containers.
The BMT Venator is a good example of the type of flexibility on offer from such configuration and the second video shows the Austal Multi Role Vehicle with its large hangar and RORO ramp, much food for thought.
In a high density cargo only configuration the 60mx20m deck could accommodate about 50 20 foot ISO containers or TEU’s. Even allowing for the partition door, RORO ramp, small craft davits, deck crane, stern ramp and a 2 container width full length gangway there is still capacity for a comfortable 20 TEU. If helicopter operations were sacrificed yet more containers could be carried and experimenting with different container length and stowage configurations reveals incredible flexibility and capacity.
There are endless possibilities.
Modules and Payload
The reason the base vessel will be cheap is self evidently because it can’t actually do much!
This is where the payload modules come into play.
For ease of transport and handling, payload modules should be based on standard ISO container sizes. Although BMT have studied this and concluded that the optimal solution is based on a bespoke design the approach of this proposal is to drive cost down, the cost benefits of adopting civilian standard sizes are obvious. They can be transported easily, and handled by the vast majority of port facilities.
Mission payload modules have had rather a poor press with the USN LCS but the concept is sound and there is no reason why, with perhaps a less ambitious specification, the UK could not succeed in this area, learning from the problems that have plagued the LCS. The most basic of modules would be derived from commercial off the shelf designs commonly used, again, in the offshore industry. Basic accommodation, tank containers, dry stores storage, refrigerated, laboratory, office, waste handling, ablutions, galley, mess rooms, washroom/laundry, battery charging, gyms, workshop, medical, diver support (inc decompression chambers), helicopter fuelling and ROV control are all available from a variety of manufactures including Asian Offshore, Diogenes, Ferguson Modular, VG Offshore Containers, Workfox, EPS and Strongbox Marine
For disaster support, containerised water purification and bottling plants, hospital and transportable radio equipment are all available.
Moving into the military domain, a plethora of containerised systems either exist or could be manufactured for small arms stores, ROV and UAS/USV/UUSV control cabins, survey, EOD, ESM/SIGINT, command and control, briefing rooms and even data centres.
For the type of missions that the payload modules described above would be used for, there is a distinct lack of direct surface or air threat i.e. they would be carried out where only a limited threat exists (anti piracy, survey or disaster support) or where it would be carried out under the protection of other forces (mine countermeasures for example) The lack of firepower reflects this, after all, the basic armament tops out at a 30mm cannon, a handful of short range missiles and a couple of manually trained miniguns.
Could it be better armed or equipped for combat operations?
Perhaps so, again the modular containerised concept could be considered; a containerised towed sonar array might provide some limited anti submarine capability when used in conjunction with an embarked helicopter. It would be an austere capability but could be used to provide greater sensor coverage, screening or deterrence.
Containerised weapons are not a new concept but looking forward there is no reason why CAMM, the Fireshadow Loitering Attack Munition and GMLRS could not be containerised and placed on the open work deck toward the stern. The Lightweight Mobile Artillery System – Rocket (LIMAWS(R)) could easily be resurrected and fitted within the confines of a 20foot ISO container.
These might be land based designs but would still be suitable for limited maritime use.
There would be little point in trying to turn this vessel into a frigate by bolting on traditional naval weapons like anti ship missiles but that is exactly the point, it doesn’t need to be.
Combat Support Boats, Offshore Raiding Craft, the LCAC(L)(R) and even an LCVP could be carried to support anti piracy/smuggling and special forces operations. The larger LCVP would have to be carried on the open rear deck but the ORC, CSB and even LCAC(L)(R) would fit in the covered deck area.
A range of airborne, surface or sub surface unmanned system could also easily be operated from the open spaces.
Crewing and Basing
By decoupling the mission from transport elements we raise the possibility of innovative crewing and basing arrangements. Could we use sponsored reserves or Royal Fleet Auxiliary crews for the basic ships crew and a mixture of RN, RM and Army personnel for the payload?
Forward basing and rotating crews in and out of the vessel is not the panacea many might think it is but again, worthy of serious consideration. Belize, Gibraltar, Cyprus and Oman might for example, provide valuable opportunities for defence diplomacy in addition to the practical benefits of forward basing. Transit times to patrol areas are more or less eliminated, fuel consumption is dramatically reduced and maximum use can be made of time for training and mission execution. The less warlike nature of this proposed design would support the political acceptance of forward basing.
By splitting the mission crew and ‘transport’ crew we also create opportunity for significant cost reduction. If for example, we send a Type 23 on an anti pirate mission in the Indian Ocean, not only do we take the crew that operate the ship but also all manner of weapon specialists, anti submarine crew and even those that operate and maintain the 4.5″ gun. Many of the ships crew therefore, are over trained and under used, each of those crew will be getting paid, have welfare and pension obligations and have been very expensively trained. If we now send one of these on an anti pirate mission we only send what is absolutely needed.
One of the main strengths of the large deck is the ability to carry a wide range of modules or stores.
If it was on APT(N) then the deck would be filled with vehicles, plant, ISO containers, palletised stores and small craft for the anti smuggling and disaster support mission. Personnel accommodation for Royal Marines and Royal Engineers field troop or two.
If it were on a mine clearance operation; diver support, accommodation, small craft and UUV’s storage/preparation would be the order of the day.
Want to conduct littoral operations like the type carried out in Iraq by the Royal Marines; simply load up half a dozen Offshore Raiding Craft, a couple of LCAC(L)(R), accommodation/stores, a Wildcat helicopter and a couple of Scan Eagle UAV’s.
Capacity makes an enormous difference, instead of stand off mine hunting using one Hydroid Remus 600 or Talisman we could go into overmatch mode and have a dozen on the go, including accommodation, command&control, diver support, maintenance and 4 Combat Support Boats.
Instead of thinking small, we need to think big.
Estimating costs is of course a very difficult business, but by keeping modifications to the core design to a minimum and adding only off the shelf or simple additions we should be able to get the basic vessels for less than £50million each. A recent order for 4 STX PSV 06 CD, a typical 95m Platform Supply Vessel, was posted at £37million each
The price for the mission modules will vary widely but given that most are fairly simple and again, off the shelf, should be modestly priced.
Where does this proposal start?
It starts at the need for a low cost solution because that is the reality, wishing for more more more is simply not a viable strategy.
It is not intended to be a replacement for a frigate or destroyer and so does not seek to match their capabilities. Down that road lies cost escalation and inevitable reductions in numbers, defeating the whole objective.
The key to this approach is decoupling the payload from the means of transport i.e. a low cost maritime ‘truck’ with swappable mission and accommodation modules.
The UK must be relentless in its pursuit of a such a low cost solution, a solution that can meet the majority of the non high intensity operations that are in fact the bread and butter of the Royal Navy.
In doing this we allow the expensive, yet still vital, destroyers and frigates, to be marshalled, preserved at a high readiness and resources concentrated on making sure they are the best they can be because when we do need them, they have to be at the top of their game.
To end with, here is a question.
Would you prefer 8 C1 or 6 C1 and 8 of these, 16 if you think we can keep the cost below £50million.
The FDR littoral series of posts is summarised below;