I want to borrow the catch line of the Canadian American Strategic Review (CASR) web site and make some “modest proposals” about maritime security operations, in the context of the SDSR and reducing budgets.
There are many suggestions in the comments placed on other articles on this site that run along the lines that UK (in the form of the Royal Navy) cannot afford “gold plated” warships, so it needs many, smaller cheaper vessels and that to remain relevant in the modern world, it needs to focus the use of these smaller vessels on missions such as “fighting piracy” – my pilot response to most of these suggestions in not printable!
Let me provide some background reading before going any further.
If you don’t know the Eagle Speak blog, its author, Eagle 1 (an ex-USNR Captain) does an excellent job of tracking piracy, and has been doing for a long time before Somalia become the media’s focus
Eagle 1 works with CDR Salamander (another active blogger) to produce the “Midrats” naval podcast over BlogTalk Radio; they recently interviewed Mr Stephen Carmel, a Senior Vice President with Maersk USA. It is an excellent interview even though it has an obvious US centric view of piracy, commerce and shipbuilding.
Mr Carmel also recently gave a speech at a USNI conference where he suggested that piracy is simply not that big an issue from the commercial viewpoint; you can read the transcript here
As Mr Carmel points out, Navies may have long histories in fighting piracy, and other crime upon the high seas, but the operative word here is history. Piracy is not a military threat, to the UK or any other nation for that matter. Piracy is a law and order issue; do we call in the local TA battalion to deal with armed robbers or potential armed siege situations? No of course not, we call on appropriately trained and armed police – a civilian agency.
So I would like to examine a few points, and make a few of those modest suggestions, but lets start with the contentious stuff:
- The role of the Royal Navy is war fighting, military operations, not global maritime policeman
- BUT having said that, people who constantly moan about using T45’s (for example) for anti-piracy or anti-drug ops are missing the point: if we have such assets why not use them ? Would you rather they just sit alongside doing nothing at all?
- Building on point 2 – warships can do maritime policing, but generally speaking maritime policemen (coastguard type OPV’s for example) are not much use in war fighting
- The SDSR is actually divesting of assets that are very useful in maritime security type operations – more on this below.
Lets work this backwards a bit first, to get the modest suggestion for the RN out of the way. If we do not accept that just letting commercial market forces (the maritime and insurance industries) deal with piracy is sufficient, and that for moral reasons we should intervene, then we should use the assets we already have to accomplish the mission.
So instead of mothballing one of the Albion class assault ships, we should make a modest investment in CB90 type vessels which can operate from the well deck on anti-piracy patrols. Now I accept the Albion Class are less than perfect, not having a hanger for their own helo, but perhaps we could attach a Bay Class style temporary shelter for a Lynx. However the main point is, a CB90 with its mix of range, endurance, speed and payload, its own radar, and even a cabin roof RWS with a 12.7mm MG is excellent small vessel for anti-piracy patrols closer into shore, with much cheaper operating costs than a Merlin HM1.
A previous TD article on the CB90 is here
Obviously the same combination would be quite good for anti-drug use in the Caribbean or anti-people smuggling in the Mediterranean. In the “West Indies Guards Ship” role, which has already been undertaken by the smaller Bay Class, the ability to carry large amounts of disaster relief supplies and equipment during hurricane season is an added boon!
Maritime Security Operations – Fleet versus Flotilla
OK, so now its time for that rather modest proposal I mentioned…………
If piracy, drug running and people smuggling are not a direct military threat to the UK, but a civilian ‘security’ issue, then perhaps we should leave it to the Coast Guard? No, seriously, stop laughing….!
I know the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency is not exactly built on the same model as the US Coast Guard for example, and is not setup for such missions, but we have a successful model, which can be adopted: the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
While writing this article, I seem unable to get to the main RFA site, which might have something to do with the recent hack, so for those who don’t know a great deal about the RFA, check out the Wikipedia page
The RFA might be described as a “para-military” organization. They are the supporting element of the maritime armed forces, what in the days of sail used to be termed the Flottilla, as opposed to the Fleet(s) of combatant vessels. The RFA is manned by civilian merchant mariners and supply specialists. The RFA has for many years been a model other countries have envied, and personally I have spent 9 months working as part of the Naval Party onboard RFA Diligence and have a very high opinion of their professionalism, particularly the bridge ‘watch keeping’ officers I worked with.
So why not use the RFA model to undertake ‘coast guard type’ maritime security operations, both in UK waters, and further abroad?
FantasyFleets has made a similar suggestion
The difference is I am suggesting these vessels be sailed under the Blue Ensign as part of the RFA, either ‘straight up’ as part of the Flotilla, or on behalf of the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency – personally I don’t care if they are grey, white, blue or whether or not they have ‘go faster’ stripes.
The existing Rivers should be transferred to the RFA and manned and operated in the same way. In UK waters Fisheries officers could be carried, and Customers officers in the same way. In the Caribbean or off Somalia I would suggest the boarding parties should be made up of Royal Marines
Using the RFA to provide this capability is only part of the response to a dwindling MoD budget though. The other element would be to take the Italian approach to funding; these maritime security ops could be financed in part by MCGA, Revenue and Customs, DfID etc not just from the MoD budget. If we accept that this is not a ‘war fighting’ role, why should they be funded by the MoD at all ?
Bigger is better
However, why stop there ? As I have suggested, I am not a big fan of smaller less flexible vessels, so lets go to the other extreme and examine the use of really big RFA’s for these maritime security operations.
As the RN surface fleet has shrunk, RFA tankers and the auxiliary landing ships of the Bay Class have been used on the ‘Windies Guard Ship’ and other duties. While some have questioned the veracity of using a tanker to do anti-drug runner ops’ I say “so what?” – it’s a flexible asset, use it for whatever you can J
In my complimentary article, I suggested we should join the JSS program and buy at least 4 of these large and flexible vessels to replace all 4 RFA Fort Class vessels
In fact in the comments (some where) I went further than this, based on TD’s relentless pursuit of educating us all to be experts in ISO Container based logistics, to suggest that perhaps another 2 could replace RFA Argus and RFA Diligence, and again following the Italian model, a 7th of class could be purchased purely for disaster response operations – paid for by DfID of course !
Now I realize these vessels are not that cheap (although relatively speaking they are certainly not that expensive either – c. 360 million Euro so 305 million GBP) but beating TD’s drum of standardization the benefits of having a large class of identical vessels (which would also reduce this unit price) would be great.
But what does all this have to do with anti-piracy or other maritime security operations?
Well many graphics of the JSS design show a LCVP type vessel on davits, port and starboard aft – if these were to be replaced by CB90’s we are back to my earliers suggestion of using Albion Class, we are talking about ‘mother ships’ – but in this case RFA vessels that have a big hanger to carry their own helicopters, two CB90’s on davits (plus RHIB’s of course) and even enough room on the cargo deck to build a containerized brig for your captured pirates.
So a single class of vessel which can act as tanker, dry stores support, helo training, support and transport, repair ship (remember the TD article about containerized workshops?) AND as a maritime security operations mother ship !
So whether you like big multi-role, or if your in the “lots of smaller hulls” school of thought, what do you think about giving this expanded role to the RFA ?