Let’s have a recap
All the services are facing a difficult time; reducing budgets, escalating personnel and equipment costs, lack of grand strategy and a dysfunctional MoD/Senior Military Leadership are all conspiring to make the case for change ever more powerful.
The business as usual option is to retain our commitment to high end, boutique platforms with an exquisite specification. There is nothing wrong with this in an ideal world but bitter experience tells us that it always ends in tears but we simply fail to learn. The Treasury thinks the MoD is a basket case and is aching for an MoD that can deliver a reasonable capability at a reasonable cost, I suspect that a more cost effective MoD would actually be able to make a strong case for a budget increase but that’s another story. The unfortunate result of this approach is that it never works out according to plan, as we all know. The tough talking of Liam Fox and the formation of the Defence Reform Unit promises much but they have a combination of indifference, intransigence, commercial considerations, political forces and a vested interest in business as usual to face.
This series of posts, concentrating on the maritime element, proposes an alternative approach, recognising a changing world demands different approaches but that there will always be a requirement for traditional capabilities.
Essentially, this is about the recognition that the budget is going to have to be better aligned with what we are more likely to do and less aligned with what we are less likely to do, accepting the risk that we will be slightly less prepared for certain threats. This is a calculated risk but there are very few alternatives and hoping for the tooth fairy to deliver a big pot of cash, freshly minted at the end of the rainbow, is not a practical option.
On a wider scale, one of the main issues we face is because we try and maintain a full range of capabilities at a large scale; the inevitable result is a wafer thin veneer. Scratch the surface and we are exposed; Iraq and Afghanistan have done just that, exposing the fur coat and no knickers sham that we can do everything and anything and still be the best in the world.
If anything, we need a sharp intake of reality (hopefully Wikileaks might do this) and realise all is not well.
Action this day, as a certain cigar chomping prime minister would say.
To achieve any meaningful change we have to look again at the influence of industrial and political concerns on equipment strategies and retract the size of the full spectrum war fighting capabilities. It is important to retain these core capabilities at a high level of readiness, training and technological superiority to provide the option to deploy force in support of national interests at a smalls scale and provide a seed corn hedge against emergent strategic threats.
The result of this general reduction in size is it will free up budget for other things. These other things would be a select group of capabilities to which we would over invest and thus create a limited number of elements in which we truly excel at. I have called these ‘capability plus’ and they would allow us to do two things; better able to meet actual security challenges and deliver influence in coalition operations. For coalition operations, which are likely to be the norm not the exception, we simply have to recognise that influence comes from not being a liability.
So what does this mean for the Royal Navy, in these proposals I suggest a reduction in the size of the high end surface fleet of frigates and destroyers in return for investment in the capability plus areas highlighted in the previous post
The Forward Presence Squadrons contribute to one of those capability plus areas, maritime security.
In the previous post on presence squadrons I identified 6 locations and a range of security, rather than defence missions. The Presence Squadron will primarily assist with defence diplomacy and building regional security capabilities in conjunction with local and regional partners. The exception to this generalisation is the Falkland Islands based South Atlantic Squadron which will have a more defence and coastguard oriented set of tasks.
The term Squadron might be thought of as denoting the number of vessels but we should see them more as an organisational construct, a collection capabilities which might comprise any number of vessels, varied depending on requirements and situations.
The squadron will be augmented on a scheduled basis with other units, it might host the Single Task Group one month, a Littoral Operations Group another (more on the LOG in the next post) and a NATO vessel in between.
Having described in general terms the requirements and aspirations of the approach, this post concentrates on equipment and organisation issues but the inherent flexibility of all UK forces should not be sacrificed for organisational neatness, there is no reason why the forces that comprise a Forward Presence Squadron could not be grouped with the Littoral Operations Group or vice versa.
I will cover equipment options for the Littoral Operations Group and other capability plus areas in subsequent posts.
- Ashore Component
- Afloat Component – General Approach
- Payload Modules
- The Presence Ship – Basics
- The Presence Ship – Modifications 01 (Payload Architecture)
- The Presence Ship – Modifications 02 (Weapon and Sensor Fit)
- The Presence Ship – Modifications 03 (Mission Desk and Aviation)
- The Presence Ship – Modifications 03 (Accommodation and Equipment)
- The Presence Ship – Cost Estimates
The ashore component will comprise command, logistics, ICT, planning, engineering, administration and intelligence staff and associated facilities. Ideally, these would be joint staffed with the most appropriate mix of RN, RNR, RFA, civilian agencies (MCA, SOCA etc) host nation staff and regional partners.
Existing UK governmental structures in the area should also be exploited, coordinating objectives and maximising resource use/cost reduction.
Maintenance should be carried out as much as possible at the host nation and the general principle should be low cost. To minimise the need for in transit vessels, maximise utilisation and minimise cost the ship and mission crews will rotate in and out from the UK.
Afloat Component – General Approach
In defining the equipment component the following diagram (which I have shamelessly nicked from BMT) defines a spectrum of cost, capability and my term, fightiness (remember, you heard it here first!) against which a naval vessel can be defined.
There are if course exceptions to the rule because a combat vessel can equally carry out a safety task and a security vessel can conduct limited combat operations in low threat environments or under the protection of others in a higher threat situation. The forward presence squadrons will generally operate in the intersection between security and safety, with occasional forays into the other segments, in other words, a bit of everything but concentrating somewhere in the lower middle!
The afloat component should comprise a single common class of commercially derived vessels, 1 per location with 2 covering the South Atlantic area and 2 in service spares for a total class of 8.
The first and arguably most important aspect in our design considerations is the avoidance of specification creep which is a result of widening the scope and concept of employment. These are not high end combat vessels. We must make a break from the assumption that single purpose vessels are a waste of money and everything we have must be able to take part in a high intensity fleet action because that will lead to exactly the opposite of what is needed. That said, even if we accept these limitations, with the correct payloads and employment they might provide useful augmentation for other force structures. The words, wouldn’t it be great if we could just fit xxx must be banished from the design process!
Some of these concepts are hardly new, even before the influence squadron, Streetfighter and the littoral combat ship there were a number of studies, in particular the 1992 US Regional Deterrence Ship. In parallel with these specific design studies was the concept of modular payloads plugging into a ship wide information and power backbone. Aircraft and aircraft borne systems have followed a similar path, the current crop of targeting pods and ground cued guided weapons have developed independently of the aircraft, this means the functionality is divorced from its means of transport.
The ever brilliant Information Dissemination published an interesting article on a Payload Centric Warfare Force that described the benefits of this approach but in a maritime domain. It is not only combat systems that are a payload, people are too. From this thought train emerges the concept of a payload frame or sea going pick-up truck, into which payload modules are fitted depending on mission. As long as there is a single unifying connectivity backbone into which they can be plugged, the payload modules can evolve separately. Upgrading is no more complex than swapping a module.
If they don’t mind me quoting from the article;
The force structure concept that is emerging as one most likely to make it into the QDR is the “boxes” force structure concept. The “boxes” concept emphasizes open architecture combat systems on warfighter centric platforms like CruDes and Subs, flexible payload space on everything else, and emphasizes a distributed, joint operations doctrine. Note again the emphasis of Payload Centric Warfare where “boxes” are filled with common combat systems and open space is utilized for flexibility.
The Danish STANFLEX and LCS Payload Modules show what is possible, even though neither have yet their achieved full potential it shows the state of the possible and demonstrates the direction of travel. Back to reality though, this is a post about the Royal Navy not the US Navy so we might set our sights a little lower and absolutely maximise investment by making the modules as common to all three services as possible.
This approach also opens up the possibility of breaking the monopoly of the major manufacturers, setting out a range of common standards for power, network connectivity, ergonomics, utility connectors and size, any number of manufacturers, including small enterprises, can compete and innovate. Systems design, development and manufacture can proceed at a completely different pace to each other and the ships they might be dropped into. Onshore training becomes simpler and by making a commitment to a tri service approach, further savings can be realised.
So in a break with convention I am going to discuss the payload modules first and then think about a ship to park them on.
Anyone who has hung around Think Defence for any length of time will know I am a container fetishist. The concept of standard sized containers has been proven over many decades but apart from the logistics stuff, hasn’t really caught on in naval applications.
If we are going to achieve the benefits of modular payloads the absolute first thing we must do is define size and shape. It might seem obvious but the 20fot ISO container should be the standard unit of measure, with the Bicon and Tricon fitting into the mix as needed. Ease of handling in austere ports and transportation is facilitated by keeping to civilian standards for container size. For more background and further dribbling from Think Defence on containerisation click here, here, here, here, here and here(I know I know, it’s an obsession)
Once the size and shape has been defined we should proceed to connectivity and EMC requirements. Each container will have a standard connectivity panel that would be placed in a consistent location and might include power (various), network, water, waste, gases and compressed air.
The flexibility of the Presence Ships is therefore derived from its payload (including people)
Some payload modules will be more complex than others and might be characterised according to use but not all will likely be carried aboard the presence boats or even located at the forward locations.
Mission Support and Logistics; Basic personnel accommodation, tank containers, dry 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.
When supporting a disaster relief mission they might use a containerised water purification plant that can be operated aboard or more likely moved onshore.
Combat; 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.
Containers can be armoured if deemed necessary.
For weapon systems, the modular containerised concept could also 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 used only in limited circumstances but could be used to provide greater sensor coverage, screening or deterrence. In general, this type of module would not be used on this class of vessel but that is the power of a modular system, it could be, in absolute extremis.
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. 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, remember, these ships will not normally need a heavy weapons fit but better to have and not use than need and not have!
The Presence Ship – Basics
I had a look at this basic idea a few months ago, here and this is simply an extension of this, so apologies for some of the text being essentially a copy and paste.
Another 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 it’s more powerful and complex Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel (AHTS) relative, form the basis for the proposed Presence Ship. In the harsh conditions of the North Sea and other similar areas the designs have been refined over 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 simple 75m design 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 largest and most sophisticated 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 rapidly trialled and adopted
There are many manufacturing yards and design houses including Havyard, Rolls Royce, STX and Ulstein. The Ulstein X Bow is a very interesting innovation that is said to improve economy, sea keeping in high seas and increases volume in the forward sections.
Going against the small is beautiful mantra this proposal creates 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 modules described above.
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 sturdier 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 and our previous post on the subject showed that for the kind of missions this vessel will be primarily required to complete it is perfectly acceptable to use the so called ‘commercial shipbuilding rules’
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; the Norwegian NoCGV Harstad and Icelandic ICGV Þór (Thor) are good examples. The Icelandic vessel reportedly cost less than $40 million.
Some of the concept designs looks pretty much like what I envisage for the Forward Presence Ship, remove the submarine rescue submersible handling equipment and it’s not far off.
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. Although these systems may seem unremarkable they have evolved over 40 years of operating in harsh conditions and are robust, built with resilience in mind and engineered to reduce running costs.
Approximate dimensions would be 100m length, 20m beam with a draught between 6m and 8m and a deadweight of between 4,000 and 5,000 tonnes. Of course, this is a large vessel but we should not equate size with cost. Large and simple vessels, without high speed propulsion systems and overly expensive weapons can be very cheap.
The ships in the South Atlantic will need to be ice rated and an argument could be made for all of them to be so for commonality reasons, but this would be dependent on cost.
To the basic PSV design a number of modifications should be made, the basic principle of minimum modification should be applied but we have to be sensible, the ship has to work.
The Presence Ship – Modifications 01 (Payload Architecture)
As much of the payload of the Presence Ship as possible should be modular, as described above. To support this approach, a common physical and services ‘connectivity keel’ should be fitted. This would need to have routing resilience and protected at key locations with lightweight composite armour, the UK has a lead in this area with NP Aerospace but I am not sure if it has been applied to maritime equipment.
Connection points will be located throughout the ship, internal and external as appropriate.
The Presence Ship – Modifications 02 (Weapon and Sensor Fit)
Each vessel would be equipped with medium calibre weapons, 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.
There are other 30-40mm weapons to choose from, for commonality reasons perhaps the ATK M230LF which is a link feed version of the M230 used on the AH1 Apache helicopter, 40mm CTA weapon that is due to enter service with the Army in the FRES Scout or even the 27mm Rheinmetall cannon used on the Typhoon could be used (plenty available now with the reduction in Tornado fleet)
The problem with these weapon options is that whilst they offer a valuable anti surface capability their anti air ability is somewhat limited. The Bofors SAK57 may provide an ideal blend of capabilities, a good all rounder, but its adoption would very much depend on cost and the turret might provide integration challenges or legal issues in the Antarctic area. It would also drive the need for a more functional fire control system, increasing cost even more.
To provide a sensible mix of anti surface, anti air, anti missile and with minimal deck intrusion, the Oerlikon Seaguard might be a good fit. It does of course go against the Think Defence commonality drive but there exists a need in the land domain for an effective C-RAM and anti UAV system. UAV’s are proliferating and it will not be long before asymmetric opponents will start using these off the shelf system with a warhead payload as a weapon, operating in a swarm they would quickly exhaust missile stocks.
These would be located to the port and starboard of the bridge area, perhaps on a fabricated extended wing.
The whole approach to weapons fit should be open to discussion but I like the pair of Millennium guns port and starboard, complimented with pintle mount weapons and supplemented with container based system on a needs basis.
As soon as we start loading the design with full spec radar, fire control, communications, electro optical, ESM and other sensors the price will rapidly escalate but there are basic of the shelf systems that could be used. Although electronic systems are vitally important to any modern warship we must head for ‘middle of the road’ bearing in mind the goal of this vessel is to have a presence, if they are too expensive they won’t be able to because we will only be able to afford 2.
The Presence Ship – Modifications 03 (Mission Desk and Aviation)
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 and UAV operations so the simple answer is to build a heavy duty 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. If this proved too costly we could simply accept the compromise and go with a ‘bouncy castle’ inflatable shelter. If no air operations were needed this deck might be used for additional storage or as an operating/training area.
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 work 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 connections to the connectivity keel.
A gantry crane would 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 possibly a stern ramp for easier loading and unloading of small ships. Some container space could be sacrificed for side loading davits, sized for a CB90 or Landing Craft.
Height of the sheltered deck should be at least 4.5m to accommodate large vehicles, small surface craft and HiCube containers. We might even consider making the sheltered area 2 containers high.
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 space there is still capacity for a comfortable 20 TEU and that is discounting the option for double stacking. 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.
The Presence Ship – Modifications 03 (Accommodation and Equipment)
The basic crew should be around 30 although hotel services (food prep, cabin space, ablutions etc) should be scaled for 100 personnel. These may be specific mission crew or trainees but if accommodation modules are carried on the main deck this could be extended a great deal. Command spaces would also be fitted and a small hospital facility, again though, these could be extended with containerised modules.
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. Alternatively, if we opted for side loading davits a combination of LCVP and CB90 type small craft could be carried.
The boat fit would depend on mission requirements, much of the vessels utility and flexibility will be provided by its small craft.
A range of airborne, surface or sub surface unmanned system could also easily be operated from the open spaces and supported using containerised modules.
A tethered aerostat would extend the sensor horizon and enable the ship to influence a much greater area, again, quite easily operated from a container based module.
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 maybe worth retaining.
The base vessel is therefore, quite simply, a maritime pickup truck into which we place relevant payload modules
The Presence Ship – Cost Estimates
Practically, it is extremely difficult to come up with anything other than a bag of a fag packet estimate.
The real costs will be in carried payloads but given the normal cost for a typical mid range 90-100m PSV is about $50million, making the modifications detailed above, even including the sensor and weapon fit, is there any reason we could not get one of these for £75million each?
A total build of 8 should come in at about the price of 2 Type 26, the new cheap versions that is!
In line with other ships they could be progressively upgraded, one of the objectives of the Forward Presence Squadrons is to provide a test bed for new ideas. Upgrades might include sensor upgrades, ops rooms refresh or new handling equipment.
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