Like pretty much any capability, the rule of three applies. It is a bit of cliché but of time, money and specification, one can have two, but not three. So in 1982, MV Astronomer, Atlantic Conveyor, Atlantic Causeway and many other civilian vessels were pressed into service, converted, and sent south. No one can argue that MV Astronomer was actually better that a properly designed and built helicopter carrier, but it was good enough, and available in time.
If one has the time to go through a detailed specification and requirements exercise, and the money is there for a bespoke design to meet every single one of those requirements, then clearly, that is what you do.
Let’s be very clear, merchant conversions are an exercise in compromise.
I have to say, looking at the back stories of some of the conversions in the previous part does not make the most encouraging of reading and yet in each case, clearly, there is value to be found. Some more than others, yes, but it does seem like the idea of a merchant conversion, at least, is worth some consideration.
A comment from Ray Mabus, US Secretary of the Navy.
It is difficult to disagree with the point he makes. Type 26 GCS, for example, was supposedly a low risk solution that would deliver a reasonably priced vessel in a quantity of thirteen. Royal Navy personnel were absolutely adamant that the full quantity would be purchased, some of them on Think Defence, but here we are in a post SDSR 2015 world and we know the reality is very different, see Mr Mabus for further details.
There is an entirely understandable desire for any combat vessel to be as capable as possible, have the latest technology and be at the cutting edge. After all, one when the bullets start flying, who wants to be in last year’s model? One of the many factors that made the Royal Navy the world’s pre-eminent maritime force was its approach to technology and innovation, none of it cheap, so one might be tempted to say that the high cost of naval vessels 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 and the Royal Navy is no different.
Being pragmatic, and despite decades of ‘MoD transformation’ cost growth shows no sign of abating. If there are priorities to be made, combat vessels, therefore, need as much money as they need. Logically, and in a world of finite budgets, this means non-combat vessels have to be cheaper.
I tend to think that dismissing these ideas is to some extent, fair enough, I am not completely sold myself, but unless alternative approaches are found, the reality is less of anything.
I know I have used this video before, a few times, but listen to Santa;
If you believe the cost transformation fairy will grant you the wish of cheaper combat vessels, expect your hand to fill up with something else.
So these ideas may not be ‘the solution’, but surely, they are part of the debate.
- Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Response
- Training and Defence Engagement
- Maritime and Littoral Security
- Medical Support
- Salvage, Repair and Fire Fighting
- Experimentation and Systems Development
- MCM and Survey
- Ship to Shore Logistics Support
- Special Forces and Intelligence Support
- Submarine Rescue
- Modules, Build Standards and Crewing
Expanding on the shopping list of potential uses for such vessels;
Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Response
Humanitarian assistance and disaster response is a core government task and described in SDSR 2015.
National Security Objective 2;
Specifically, for the armed forces;
In Chapter 5 (Projecting our Global Influence-, Part D (Tackling Conflict and Building Stability Overseas, SDSR 2015 again reiterates the point.
There is a great deal of support for an increasingly cross departmental approach to crisis response. We can use past deployments like Haiti, Dominica, the Philippines and Sierra Leone to inform how MSS might be used. Its primary use would be to deliver supplies, typically, foodstuffs, potable water, medical supplies, shelters and building materials. Water purification, construction engineers, engineering plant, rapid mapping systems, communication support, littoral transportation and port enablement are additional capabilities also likely to be of value.
MSS would need the ability to carry and offload these stores, people, vehicles and engineering plant, at ports (if available), beaches and inland waterways, preferably without external assistance. It should be able to carry small craft, pontoons and landing craft, and offload stores and vehicles onto them whilst at sea. Aviation facilities, specifically for helicopters and unmanned systems would be desirable.
For HADR, shelter and water are key elements.
Emergency shelter is a more complex subject than might be imagined, there are many solutions. Immediate response kits like those provided by the UK charity, Shelter Box, include a tent from Vango, cooking equipment, a solar light from Luminaid, mosquito nets, blankets, water containers, wind up radio, tools and other supplies. A ‘school in a box’ is also available. The kit contents have evolved of many years of operation and it is now a widely accepted and utilised solution.
Better Shelter is a collaboration between the UNHCR and the Ikea Foundation, a rather inspired combination. The fruits of their collaboration is the a flat pack (obviously) shelter designed to be a step up from tents. A team of four people can build it in less than 8 hours and it provides a strong shelter that costs about $1,200, in two 80kg cardboard boxes. 48 shelters can be contained in a single 40 ft ISO container.
The Maggie Shelter from the Belgian architects DMOA is designed for community shelters like schools, storage and clinics. A single 40ft ISO container can transport five shelters
All these solutions have a high packing density and are dimensionally compatible with pallets and containers.
The British Army maintain a water development capability in 521 Specialist Team Royal Engineers but in a HADR context, well drilling is perhaps of less utility than bottled water and water purification systems.
Biological contaminants cause waterborne disease, many of which are debilitating and often fatal, bacteria, worms, protozoa and viruses can all be present in contaminated water. Salts, metals, pesticides, hydrocarbons, plastics and industrial chemicals are other considerations. The location and source of untreated water will influence the presence or relative concentrations of contaminants. The standard method of water purification has been to allow particulates to settle as much as possible then filter and then treat to kill any micro-organisms. Desalination in portable units generally uses reverse osmosis to remove the salts in sea water and brackish water. Natural sedimentation takes too long so additives are used to speed the process up, coagulants and flocculants such as aluminium sulphate, ferric chloride, sodium carbonate and calcium carbonate. Modern developments in ceramics have produced filtration media that are much more efficient and able to remove smaller particles, down to the micro-organism level, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical treatment.
At the smallest scale; simple filter straws, Millbank bags, boiling and water purification tablets may be enough but this is not sustainable and highly inefficient. The Army traditionally relied on centralised water supply, specifically from Royal Engineers units but as technology has progressed, especially with highly efficient filtration membranes a number of systems are now available that push the ability to generate potable water down to sub unit and individual level, these would be ideal for water provision following a disaster. Given that any equipment used in a disaster response is likely to be left in situ, the in service equipment such as the Stella Meta Water Purification Unit (WPU) Small Groups Units (SGU), would not be appropriate.
A couple of interesting systems are worth highlighting;
The British company Lifesaver Systems (now Icon Lifesaver) developed a number of interesting and innovative systems. The basic concept of the in service Lifesaver Bottle has been extended to fit in a jerry can sized system and even a community device called the C2. In the USA, Aquamira have developed a manually operated pump, purification and storage system called the Divvy.
For storage of raw or potable water, solutions such as butyl rubber pillow and self-supporting onion tanks and tank containers are readily available and easy to use. Water bottling facilities are unlikely to be part of the mix but water bags are useful when low storage volumes are required. The packaging industry has a number of innovative products that might be utilised to reduce consumable volume. Flexible plastic bags can be filled and sealed in situ. Recipients gain access to the water by tearing the bag or using straws. Pre-printed pouches, made with stiffer materials, with an integral re-sealable drinking spout could be used; The external surface could be printed with survival instructions, locations of distribution points, emergency broadcast radio frequencies and other useful information although some of this would need to be overprinted in situ. These occupy more space than bags (in an unfilled state) but are still more space efficient PET pre forms.
Like the shelters described above, they are all easily stored and transported.
Engineering plant and logistics vehicles have obvious utility in a HADR operation. Wheeled and tracked loaders and excavators are versatile and useful, and already in service in quantity. They can also be fitted with specialist ancillaries like hydraulic breakers, sweepers, shears and grapples. Wheeled loaders and container handlers are used for moving pallets, containers and other break bulk stores, or debris removal and bulk product handling.
This is all in service equipment and would, with other similar vehicles and engineering plant, find a home on a HADR roled MSS, in varying quantities.
Training and Defence Engagement
Defence engagement with friends and allies is a valuable part of what the armed forces do, building relationships and improving the capacity of other nation’s forces is in our interest.
SDSR 2015 makes a significant commitment to defence engagement, it appears in several places in the document.
Port visits and training during regular deployments are a great way of contributing to the wider defence engagement objective, a recent example to Nigeria;
We should not underestimate the value of this visits but with a decreasing fleet size and an increasing demand, a ‘short visit’ might not provide an enduring value for the Nigerian Navy in their fight against illegal fishing, terrorism and piracy? Whilst an infrequent visit by a Royal Navy surface combat vessel is a valuable activity and welcomed by all, the real value activity in defence engagement is persistence. Much better, for example, to have something semi-permanently based in Freetown or Lagos that does appropriate training on an enduring basis than an occasional visit from a super star destroyer. We can’t afford to spare a Type 45, but the low cost of MSS may enable this persistence.
Defence engagement is one of the most significant aspects of the justification for MSS. Navigation, board and search, fisheries protection, environmental protection, seamanship, engineering, damage control, firefighting, small craft handling, communications and gunnery training, can all be delivered by MSS. This would not stop the visit by a Type 23, but simply make it of less importance in the overall effort.
Interestingly, the SeaOwl Group have an offshore platform supply vessel converted for maritime security and aviation training. It has a frigate sized helicopter landing platform, a containerised aviation planning facility and a close combat module for board and search training. They also use the VN Partisan for target drone deployment and recovery, the French Navy’s (ALFAN – Amiral Commandant de la Force d’Action Naval) make extensive use of the SeaOwl VN Partisan.
For training UK forces, an afloat platform would also free up other platforms.
Maritime and Littoral Security
There are many strands to the task.
It could be countering narcotics smuggling in the Caribbean, people trafficking in the Mediterranean, or, helping Nigeria combat piracy and stolen oil trafficking in the Gulf of Guinea (in conjunction the training effort)
An enduring operation like that conducted in and around the Shatt al-Arab for many years would also be a contender for MSS and a gaggle of small craft, or is that a flotilla?
SDSR covers elements of maritime security in Chapter 3 and 4, for example;
Smuggling Interdiction; whether it is drugs or people, smuggling and trafficking is a serious threat to national security and the economic wellbeing of the UK. Although there are many wider arguments about solutions, maritime interdiction, whether relatively close to the EEZ or offshore near producer nations is a valid mission. Overseas fisheries protection; a major contributor to regional instability and piracy is the lack of legitimate fisheries management and enforcement of sustainable policies. MSS could provide wide area support to national and regional forces, help to develop their own capabilities and provide security, surveillance and logistic support.
Counter Terrorism and Asset Protection; offshore energy installations and submarine telecommunications cables are vulnerable to deliberate attack. Terrorist attacks against these and other civilian maritime targets need a range of capabilities to counter.
The risk and security environment can vary but fundamental requirements remain; endurance, connectivity, intelligence, generation and contribution to the maintenance of a ‘maritime picture’, response, presence, intervention and escalation. Board and search personnel, helicopters or UAV’s and a range of small craft, possibly including hovercraft, tend to be the main components.
Although mostly used by the Royal Engineers in support of bridging and dive operations the Combat Support Boat (CSB) is also used by the Royal Logistic Corps to support amphibious and port operations. They were used extensively in Iraq in the maritime security role although their Hamilton propulsion units suffered reliability issues. Top speed is approximately 30 knots and they have a cargo capacity of approximately 2 tonnes or 12 personnel. Unladen weight is 4.75 tonnes, length 8.8m, beam 2.77m and draught 0.65m.
Also now owned by BAE the VT Halmatic Arctic and Pacific Rigid Inflatable Boats are used by the Royal Navy for general transport tasks and boarding operations, in service since 2004. Powered by a Yanmar marine diesel engine and Hamilton HJ 241 waterjet the Pacific 24’s have a top speed of approximately 30 knots. Each has a length of 7.8m, beam of 2.57m, draft of 0.5m and a hoist weight of 2.5 tonnes. The slightly smaller Pacific 22 MkII is also in service. BAE have recently provided an unmanned version of a Pacific 24 to the MoD for trials and development purposes.
Designed and built by Holyhead Marine, the Offshore Raiding Craft is in service with the Royal Marines used in insertion, patrol and security operations. The 9m craft are heavily armed and able to travelling at speeds up to 40 knots, available in three versions (mid, rear and front console), able to carry up to 8 personnel in addition to the 2 crew. Beam and draught are 2.9m and 0.6m respectively. The ORC trailer is supplied by Tex Engineering and with the ORC weighs 5.4 tonnes. They are powered by a 250hp Steyr Marine M256 engine driving a Rolls Royce FF270 waterjets.
Feedback from operations in Iraq showed that whilst the in service Griffon 2000TD was able to withstand greater small arms damage than imagined, the crew were exposed so its replacement would need improvements in this area. The £1 million Griffon Hoverwork 2400 TD LCAC(L)(R) was a direct replacement for the 4 existing LCAC’s and feature armoured panels and bulletproof glass in addition to greater performance. The primary role of the LCAC (L) (R) is as an air-portable, fully amphibious craft capable of the high speed movement of 16 fully equipped troops and crew of 2 over water, ice, mud, marshland and beach. Able to maintain a speed of 45 knots whilst fully laden the replacement is much faster than the older version and there are a series of additional improvements. In addition to be being able to be deployed from the RN/RFA assault craft they are air portable by C130, A400 and C17. Their side panels can be retracted to reduce the width to enable air portability.
Helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles provide an invaluable addition to the maritime security equipment mix. Usually, they would be a mix of Wildcat and Merlin, but in some scenarios, Apache may be used to add additional combat power. The Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle has an interesting history, initially designed to assist tuna fishing fleets it has evolved into a mature, low cost, flexible and highly effective family of vehicles and payloads. After a 2006 trial with HMS Sutherland, the Royal Navy contracted for an extended trial period with Scan Eagle and it has proven to be very valuable during operations in the Gulf. There is also a larger version called the RQ-21 Blackjack, or Integrator. A number of technology programmes have since been launched including the establishment of 700X NAS that focuses on unmanned aircraft and trials of 3D printed systems from Southampton University in the UK and on HMS Protector in the South Atlantic.
The RN let the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) contract in 2013, its purpose was;
AgustaWestland was selected as the prime contractor for this programme, perhaps unsurprisingly given their position at the centre of the UK Rotary Wing Strategy. It was also interesting to see that Mine Counter Measures (MCM) and Hydrography & Meteorology (HM) were included in the scope of the £2.3 million contract. AW proposed to use the SW-4 Solo fitted with flight control systems from Thales, the same system also used for trials for the Italian MoD. The contract has recently completed, the SW-4 Solo completing 27 hours of flight trials with 22 autonomous landings. The trials also included integration with the DNA(2) ship combat management software and mission planning activities.
It is easy to see this programme evolving and providing systems for the maritime security task.
Between the Royal Marines, Wildcat, ORC, Pacific 24 and future UAV’s, and other naval and airborne assets, the maritime and littoral security task is pretty well covered, and all these may potentially be carried by MSS. However, overmatching potentially dangerous opponents may require something slightly more upstream than a Pacific 24 or ORC. With major surface combat vessels in increasingly short supply, an alternative approach may involve larger craft and a ‘mothership’ approach.
There are a number of manufacturers of RHIB based patrol craft like Delta, MST and Zodiac, but they offer little or nothing over the Offshore Raiding Craft (ORC). Other potential solutions might include larger craft the previously trialled Combat Boat 90 from Docksta Varvet, the Marine Alutech Watercat M18 or the larger Docksta Varvet IC20M. Even the Seaspear (Brimstone) missile might get an outing.
- CB90 RM Trials
- CB90 Hellfire
- CB90 RWS
- Watercat M18
- MoD Police Launch
- Sea Spear
- Sea Spear video 1
- Sea Spear video 2
Without resorting the A-Frames and heavy lift cranes, most davits tend to top out at about 35 tonnes capacity. Accepting that crane launch might be possible, larger craft become possibilities, products like the Damen Stan Patrol 3007 or Swiftships Patrol Boat. The CTruk Thor is also another possibility, or a derivative of the many windfarm support vessels now in service from Alicat, Camarc (designer of the MoD police boats), Southboats and Blythe Workboats.
One of my hobby horses is ensuring the British armed forces are prepared for complex littoral operations in an increasingly urbanised and coastal world.
The main role of RFA Argus is as a Primary Casualty Receiving Facility, essentially, a Role 3 hospital, although not a hospital ship like the USNS Mercy. RFA Argus has evolved over the years to meet this requirement in parallel with advances in battlefield medicine elsewhere.
The medical role places a number of demanding challenges on a ship; medical gas storage and distribution, high power requirements, environmental quality and medical waste disposal, being just a few examples. One possible solution I have heard floated is be to merge the requirement with the future MARS Solid Support Ship, but MSS could also provide a base platform.
Apart from the full range of medical and laboratory functions, it must also be a stable platform, have space for lots of stores and personnel, multiple helicopter handling facilities and easy routes from the flight deck to the medical facilities.
Salvage, Repair and Fire Fighting
RFA Diligence provides the UK with a unique capability, and one that has proven of value time and time again. Her primary role is that of submarine support, with forward repair a secondary task.
A replacement would need heavy lift equipment, excellent station keeping, plenty of stores space, facilities for repairing mechanical, electrical, electronic and weapon systems. It would also need facilities for towing, waste water receiving, off-board power, weapon magazines, oversize accommodation, diver support and firefighting systems. Helicopter support and ice strengthening are also essentials.
Experimentation and Systems Development
One thing I would like to see more of is experimentation and systems development, where appropriate, away from ships that probably have better things to do. Providing DSTL and industry with a floating ‘test platform’ would provide a powerful incentive for innovation. Want to see if Flettner Rotors can reduce fuel usage, lasers can shoot down missiles or whether a new design of chip fryer works in a maritime environment, a floating lab can help provide the answers.
It could be systems, processes, technologies or even people, it really doesn’t matter, but breathing space to test and fail, is vital for innovation and progress.
MCM and Survey
In future conflict mines will play a significant role, they are cheap, easy to obtain, easy to deploy and difficult to counter, the IED of the maritime environment.
As off-board systems mature, the possibility of utilising ‘hulls of opportunity’ increases. Instead of small, specialised MCM vessels with limited endurance, multiple unmanned systems deployed from motherships may well become the preferred option. Even the Type 26 Frigate is often seen in conceptual illustrations as a host for unmanned MCM systems. That is some way off yet but the pace of progress is very fast, it may well actually happen sooner rather than later.
In April 2014, a contract was let to Thales.
The €22m 15-month contract covered the first design and definition stage. It also secured an agreed fixed price for Stage and 3, manufacture and support respectively. The Thales led consortium includes Wood and Douglas (Ultra) for the telemetry and data link, ECA for autonomous underwater vehicles, BAE for mission management and simulation systems, SAAB for remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and Autonomous Surface Vehicles for the surface vessel.
Thales will develop a containerised portable operations centre (POC). In addition to the joint UK/French mine hunting programmes the Royal Navy, with its positive experience from Iraq and SWIMS, has maintained and shown a renewed interest in combined influence sweep systems. At the sime time as the MMCM contract another was announced, this one to Atlas Elektronik for the continued development of their FAST/ARCIMS system. The £12.6m 3-year contract will lead to the full development of the solution that can be deployed from Hunt Class MCM vessels. Block 1 calls for the development of the prototype, Block 2, integration with the Hunt Class and Block 3, manufacture of a system developed as a result of trials activity. Jane’s reported that the final configuration is likely to include 4 unmanned systems housed in a Reconnaissance Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Hangar (RUUVH) on board. Jane’s also reported;
When Atlas delivered the two ARCIMS launches to the Royal Navy they delivered them in separate configurations, the first was in the form of the RN Motorboat Hazard, pictured above, and the second, with equipment for the combined influence sweep system.
The media below, from Thales, shows the general concept of operations for Halycon, operation from a shore location and using a Remotely Operated vehicle for inspection and disposal. The ROV shown is from Saab, the SeaEye Falcon, equipped with a multi-shot disposal system called the multimine neutralisation system, or MuMNS. ARCIMS, from Atlas Elektronik, has been developed over quite a long period from the various systems such as FAST and SeaFox. Atlas teamed up with the makers of the Bladerunner speedboat, ICE Marine, to create the Motorboat Hazard. The small unmanned ROV is the Ocean Modules V8 M500 Intervention, click here for the brochure. The Thales Synthetic aperture Sidescan Sonar (SAMDIS) sonar has developed from the ESPADON work and uses three beams to increase coverage and speeds. ECA will also be responsible for the launch and recovery system (LARS) which will enable non specialised craft to operate the system in challenging sea conditions. The ECA component will be developed from its A27-M, the largest in its portfolio, and will include the Thales Synthetic aperture Sidescan Sonar (SAMDIS) sonar.
Both Sweep and MHC components are fully intended to be deployable from vessels of opportunity, not necessarily a specialist MCM vessel.
Unmanned systems facilitate the removal of the man from the minefield but as was clear in Iraq in 2003, achieving the required high levels of confidence that routes are clear is a painstaking process, made infinitely more difficult by bottom debris and false alarms. The ability to survey and process large areas is being facilitated by new software and sensors, but operating unmanned systems in parallel can create a step change in throughput. Conventional MCM vessels, or even frigates equipped with a mission bay, are limited by the number of unmanned systems they can physically carry and operate. Instead of one MCM vessel operating one or two UUV’s or USV’s, a mothership could operate ten or twenty.
Operating in parallel is the key to throughput and what allows parallel operations is space.
Closely allied to the ability to locate, classify and neutralise mines is the generation of an accurate underwater ‘picture’ for operations in the littoral. Survey and MCM technologies are increasingly converging and in the future, both roles will likely utilise a variety of common off-board unmanned systems. Deep water survey is likely to remain the domain of high specialised ships for some time, but again, off-board and unmanned technologies are likely to provide compelling arguments for change.
HMS Echo and HMS Enterprise are relatively new vessels and are both equipped with sophisticated sonar systems, seabed sampling and analysis equipment and a small survey launch, Sapphire and Spitfire respectively. The ships are unusual in Royal Navy service because they operate at very high utilisation with a 75 personnel crew providing 48 on board at any one time that allows the ship to operate 330 days per year. They are equipped with azimuth thrusters and a bow thruster for precise manoeuvre and station keeping. In addition to their survey role they can embark additional personnel in the mine countermeasures command role. Their equipment includes side scan, multi beam and single beam sonar, an oceanographic and seabed profiler, bottom sampling equipment and Doppler current measuring system. The launches allow survey equipment to be carried into very shallow waters to collect data which is then merged and referenced to complete the complete picture. Equipment carried on the 9 tonne 9m long survey launches includes a Kongsberg 2040 Multibeam Echo Sounder, Kongsberg EA400 Single Beam Echo Sounder and a GeoAcoustics (now Kongsberg) 2094 Side Scan Sonar. The EM2040 is used for high resolution mapping and inspection in shallow water. For accurate survey work and second layer detection, the EA400 single beam echo sounder is deployed in conjunction with GPS. The Sonar 2094 is a dual frequency sidescan system used for wide area sea bed scanning. A Seasoar Undulating Oceanographic Recorder and Conductivity, Depth, Temperature (CDT) Probe are also used by the main vessel.
Kongsberg produce a good introduction to hydrographic survey equipment, click here to view.
There also exists a requirement for mines countermeasures support, a role that has been carried out by various types in the past, currently one of the Bay Class LSD(A) is doing the job in the Gulf. This requires command facilities, maintenance, logistics support, crew accommodation and other enablers.
There is no great rush to replace Echo and Enterprise as they are relatively new, and HMS Scott is highly specialised, and massive for a very good reason, but there may be opportunities to improve survey capacity with MSS, possibly operating in a secondary role.
Ship to Shore Logistics Support
The largest piece of work on Think Defence is on the subject of ship to shore logistics, here
Whether it is for fuel transfer across a shore or supporting the port enablement capability as proposed for Increment 1, MSS could play its part.
For fuel, both the UK and US have capable systems for transferring fuel from afloat tankers to installations on the near shore from where it can be distributed. The UK’s system is called JOFS. The video below shows JOFS in action in a ship to shore role, making use of Army Work Boats, RE Divers and Mexeflote’s to bring aviation fuel ashore, the system is called the Towed Flexible Barge Discharge System (TFBDS), supplied by DESMI and Trelleborg, 5 are in service. The barge or dracone has a capacity of 300,000 Litres, once it has been filled by connecting to an RFA (or civilian) tanker the barge is towed to within 200m of the shoreline and connected to a manifold raft. this raft is then connected via flexible pipelines to the onshore installation that uses 136,000 Litre flexible pillow tanks.
In addition to a number of Combat Support Boats, 51 (Port) Squadron RLC have four Army Work Boats made by Warbreck Engineering in Liverpool, subcontracted to VT Halmatic (now BAE). The four are named WB41 Storm, WB42 Diablo, WB43 Mistral and WB44 Sirocco, yes, the Army owns a Mistral! They are 14.75m x 4.3m, weigh 48 tonnes, have a top speed of 10 knots and are equipped with firefighting equipment. When deployed they are usually carried as deck cargo on a specially designed cradle and craned to the surface as needed.
The US have a system based on a platform supply vessel, the KR Wheeler, a modified DP2 Platform Supply Vessel built by Edison Chouest. She carries eight miles of pipeline on five large spools that can be lifted onto INLS causeways ferries and other lighterage. This is double the distance of the older OPDS system and it can be deployed much quicker with fewer personnel. Instead of using cumbersome mooring lines the KR Wheeler makes use of dynamic positioning and the 165 foot long tender vessel, the MV Fast Tempo, is used to run the pipes from the Wheelers stern to tankers and ashore from the bow.
Special Forces and Intelligence Support
Not looking like a warship has obvious benefits for the special-forces and intelligence support roles, something recognised by the US SOCOM with their MV Cragside conversion.
Small craft and helicopter handling facilities, weapon storage and personnel accommodation, excellent communications systems and command and control facilities characterise the basic requirements. Signals intelligence and observation systems may also be advantageous to the role.
To carry out covert beach or landing area surveys, other information gathering tasks and special forces insertion the Royal Navy has a number of Swimmer Delivery Vehicles that can be carried on the Astute submarine fleet. Three Mk 8 Mod 1 Swimmer Delivery Vehicles are in service that can be launched and recovered from a role fit shelter fitted to the Astute class of SSN’s, designed and built under Project Chalfont by BAE, a replacement for Alamanda system as fitted to the long out of service Trafalgar class HMS Spartan that was designed and built by BMT and Kockums. The SDV can also be deployed using a Chinook helicopter.
SDSR 2015 signalled an increase in funding for special forces capabilities, it would be interesting to develop the swimmer delivery capability, increase deployment options and possibly investigate a replacement for the relatively old US system currently in service. This presentation provides a good overview of US systems approaches to replacement, likely, the UK would make use of whatever comes out of this programme, but there are also alternatives from James Fisher Defence and Divex, for example.
The swimmer delivery vehicles tend to be unpressurised, divers must wear diving suits for example. For persistent surveillance and intelligence gathering in the littoral there may be a gap for a small submarine. The Astute class nuclear submarine would traditionally fulfil this role but it is certainly large. Stand-off sensors of course allow it to stay out of the shallows but there has been a number of suggestions that the UK get back into the SSK game for just such a role. One of the arguments against SSK’s for the UK, and it is a very good one, is that SSK’s lack the endurance for extended deployments. Seeing a possible gap in the market, DCNS marketed a concept for a ‘littoral submarine’, the SMX-26. It is 8m high, 40m long and 16m wide. The videos tend to make it look a bit ‘James Bond super villain’ but if it could be carried and deployed by MSS, it might be worth looking at. Certainly, an interesting concept.
The SD Victoria, part of the Serco fleet providing a contract service to the MoD, has often been seen with special-forces fast boats.
The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) is a fully transportable system for rescuing crew from a submarine in trouble that needs a platform to operate from.
Aviation training, secondary replenishment and even fire support for amphibious forces are possible roles.
This range of roles and tasks will not need to be carried out by the same ship at the same time and some of them would probably require the ship to be semi-permanently assigned to a given role.
Modules, Build Standards and Crewing
Mention the word module and people tend to think of the Royal Danish Navy Stanflex or the US Navy’s LCS and jump straight in with why it is a bad idea. The reason for this is twofold, it may well be a bad idea, but mostly, because the wrong reasons for modular payloads are highlighted.
The idea that a seaframe can be an ASW frigate one minute and a MCM vessel the next, purely by virtue of swapping a few modules is clearly suspect. For these highly complex and difficult tasks, ship system crew must be focussed and integrated. But if the idea of changing roles and modules every other week is put to one side, modularity starts to make a lot more sense.
Common physical attributes, electrical, data and other interfaces, compliance with a set of known standards and even common lifting points allow the module to be developed in isolation from whatever is carrying it and fitted to a vessel without each vessel being redesigned to suit. As systems and ships evolve at different speeds the benefits of this become obvious. Add ease of maintenance, damage repair, familiarity and training, and the arguments for modular payloads become compelling.
But we need to be pragmatic, we need to be realistic about what can usefully be modularised and we need to be certain where the limits lie.
The offshore industry is a long standing user of modular systems and approaches. Beyond various stores containers, there are accommodation, power generation, compressors, medical, laboratory, ROV launch and recovery, workshops and even blast resistant refuge modules for use on production platforms. All of these are based on the familiar ISO container format, although other sizes are used as well. Indeed, some topside modules are huge and only moved on decommissioning. For use in the offshore industry, these modules have to comply with a significant amount of safety related regulation including maintenance of a positive pressure environment and high levels of fire resistance.
Accommodation and welfare modules, with different densities and build standards…
More complex modules are also available.
The modules are used on both static facilities and support vessels, and all are designed for the demanding offshore environment.
As a general approach works, it is economical and well accepted. But crucially, the industry recognises the limitations of the approach, not everything is modular. It would seem, therefore, that the modular payload concept stands or falls on the level of complexity and integration with the host vessel, but it remains a valid approach.
Although not in the offshore market, Powell Safety Solutions market a containerised solution for prisoner containment at sea, called the ISO Container Cell.
Whether naval vessels should be suitable for use in Arctic and Antarctic conditions depends on whether we think there will be a need for operations in those environments. If you are Canadian, Norwegian, Russian or Finnish, for example, the question is a bit of a no-brainer, but for nations like the UK, the trade-offs between potential need and costs become more acute.
There are many classification societies that have ice rules, HMS Protector, for example, is Det Norske Veritas ICE-1A* and ICE-05, ‘normally capable of navigation in difficult ice conditions without the assistance of icebreakers’. This has allowed her to travel further south than any Royal Navy vessel for more than eighty years. A good table of different society equivalents can be found here and an overview of the requirements for operation in ice, here.
There is also some confusion about military v civilian shipbuilding standards, with an apparent assumption that anything built to ‘milspec’ is indestructible and anything built to civvy standards has as much strength as a wet paper bag. This is incorrect and most nations seem to be harmonising rules. HMS Ocean is the poster child of those that say commercial shipbuilding rules are wholly unsuitable for naval vessels but I think the problems with Ocean were more to do with poor design, specification and construction, rather than any inherent fault with commercial ship building standards, rules and norms.
Offshore platform supply vessels operate in some of the worst weather anywhere in the world, commercial ships are driven by commercial reality and generally spend a much greater proportion of their lives actually at sea and safety standards for large crude carriers or cruise ships are such that a knock or two is not going to sink them, flimsy they are not.
A good overview of the differences can be found here
Good design is the key, regardless of whether it is military or civilian.
It would seem to make sense for MSS to be an RFA operated asset but I think we can be more flexible, mixing personnel depending on the deployment requirements. Host nation personnel, DSTL scientists, seconded personnel from the various fisheries protection agencies, HM Coastguard, Border Force, contractors, Royal Navy Reserves, Royal Navy personnel or those from the RAF and Army might all find places on-board. For some deployments, there may be legal reasons for specific personnel to be aboard or in command, but these can be accommodated on a needs basis.
The purpose of this section is simply to look at a number of potential, less than combat roles, that a merchant conversion or derivative might fulfil and cast an eye over items of equipment and capabilities already in service with the UK, allies, or available as commercial solutions in the open market.
Remember the name of the title of this post, the proposal is not for a frigate in a RORO ships coat, it is for a non-combat or auxiliary vessel.
For the next and final section of this series, I will describe three examples.
- MSS (SMALL)
- MSS (MEDIUM)
- MSS (LARGE)
They are just examples, not definitive proposals, simply to show the potential span.
The first is for a vessel derived from a second hand offshore platform supply vessel, the second, a new build based on an existing design offshore support vessel, and the third, one of the newer multi lift designs.