A Ship that is Not a Frigate – Part 2 (Roles and Requirements)

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In describing any design the first task is to define the roles, requirements and operating environment that the ship will be immersed in.

That is the norm, but this proposal would seek to define a cost first and work everything back from there. Now this might seem ridiculous and I am aware that most will not agree with it but all the services, especially the seniors in that service, have to achieve financial credibility; changing the current perception of being a bunch of idiots with champagne tastes and brown ale wallets, in hoc to the defence industry that provides most of them jobs after leaving and lusting after shiny new equipment despite their service falling apart at the seams.

It’s an unfair characterisation but there is some truth in that perception.

Cost is therefore the fundamental element in this proposal

Exactly how much is open to debate but the base vessel should be no more than £75million

How will we pay for them, this might be rather controversial but I propose that we trade down the numbers of Type 26 to between 6 and 8, in addition to raiding the budget for the MHPC project (Mine countermeasures, Hydrographic, Patrol Craft)

This is a capability v numbers trade, pure and simple.

MHPC replaced some of the grander C3 concepts that saw a vessel armed to the teeth that did a spot of MCM on the side, the order of the initials in MHPC is no coincidence, very much back to reality.

The budget for the MHPC project has yet to be defined but the numerous press and industry reports about Type 26 point to a cost of between £250 million and £350million so depending how one calculates the costs (spreading design and development costs across the proposed 12-13 hulls for example) forgoing 3 or 4 Type 26 hulls provides about a billion pounds, plus whatever the MHPC project has in the pipeline.

At a base vessel target cost of £75 million (including an allowance for inflation) this ‘pot of cash’ provides in the order of 12 vessels, for the loss of 3 or 4 Type 26 excluding the budget for MHPC, which would be used for module development.

The future RN surface combatant fleet would then consist of about a dozen frigates and destroyers, split between T45 and T26, plus CVF(s), amphibious and submarines. Plus of course, a dozen of these workboats.

If you think this is a reasonable trade then read on.

Operating Environment

It might be tempting to design the ships only for warm environments and any reasonable look into the crystal ball will likely conclude that this environment will be the norm but we should also consider the colder environments of the south Atlantic and Arctic regions.

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.

It is at this point that I have to come up with a name, something other than ‘not a frigate’

When I last looked at the margins of this concept I called them forward presence ships but this is an evolution of that so another name is needed.

I am not hung up on ships names but how about the Future Rapid Effects Ship or FRES?

Only joking….

The Surface Security, Interdiction and Maritime Support System, SIMSS

OK OK, it’s a poor effort but I wanted to get something on the board, SIMSS it is for now.

If we look at the diagram, SIMSS will, for the most part, operate in a threat environment that enables it to carry out the safety and security roles alone. When operating inside the protection envelope of combat ships such as T45/T26 (or coalition forces) or with capability augmentation it should be able to carry out these roles in a higher threat environment.

As an example, the current MCM fleet in the Gulf operate without an RN escort, relying on Gulf forces for security and deterrence, yet in operations in support of Telic the same vessels operated in a higher threat environment and with a greater protective security bubble provided by other surface vessels.

Roles

First things first, refer to the thread title.

This means it will have no or a very limited role in what might be considered traditional naval combat activities, no anti surface or sub surface warfare and no kicking the arse of small boat swarms for example.

As I have pointed out a few times, as soon as one starts climbing the ‘fightiness’ ladder costs begin to rapidly escalate and that is not the point of this proposal.

It must be configured to support the kinds of roles that the Royal Navy more often than not finds itself carrying out.

We often refer to these as minor roles, those carrying them out being minor warships. It’s an understandable perspective but we have to move away from thinking that maritime security or piracy interdiction is something that real naval vessels do in between the real stuff.

Maritime Security

Smuggling Interdiction; whether it is drugs or people, smuggling and trafficking is a serious threat to national security and the economic well being of the UK. Although there are many wider arguments about solutions, maritime interdiction is this illegal activity, 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. Although SIMSS is arguably too large to carry out this role, it can provide wide area support to national and regional forces, help to develop their own capabilities and provide security, surveillance and logistic support.

Counter Piracy; piracy is a growing concern that is rapidly evolving, taking advantage of fragile states and political instability. Although the impacts can be sometimes over stated there is no doubt it remains a valid mission requirement.

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.

Safety and Environmental Protection

Pollution Response; vessels such as SIMSS may contribute to a wide area pollution response providing a work base for example

Research; ordinarily not a naval role but the facilities of SIMSS may support environmental research activities

Submarine Rescue; the current NATO submarine rescue system is air portable and can be hosted aboard a number of vessels, SIMSS can provide an ongoing host and training base for the system.

Disaster Relief and Regional Security Development

Disaster Response; we often talk about hard power and soft power as if they are mutually exclusive, disaster response can pay huge dividends and some might say that it is an obligation.

Regional Security Development; a fundamental aspect of our security strategy should be to recognise that regional forces are often best placed to provide us with security in depth and supporting and developing regional security is an accepted objective and mission for all three services.

Mines Countermeasures, Hydrography and Survey

These roles are increasingly convergent with off board systems such as unmanned vessels and underwater vehicles.

The principal driver for mines countermeasures is to increase stand-off distances and allowing unmanned systems to carry out the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks associated with mines countermeasures.

In future conflict mines will play a significant role, they are cheap, easy to obtain, easy to deploy and difficult to counter.

Closely allied to the ability to locate, classify and neutralise mines is gaining an accurate underwater ‘picture’ and this is a survey task. Survey can now utilise many of the same technologies as mines countermeasures and the synergy between the two roles is increasingly being exploited. Both roles will likely utilise a variety of off-board unmanned systems

There also exists a role for mines countermeasures support, a role that has been carried out by various types. This might include command facilities, maintenance, logistics support, crew accommodation and other enablers.

Training

Training is a key role and SIMSS can provide both a platform for its own mission training but also provide support for wider fleet and aviation training.

Embarked Force Support

SIGINT; locations and classification of emitters and interception of signals is an important role, supporting a range of other missions and security objectives.

Special Forces; whether it is for maritime or ashore operations SIMSS can provide a number of accommodation and military support capabilities for special forces where its less than warlike appearance may provide advantages. It might also be possible to create a small amphibious intervention force based on SIMSS

Non Combatant Evacuation; this is likely a relatively common role requirement and a mixture of accommodation and aviation support is vital

Logistics Support

SIMSS may act as a logistics enabler for other maritime and embarked force elements, acting as a mothership for a range of small patrol craft for example.

Ascending the Fightiness Ladder

I am going to completely contradict myself, ever so slightly.

The underlying driver behind SIMSS is that of a numerous, cheap and simple craft that has its functionality, and therefore utility, extended by the payload it carries.  What makes this a limited and therefore relatively inexpensive solution is the lack of very expensive weapons and sensors that provide offensive and defensive options, no sonar, no missiles and no large calibre guns.

This makes it vulnerable in a high threat environment; much like existing mines countermeasures and survey vessels are now, especially when operating alone.

However, with suitable protection as provided from RN or coalition vessels it may be able to act in a supporting role.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Provision of operating space and maintenance facilities for unmanned platforms, outer edge sensor coverage, communications support, logistics support, indirect fires for embarked forces and even a possibility of using SIMSS as a standalone compact amphibious assault vessel.

Not an LCS Either

Having a broad but clearly defined set of roles and operating environments is the key to avoiding cost escalation as the need to add yet more kit to counter ever unlikely scenarios is stopped in its tracks.

One of the problems with the US Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is because it has such a wide span of mission sets. The LCS comes in for a huge amount of criticism but whilst some of it is overblown, some of it clearly is not. The doctrinal and conceptual confusion that has characterised the LCS concept has informed every design choice and resulted in a hugely innovative but eye wateringly expensive vessel that is still confused what it is.

It might be fair to say that the doctrine and employment characteristics may be developed as with any new concept, on the job, but it has not helped to have such issues at a time of severe financial pressure.

David Axe recently wrote a very illuminating article on LCS, click here to read it.

The modular concept is not wholly without merit though and forms the bones of this proposal, although implementation is different.

The underlying principles of the LCS are

  • Get unmanned
  • Get modular
  • Get many
  • Get joint

These are sound and arguably, not fully understood by its critics but looking at the programme it seems that almost everything is predicated on operating at high speed so instead of launching a MCM over the side whilst stationary, it should be able to launch and recover at high speed, this places a great deal of technical complexity on what should be relatively simple systems.

How can we avoid a Royal Navy LCS?

Having thought about this question for a while the following pitfalls need to be avoided;

  • Utilise in service systems, avoiding developing everything from scratch
  • Keep specification realistic
  • Leverage commercial design and systems integration experience
  • Use commercial systems wherever possible
  • Have clear roles that are not mutually exclusive
  • Build something with growth potential i.e. large

Comments on the Part 5 post so they are all in one place

PART 1 – Introduction

PART 2 – Roles and Requirements

PART 3 – Design Discussion

PART 4 – Modules and Payloads

PART 5 – Operational Concepts

 

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