A Ship That Is Not a Frigate – Follow up and Feedback


First of all, I would like to thank everyone for their considered feedback and comments on the Security, Interdiction and Maritime Support System (SIMSS) concept I described recently.

For what is a hair brain scheme by some random chap off the internet for it to have gathered over 400 comments is a sign of just how engaged the Think Defence readers are, I don’t know of any other defence blog that has such a dedicated, diverse and well clever following, hats off chaps.

Since I started Think Defence I have been calling for innovation tinged with a healthy dose of financial reality. I might sometimes go off the reservation with the odd flight of fancy or wistful glance at metal boxes but generally, although I get accused of being too realistic sometimes, feet are firmly on terra firma.

I also try and counter the notion, a notion promulgated by various lobby groups, that it would all be fine if only those bigger boys in the MoD and Treasury would give the defence community just an odd billion or more extra.

This is so far from reality I don’t know they have the brass neck to even suggest it and is simply lazy thinking.

First off, there is no separate MoD and RN/RAF/Army, projects are bought into being by integrated projects team, the clue is in the name. Both service personnel and civil servants are involved. Main Building and Abbey Wood have as many service personnel as they do those famous pen pushing civil servants.

Decisions are made on a joint basis.

It is not the Treasury that determines how the MoD allocates the defence vote, it’s is clearly the MoD that sets its own priorities so when ex service chiefs start moaning about a lack of x or y they should look in the mirror first. It is their major projects that suck the life out of the lower echelons of equipment, the enablers, the foundations of a flexible and capable force. So whilst they insist on CVF, Typhoon or FRES but complain about a lack of body armour or training time or spares or almost anything else that actually matters I am never convinced by the protestations of innocence.

I am even less convinced and unlikely to even consider giving them the benefit of the doubt when they join the revolving door club, the easy slide into the weapon manufacturer’s board rooms and insidious and subtle corruption that goes with it.

Lobbying for more defence spending from within the expense account laden comfort of a directorship is hardly credible.

So whilst I do not excuse politicians or MoD civil servants I absolutely fail to accept that is all their fault either.

Successive limp wristed Prime Ministers and Secretary’s of State have never found the moral authority to force difficult decisions on the MoD, instead they are dazzled by the gold braid and chest baubles and seduced by the cock stiffening allure of a quick victory over some third rate opponent in far-away places.

Politicians, civil servants and the Service Chiefs need to assume a modicum of backbone and start thinking about the real defence needs of this fine country instead of treating it like some big game of cock measuring or a route to a comfortable retirement.

If the wholly inadequate SDSR did one thing right it was to mark the cards of the defence establishment.

No more wishful thinking, no more voodoo economics, no more punting decisions over the fence to the next post holder.

MoD, you are going to have to live within your means.

Where it all went wrong of course is the hollow promise of an end to salami slicing defence reviews or the matching of strategic objectives to the means of their execution but that is because of moral weakness at all levels, no change there then.

The services have been bought off with a promise of jam tomorrow, what is it called, ah yes, ‘a real term increase post 2015 to enable the vision of Future Force 2020 to be realised’

What a fucking sad joke, still let’s all carry on spending hundreds of millions on Type 26 or billions on CVF whilst cutting back on essential capabilities to save a few million here or there whilst pretending the land of milk and honey, commonly known as Future Force 2020 is.

The same applies for all the services by the way.

If it is possible for anything good to spring forth from the loins of SDSR it is a healthy dose of wake up guys, time for a spot of reality, but I don’t think many of the service chiefs actually get it.

Anyway, rant over, back to SIMSS.

Eating into the Surface Fleet

I deliberately suggested that we might trade a few Type 26 for a lot of SIMSS vessels to test the water.

Most people thought the design and concept was OK but no bloody way should we trade proper warships.

In the land of financial fairy tales I would agree, but we do not inhabit such a place and so these hard trade-offs have to be made. It’s not easy for the Navy to accept reality, the global combat ship is a comfort blanket. Those chaps in green can get rid of those famous cold war relics likes tanks and self propelled guns, despite them being repeatedly used in all manner of recent conflicts but suggest such an equivalent for the world’s finest naval force and anyone would think I was suggesting clubbing half a million baby seals to death, painting HMS Victory in a nice pastel shade of salmon and calling one of the CVF’s HMS Paris (this will probably happen anyway, but you get the picture)

But the surface fleet is already stretched beyond breaking point, we are at an absolute minimum and beyond the point of no return you hear the cry. We have been hearing that since Suez, it happens every defence review but I genuinely think we are pretty close to that point of reality, despite the regular trip to the theatre to watch the boy who cried wolf.

One of the reasons the surface fleet is thus stretched is because we insist on using them to cover tasks to which they are wholly unsuited and not available in enough quantities. We have tacitly recognised this by sending RFA vessels to cover some of the less combat oriented standing tasks like APT(N) in the Caribbean.

The notion of keeping a large combat vessel fleet and despatching them, chock to the gunnels with advanced sonars, weapons and their attendant crews is that they can easily step down and carry out these security roles but equally easily, step back up to the major combat roles that they are actually designed for.

In a land of zero financial constraint this is a sensible strategy but we are not, are we?

It also spreads our jam thinly, whilst a frigates crew is rounding up pirates in £$100 skiffs they are not practising with their hundred million pound anti-submarine sensors, for example. We might not have much notice of the next proper stand up knock down naval conflict, the very last thing I want matelots doing is building schools in Monserat. An extreme example but the point I am trying to make is that combat systems (crew and kit) should be at the top of their combat game, not arsing around being a force for good.

Again, this equally applies to the other services.

This needs continual, high intensity training as a group. When single frigates and destroyers are strung out across the four corners of the globe these training opportunities are reduced.

Of course any sea time is training time and it’s all good, but the key question for me is this.

With fewer commitments, or where those commitments where a proper warship is not the optimal tool and was therefore replaced with something else, would the decrease in stretch provide for an improvement in warlike training, particularly as task groups rather than singles?

You could argue that not only would the pressure on the training schedule be reduced, providing greater space for more realistic training, but qualitative improvements would also be seen.

It does not mean that the core of combat vessels would spend all their time training off Cornwall, as someone put it, they would still be available for cooperative training exercises with other partner nations, they would still carry out defence diplomacy missions as singles and they would still be available for any other tasking but the crucial difference would be, availability to do so properly.

If we want this then something has to give, develop protect a hard core but recognise that one might not need a one for one replacement for Type 23.

This does two things, first, it frees up funding, even in fiscal constraint and second, opens up an opportunity for something else to do those myriad of non-war roles that we press frigates and destroyers onto, the kind of things that characterise the overwhelming vast majority of Royal navy tasks.

That extra funding might even be pushed onto the combat vessels so they are actually fitted with not for.

People might read interpret this questioning about using some of the funding for conventional surface combatants as somehow being anti Navy but I get tired of that, it’s not the case at all. In fact, I see it as a means of preserving the combat ability of the Royal Navy and where a situation calls for a conventional warship I am in no way advocating sending SIMSS instead.

Re-read the proposal and look again at the title.

What is Something Else

Most naval forces have reacted to this need for something else by creating slightly modified frigates or corvettes.

The comfort blanket of the anti-ship missile, CIC and 3D radar is hard to let go and so designs have evolved that still keep these vestiges of being a proper naval ship but throw a bone to the crowd by fitting them with a multi mission deck or other such grandiose bollocks that means a small RHIB hangar and a spot of open deck space with a crane.

The problem with this approach is it still means those very expensive (in fact, even more expensive now because those small boat handling davits don’t come cheap you know) frigates are still tearing around chasing fifteenth rate opponents waiting for the day when they will actually need their variable depth sonar.

Still, they don’t half look good on the PowerPoint and Navy Days.

Net result, fewer hulls in the water and fitted for but not with.

Cue more complaints from ex 1SL’s now working in the defence industry, sea blindness, Falklands, trade routes, shipping lanes, imports and we are an island you know.

SIMSS takes a fundamental leap; you don’t need a frigate to carry out the majority of tasks of the Royal Navy. Yes we need frigates for when we need frigates and I want them to have the full on fighty capabilities but I see the continual reductions, spreading them too thinly and reduced combat effectiveness as a result of an unwillingness to recognise things have changed.

The second issue with the ‘mission deck’ frigate is they are not that effective at those secondary roles (the ones that generally are primary roles most of the time) because space is limited.

Is SIMSS the right thing for this something else role, should it be slightly more fighty, slightly faster, slightly smaller?

These are all valid discussions to have but something else, whatever it is, has to be from Poundland not Harrods.

Survivability and Fightiness

One of the commenters said that SIMSS should have a major war role and then we all piled in with suggestions of how we could add this sensor or that weapon system neatly demonstrating how easy it is to be seduced the little hussy named ‘specification creep’

Of course SIMSS would be vulnerable to a high speed anti-ship missile, its massive, but do we not accept the vulnerability of Jackals to Kornet anti-tank missiles or an A400 to an SU-30?

We have to accept differing scales of protection and approach the deployment of SIMSS exactly like we do an A400 or Jackal. The use of Intelligence, intelligent doctrine, appropriate countermeasures and where necessary, a protective big brother, all compensating for a lack of being a fully tooled up combat ship.

Using simple and relatively cheap countermeasures, whilst simultaneously being realistic about deployments is reasonable defence for a SIMSS.

That said, there should be no reason why self defence capabilities could not be increased with the addition of a modular weapon fit but we have to resist the urge to specify one from day one, build the space and connectivity yes, but do not allow this to delay or introduce too much additional cost.

With very careful design and deployment there might even be potential to equip SIMSS with a couple of niche weapons beyond those needed for self defence.

One commenter attested that all RN vessels should be able to fend of midget submarine lauched torpedo attacks.

Sorry, that’s not the case now, that’s never been the case (in a comparative sense) and is just not possible within a fixed cost envelope.

The HMS Cornwall Example

This was bought up as an example of a rapidly escalating situation where a more combat oriented vessel with a shallower draught might and therefore able to be closer to the boarding party. The suggestion was that something like a Khareef would have been far better than either a SIMSS or Type 22.

Arguably this is correct; it’s a very good point.

However, one could equally argue that the flexibility and space afforded by SIMSS could equally have made a difference. Instead of a poorly armed RHIB, operating with no air cover and unable to notice the arrival of the Iranians, an orbiting UAV like the cheap as chips Scan Eagle would have allowed the boarding party to withdraw in good order. Compliment the inflatables with a CB90 or similar and the Mexican standoff would have been over very shortly. SIMSS has the space to operate multiple UAV’s, multiple Wildcat’s and multiple powerful craft like CB90’s.

So there are a number of ways to look at this.

Svelte Supermodel or Curvy Fat Lass

Going large has disadvantages and these were highlighted by commenters, operating in shallow littoral environments would be off the menu and it must be recognised that many of the SIMSS roles require a close to shore capability.

I think this could be compensated by its ability to operate a decent number of small craft. Small craft in the SIMSS world does not be an 8m RHIB either, 20m patrol craft, landing craft, mexeflotes, USV’s and work boats are all within its ability.

The low maximum speed of 15 knots was highlighted by many people with some practical examples of where even a modest increase to 18 or 20 knots would make a big difference.

This is another trade off, installed power costs but perhaps an increase to 18 knots would not create that much of a price increase, it would come down to detailed design calculation but in general, the lack of speed is compensated by the fast craft and helicopters it carries and in some circumstances, increased hull numbers.

A two size class was also raised, the large SIMSS and a smaller type that used most of the subsystems, a mini SIMSS.

I like this idea, where’s that piggy bank?

Ready Made or Off the Peg

If we are proposing a new kind of vessel then surely it should be a custom design?

Yes and no.

The reason for only a modest set of modifications to an existing design is to cut down on cost and leverage the expertise, construction experience and supplier ecosystem that has developed in the offshore market.

A lower cost basic design means more hulls in the water and things to carry on them, simple as that.

The Holy Grail of Modularity

Another commenter made the accusation of SIMSS being in thrall to the notion of modularity, pointing to the LCS and STANFLEX realities.

Fair point, but if you actually look at the issues of STANFLEX and LCS you will see that modularity is not actually the root cause of their problems.

A commenter mentioned the complexity of modular systems, highlighting the need for self testing systems and connectivity issues.

All good stuff but look at the modules in the proposal.

Small Boats and UAV’s, already available from a number of vendors, straight off the shelf and fully mature

Containerised MCM, already available from a number of vendors, straight off the shelf and fully mature

Dive Support Systems, already in service

Storage for dry stores, fuel and ammunition, already available and very simple

Data Centres, already available from a number of vendors, straight off the shelf and fully mature

Living accommodation, office space, command space, workshops, kitchens etc, do I really need to go on?

Weapons and Countermeasures, you should note that I deliberately left discussions on weapons quite light. As long as we can fit a selection of automatic weapons and perhaps something like the SIGMA mount with LMM then this should be sufficient. Are we really saying this is a significant engineering challenge?

Countermeasures likewise, there are many systems available off the shelf that provide decent levels of protection. It’s not overly complex

In general, I fail to see the problems with payload modularity on SIMSS because I have very carefully limited the scope, fully aligned with the roles and likely operational context.


So I hope these words have explained further or addressed some of the doubts.

SIMSS might not be the solution, but neither is the status quo of demanding for more money whilst pissing it up the wall.

If there is one thing I do know, carry on normal jogging should not be the default stance.

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