A guest post from Peter Elliot, who has been doing a spot of reading!
Members of this group were kind enough to suggest that I could learn something by reading: “The Future British Surface Fleet, Options for Medium-sized navies” by DK Brown, published in 1991. I have now done so, and these are my reflections.
Before beginning, I should state clearly that I am hugely impressed with Brown’s knowledge and grasp of his subject. Nothing that follows below should be read as an adverse criticism of his judgement, integrity or understanding.
It is now twenty-one years since the book was published, and this makes an excellent timeframe for a review. As Brown was writing the first of the Type 23 Frigates were appearing. As well as discussing them he also considered what the future might hold for the next generation of Destroyers, Amphibs and Aircraft Carriers. The actual solutions adopted for all these ships are now known, and we stand on the threshold of the next design cycle.
At this moment, therefore, we are uniquely well placed to consider what he got right or wrong in his predictions, and what he missed out on altogether.
At the time of writing Soviet Russia was still Britains major threat. Brown’s writing is strongly coloured by this and the Cold War example is always the first to be mentioned in each section of his discussion.
He wisely avoids detailed predictions of non-cold war operations. The outbreak of GW1 was clearly just as much of a surprise to him as it was to the rest of us and he makes no mention of the Balkans, West Africa, Afghanistan or Libya. He says nothing of the rising economic, political and military strength ofChina, IndiaorBrazil.
What he does do is emphasise the flexibility of a well-constructed navy to meet as yet unknown threats. On the whole, the experience of the past 20 years has borne this out. The navy designed in the 1980s to fight the Russians using the lessons of the Falklands has, with a few exceptions, served us well in the post cold war era. Let us hope the RN we are designing today will be serving us as well in 2032.
Brown is clearly in the camp that sees the frigate fleet at the heart of the future Royal Navy. Their ability to combine Anti-Submarine warfare with peacetime presence tasks at an affordable unit cost makes them his preferred solution for a future fleet.
Unsurprisingly he correctly anticipates the development path of Type 23 to include a high quality towed array and improvements to other warfare systems. He clearly knew that the RN was getting a good ship and would be able to make the most of it. Although designed for the cold war the T23 has shown itself to be adaptable to a wide variety of tasks, bearing out his views on the general utility of a well-designed warship.
Although he nervously anticipates the coming of a ‘peace dividend’ he clearly did not comprehend the scale of the impact it would have on the frigate and destroyer fleets. He bemoans the cut from 50 such vessels to 40, rehearsing the familiar arguments of a fleet cut to the bone and unable to complete its allocated tasks in peace or war. The fact is today that we are producing the same arguments in defence of a surface fleet of just 19 vessels, and would think we had died and gone to heaven if the number were increased back to just 25.
This should give us pause for thought in considering if the frigate fleet really is the swiss army knife of the ocean, and if so whether there is an effective evidence-based way of establishing the correct size for it. Just as we have recently done on the Type 26 thread Brown then ponders what other types of the hull could be used instead.
Brown contemplates a stripped-down corvette based on the Castle Class, with a helicopter, a gun, and the ability to mount a towed array in wartime. He correctly points out the political risk attached to such a vessel, ie that the ministry would simply replace Frigates with Corvettes 1 for 1 rather than increasing hull numbers back up to the 50 vessels he desires. It is worth considering that if this had happened we might have ended up with a fleet of 19 FF/DD plus 21 Corvettes. Would we be happy with that today? Yes we would. I’m guessing we’d even accept 15 FF/DD and 10 corvettes. And if we reject that path we are likely to end up with 15 FF/DD and no corvettes.
The lesson is that the alternative to diluting the quality of the fleet is simply a smaller fleet. When money is tight there is no ‘status quo option.
The SWATH concept clearly made a big impression on Brown. For those unfamiliar with the idea here is the wiki link:
Despite his enthusiasm, the SWATH has yet to appear amongst RN warships. The reasons for this are probably tied up with the success of Type 23. With a reducing fleet, we have effectively had a 20 year holiday from Frigate building that is only now approaching its end. There have therefore been no ‘hull slots’ in the fleet available to be filled by a new experimental design.
Brown also admits that both the build and operating costs of a SWATH vessel are likely to come in higher than a conventional warship. The big advantage is in Sea Keeping. A SWATH vessel is more stable and can operate helicopters in conditions that render a conventional frigate impotent. Since Brown’s thinking was dominated by the threat of Soviet submarines in the stormy North Atlantic this advantage looms large. Since 1991 this threat diminished almost to nothing and is only now starting to re-emerge. As such there was no reason to invest scarce funds in developing the SWATH concept. If the Russians come again, then so may the SWATH.
Over on the Type 26 thread, we had a long discussion about how a modified Bay Class or similar vessel might actually be better suited for peacetime presence tasks than a frigate. This is because of the increasing importance of UAV and USV assets and the need to mount numerous small manned boats for counter-piracy and counter-narcotics operations. If designed correctly such vessels could also be added to the Amphib fleet or tow an array in the event of war.
Brown clearly did not foresee the importance that small unmanned units would come to have. The possible need for a large, cheap, mothership design to take up some of the present work of his 40 surface warships appears not to have featured in his thinking.
This is an area that Brown was almost spot on. He predicts most of the key characteristics of the Type 45 in terms of its size and capabilities. The areas where his thinking does not match up are ones where we would mostly agree with him and not with the existing capability.
His concept for a Very Long Range Destroyer of up to 9,000 tonnes, heavily armed and with the ability to cross the oceans without RFA support is similar to the sort of global cruisers that the T45 should have been, and what we hope they will evolve into with upgrades during their service lives.
In his section on ‘cheap aircraft carriers,’ he also discusses a concept for a large destroyer carrying up to 4 helicopters. There is perhaps some cross over between this concept and the mothership mentioned above, although Brown’s concept is based on a combatant RN Warship and not a lightly armed RFA.
This is one that DK Brown got wrong. Although he had a very clear view of the inadequacy of RN airpower in 1991 his main proposal is simply to replace the Invincible class like for like with three more 20,000-tonne CVLs. There are three big reasons why this is not what we have ended up with: two operational, one political.
Operational lesson number one from Libya, Sierra Leone and GW1, GW2 and the Balkans is that naval airpower from a unit of suitable size and capability is a key asset in expeditionary warfare. When I say ‘suitable’ I am including the Nimitz and CDG class Carriers that deployed on some of these operations.
Lesson two, also from GW1, GW2 and the Balkans is that a 20,000-tonne CVL just does not measure up to the task of influencing a major operation on land, especially when the air wing is solely focussed on CAP rather than CAS.
These are the lessons that have driven the requirement for 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers able to deploy a flexible mix of rotary and fixed-wing assets for both CAP and CAS. Interestingly Brown clearly grasped the inadequacy of the CVL design as seen through the Cold War prism of supporting the Royal Marines in Norway, but he seems to have been unable to make the jump to predicting the solution.
This is where the political lesson comes in. Brown clearly never saw New Labour coming. The heady cocktail of Liberal Interventionism and Old Labour spending policy kept afloat on a sea of international debt just wasn’t in the air in 1991. The cancellation of CV01 still loomed largely and he just couldn’t conceive of a modern British fleet carrier ever being approved. The lesson here: the politicians don’t always shaft the armed forces. We must be prepared to look hard at the facts and make the case for what we need, whether we expect it to be approved or not.
In this case, Brown’s prediction was almost spot on. He predicted 2 LPD, 2 LHA and 6 LSL. This was based on the need to send two Royal Marine Commando Groups to Norway to fight the Russians, but experience has proved our capability adequate for a range of intervention tasks over the last 20 years.
We ended up with a maximum fleet of 2 LPD, 1 LHA and 4 LSD. The subsequent decline of these fleet numbers and the expected loss of HMS Ocean by 2020 mean that the question of the correct Ampib fleet mix is now back on the agenda. Brown questions the value of such a large fleet of ships simply to deliver two RM Commando battle groups. We now find ourselves questioning the value of our reducing fleet of 1 LPD 1 LHA and 3 LSD to land and sustain a single RM Commando group.
Interestingly the likely conclusions are opposite. Brown was prepared to offer up the Amphib fleet for cuts. The unspoken implication being he would prefer to preserve frigate numbers instead. In our recent discussions, we have veered the opposite way: seeking cost-effective ways to landing and sustain a medium army brigade over the beach, in addition to the light strike forces offered by 3 Commando and 16 AAB. Once more the reason for the difference in approach is political. As a prisoner of his north Atlanticfocus Brown just did not anticipate the number of other peoples wars we would be getting involved with around the globe, and the need for amphibious forces that this would bring.
One other interesting aside is that as early as 1991 Brown was considering whether 4 large amphibious ships with organic air facilities (effectively Juan Carlos LHDs) would provide a better option. He simply observes that the ministry seem to have chosen the LPD / LHA / LSL model without unpacking the relative merits of the two concepts very far. It would be fascinating to know more of his thinking on this subject – if anyone out there has access to a relevant paper.
Clearly aware of the extent to which power projection was reliant on Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) Brown frequently bemoans the decline of the British registered Merchant Navy. He takes successive governments to task for not doing more to sustain the necessary reservoir of British registered shipping and points out the safety and operational deficiencies of the commercial RoRo chartered to take our armour to GW1.
What he doesn’t do is propose a cost-effective solution. We have ended up with an excellent arrangement of 6 Point Class RoRo, designed with military use in mind, able to be hired out on the civilian market when not required.
Like the aircraft carriers above this is perhaps an example of Brown clearly articulating a problem, but not to reach out that little bit further and propose a possible solution. This seems especially to be the case where the problem touches on political or economic matters, rather than on his core expertise of ship design.
Ship Building and Ship Design
The description in this section of the unsustainable state of Britain’s shipyards in 1991 is a sobering one. Brown clearly saw the impending train wreck of mass closures and lost design skills and it worried him deeply. As this is his core area of expertise he does propose a solution in terms of a centralised design office within the MoD, with control of the whole research, specification and design process for new RN warships. Only construction would then be contracted out to the remaining yards in line with the political and industrial requirements of the time.
We cannot say that his proposal would not have worked. In fact, we have ended up with something very similar in terms of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, which seems to be making excellent progress in delivering a complex design on time and (political delays aside) on budget. The workflow is being parcelled out around the county and a single central team is pulling all the strings. It has been a painful, halting process to get to this point but the design and manufacture of Type 26 seem set to follow a successful template.
Many of the concepts of Net Present Value and the trade-offs between Capital and Operating costs that Brown called for are now central to Hammond’s MoD and appear to be bringing some sanity to the procurement process. Modular Build is here to stay and Modular Design in terms of VLS for multiple different missile designs is also a core part of how warships work today.
Yards will still close and jobs will still be lost after the QEC programme winds down, but the total loss of design skills and the ability to create complex warships that Brown feared seems likely to be avoided.
DK Brown was clearly a master of the very technical subject of ship design. To this, he added a good understanding of government, politics, economics and industry. Although his thinking was dominated by the Cold War he clearly understood the value of flexible designs that could be adapted to a number of possible uses. Where issues extended beyond his core competency of ship design he was better at articulating problems than proposing solutions. This also shows a degree of humility and self-knowledge that we should perhaps learn from.
We have however now reached the end of the RN ship design and building cycle which Brown directly foresaw. The next generation of RN warships will inevitably evolve further away from his predictions as more new technologies appear and new operational lessons are learned and world politics evolve even further from the Cold War era.