The Patrol Ship Myth

Type 23 Frigate HMS_Sutherland_(F81)_MoD

A Guest Post by Somewhat Involved

Over the past months, there has been much talk, discussion and debate on ways to generate additional capability for the Royal Navy.  The cold, hard fact of limited (and likely still dwindling) resources and steady-state, if not increasing commitments placed upon the UK Armed Forces, is well accepted and there has been a lot of creative debate about generating additional hulls to extend our reach, presence and influence in any number of theatres around the world.

Unfortunately, these debates often side-track into one of two avenues – either fantasy fleet time, where we dream up any number of combinations of exciting ships, aircraft and concepts together with truly inspired cost estimates, or simple debate on what the Royal Navy actually does for us in exchange for the many millions spent (wasted?) on it.  The problem is that in the first case, we lose track of why we were discussing ships in the first place, and in the second, begin to assign capabilities and requirements to hulls on a more aggressively cost-based basis.  There is a wider misunderstanding, I think, of just what it is that Royal Navy ships do for you when deployed, and until this is fully understood, I think the debates will be skewed.

It has, interestingly enough, been quite challenging to try and relate the doctrine, lessons and concepts we believe in so dearly into clear English, and therefore justify our need for high-end combatants, and why patrol boats just won’t do.

We have almost blind faith in our own reasons for existence and assume that others see and understand our effects and capabilities as we do.  It’s easy to entertain the wider public with Navy Days or the occasional piracy, drug bust or homecoming story.  But we often fail to communicate the wider task of the RN to the more widely read, and daresay more influential elements outside our own environment, so this is an attempt to do just that.  No insults intended, and this is entirely The World According To Me.

So, two parts to this post.  The first, an attempt to explain what we do, why we do it, and why we should keep on doing it.  The second, in response to an excellent post by IXION, is to explore the requirements for the General Purpose Frigate, why this will serve us far better than a Patrol Ship, and why it is necessary for the Royal Navy over the decades to come.

Bang for your Buck

I am not going to trot out the ‘island nation’ storyline, but the UK does have vested interests overseas.  These may be either purely selfish or selfishly political.  In the first case, we are dependent on foreign energy reserves and our primary gas supply is likely to be (if not already) shipped from Qatar.  Our economy is also hugely dependent upon cheap manufactured goods from Far Eastern nations and food from many others, and those goods, shipped by sea, pass through contested waters, piracy-infested waters and narrow waters along the shortest and most economical route.  I freely admit that the LIKELIHOOD of closing those supply routes is low, but the CONSEQUENCES for our economy are potentially severe, especially given our tendency to only maintain a week or so reserve of gas, food and other essentials.  The ensuing RISK is reason enough then to maintain some form of deployable maritime military capability.

In the second case, we have a strong vested interest in maintaining our standing amongst the international community, in a dozen different ways.  If you think we should all just get along and not worry what other countries think, then ask yourself why Russia and China are so stubbornly blocking any course of united international action to bring the Syrian situation under control.  International ‘standing’ is not just an essential part of the international diplomatic game, but a position that can influence or even dictate market responses, encourage or discourage international investment, have immediate and long term economic effects, and ultimately win or lose votes at the ballot box.  Syria is the current problem, but UK influence and standing have helped shape three significant conflicts and several minor ones in the past 15 years alone.  We cannot afford to sit back and let others model the world to their advantage.

Naval presence has always had a disproportionate diplomatic effect, and it is one we harness often.  A naval blockade is a powerful statement of intent as Israel has proven, and as Iran threatens.  A warship simply entering a new region of water has a similar effect, as Iran again proved with the deployment of a frigate and tanker to the Mediterranean, however briefly.  Naval presence can also provide reassurance, as the Armilla Patrol did in the 1980s and as an international force of ships has done in the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor off Somalia.  Small though the physical presence might be, it has nonetheless a disproportionate effect.  For this reason (almost alone), we have maintained a presence that began over a hundred years ago, became the Armilla Patrol and continues today as OPERATION KIPION.  As an aside, one of the reasons for the disproportionate effect of a single ship is the inherent mobility of that asset and the relative difficulty of locating it if it does not want to be found.

There are two more points to make here – US cooperation, and ‘lesser’ nation engagement.  The US has significant political and diplomatic capital invested in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  As much as the US focus may be shifting towards China and the Far East, Iran remains a threat and a factor that they cannot leave to ‘others’ to ‘sort out’.  But their resources are reducing just as ours are, and they lack capabilities in some areas in which we have expertise.  MCM and ASW are two such capabilities, and as recently proven we can stand alongside US escorts in air defence capability.  And do not underestimate the fact that we are one of the only nations to be able to constantly maintain at least one warship in the region, at a high state of readiness and capability, without any international assistance.  We are dependable in that respect.  By being able to interoperate with the US we gain a lot – access to US intelligence, access to US technologies, a recognition of our ability as partners rather than ‘also-rans’.  It also puts us in the same diplomatic court as the US which, as I’m sure you all appreciate, has both its advantages and disadvantages.  Everything is connected, and we are not yet in a position where ditching the US as a political, military and strategic partner is even a remotely sensible possibility.

I should probably keep the word count down but ought to mention NATO.  NATO is still fundamentally a US-supported organisation, but one in which we retain significant influence at the highest levels.  Again, staying out of NATO isn’t an option, especially as NATO continues to evolve, and given the way, it is evolving it is possible, even likely that the role of the US will dwindle further.  Therefore I would argue that we need to keep our status within NATO, which only comes from an ability to contribute to NATO’s military effectiveness.

And so to the ‘lesser nations.  I mean this not in a derogatory way, but to group those nations where we still have a vested interest, but they are not a part of the wider US-UK-Rest-of-the-world game largely confined to the Middle East.  Here you can group the UK Dependent Territories, the Caribbean Nations, the Falklands, and the West African nations that either have significant oil supplies or are waypoints on the international drug trade flowing from South America.  In many cases, these nations have their own military forces, particularly the Gulf of Guinea nations tackling piracy, or Cape Verde tackling the drug trade.  The effect of a visiting warship is diplomatically high profile and is a political gesture by HMG that the nation in question is important enough to merit such a visit.  Refusal of a ship visit is diplomatically serious, as Brazil and Argentina have proven recently.  More often, visits are combined with goodwill gestures such as exchanges of personnel and have a heavy diplomatic flavour with the UK Ambassador inevitably not only invited to the Official Reception but often hosting it using the ship as a conventional marquee.  Furthermore, the Royal Navy is still seen by many to be the international gold standard of maritime capability, and training exercises in stop and search procedures, counter-piracy and even the basics of ship handling and damage repair yield significant benefits in international relations.

Thus the RN has always believed, spurred on by feedback through diplomatic and military channels, that a single warship can have an effect that is disproportionate to its immediate military capability.  However, that capability does need to be matched to the potential events, outcomes and consequences of a particular deployment, and thus a patrol ship may not be the best option.


I want to quickly look at the concept of survivability.  I suspect few would be happy with the idea that a ship can simply ‘survive’ an initial engagement – no, it should not only survive but emerge supreme on the other side!  Huzzah!!  I think this is less significant than we like to pretend.

In open ocean warfare, any warship will expect to operate as part of a task force, and thus enjoy a level of additional protection.  There is a huge array of complex, challenging and lethal weapons available, and anything less than an air warfare destroyer would be hard-pressed to last long alone in the face of determined attack.  But open ocean warfare is currently a relatively distant possibility, so we rely on the task force concept and do not need to arm every ship with SeaViper.

In the Gulf scenario, ‘survivability’ has another meaning.  If a certain Gulf state were to, as some so eloquently put it, ‘kick off’, then we can expect a sudden and possibly overwhelming attack.  Many observers have speculated on mixed raids of short-ranged land-based and ship-based missiles, suicide craft, WIG craft, suicide WIG craft, mines, torpedoes and small arms.  Scary stuff.  But if such an event was to take place, then the ship must be able to defend itself long enough for help to arrive – and with the degree of supporting strike power available in the region (currently USS ENTERPRISE, USS EISENHOWER and imminently USS STENNIS) help will be close by.  Such attacks will have political, diplomatic and military advanced warnings, and are unlikely to suddenly erupt out of the blue.

The fact that a unit is therefore not easily knocked out means that an opponent must divert significant resources to eliminate that threat.  Against a mobile target, this is made significantly more challenging.  Coordinating attacks with asymmetric platforms adds another layer of complexity.  All of these must then be balanced against available resources and the area to be controlled/dominated, leading to a measure of DETERRENCE by both sides, equal and balanced.

In looking at self-defence capability, later on, this then is what I mean by ‘survivability’.

Patrol Ship vs. General Purpose Frigate

In defining a ‘Patrol Ship’, it is important to focus on what we mean by this and make a clear distinction between this and the General Purpose Frigate.  Although there are many different interpretations of both concepts, there is a fundamental difference relating to task and requirement for survivability (that word again).  The Patrol Ship does not expect to operate in a hostile environment, whereas the General Purpose Frigate must be able to do so.

IXION made the excellent point that a Patrol Ship need not be small, indeed we were looking at proposals for ships the size of a Bay class.  By far the biggest driver behind ship size is propulsion, followed by stability.  A small ship will be forced to make compromises in engine design, endurance, speed and stability, either by adopting a smaller propulsion plant, a smaller fuel reserve or by the simple ship design laws that mean a smaller ship moves more than a larger one for a given sea state.  Stability is not only desirable for operating boats and aircraft, but for the effective operation of weapons systems and sensors.  And where radars are concerned, the higher the radar, the greater its range.  Our areas of operation necessarily include regions where the distance between ports is significant, and the weather is often poor, occasionally dangerous, and this tends to favour the larger hulls over the smaller ones.  Advances in technology and the efficiency of power plants will doubtless make ships and crews smaller, but there is little to be saved by trying to cram your capability into a smaller hull.  Steel is cheap, the air is free – the cost of any ship is not the hull, but the systems.

Any ship operating on ‘patrol’ duties, inclusive of CP, CN and other such tasks, needs a minimum outfit:

  • Surface surveillance radar.
  • Electro-optic systems, also for surveillance.
  • Small calibre gun/guns, for interdiction and enforcement.
  • A minimum of two quick-reaction seaboats for boarding duties.
  • Sufficient accommodation for embarked forces.
  • Effective voice and data communication systems, equivalent to broadband data rates.

However, in order for a ship to be considered ‘survivable’ within the constraints of that proposed above, and thus become the General Purpose Frigate, there is a necessary minimum equipment fit.  This would be:

  • A medium ranged surveillance radar capable of tracking air and surface contacts, to provide a warning of attack.
  • Electronic intercept equipment, to provide warning of attack.
  • An air self-defence system, which should be able to cope with at least 3-4 aircraft or missiles arriving simultaneously.  Such a system should be able to protect another vessel positioned down-threat of the firing unit.  This system should also incorporate decoy systems, where a hard-kill of missiles is not possible or is less effective than a soft-kill.
  • A combat computer system that can process all data including that received from off ship.
  • Flight deck and hangar, large enough to operate any combination of manned or unmanned types envisioned.
  • Redundancy in systems to permit damage control, and appropriate damage control systems.

In order to counter an underwater threat, the most practical option currently available is to simply blast noise into the water column and flood an area with radar, making life as difficult for the submarine as possible.  In noisy, cluttered and congested littoral waters, submariners will be focused far more on keeping their boat safe than trying to close for an attack solution.  The ship launched torpedoes have limited usefulness, but anti-torpedo systems, now emerging, have far more value.  Offensive littoral ASW is best conducted with air assets, but a ship in the General Purpose role with an active sonar system and torpedo launch capability is still a valuable asset.

There are more General Purpose payloads that should be considered; these are very much ‘nice to have, but are comparatively cheap and easy to provide for.  Sufficient storage space, cranes and/or cargo management systems can handle SF boats and stores, autonomous underwater/surface/air vehicles and any number of wacky, containerised ideas.  The idea of a payload bay and launch/recovery system has been discussed before, but such abilities belong firmly in the General Purpose role and not that of a high-end combatant.

Of course, the RN’s current combatants, Type 23 and Type 45, have all these capabilities bar the last.  Type 45 is an extreme case, but Type 23 is a very capable General Purpose design.  The GP Concept in its basic form lacks land attack capability, anti-ship firepower, blue-water ASW capability or anything more than self-defence abilities, but as a naval unit it can still achieve a significant degree of ‘presence’, disproportionate to its actual capability and yet able to deliver the effects that HMG requires in all current theatres, from the Gulf to the South Atlantic.

The Patrol Ship Myth

One of the reasons why I started this post was to try and put down the idea that a small warship of corvette size or smaller, as so often postulated here, could have a reasonable effect in the theatres described above.  I would hope by now that it is obvious that such a ship could not function effectively east of Suez in anything other than an utterly benign environment OR ELSE become a vulnerable unit requiring protection.  With the sole exception of counter-piracy off Somalia, any ship in this theatre needs to bring, at a minimum, those capabilities which would allow it to survive if hostilities were to commence.  On top of that, to make any contribution to the wider security issues as discussed, we then need those niche capabilities that allow us to maintain the position we have established.

In the rest of the world, a Patrol Ship might suffice for all conceivable tasks, including reassurance, presence, training, diplomacy, counter-piracy, counter-drugs and so on.  This is on the assumption that you no longer require any form of deterrence in those areas; try as you might, a Patrol Ship has no deterrent value against combat forces because it lacks survivability.  The challenge then becomes how you split your fleet, how you balance your numbers of high-end combatants, General Purpose Frigates, and Patrol Ships.

All RN ships can deliver the Patrol Task.  It may not be efficient or the best use of resources at a particular time, and it is an expensive option.  However, given the high tempo of operations today in the face of reduced platform availability, we are able to ensure that, even if one ship suffers a major defect or delay, another effective naval combatant is available to replace it and maintain the commitment.  If high-end combatants are exchanged for Patrol Ships, although you increase the numbers of hulls available you nonetheless reduce the total number of combatants and that increases the likelihood of being unable to maintain a commitment.

Where the risk of conflict is high, the need for ships goes beyond simply maintaining just one on the station.  In addition to the ship outbound to relieve the first, and the previous incumbent returning home, there is a need to have additional ships ready to form the Response Force Task Group.  This formation is not kept permanently formed but consists of ships at readiness undertaking other tasks, from which they can be pulled if required.  By diluting the pool with smaller ships, none of which can have an effect in a Task Group, the ability to form the RFTG also reduces significantly.

Finally, force planning and hull numbers go well beyond short-term thinking of five, ten or fifteen years.  The planners must be able to ensure that the RN remains a balanced force capable of delivering the anticipated level of commitment 30, 40, even 50 years into the future.  Whilst many have discarded the DCDC ‘Future Character of Conflict’ document as so much piffle, even they cannot disagree with the assessment that with booming world populations, dwindling resources and an overwhelming dependence on the sea, the world is not likely to be more stable in future.  Consider the worldwide impact of everyone in India and China demanding an iPad – the resources to manufacture high tech devices, such as rare earth elements, are already dwindling.  By pursuing short term cost savings over long term strategic thinking, a nation is guaranteed to be at a disadvantage in future and must accept a dwindling, less significant role that is unlikely to bring economic benefit.  The alternative, as Germany has done, is to establish oneself as an industrial and/or economic powerhouse able to weather all problems, but I do not believe this to be a viable strategy alone.

My point then is that although smaller ships might be available in greater numbers, they are not necessarily suitable for the task they are required to undertake, now or in the future.

The Jack of All Trades – The Future Surface Combatant

My opinion is that the ship type we need for our day-to-day global tasking is a vessel in the frigate class, for reasons of range, endurance, speed and stability.  Even if this vessel carried only the most basic sensors and weapons, a minimum size is nonetheless required.  However, it does need to be an effective combatant if it is to fulfil 90% of the roles expected of it and allow for a balanced, manageable Fleet.

The Joint Concept Note on the Black Swan design makes the point that ships need to be able to accept a variety of systems in their lifetime which should, where practical, be modular in design and able to ‘plug and play’ with the parent’s ship’s existing hardware.  I agree – but this is hardly ground-breaking stuff.  We do this already in many different systems, land, sea and air, and is hardly a design constraint.  The key requirement, however, is space – a small ship will have this in short supply and may even face limitations in power generation to support any bolt-on system.

The Type 23 frigate is, in my opinion, one of the better designs of such a vessel yet evolved.  It has been by total fluke – a ship conceived in the Cold War, it has been adapted and updated through its lifetime to become an asset that today can be deployed to any of the key theatres discussed above and still be effective for any of the varied roles it is called upon to do.  It is far from perfect – sensors, guns and many of the internal systems are not effective in today’s environment, but it provides a basic platform exemplifying the General Purpose Frigate idea upon which I intend to build. It has a good range, fuel-efficient engines, a high top speed, good manoeuvrability and a useful sensor/weapons fit.  It also has limited capacity for further growth, no room for additional boats or embarked forces, the gun is inadequate for current standards of precision attack ashore, its counter-FIAC defences are questionable and it is getting old.  Critically it may not reign supreme alone, but it would SURVIVE and thus remains an effective combatant.

A vessel fulfilling my General Purpose requirements discussed above is what I believe we need as our future combatant to replace Type 23.  This can then be upgraded to a more specialist role according to requirements.  The options for this are many and varied, but in simple terms, a quietened variant, fitted with a towed array sonar system and with the appropriate aircraft embarked, makes a potent dedicated ASW platform.  The alternative is to optimise for above-water warfare, including but not confined to anti-ship missiles, land-attack missiles, appropriate calibre main gun for NGS and anti-surface duties, advanced electronic intelligence equipment, etc.  There is even potential to specialise in anti-air warfare, although we already have the Type 45 in service for this purpose.  These are dedicated weapons systems and require unique hull mounting and integration space such as VLS silos or turret/gun bay structures.  However, they need not be permanently embarked or even fitted, thus presenting opportunities for modular systems to be introduced along the lines of the Black Swan concept.  The ship can then fulfil the Patrol task, whilst retaining the minimum fighting capability necessary to allow for rapid redeployment.


I hope to have presented a different view of today’s tasking and requirements, and the associated need to maintain a minimum number of combatants with certain minimum capabilities.  I have tried to avoid the ‘fantasy fleet’ trap, and hope instead to have offered some different points for debate.  I strongly believe that to maintain our current international standing, in the interests of assuring the UK’s future influence and stability, there are commitments that must be met.  That requires a minimum level of investment in combat capability, for which maritime forces remain the most effective.

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