An Alternative Solution to Offshore Patrol – Privatise It
A guest post from John Gough
A recurring theme on this blog and others has been the ongoing pressure that the RN faces due to the tasks the Government asks it to respond to and the number and availability of platforms to do so. I have followed this debate with interest and in response to a tweet, TD invited me to write this article to expand my thoughts on this issue.
One of the problems is that all of us bring our prejudices, likes and dislikes to the debate and this influences our views. I am sure I am not the only person who quite likes the idea of battleship grey warships, bristling with missiles and guns, bearing down on any and every threat around the world with a ruddy great white ensign flying in the breeze. Of course why the RN is busy doing this I still want those carrier and amphibious fleets sitting ready and waiting and able to take on the most sophisticated enemy in the world. However I am well aware of the financial and political limitations to building and maintaining my perfect fantasy fleet…it just isn’t going to happen, so you have to start thinking about how do you actually achieve what you want to do with the limited resources you have, and that actually involves questioning what you want to do in the first place.
A few years ago I was at the Sunderland Airshow where the RN demonstrated what they got up to in the Gulf. It started with a few pretend bad guys in a speedboat; a Merlin flew overhead and issued a warning. In the scenario they were fired on so returned to the nearby T23 frigate that launched two Ribs with a RM boarding party. Simultaneously (in the scenario) a Sea King was despatched and the marines on board this, along with the ones on the Ribs, apprehended the bad guys whilst the T23 kept station. All good fun but I remember at the time thinking that it meant we would need to have an amphibious/support ship (for the Sea King) as well as a T23 in the area; surely there was a better way of dealing with pirates?
It does not seem to make sense to have very expensive assets chasing down pirates in speed boats and with this in mind I was attracted to the idea of a two tier fleet, one part optimised for high end warfare and one part for lower end operations. I am not going to go into the size and composition of the high end fleet in any detail except to state that I think it will be broadly right to meet our high end needs for the next decade or so. Firstly, there is no clear and present existential state to state threat to the UK or its overseas territories (and I include certain islands here also). Secondly, the geo political threat is or has already moved away from Europe, and the best contribution the UK can offer would be a fully worked up and functional Carrier and Amphibious battle group (even better would be two), and TLAM equipped SSNs. This means our wars in the future for the next decade or so will be wars of choice, interventions of one form or another, strategic raiding or the like if you prefer.
The key point I want to make is that the high end fleet, Carriers, Amphibs, Destroyers, Frigates and support vessels: should be treated as a single resource, is sufficient for current planning assumptions and therefore any additional capability does not necessarily need to complement it in a high end conflict.
This moves us on to the lower end capability which takes the form of guardship/support type roles as well as anti piracy and of course the MCM role I haven’t mentioned at all. It seems eminently logical to me to try and add onto, or widen the capabilities of the MCM fleet through a class of ships (the old C3 ship, now MHPC) that by utilising a common ship and modular weapons fits can fulfil a wider role than just MCM. However the capability is at least a decade away so it doesn’t solve the problem now although it may fit as a longer term solution to the guardship type role, and coupled with forward deployment and crew exchanges (as the MCM force in the Gulf already does) could be a good way of extending support into the future with our defence partners.
More of an issue now is the anti piracy type role which is the purpose of this article. There has been a debate on TD whether we should trade T26 for OPVs to allow us to do more of the anti piracy type stuff by having more platforms. The risk is that the Treasury will see an OPV as a replacement for a T26 and you will end up with too few high end platforms meaning you will have weakened your high capability so much that it will not be effective. It seems to me that the key problem is we keep asking our Navy to do things but we never stop to ask whether we should, or if they are funded for this role and actually is it a role for the Navy at all?
At the moment pirates operate from East Africa hijacking ships, our response is that only government actors can respond to this. Navies around the world divert ships, planes and personnel to deal with this issue and have some success, but why did this become a problem in the first place requiring the use of our armed forces?
Some have argued that this is a Coast Guard role, that we should beef up/create a US style force better able to do this and allow the RN to concentrate on the high end capability. However I’m not sure how this will help because the money to fund an upgraded UK Coast Guard still comes from the same overall public spending pot, and there is a risk MOD funding will be reduced (because of reduced commitments) to fund the new organisation which now has these commitments, so in effect the RN still end up paying for these ships in one way or another. I am of course ignoring budget re-allocation from say DfID because both the Government and the opposition are in agreement with maintaining this at its current level so once again we must deal with the reality of funding not what we would like.
So a beefing up the UK Coast Guard will not help because the problem is that as long as we want a Government solution, the funding comes from the same source (the taxpayer) and the funding will not increase to the extent we would wish, and if it did wouldn’t we rather spend it on high capability rather than low end?
So in the absence of additional funding or the pirates retiring, how do we get anti-pirate capabilities in sufficient numbers and relevant capability on station?
How about we get Government out of the solution all together and privatise it?
What if a private sector company came along who could raise the funding to provide the ships, aircraft and personnel? What if the companies whose ships were under threat of being hijacked were content to pay a fee for this service, and this service worked, why wouldn’t HMG want to let them get on with it and leave this problem to the ‘market’?
Sounds fanciful, well there actually companies out there who want to do just this. One, Typhon Sharp wants to deploy a mothership, complete with Ribs manned by ex forces personnel and helicopters. You can watch their promotional video that shows them ‘meeting and greeting’ potential pirates.
Other than the fact that there isn’t a White Ensign on the ships is this concept to far different from some of the ideas discussed on TD? HMG could even hire a company like this for UK merchant ships, or if it was a UK flagged company operate some kind of arrangement with the RN, even a reserve status in times of heightened threats.
The benefits of such a company would be that it would release the RN from low level activities and allow them to concentrate resources on the high end capabilities whilst at the same time getting the low end capabilities required deployed quickly to the zones needed and bring additional non governmental funding into the provision of maritime security.
I am sure there are legal issues to overcome about the use of force, but it is reasonable to assume the company would operate within the law as indeed UK forces do so I don’t think this is insurmountable. In terms of handing over a traditional RN responsibility of ‘keeping the seas safe’ to a non RN group, does it really matter and didn’t the RN grow out of such private ships? Is it not just a way of complementing what the RN do?
The problem of insufficient funding to do all the things we want to be able to do as well as no desire amongst western electorates to put money into defence before schools, hospitals and the like, is not going to go away. This can either lead us to despair that we are simply too weak to defend our interests or it can drive us to find new solutions.
Has the time of the private navy come?
I studied Economics and Politics at LancasterUniversity, before qualifying as a certified accountant and has worked in industry, fiannce and the public secotr in the UK and overseas. I was the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Barrow and Furness in the 2010 General Election.