RN OPV’s – what do “patrol” vessels do?

HMS Chatham In The Mediterranean


There has been a lot written in recent threads about the Chief of the Defence Staff’s speech and his comments about more vessels for the RN.  Much of the commentary on this site has interpreted these comments as “less expensive ‘warships’ e.g. T26 and more patrol vessels for ‘peace time’ tasking”.

This may or may not be what the CDS meant, replacing some T26 Frigates with other,  “low end” types of vessels, or it may not. However a lot of the conversation in the comment threads has been on what the UK could do to build up the number of hulls by buying smaller, cheaper, simpler vessels such as River Class / Clyde Class, the Spanish BAM or the Dutch Holland classes.

However what would we require such vessels to do, what could they manage to do based on their capabilities ?

The current  tasking of the existing “patrol squadron”

Much has been written on TD over the last few years that echoes the sensationalist press, you know the comments, the ones about what a waste it is to use multi-billion dollar warships to chase pirates……….

What do the current OPV fleet do in the RN ? Well the River class page of the RN website sums it up like this (http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/The-Fleet/Ships/Patrol-and-Minehunters/River-Class) :

“HMS Tyne, Mersey and Severn…….. working at least 275 days a year at sea enforcing British and European fisheries law. The ships send two-person teams to inspect fishing vessels to make sure they have the right nets, the right log books and the right licences.”

So, that’s the old Fisheries Protection Squadron then. Only 3 of them, 4 if you include the FI patrol ship HMS Clyde,  but still, hardly surprising we don’t use them for Caribbean anti-drug tasking etc, we just don’t have enough of them.

The tasking – strategic concerns: the Defence planning assumptions

The seven Military Tasks from the 2010 SDSR are:

  • defending the UK and its Overseas Territories
  • providing strategic intelligence
  • providing nuclear deterrence
  • supporting civil emergency organisations in times of crisis
  • defending our interests by projecting power strategically and through expeditionary interventions
  • providing a defence contribution to UK influence
  • providing security for stabilisation.

I would say the obvious ones for OPV’s are the last two, plus supporting UK civil emergency organizations, and maybe, just a maybe mind you, playing a role in the broadly scoped “defending the UK and its Overseas Territories” – although personally I struggle to see what the role might be exactly.

So, if we buy extra OPV’s instead of Frigates (because lets be honest, it’s not going to be extra OPV’s as well as Frigates is it), what exactly is it we expect them to do ?

Please note, I am focusing on what I consider to be a reasonable label i.e. Ocean Patrol Vessel. You could call it a “Patrol Ship” if you want, but I really don’t understand the “small ships mafia” use of terms like:

Corvette: Wikipedia says up to 100m and 2,750 tonnes defines a “modern” Corvette, but it also notes heavy armament. To me this is a type of ship utilized by coastal navies that don’t need ocean going Frigates, but what to put 8 or more SSM on a small hull, with a small helo, and point defence missile system, i.e. in TD nomenclature it’s more “fighty” than an OPV. Lets use the German Braunschweig class as an example, built for use primarily in the Baltic, they have a range of 4,000 NM at 15Kts, but an endurance of only 7 days.

Sloop: Boy do I hate this particular label, but the great Wiki tells us in “modern” usage (e.g. RN pre-WWII) it referred to a vessel in between a Corvette and a Frigate. I cant really think of a real world modern, current example, however regular TD commentor’s sometimes even use the more bizarre “Sloop-of-war” – whatever that means !

The requirements

What exactly then, do we want our OPV to be able to do ? Well based on historical usage in the RN, and the sort of things that often get mentioned here in the comments threads, the bread and butter work for such a vessel would be “constabulary operations” also known as MSO, or Maritime Security Operations.

The great Wiki even has a definition for MSO: “Maritime security operations (MSO) are the actions of modern naval forces to “combat sea–based terrorism and other illegal activities, such as hijacking, piracy, and slavery, also known as human trafficking.”[1] Ships assigned to such operations may also assist seafaring vessels in distress. These activities are part of an overall category of activities which fall short of open warfare called military operations other than war (MOOTW).”

To this list we could add, general anti-smuggling (such as arms, prohibited technology etc) and the EEZ patrol and fisheries protection type missions.

The major commonalities of all these roles are based around the need to board suspect vessels, in order to do this we must be able to:

  • Receive Intel, detect and identify the suspect vessel(s)
  • Intercept it (or them)
  • Stop it (or them)
  • Visit (peaceful) / Board (against resistance)
  • Subdue resistance and Search
  • Arrest and detain crew or others
  • Dispose (sink / tow / put onboard a prize crew)

This is what the USN calls Visit Board Search and Seizure or VBSS operations (again Wiki has a page on this too ! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visit,_board,_search,_and_seizure)

From this list of functional requirements, we can build anther list of what capabilities we need in order to meet those requirements

  • Communications to receive and disseminate intel
  • Sensors to detect and identify surface vessels
  • Capability to force a vessel to stop (weapons systems ?)
  • Ability  to catch “go fast” suspects ( by going fast yourself, carrying fast small boats, or helicopters)
  • Ability to board suspects vessels

We now have potential tasking, the functional requirements, and capabilities required in order to specify the size and shape of vessel required. However we must look at additional factors too:

  • What kind of sea keeping capabilities do we require ?
  • What range and endurance capabilities ?
  • What are the cost constraints ?
  • Are there other design factors (e.g. the desire to use the same hull for hydrographic survey ships, or MCM Vessels ?)

Also, we might ask ourselves what kind of vessels we want to intercept ? Modern merchant dashes around the oceans with quite a pace, modern Very Large Container Ships and Very Large Crude Carriers (big tankers) can have “cruise” speeds of over 20kts, so if your OPV is to have a large patrol area, it must have a pretty quick sprint speed in order to get an intercept on a fast moving merchant vessel.

Of course it will never be able to go fast enough to catch a drug runner in his “go fast” speed boat (think Miami Vice), so our OPV will also need to carry and deploy it’s own “go fasts” e.g. 11m RHIBs.

As for stopping a suspect vessel, well that opens a whole other dimension for argument. Personally I have to admit the RN actually seems to have got it right with sticking with the old 40mm Bofors on the Island and Castle Class OPV’s of yester-year,  and the 30mm on the modern Rivers. I know the rest of the world, and it’s dog seems to have universally adopted the OTO Melara 76mm Super Rapid in one form or another, but I can’t really see how it’s of any use on an ocean going patrol vessel for MSO type tasks, as opposed to a coastal Corvette.  The shells from a 76mm Super Rapid are NOT going to punch enough holes in a mahooosive container ship to sink it, nor are they going to stop a big tanker before terrorists smash it into an oil terminal or something.  Sure you can shoot at the bridge and even the engineering spaces, but to be honest you can do that with a 30mm too.

Now some will answer that we can add all the bells and whistles, and use the ubiquitous 76mm in its most modern form, with guided ammo for both anti-missile and even NGS roles.  Well we could, but that requires a command system, much better radar for the anti-air/anti-missile mode,  maybe a fire control radar, at least a good Electro Optical “director” for target tracking etc  so we are pushing up the costs on our OPV here, but for what purpose ? To give our OPV a “war role” – seriously?

Actually, what might make our OPV at least a little bit “fighty” is its aviation capability. If it has a hangar and flight deck big enough for a Lynx Wildcat, AND a big old “air weapons magazine” then it could carry Stingray ASW torpedoes, depth charges, and eventually Son-of-SeaSkua etc. But to be honest, Wildcat delivered Stingray’s are no use with out a good bow mounted active / passive sonar capability, and adding this pushes up the cost again……….

So what else can we use it for ?

Well there is all the obvious stuff, all the non-core war fighting stuff that I got involved in on just about every RN vessel I served on, like search and rescue, assisting merchant shipping in trouble (including fire fighting, and marine engineering assistance), disaster response.  Except of course on a 2,500 tonne broad-beamed Leander Class Frigate there were around 250 of us from which to find shore parties to help in disaster response, whereas a River Class has a crew of 30 (and berths for 20 more).

However, playing devils advocate, lets say we have a stretched River / Clyde of 90m, say 2000 tonnes, flight deck and Wildcat capable hanger, 2 x 11m RHIBS,  capable of “sprinting” at 21Kts and slightly greater range than the Clyde,  say 8,500NM at 12 Kts; with 3 x 30mm (Fwd, and Port and Stbd mid-ships) plus min-guns etc.  Comms and sensors same as Clyde.  Lets also say BAE Systems Surface Ships can build them at reasonable cost in Portsmouth.

Great :)

Now can someone please tell me what use these ships are for those military tasks from the Defence Planning Assumptions:

  • Defending the UK and its Overseas Territories
  • providing a defence contribution to UK influence
  • providing security for stabilisation.

Good enough for Caribbean anti-drug ops, Mediterranean anti-people smuggling, and Somali piracy ops. Good enough for EEZ patrol.  I get that. Basically its a  Coast Guard vessel, doing Coast Guard roles, but on a global scale, deploying where needed rather than working in the home waters, 200NM EEZ.

However who do we think we are going to “impress” as part of providing a defence contribution to UK influence, if we turn up in one of these ? Sure there are other elements to influence, like working alongside and training with local navies, but we don’t need this class of vessel to do that, we could use something even cheaper and simpler, deployed and supported by a “mothership” – oh yes, I went there !

Our OPV can stop and search, but what other tasking can it undertake in a security stabilization role ? It might be able to carry full platoon of Marines, but with say 8 each in the two RHIBS, and 4 squashed into the back of the Wildcat, it can’t deploy them all in one wave.

For those who want to make it more fighty, stretch it a bit more, and turn into an RN version of the Omani Khareef with 76mm, 8 x Harpoon and 8 x SeaCeptor in place of the VL Mica, do you really think we would get enough of them to make it worth while instead of 5 General Purpose T26 ?

I remain unconvinced about the worth of these vessels.

I will do a part 2 with some ideas for “thinking big” but in the meanwhile, I want the “small ship mafia”, the Black Swan and Khareef advocates to come up with some well thought out and logical arguments as to how these vessels would actually add capability to the RN in the context of their interpretation of the CDS recent comments.

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