Roles, Deployments and Costs
It is at this point that I have to come up with a name, something other than ‘not a frigate’, although I quite like to reinforce what it is, and isn’t. When I last looked at the margins of this concept I called them forward presence ships and then the Surface Security, Interdiction and Maritime Support System, SIMSS, others have called them auxiliary motherships.
I am not hung up on ships names but how about the Future Rapid Effects Ship or FRES?
Ha Ha, only joking…
For now, we can just call it a Maritime Support System (MSS)
In describing any design, the first task is to define the roles, requirements and operating environments that the ship will be immersed in.
That is the norm, but this proposal would seek to define a cost first and work everything back from there. Now this might seem ridiculous and I am aware that most will not agree with it but all the services, especially the seniors in that service, have to achieve financial credibility; changing the current perception of having champagne tastes and brown ale wallets, in hock to the defence industry that provides most of them jobs after leaving and lusting after shiny new equipment despite their service falling apart at the seams. It’s an unfair characterisation, but there is a kernel of truth in that perception.
Low cost is, therefore, the fundamental element in this proposal
Can one set a budget before even considering roles and deployments?
Who knows, but let’s start with an arbitrary target of £100m and see where we go.
It might be tempting to design the ships only for warm environments but we should also consider the colder environments of the south Atlantic and Arctic regions. The following diagram (which I have shamelessly nicked from BMT) defines a spectrum of cost, capability and my term, fightiness (remember, you heard it here first!) against which a naval vessel can be defined.
If we look at the diagram, MSS will, for the most part, operate in a threat environment that straddles safety and security roles whilst operating alone.
When operating inside the protection envelope of other combat ships such as T45/T26 (or coalition forces), or perhaps, with some additional equipment fitted, carry out these roles in a higher threat environment.
To labour the point, it is not a fighting vessel, but it might be involved in a wider fight, with some help from its bigger brothers.
Potential roles include;
- Training and Defence Engagement
- Salvage, Repair and Firefighting
- Medical support
- Experimentation and Systems Development
- Mine Countermeasures
- Ship to Shore Logistics Support
- Maritime and Littoral Security
- Special Forces Support
- Disaster Relief
- Submarine Rescue
- Aviation Support
We need to be absolutely aware of the simple fact that such a design would not meet naval specifications, would lack a range of survivability features and in short, would not be a frigate, or even an OPV.
I will expand on these in the next section.
In summary, it is not a frigate, did I mention that?
Form and Function
There are some fundamental things we need to think about at the start; does the ship need to be large or small, how should it be powered, the basic design, should it leverage existing designs or be customer designed, is there any value in converted second hand vessels and a big list of other things.
Off the peg or made to measure?
One of the secondary objectives of this proposal is to provide some specification and design experience for the UK naval construction community. We all know that feast and famine is a bad thing for maintaining skills in the design community so MSS would provide some experience. Specifying, designing and building the MSS is not the same as specifying, designing and building a complex warship like a frigate or destroyer, no one is saying that. But it would provide some relevant experience, which would not be a bad thing.
When taken in the round, it might actually be preferable to start the process from scratch, and design and build a completely new vessel. Being Penny wise and Pound foolish is an accusation often levelled at the idea of using merchant vessel conversions and honestly, I don’t know which would be the best, but this post makes the assumption that converting an existing design, or even an existing vessel, will produce a lower cost and quicker outcome.
There is also precedent for cargo ship conversions in the naval sector, some successful, some not.
Civilian to Military Conversion Examples
The Atlantic Conveyor had a less well-known sister ship that also took part in operations in the South Atlantic. The Atlantic Causeway was pressed into service in the same time frame but with a different set of modifications. Requisitioned on the 4th of May and taken to Devonport on the 6th she was converted to carry, operate and support helicopters. The conversion differed from the Atlantic Conveyor in having a large hangar forward and improved aviation fuel handling facilities
Atlantic Causeway sailed on the 14th of May with 28 helicopters and arrived in the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) the 27th of the same month, disembarking her aircraft and stores in San Carlos Water from 31 May.
During the operation, she received 4000 helicopter landings and refuelled aircraft 500 times, an impressive feat for a conversion and restoration that cost £2million.
RFA Reliant started as the MV Astronomer, a container ship built in Poland in 1976. After the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor, the MoD requisitioned her for service. After unloading all cargo and containers, she was sailed to Devonport and converted to the helicopter forward support ship, sailing south on the 8th of June 1982. The six-day conversion included the installation of a landing pad, hangar, RAS gear, communications equipment, additional accommodation and self-defence equipment. In addition to three Chinook, Wessex and Sea King helicopters, the ship had its crew of 34 joined by 53 Royal Navy, 21 RAF and 8 Army personnel. During her time in the Falkland Islands, the MV Astronomer carried out all manner of aviation support, patrol and logistics activities. The one thousandth landing was completed by a Royal Navy Sea King from HMS Invincible by the end of August.
The Falkland Islands deployment was a great success.
In December 1982, Astronomer was leased by the Ministry of Defence and underwent further conversion during which she was fitted with the US ARAPAHO system, a flight deck and hangar facilities for trials. She was later commissioned into the Royal Fleet Auxiliary as RFA RELIANT in late 1983. Cammell Laird and BAE completed the conversion which included two accommodation blocks (called the Village and the Hilton), power and ventilation, water purification and storage, communications, hangar and flight deck, generators and electrical distribution systems, and weapons and fuel storage. It was a much more comprehensive version of what was originally installed, cost £25m. The ship was tested with helicopters and Sea Harriers.
In 1984, RFA Reliant played a key role in the evacuation of British citizens from Lebanon, supporting the UK contingent (BRITFORLEB) of the UN Multinational Force (MNF) in Lebanon between 1982 and 1985, Operation HYPERION.
Despite this promise, the experiment was not a success. The ARAPAHO installation, on loan from the US Navy, was not of high quality and would not have fared well in South Atlantic conditions, even in the Mediterranean, there were problems. Design faults meant the system was not watertight and the landing pad surface was so coarse, it resulted in a great deal of aircraft tire damage. A short tour to the Falkland Islands was followed by decommissioning of the ARAPAHO equipment and sales of the vessel back to the MoD. She ran aground in 1995 and was scrapped at Alang, India, 1998.
Contender Bezant was utilised as an aircraft transport, ferrying helicopters and Harriers south to the Falkland Islands.
Following purchase by the MoD in 1985 for £13million she was converted to an aviation training ship at the shipyard of Harland & Wolff, Belfast, with the addition of extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar and communications suites. A Primary Casualty Receiving Facility was added before Argus was sent to participate in the 1991 Gulf War. Another role of RFA Argus is that of RORO vehicle transport with vehicles carried in the hangar and on the flight deck, a role she performed in support of United Nations operations in the former Yugoslavia. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Argus was again present in the Persian Gulf as an offshore hospital for coalition troops, earning the nickname “BUPA Baghdad”.
Most famously, RFA Argus participated in OP GRITROCK, the UK’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, and of course, a star turn in the Brad Pitt film, World War Z.
RFA Diligence is another veteran of 1982, taken up from trade as the MV Stena Inspector. After providing extensive support to the task force she was retained by the MoD in 1983 and additional forward repair facilities added. She received an extensive refit in 2007.
RFA Diligence and Argus have given the UK sterling service.
The Malaysian Navy converted the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC) Bunga Mas Lima into an auxiliary patrol ship, equipped with a helicopter pad and hangar, small boat handling systems and personnel accommodation for seventy.
The Bunga Mas Lima (BM5) has achieved some success in the counter-piracy role. Another vessel, the Bunga Mas Enam (BM6), has also been converted, rescuing the MT Bunga Laurel from Somali pirates in 2013. Both vessels are owned and crewed by MISC but the security personnel and aircrew are from the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF).
The Malaysian MoD have published an excellent overview of OP FAJAR, their efforts to combat pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, click here to read.
After what seemed like an age, the replacement for HMS Endurance (Antarctic Patrol Ship) was announced in 2001. The name HMS Protector has previously been used for a number of ships but the last was also an Antarctic Patrol Vessel. The replacement was, and is, a polar research and subsea support vessel called MV Polarbjørn (Polar Bear).
The Polar Bear was a mere 10 years old at the time, smaller than the Endurance and without a helicopter hangar. She was owned by CG Rieber Shipping, previously operating on the spot market.
To quote the CG Rieber website;
CG Rieber also operates the research vessel, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, currently on lease to the British Antarctic Survey.
The ship’s refit included the removal and repositioning of the flight deck from the bridge roof to the stern, the installation of a multi-beam echo sounder survey system, a complete overhaul of the main engines and gearboxes, and military communications equipment. As can be seen from the images, the stern A-frame and large knuckle boom crane were retained. In later images, the A frame has been removed and a Vestdavit HN-1000 two point davit fitted. This is used for a Mustang Marine (now Mainstay Marine) survey boat, James Caird IV, similar to those carried by the Echo class survey vessels. She also carries an Alnmaritec landing craft.
HMS Protector is also equipped with survey motor boat, Pacific 22 rigid inflatable boats, landing craft, three all-terrain vehicles and three quad bikes, complete with trailers.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) also purchased a similar vessel, the Skandi Bergen, for just under £64 million. She was renamed the Ocean Shield and served until handed over to the Australian Border Force.
An unusual hybrid approach was taken by the Royal New Zealand Navy with the Multi-Role Vessel (MRV) HMNZS Canterbury. She is not a conversion, but a new build based on an Irish Sea ferry called the Ben-My-Chree. Construction was a relatively modest £60 million but doubts about sea worthiness were soon confirmed and a series of modifications were made to address them, these costing approximately £40 million.
The latest civil to military conversion is the MV Cragside;
There were many more, covering communications, accommodation, FLIR systems, diver support facilities, maintenance spaces, weapon mounts, security cameras and a jet ski launch and recovery facility (no, honestly). All good stuff, but what caught my eye was the aviation requirement, apart from the requirement of the workout rooms to have four 50″ TV’s!
The flight deck…
And the hangar
That’s a big flight deck and a pretty big hangar.
The Cragside is a Flensburger RORO design, not dissimilar to the Point class strategic RORO vessels in service with the UK
This is the first time the US has contracted for a dedicated Maritime Support Vessel (MSV) but has used various vessels in the past in a similar role, especially for special-forces support. The 220ft Edison Chouest C-Champion for example. The C-Champion cost the princely sum of $7m to convert and less than $10m per year to run. The feedback was reportedly very good and the C-Champion operated in the role for many years although the lack of aviation facilities was recognised as a shortcoming.
As can be seen, there is a history of civilian to naval conversions, this is not anything new.
Some have been better than others, however, but I think the fundamental concept, is worthy of exploring further.
Indeed, with the surprise withdrawal of RFA Diligence in August 2106, a proposal from Damen might be worthy of consideration for a more modern and lower cost alternative.
This is a time sensitive offer, whilst the downturn in the offshore market may be sustained, the general way of these things is cyclical.
The image below shows a live fish carrier conversion.
This is a viable option.
Barriers and Advantages/Disadvantages
Clearly, there are many good, and not so good, examples of naval forces making use of civilian designs or converting civilian vessels, those above are just a handful of examples.
The RFA Argus conversion was not cheap, MV astronomer was a success, followed up with an RFA Reliant failure, and HMNZS Canterbury, probably the less said about that the better. But look at HMS Protector, RFA Diligence, Atlantic Causeway and the Bunga Mas sisters, undoubted successes. The success or failure of MV Cragside remains to be seen but it certainly looks promising.
The current regulatory and risk regime is very different to the eighties and expectations of accommodation, a world apart. Just lashing a handful of ISO containers to the deck and calling them home is not going to be acceptable. This means that conversions need much more attention to detail and reference to an increasing regulatory burden, or a higher overhead. Compliance is not a luxury or gold plating, it is the law, but it makes any conversion potentially more expensive than might be imagined.
In a depressed market, pretty much any type of vessel is available on the second-hand market, but it is obvious that owners will want to offload their least productive or cheap to run ships first. Vessels with the latest in economic power and propulsion systems will be held on to the last for example, likewise, those that are flexible and can be used in different markets. There is a danger in shopping in the second-hand market that one ends up spending more on running and maintenance costs, regardless of the cost of compliance with the latest regulations and standards.
So, we should be very clear, buying second hand and converting is not without its pitfalls, and potentially, not cheap either. But, ships are available right now, are cheap, and in the next few years, will become increasingly available and increasingly cheap.
If there is a depressed market in the shipping industry, there is also a depressed market in the shipping construction industry. Striking whilst the iron is hot, taking advantage of market conditions and perhaps, bringing forward replacement plans may not be a bad thing.
This could mean actually contracting for a new build ‘sea frame’ and then converting back in the UK. By having some control of the design, the amount of conversion could be minimised. Instead of ripping the guts out of some ancient ship ready for the breakers, we buy one of these;
Obviously, this is a metaphor!
The point is, though, the amount of design change is kept to a minimum, economies of scale and familiarity at the ship builders, maximised, costs reduced.
For the UK, RFA Diligence and RFA Argus will need replacing, HMS Protector likewise. But none in any particular hurry. There is also the longer-term survey and mines countermeasure fleet replacement programme, but this is even further off than Argus and Diligence.
So there is no immediate need to fill with a merchant conversion, which makes much of this proposal, somewhat moot, but like many of these proposals, they are designed to promote discussion.
If we are going to look into the civilian market, what vessel designs are the most appropriate?
There may also be some potential to establish a ship conversion rather than new build approach, the current economic situation, especially in the petrochemical exploration and production industry, means the second market has many vessels with owners keen to sell, it is a buyers-market. It might not be as aesthetically neat and tidy but using second-hand vessels really can drive the cost down.
A few examples below;
MV Deborah / BBC Mexico, 100m long container ship built in 2001, currently being sold for $2.5 million
MV Clipper Marlene, 143m ice class container ship built in 2001, currently on offer $5.2 million
MV Rimeo, 135m container ship, currently on offer for $1.6 million
MV Antares, 157m RORO with over 2000 lane metres, built in 1988 and currently on offer for $6.8 million
81m Platform Supply Vessel, built in 1979 and on sale for £1.5 million
60m Offshore Support Vessel, built in 2008 and on sale for £3.6 million
These are just a semi-random selection of ships available, newer DP2 vessels are available, any flavour of RORO, container, tanker or general cargo ships, likewise. They would have to be inspected, transported, faults rectified, modifications made, re-inspected and accepted into service but when your starting point is between one and ten million Pounds, it is easy to see the attraction of dabbling in the second-hand market.
Depending on the amount of change needed, it may be just as quick and simple to start from scratch.
Typical designs might include RORO or offshore supply/construction vessels.
For many, large = expensive and small = cheap, but in many ways, it is the reverse.
The kinds of roles envisaged for MSS, size delivers capacity and flexibility.
Having a large ship means plenty of space for payloads but if the ships draught is considerable, getting close inshore becomes a problem. I think this could be compensated by its ability to operate a decent number of small craft. Small craft in the MSS world does not be an 8m RHIB either, 20m patrol craft, landing craft, Mexeflote’s, USV’s and work boats should all within its ability.
The type of donor ship could also have a large impact on functionality.
A container ship with a cellular guide hold will likely to be much harder to convert and be much less useful than a RORO ship. An offshore supply vessel might also be useful if a large clear deck area is needed. Superstructure forward, mid or aft RORO designs will also have pros and cons. RORO’s also tend to have a great deal of focus on damaged stability and fire control.
A couple of potential donor vessel types spring to mind, the offshore support vessel and RORO vessel.
The offshore industry has evolved a number of specialised types of vessel, based on the same fundamental shape. The main types are described below;
Platform Supply Vessel (PSV); the most basic type of offshore support vessel, generally used for transporting cargo to and from offshore facilities, containers and liquids such as drilling mud or fuel being the most common. Underneath the large clear deck are usually a number of tanks used for liquid cargo. The Fast Supply Intervention variant tends to specialise on high speeds crew transfer with lower cargo capacity.
Anchor Handling Tug Supply (AHTS); these are based on the same basic platform supply vessel design but also have line and deep sea anchor handling equipment, winches, cranes and stern rollers. They are also equipped for deep water towing and rescue and usually have extremely powerful engines and specialised cranes and automated handling equipment.
Multipurpose Support Vessel; this is a bit of a catch-all term, there are a number of specialist subdivisions. Diving support vessels will have extensive decompression and diver systems, aviation and station keeping equipment. Construction vessels usually have powerful heave compensated cranes and the highest levels of redundant station keeping systems. Remote Operating Vehicles are usually operated from large moon pools. Well Intervention and Stimulation vessels are used to maintain and maximise production from seabed oil and gas wellheads.
The most basic PSV’s can be obtained for between £25 million and £30 million but as complexity grows, cost also rises. Active Heave Compensating cranes, moon pools, diver decompression systems, pipe storage carousels, remotely operating vehicle handling and high levels of crew accommodation ratchet up the costs. There are naval and coastguard vessels based on this basic design, the Turkish submarine rescue tender for example. No stranger to innovation, the Norwegian armed forces (Coastguard in this case) have taken a Rolls Royce UT512 design for their Harstad vessel. Iceland followed suit with the ICGV Þór and India is also taking delivery of Rolls Royce UT517 design coastguard vessels. Ulstein is also offering an X-Bow type design, the SX116.
Roll On Roll Off (RORO)
Like the offshore support vessel family, there are a number of variations in the RORO vessel sector.
ROPAX; RORO and passenger, perhaps most used in the short sea crossing routes with accommodation for cars/trucks, foot and car passengers. The image below shows a ROPAX design from Flensburger for Caledonian MacBrayne, built at a cost of £43 million. They are usually equipped with stern and aft ramps and extensive passenger facilities.
PCC/PCTC; Pure Car Carrier and Pure Car Truck Carrier are specialised vessels that are designed to carry new vehicles. They have close spaced decks to maximise carrying capacity.
CONRO; a CONRO combines container and RORO cargo, the Atlantic Conveyor was a CONRO and the Atlantic Conveyor Line continue to specialise in this type of vessel. The upper deck is fitted with container guides and the lower decks, used for RORO cargo. Open deck conventional RORO vessels can also usually accommodate containers and reefer containers on their upper deck.
RORO/LOLO; In addition to RORO vehicle decks, the LOLO part of the combination adds high capacity cranes for outsize or hazardous cargo, in addition to containers. Technically, the Point Class Strategic RORO vessels are RORO/LOLO vessels as they can self-load using a deck crane.
RORO; the classic RORO, used mainly for vehicles and trailers, the trailers can also be substituted for cassettes or devices used specifically for certain cargo types, bananas and paper for example. They can have their superstructure forward, aft or at a mid point. The superstructure usually contains accommodation for drivers and other passengers but in most designs, this is relatively limited, as drivers do not travel usually internationally.
The MV Bore Song, shown above, is sister to the MV Bore Sea. Bore actually call these the RoFlex design. The pair were built for less than £80m by Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft (same as some of the Points) and designed to carry trailers, containers and general cargo on the weather deck. They have a normal speed of 19 knots, are 195.4m long, 26.20m wide, 7m draught and have 2,863 lane metres on three decks (weather 1,236m, main 1,078m and lower, 549m). Both have bow and stern thrusters and powered by a single 12,000kW diesel engine, fuel consumption is approximately 36 tonnes per day with enough fuel carried for 9,500 nautical miles at cruising speed.The weather deck can be accessed from below, or containers simply lifted on. Both the lower and main deck can be subdivided with hoistable car decks. An interesting feature is the use of a shaft generator, click here to read more.
The video shows the tremendous flexibility of this type of RORO vessel.
The Stena Trader shown below is an interesting vessel. A RPOAX type built in 2006, with accommodation for 300 passengers (in 100 cabins) and a top speed of 22 knots. She was originally used on North Sea routes, purchased for £75 million, with her sister, the MV Highlanders. In 2011 she leased to Marine Atlantic for the Canadian market. Part of this was a conversion process which shortened the ship by 12m in order to facilitate docking at Channel-Port aux Basques. She was purchased for £50 million in 2015 and renamed the MV Blue Puttees.
It has probably not escaped anyone, but the Stena Trader looks something like a Bay class LSD(A), without the well dock.
There is obviously a fairly good history of civilian to naval conversions and naval vessel designs that have their roots in civilian vessels.
Whether it actually makes better sense to buy second hand and convert, start with a new build civilian vessel and convert, or simply start from scratch with a naval design and new build is not obvious.
The costs of conversion will depend heavily upon class and regulatory compliance, i.e. the law, the scope of the conversion and state of the donor vessel. A lash-up during wartime is very different to peacetime, with its attendant risk and litigation environment.
The actual determinant factors would find their home on a spreadsheet, and it is there where the answer would be found, so I make no claim on what that would be.
But moving forward, and as a basis for discussion, the next part of the series will make an assumption that it is worthwhile to either convert, or start with a civilian design and examine roles, modules and other considerations for such a vessel.