In the last article, Humphrey looked at the reasons why the RN would probably never operate a US supercarrier. In the closing parts of the article, it focused a bit more broadly on the challenges of sustaining a national shipbuilding capability, and also growing that into an export capability. In this article, which loosely follows on from the previous piece, the author wants to consider the very real challenge of exporting high end warships overseas. Due to time constraints this piece is being spread over a couple of articles, and posted as the authors real world commitments permit.
The first question is – what is a high end warship? Twenty people could probably offer twenty answers, but for the purposes of this article, Humphrey is assuming high end means large vessel (eg FFG class or above), fitted with modern weapons systems, aviation facilities and supported by up to date electronics and C2 facilities, and able to operate across the full range of maritime operations, from low level sovereignty reassurance patrols all the way up to high end kinetic warfighting. Traditionally such a vessel would have been called a Frigate or Destroyer, although the nature of maritime forces these days means it could theoretically be anything from a Corvette up to an LPD.
On first examination it is worth considering that the global market for such vessels is paradoxically smaller now than it has been for many years. While there are plenty of naval construction campaigns going on across the globe, most of them involve very simple ships – e.g. Offshore Patrol Vessels or landing craft. Most nations have the ability to design and build this sort of vessel, and which operate not only in Navies, but also the wider maritime tapestry such as Coastguards or law enforcement agencies. One only has to look at the UK to realise that beyond the traditional Royal Navy, there lies a very complex web of maritime security capability, ranging from small MOD police launches, all the way up to OPVs, operated by a number of Government departments.
Instead, looking more broadly and it is a bit of struggle to see an extensive market for new build high capability warships. One only has to look at a naval guide from 20 or 30 years ago to realise how much the market has changed. Back then many nations which didn’t traditionally operate escorts were moving into commissioning new ones, often through modular designs like the German MEKO class. The availability of a large number of cheap older warships on the export market, particularly the RN Type 12 and Leander derivatives, not only from the UK but other nations, meant a good number of Navies were able to consider getting rid of WW2 designs and bring into service more modern vessels. As these vessels themselves aged, naturally thoughts turned to bringing replacement classes into service. There is a sense when browsing naval guides of the 1980s that the market for warships remained buoyant. The end of the Cold War perhaps marked the first decline in this market – the changing security situation led to a glut of new and often barely used escorts being disposed of by NATO nations – one only has to look at the plethora of FFG7s and Type 22s disposed of during the 1990s, along with a number of older vessels too (Leanders and FF1052s) also sold off. This meant many nations were able to acquire frigates to replace their older ones without having to consider ordering new – great for budgets, less great news for hard pressed shipyards.
Move forward to 2013 and we find ourselves in an interesting situation – the vessels acquired during the end of Cold War garage sale are now aging and thoughts turn to replacement. But, the second hard warship market is vastly smaller than it was a few years ago, with far less warships available for purchase. The US has only a few FFG7s left in service, and is moving to decommissioning some CG47s soon. Compared to twenty years ago there are hardly any modern US warships available for purchase, and it seems highly unlikely that any DDG51s will be disposed of for some time yet. At the same time the RN has seemingly blocked the sale of any more Type 23s, and those ships it has disposed off (T22Cs and T42s) have attracted no overseas sales. So the traditional suppliers of second hand warships have far less to offer, and are in future far less likely to be willing to decommission those few hulls they have left – an RN of 19 escorts and a USN of barely 80 will be very reluctant to lose ships early baring major financial crisis.
With a limited pool of quality second hand vessels available, the question then becomes what do navies operating existing frigates do? You can only update a design for so long before it becomes life expired. While saying ‘buy a new class’ may seem the obvious answer, it is not as straightforward as may be thought. Bringing a new vessel class into service is extremely complicated. One only has to look at the challenges facing the RN or USN in the introduction of the Type 45 or the LCS vessels to realise that even world class navies find introduction of exceptionally complex platforms to be challenging. The task of bringing a brand new vessel class into service without any other navy to turn to who has already operated it – one of the appeals of the second hand warship market is that the vessel you are buying has been brought into service, hugely derisked, problems ironed out and you usually have a benevolent navy standing by to offer support with training, spares and upgrades (for a small fee of course!). New vessel classes come with no such reassurance, and the navy introducing the vessels will often find itself dealing with these challenges alone, with only the manufacturer for company.
The next issue with new build hulls is where do you buy them? Do you rely on the support of an overseas yard, which may have more experience of building vessels, or do you instead seek to build capacity at home, even if there is less experience?
Therefore it is perhaps natural that many navies have preferred to buy the hulls second hand, and then do far more limited refits at home, rather than risk introducing a new platform into service themselves, which can often be ruinously expensive for a small number of units.
The next challenge is the sheer complexity of designing a high end warship. The UK has made clear that its own position is that while shipbuilding for less complex military vessels can be contracted out on occasion (for instance the MARS tanker programme), the ability to design such vessels in the first place is critical. The MARS programme highlighted the importance of retaining an indigenous warship design capability, and one reason for the various UK shipbuilding terms of business agreements is to ensure sufficient work to keep the design capability alive, even if there is a slow reduction in actual construction.
Warship design has always been complicated; you are merging the combination of basic hull design, propulsion, life support, damage control and combat capability and turning it into something which can operate effectively. Add in the phenomenally complicated amount of electronic equipment needed, and you quickly realise that even a relatively simple modern high end design requires a level of skill and ability which is far beyond that of many nations. Pretty much any nation can make a design which looks impressive on the outside, but far fewer have the ability to turn an impressive design into a working and competent design that can actually integrate its systems together to become more than the sum of its parts. This is one reason why so many modern warship designs take longer than anticipated to bring into service – the building is (relatively speaking) straight forward, but getting all the bits to work properly together and then fight the ship is a totally different ballgame altogether.
So, right now the export market for high end warships finds itself in a curious position. There are many navies out there who operate escort platforms which are starting to approach the end of their lives, and who are considering replacement, but who do not have the resources to consider buying new. At the same time, there are other navies out there operating vessels which they’d like to upgrade as part of the growth in their naval power, but who lack the ability to design (and often build) vessels in their home market. What this means as we move forward is how do the problems of designing and building vessels get solved and what does it mean for the warship export market?
In the next part of this article, Humphrey intends to consider the current challenges facing UK shipbuilding as it looks to the future, and what other nations are doing to build up, or replace their existing escort fleets, and whether we can draw any lessons from it.