Its that time of the year again when another report comes out suggesting that the Royal Navy hasn't enough warships to protect our supply lines and that UK national security is imperilled. Ignoring that the article in question suggests that the UK only has 23 battleships (link is HERE) it is a good starting point to consider whether the RN needs more smaller ships.
For many decades, arguably since the Type 14s entered service, the Royal Navy has optimised a building programme to keep first rate escort vessels in service, capable of meeting any conceivable level of war fighting challenge. This has led to a deliberate policy of protecting build programmes which delivered high capability warships in smaller numbers over much larger numbers of lower capability. Even where relatively austere designs have been envisaged, they have quickly been upgraded – for instance the Type 23 programme reputedly began life as an austere towed array tug, probably to be built in sufficient numbers for a one for one replacement for the Leander's, yet quickly became a very expensive and highly capable escort.
For the RN of the 21st century, when hulls are ever fewer in number, and the tasks seemingly never ending, what is the rationale for keeping a small fleet of high end ships in service? To start with, one needs to look at the ethos of the RN – it is a service optimised to fight and win in very high intensity combat. Despite the constant pull of moving towards a gendarmerie approach (as seen perhaps by the Dutch or Italians) where only a small number of the escort fleet can fight in the high end of operations, the entire RN escort fleet is deployable.
Why does this matter? It means that the entire escort fleet is able to be programmed to conduct the full range of escort tasks – in other words a frigate can go from FOST to the West Indies, prior to a NATO tour and then off to the Arabian Gulf. Several different missions, each of which has very different calls on crews and capabilities. By contrast other nations will find that possessing two tiers of escorts actually stove-pipes availability – while you can send a high end escort into most situations, you cannot do the same in reverse. This in turn means the RN has an ability to operate as a credible part of any allied task force and integrate effectively into it. In other words, by training to fight at the most challenging levels, the RN can send its escorts into harms way in a manner that some other nations vessels cannot.
In a world where multi-national operations are becoming the norm, the ability to contribute meaningfully to them makes a huge difference. The RN is able to offer a capability through its escorts that means they do not require ‘nursemaiding’ as some other ships may. Similarly, a highly capable escort can be tasked to take on more challenging roles – thus giving the UK more say in the tasking process and ensuring its own national interests are more accurately represented. Turning up in a campaign where you can play a full part carries far greater weight than just being able to conduct a limited maritime patrol.
|The pinnacle of naval power - the Type 45 destroyer|
Could a Two-Tier Fleet occur?
Assuming that a decision were taken in principal to create a two tier escort force, and create some light frigates to complement the existing escort fleet, could it actually be done in a credible manner which would make a real difference?
The first issue to overcome is funding – modern warships cost a lot of money, not just to build but to support and operate. While this may sound obvious, adding a small class (say four light frigates) to the RN means that it now has to programme funding to run these ships for the next twenty years. Assuming a very generous estimate of £15 million per year per ship to run each escort, this means that the RN has now got to find £1.2 billion extra in support costs in its budget for the next 20 years. This is without considering the costs of refits, repairs, upgrades and so on. To bring these vessels into successful use is going to be an extremely expensive business, and the question would be what gives in order to make them operational, and is the cost worth it?
More broadly one has to ask where the ships would be built in the next few years. Given the warship building capacity in the UK is now inextricably linked to BAE Systems facilities, and that these are fully committed to building CVF, the next generation of OPVs and then Type 26, it is hard to see where an additional class of four escorts would fit into the equation. Indeed, is there even room to build them and bring them into service without impacting on the existing plans to replace the Type 26 programme, and in turn delay the replacement of the ever older Type 23s.
The next issue is whether the RN has the manpower to support four new frigates. Assuming each vessel carries a crew of 120, then that means 480 billets need creating, which in turn creates a shoreside liability of roughly double this (a further 960 billets) to allow for proper sea-shore harmony time. In other words the RN has to find a further 1400 people across all branches to ensure a steady flow of manpower to man the ships properly. At a time when the surface fleet is contracting to barely 15000 personnel (plus Submarine Service, FAA and Royal Marines), this is akin to needing a 10% increase in general service manpower. This represents a not insignificant additional cost which would need to be sustained for the life of the vessels.
One pressing issue is what would the ships actually be equipped with in order to strike a balance beyond being glorified OPVs and not being fully fledged frigates? This is actually the most difficult question to answer – an OPV or MCMV has a clearly defined role and equipment fit which errs to this role – e.g. specialised equipment for boardings, or mine detection/destruction and usually a sensor package to boot which reflects this. Similarly destroyers and frigates not only carry a comprehensive weapons and aviation package, but more critically have the space and room for essentials like properly kitted out Operations Rooms to fight the ship as a coherent entity and not just disparate collection of weapons and radars in close proximity to each other.
By contrast a light frigate will never have quite enough space to carry more than a limited self defence capability, and in smaller numbers than its frigate cousins. Similarly space is likely to be more limited, reducing upgradeability in the future, and restricting the types of equipment which can be installed and forcing trade-offs into the design. What you end up with is a vessel which is over-equipped to handle the policing and constabulary tasks that the OPV would do, and under-equipped to operate at the high end spectrum of operations. As such we find ourselves looking at a vessel without a clearly delineated role beyond relieving some pressure on low intensity operations but unable to deploy into the most likely conflict areas without being at serious risk and requiring escorting by other vessels.
The sort of tasks that these ships could be employed on would arguably be the low level constabulary roles that the RN does in places like the West Indies or off of Africa – defence engagement, flying the flag and generally maintaining an RN presence where its required. The critical difference is that when done by RN escorts they are either on their way to the South Atlantic in a Guardship role, or in the West Indies during the Hurricane season when their larger pool of manpower and greater capability makes them of real benefit during disaster relief.
|The Type 14 'Utility' Frigate|
One of the reasons why the RN is valued as an ally to work with by other nations is that joint exercises provide exposure to working with high capability vessels and seeing what they are capable of. For some navies a visit by an RN destroyer represents the sole chance they would get to test their capability against a world class air defence platform – this means there is a desirability in securing a visit. By contrast, a routine call by a low capability frigate doesn't really have the same cachet, and is arguably less influential.
A slippery downwards slope?
So, ultimately possession of a small light frigate doesn't really fill a capability gap for the RN, and merely provides a vessel that could perhaps be dubbed the ‘snatch land rover of the sea’ – great for a specific purpose, but one senses that if deployed into a highly challenging location like the Arabian Gulf, and something went wrong then the media would quickly have a cause celebre.
The wider challenge is that procurement of a light frigate represents very much a slippery slope towards a smaller less capable navy in the longer term. It is clear that resources are not going to grow substantially beyond inflation in real terms for the next few years, and that competition for resource will be a challenge. A short term commitment to light frigates would provide a temporary hulls boost, but come the next defence review the question would surely be whether the RN needed to run them, or if it could make sacrifices in the more expensive escort fleet as military tasks were handed off. The result could be further reductions to the T23 and T26 fleets over time as risk was taken that for the majority of the RNs roles that the light frigate could cope as an 80% solution – providing numbers but not capability. As time passed, it would seem ever harder to retain a case for a high end escort fleet if the tasks could be done by a smaller vessel – and this would only be exposed as a risk come a conflict when the lighter vessels could not cope.
It is perhaps notable that in the last 40 years the RN has twice gone towards a light frigate in the utility role – in the first instance it was the Type 14s, optimised as 2nd rate ASW frigates during the Cold War, but which quickly proved relatively poor at the task and were disposed of ahead of their time. By contrast the Type 12s which were more expensive racked up a much longer and valuable life, able to operate at the cutting edge of RN operations for many decades. Similarly, the Castle Class OPV was in many ways the closest the RN has come to a post war Corvette design, but which were arguably never really comfortable in any one role. Optimised initially for fishery protection, then Falkland Island guardship and MCMV HQ vessels, they could have been upgraded to carry a 76mm gun, and presumably some lightweight missiles, but never did. (Intriguingly though in their life with the Bangladeshi Navy, they have received a limited upgrade to do this).
In a sense the Castle class encapsulate the problem the RN has with this type of vessel – too large to be a traditional OPV, but too weak to be able to hold their own in a conventional shooting war, they were very much ships which found purposes for which they were never really designed. It is perhaps telling that in replacing them, the RN has a purpose built OPV optimised to work in the South Atlantic, and relies on the use of a Bay class LSD(A) to carry out the MCMV HQ function in a vastly more effective manner.
So where this leaves us is the realisation that for all the natural desire to see more vessels flying the White Ensign, it is hard to see a light frigate being the answer. There is a clear need for the RN to operate OPVs and MCMVs, while the smaller coastal training craft fulfil a very clear defence engagement role. The Escort force is heavily tasked and probably working at an intensity which may store up problems in the long term maintenance and support, but where it is able to do the tasks required of it. What is not clear is what adding a light frigate brings to the RN in terms of capability enhancement. No one doubts the Navy is working hard, but one suspects that a light frigate would in all likelihood do more damage than good to the long term interests of the RN in terms of manpower, finance and build programmes, and probably not generate as much of an effect as its proponents would hope. Far better to focus resources on extra Type 26s, innovative ship refitting methods to keep ships at sea for longer, and for getting the most from your extant vessels, than on introducing a ship which probably has no clearly defined role or rationale.