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Thursday, 6 July 2017
‘On my island in the sun’ – Or why a permanent base in the West Indies isn’t a such great idea…
The inspiration for this article came from a recent
Guardian article which was talking about the role of the RN’s OPV fleet post Brexit,
and which placed some fairly dismissive views on the role of HMS SEVERN during
her lengthy west indies deployment. In turn this sparked a wider debate on
Twitter about whether ‘forward basing’ was the answer for the RN in the West
The Royal Navy has had a long history in the West Indies
from buccaneers and naval battles of old through to a pretty much continuous
presence for the last 200 years. Throughout the Cold War the RN commitment in
the region was built around a naval presence headquartered in Bermuda (HMS
MALABAR) and supported by a small number of frigates to support the UK colonial
commitment to the area. Administered initially under the post of ‘Senior Naval
Officer West Indies’ (SNOWI) which was disbanded in 1976, the RN presence
reduced to a rotating escort, and HMS MALABAR (used for cold war duties, and
which closed in the 1990s).
The role of the RN in the region has historically been
built around three basic concepts – support to UK government and its allies
(both Overseas Territories and Commonwealth partners), provision of disaster
relief in the event of a hurricane and counter drugs work. All of these are
important tasks, and make a massive difference in a region where military
capability is light, and the residual UK territories (Cayman Islands, British
Virgin Islands, Turks & Caicos Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla and Bermuda)
have little more than armed constabularies to protect themselves.
Up until the early 00’s the role of West Indies Guardship
(later known as Atlantic Patrol Task North) was filled by a frigate or
destroyer, occasionally with an RFA in company. The Type 21s in their later
years were regular visitors, as were Type 42s. But the reduction in the number
of escorts and ability to sustain a 24/7/365 presence saw changes to the
operational pattern, and types of ships deployed.
The major changes initially included deployment of an RFA
tanker to the region for much of the year (used to support counter narcotics
work due to the flight deck, but also do wider support) and at the time of
writing RFA WAVE KNIGHT is on station. The reason the newer Waves were deployed
owed much to international regulations around tankers prohibiting the entry
into certain ports of older tankers, hence why a scarce Naval Service tanker is
employed in the region.
In addition, during the hurricane season a variety of RN
assets will cycle through, the most unusual of which was probably HMS PROTECTOR
who pulled the role for a time during the Antarctic winter and between local
refits. RFA BAY class LSDs are a common site, with MOUNTS BAY reportedly being
in the region too at the moment (LINK HERE). Finally it is common for vessels returning
from the Falklands to do a Panama transit and spend time in the region, so the
sight of a DD or FFG in the region is less common than before, but still does
RFA WAVE RULER embarking US Coast Guard detachment in West Indies Source
Most notably though in recent years the use of River
class OPVs has been seen in the region, with HMS SEVERN and HMS MERSEY both
deploying out for sustained periods of time. This works due to the ‘third watch’
system, which sees the crew regularly swap out to ensure they are not deployed
for sustained periods of time.
The deployment of a smaller vessel is notable because in
many ways it provides a more credible capability for the regional threat level.
No matter how you look at it, having a very highly capable destroyer sailing
the West Indies for 6 months is not the best use of an RN asset sorely needed
elsewhere (no matter how big a threat the Windies cricket teams balls may pose
to the ship ;-) ). Joint operations are perhaps more challenging because an
escort is an order of magnitude more complex and complicated than any vessel
operated in the region.
At best the average coastguard out there may aspire to
operate one or two small OPVs (for instance the former HMS ORWELL is still in
service in Guyana) but they simply have neither the interest or capability to
operate high end ships. This makes defence sales difficult, its hard to
organise much sustained credible training of value that is of relevance and
overall while welcome in the region, an escort ship is probably overkill except
for its aviation assets and bodies for use in a disaster.
By contrast an OPV provides a more sensible platform to
work with – its easier to get genuine co-operation and teach useful tips if the
host nation aspires to move into an OPV capability too soon (for instance the
Brazilian River class derived OPVs were originally built for Trinidad and
Tobago). The smaller draught makes it easier to get into small ports and more
importantly alongside in harbours that may not have seen a White Ensign in
decades – particularly in regions where a Frigate would end up dwarfed on the
cruise ship berth.
Do not under estimate the sheer value of diplomatic
goodwill generated by valuable allies, or the delight locals have in seeing a
Royal Navy ship alongside in their town. In this way the River class is an invaluable
asset to have in region, and arguably does far more long term good than an
A Permanent Home?
Does the sustained deployment though call for a permanent
base to operate out of in order to make support easier? There is a seductively
compelling vision of a small RN base somewhere in the Windies, parenting an OPV
or two (perhaps the Batch 1 River class?), and providing long term presence in
Its not a completely foolish idea – the Dutch maintain a
very small naval presence in the Dutch Antilles CLICK
HERE for more information) which not only has a permanent support ship, but
also sees a regular escort presence (see HERE
for a story about RFA WAVE KNIGHT RASing a Dutch frigate recently). The French Navy also maintains a similar
presence in the region too.
The challenge for the RN though is firstly to define what
benefit a permanent base would offer. It would require a substantial amount of
land, and deep water port access sufficient to accommodate RN ships used on the
APT(N) role – so essentially up to 40,000 tonne tankers. Arguably there is
nowhere that really has these facilities with the possible exception of the
You then need to consider what the base will do –
assuming it is supporting the deployers, it would require explosives handling
facilities, maintenance workshops, an oil fuel depot of some kind and access to
a Forward Logistics Site (e.g. airhead) to support personnel and kit movements.
Underpinning this would be an HQ structure of some form to provide admin,
logistics and general support. You’d also need a very complex set of legal
agreements underpinning the facility, the way it could be used and be certain
of the legal status of troops based there.
This would necessitate a considerable manpower footprint,
which would realistically need to rotate through on the same sort of deployment
schedule as is seen at UKMCC in Bahrain
(6-9 month tours). The problem is that this means you need 3 people nominated for each post (one there, one
returned and one deploying) at any one time to be certain of manning it. As the
RN hasn’t got a manpower liability for such a commitment, it would require
either putting more pressure on existing teams, or making cuts elsewhere and
gapping posts to fill it. In critical areas like engineers, this would place
incredible pressure on already stretched teams to provide bodies.
By contrast the current arrangements work rather well,
with ships pulling into ports as required for maintenance periods (some RFA
vessels have made extensive use of the US in this way) and contractor support,
spare parts are flown out as needed. It also means its easier to draw on fuel
and other stores as required, with reimbursement via existing agreements,
rather than keeping a supply base open which would rarely be drawn on.
Even if the base is established, you’ve actually reduced
the flexibility in the system. You’ve tied up personnel who will be on another
6 month tour – doubtless fun the first time, but by the 4th or 5th
deployment in a few years rolls around, the novelty factor has long gone. It
could paradoxically be a major retention issue for branches with existing manpower
problems if they have to sustain a long term commitment with relatively little
work to do out there.
From a spares perspective it adds extra cost to the
supply chain – assuming the ship is permanently out there means you’d need to
add in a lot of extra supplies into the stores chain to be held in case of
demand. This means either more purchases (increasing cost) for more stock, or
reducing stocks held in the UK and increasing pressure on residual stores at
home, which could be a problem if lots of spares were needed, but could only be
found in the West Indies. In other words, you’re paying a lot more money for
contingency planning, as opposed to just sending out a spare part as required
when an OPDEF is raised.
Finally you’d see a massive increase in costs for
personnel moves as crews flew through, training teams came out to deliver OST,
various contractors came out to visit and update the ship, doing the sort of
work that would be done at home normally on other ships. The unanticipated
people cost, plus burden on RAF cargo flights and getting people out there
would make a massive difference to deliver work that is currently done at home
at a fraction of the cost.
People always forget that forward basing doesn’t take
away the challenges of keeping the ship ready for sea, safe to go to sea and
ready to fight. There is a world of difference between keeping a ship going for
a finite deployment, and keeping them sustained for the long term in region. It
can be done and it is done, but its not cheap and it places a burden on the
The final point to consider is that a shore base actually
reduces flexibility. It requires a ship to get to / from the point where its
support facilities are and build its programme around that. It adds in a layer
of planning to ensure that ‘home’ can be reached as required in the event of a
problem, which in some ways is helpful, but if you find yourself tied to the
Cayman Islands, but are operating 500 miles away routinely actually adds time
and difficulty on to the planning. Again, it can be overcome, but its much
easier to just run a programme and adapt support arrangements to temporarily
stage out of whichever port you need to be in.
So, given all this the question has to be asked what
benefit is gained from opening a permanent base in the West Indies? Arguably
very little – it reduces flexibility, it increases costs and it doesn’t really
give anything tangible in terms of capability gains but would come at the cost of
increasing pressure on the stores chain and people side. Accordingly, while it
sounds a fabulously seductive idea, opening a base in the West Indies would achieve
little and do a great deal of damage to the Royal Navy across a range of areas,
for no arguably no tangible operational difference. Far better to continue the
current model that has worked well for decades, and which continues to deliver
sea-power as required to help our friends and allies in the region.