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 Indies.

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 occur.

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 Escort.

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 the region.

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 Cayman Islands.

HMS SEVERN in the Cayman Islands SOURCE

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 system.

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.


  1. In hurricane season a Bay class is a very good vessel. It can carry lots of disaster relief supplies and posibley engineer plant and the means to get it ashore when ports are out of use. As we only have a small number of this sort of ship there is a reasonable question as to if this would be the best use of scares resorses. Out of season a River sounds a good idea.

  2. We clearly have an obligation to the overseas territories in the region, but i agree that the current level of commitment with a RFA all year round and an OPV in hurricane season is sensible.

    The issue isn't so much using RFA's or OPV's to fill the role as i think everyone realized using a frigate or destroyer was too big a waste of precious assets. It's that as ever all resources are stretched so thin that sending any vessel inevitably leads to gaps elsewhere.

    Keeping HMS Clyde with her minimal crew and running costs would at least give the RN some flexibility to deploy an OPV on WIGS duty whilst keeping a minimum of 3 in UK waters (i'm thinking the 5th OPV will end up doubling up in the South Atlantic or operating out of Gibraltar in the Med).

    I guess with 6 tankers in service using 1 of the Tides or Waves won't be such a big drain on available hulls, but similarly i think pushing for a 4th MARS SSS would represent great value for the money as the early concepts for the class suggest something ideal in the role. Not that it'll happen of course!