A perennial subject of debate across the internet is the so-called ‘fantasy fleet’, or discussion which starts off usually with a question about why a Navy didn’t do one thing, and quickly spirals out of control into a debate about how with unlimited funding and change, the author would quickly make the Navy a much better one than it is now. Such threads are usually pretty boring to read, based on wishlisting of nice equipment, the desire to achieve numbers and never based on financial realities, second and third order effects or trying to deliver a military force against a hugely constrained set of financial and other factors.
Recently debate has focused on whether the new Royal Navy Batch 2 River class OPVs, which are now running sea trials should have increased armament. The ships as currently configured carry a 30mm cannon, some miniguns, GPMG mounts and a flight deck – on a hull of roughly 2000 tonnes (or similar to the old Type 14 Frigates). The argument is that the RN of today is struggling with hulls at sea, and increasing the armament of these ships helps counter threats, and would make them more viable for operations – for instance one suggestion was built around giving them SeaCeptor missiles (the new short range anti-aircraft missile) or Phalanx and possibly an enhanced gun.
The problem with these ideas is that its very easy to look at a list of equipment, try to imagine it on a hull and then wonder why the RN is foolish enough to ignore this potential. The reality is much more complicated, and the aim of this article is to briefly consider why upgrading isn’t always a good idea.
To begin with, naval ship designs are complicated beasts, constrained by a variety of factors to balance them out in order to deliver a ship that can meet the operational requirements placed on it. The River class OPVs are fundamentally cheap simple hulls designed to do very low level maritime constabulary work – with a minimal crew of 60 (including some on rotational watches), while they appear large from the outside, they are also designed for the lowest possible cost – so will not be optimised for conducting some operations, nor will they be fitted for it in the design.
|River Class OPV in the West Indies|
For instance, if you want to put a missile silo onto a ship then you need to modify the design heavily to incorporate the radars, the silo itself, additional power use, workshops and maintenance offices for both the missile system and the radar, and all the other integral parts of the weapon system to keep it operational. This immediately requires you to add a very substantial piece of work onto a hull never designed to carry this sort of firepower – meaning major internal work, rebuilding and so on. Its worth noting that the work to upgrade the T23s to carry Seaceptor is keeping them in refit for several years – that’s on a ship designed to carry missiles. On a ship like an OPV where no previous system has gone, expect it to potentially take longer still – one only has to look at the post war history of the RN to realise it does not have a good track record with major mid life refits.
Straight away in order to increase capability, you’ve actually committed to reducing the operational strength of the RN considerably for several years, particularly as one of the strengths of the River class is their operational model, which sees them spend a huge amount of time at sea each year. Given the RN is contracted to provide a mandated level of cover for fishery protection duties, this programme would actually decrease availability for the Rivers to do other work further away from home waters, and actually reduce RN presence overseas.
If you fit the missile system and Phalanx, you then need to buy sufficient ammunition to load the ship out with, and work out where this comes from. Assuming all five hulls receive the modification (suggestions seem to be based on a 16 cell VLS silo), you’ve committed to a substantial extra buy of missiles to cover test firings, warhead maintenance and refit, and to provide an attrition reserve. This immediately adds tens of millions, if not potentially hundreds of millions of pounds extra to the long term costs of the missile.
Finally you need to consider where the people come from to actually man these ships to use and maintain the system in the first place. To put an effective VLS system on an OPV would need additional crew to cover the system itself, a number of extra crew to work in and maintain the newly upgraded Ops Room, and other ancillary requirements. Being very generous, lets assume the number is 30 extra people at a time to do this. That doesn’t sound much, but this is not a blob of 30 identical sailors, its actually about finding a minimum of 150 sailors at a wide range of ranks and rates, often with very niche training and experience.
Finding these 150 sailors isn’t the end of it, you then need to assume a ration of 3:1 to keep them in the system to ensure people are always available for sea, along with shore time to help reach harmony goals (a common fact fantasy fleet threads forget is that sailors need time on shore for family and career purposes). To the fleet manners, you’ve just given them a problem of finding 450 people, in a surface fleet of barely 15000 people – drawing on sets of skills that are in high demand and scarce availability.
You can fix this problem either by recruiting more now and hoping they stay long enough to meet all the training requirements and help ease the burden in 10-15 years time. You can gap other ships and put people on the OPVs to man their systems instead – thus reducing manpower elsewhere and making people work harder and longer (and in turn exacerbating the retention problems the RN already has), or you can pull people from shore drafts and hope they don’t leave when partners give them the ‘its me or the Navy’ choice. Those are really your options to find the people to actually man this capability.
|HMS FORTH underway|
None of this considers the 2nd and 3rd order effects required of changes to training courses, extra work required to consider how you get the right numbers through the pipeline, or how you would do FOST with these ships, which would suddenly require a long FOST than before (thus taking them off task for even longer) and how this is resourced. All of a sudden this single extra weapon system on a ship has cost hundreds upon hundreds of millions of pounds, caused major headaches for manpower planners and most importantly reduced the number of RN ships at sea now – and the problem is no one seems to know what the reason is to do this!
What would we do with this ship?
This is perhaps the biggest question – what would the RN do, or need, with a missile armed OPV? If you look at the employment of OPVs, it is to conduct simple low risk, low threat tasks that do not need a destroyer or frigate to do them instead. It is not about operating off the coast of a hostile country with an active air threat – while the Tom Clancy fans can doubtless come up with such a scenario, the reality of it occurring with an RN OPV in the North Sea coming under air attack in peacetime is hopefully reassuringly slim.
A lot of the answers come back to ‘well it makes them better able to tackle the threat where they work’ without actually addressing what the threat is, how it can be deterred by a 16 cell VLS silo or why a country would choose to declare war on the UK, or why the UK would be letting an OPV operate in these waters with ROE to permit firing SAMs in the first place…
This is before you think about the challenges of how the ship would fight – does it do so in isolation, lobbing off 16 missiles and hoping that a 17th aircraft doesn’t turn up to cause it to die bravely? Or does it do so as part of an integrated Task Force, which in turn raises question of why, if the RN can use OPVs for air defence, does it also need the Type 26 and 31 to do the same? Again, the work required to operate as part of an effective battlegroup needs a lot of training and practise – which would take the ship away from her primary role of doing low level work.
Simply put, it is almost impossible to imagine a set of scenarios where a missile armed OPV could do anything good that couldn’t be done better or more effectively by a bigger ship. By giving the illusion that a small ship can do something to a limited level, you run the risk of seeing people killed when those illusions fail to work.
Show me the money…
The final problem in all this debate is that fantasy fleet debates rely on a seemingly bottomless pit of money, which is usually funded by scrapping the aid budget (ignoring that this is a critical part of national security strategy in preventing downstream conflict) or scrapping benefits (ignoring that this would cause a furore politically that most governments don’t want – just look at efforts in the last few governments to try and change benefits), or the Reserve (ignoring that the Reserve exists for short term fixes to specific problems and not delivering a multiyear complex capability enhancement that the MOD budget is there to fund. Government funding is complex, but is built around spending rounds and reviews, and money cannot just be randomly allocated from one departmental budget to another to meet a short term need.
The fact is that this sort of enhancement comes out of the MOD budget, and as anyone familiar with the planners from either Main Building or Front Line Commands can attest, there is not exactly a surplus of money around right now. Real world planners live a language of enhancements, deferrals, buy back, package building and risk to keep what exists now working to meet mandated defence outputs, not ‘how do we spunk hundreds of millions of cash we don’t have on kit we don’t need to do a job we’re not required to do’.
|A possible solution?|
The danger of fantasy fleets is that its easy to post about, and even easier for those who have a say in defence, like journalists, commentators and politicians to ‘have a good idea’ and then ask the MOD why it isn’t sticking extra kit onto a ship. At its most dangerous this leads to pressure for the RN to do something, usually like coming up with a ‘black swan’ design to show how bloody stupid the whole thing is, and at worst can result in good money being wasted on being forced to buy something that the RN doesn’t want or need, and which will harm the RN not help it (a good example of this was the acquisition of HMS MERMAID, but doubtless others are out there too).
Similarly, commentators often go ‘but why not build a modified X design’ (Khareefs being the current flavour of the month), usually because they look good, not because they are necessarily right for the RN. There seems to be no deeper analysis of whether buying a ship built for a third party which likely doesn’t have existing RN systems or equipment and then adapating it for RN use is necessarily a good use of cash, or more importantly what on earth its intended to do.
So please, the next time you read a fantasy fleets thread, think long and hard about the deeper implications about what it means, why many ideas are impractical and more importantly why its sensible to be balanced and measured about these things. Consider that the RN doesn’t add new weapon systems lightly to in-service ships (for instance the Castle Class were built intended to carry a 76mm Oto Melara, but this was never once retro-fitted), and that there is usually a damn good reason for this.