Monday, 4 September 2017

The dangers of asking for an upgrade...

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.


  1. FF articles are written because no-hopers with no chance of ever achieving anything in life convince themselves that they know something about the navy and that they can contribute. Consequently, they look at the state of the navy, panic, and try and 'do something' by arguing for more numbers, without realising that there is nothing to be done, cuts are endless and we will never be able to defend ourselves without the U.S Navy nannying us. The carrier groups will needs Arleigh Burkes to bolster capability, and they'd better get use to it.

    Such people live tiny lives, obsess with being useful, and work in office jobs that really don't matter. Any hope of being useful could be taken apart in under a minute by an expert. What experience they have is utterly worthless.

    I should know about such idiots, I'm one of them.

  2. Interesting viewpoint. Two comments, one, why a 30mm cannon and not a larger caliber? Two, we need export orders and this design is considered not good enough for foreign navies.

  3. Excellent piece (as usual). I find it odd that the critics fail to grasp that the Batch 2 Rivers are already a substantial "upgrade" over the Batch 1s, being much more capable (and survivable) in every way. And they are also much more heavily armed than the Batch 1s. For their duties, the Batch 2s do not need a calibre heavier than 30 mm. The other recurring criticism is the Batch 2s lack of a helicopter hangar, as if the RN did not have decades of experience in operating ships with flight decks but no hangars, and so is very familiar with the pros and cons of such arrangements. The lack of hangar allows space for containers or pallets to be embarked. So, while flexibility along one "geometrical axis" is lost, greater flexibility is achieved along another axis. The Batch 2s are, of course, improved versions of a design that has already been exported to two countries (Brazil and Thailand). My suspicion is that, in due course, we will see the Batch 2s embark and train with containerised/palletised mine countermeasures systems (although they would not permanently carry them). Keith Campbell

  4. Good analysis. I have never been able to see the point of all-singing, all-dancing OPVs when they are really only suitable for constabulary duties, though some seem to be obsessed with them. As has been said before, you either need a ship that can fight or you don't and the former should be left to the destroyers and frigates.

  5. Completely agree on the general issues with this fantasy fleet talk....from the idiocy of thinking something like Sea Ceptor can just be bolted onto a ship that hasn't been designed for it without thought to the complexity, cost, additional sensors/manpower etc, to the illogical fixation with buying whole new systems like 76mm guns for no obvious or convincing operational use or requirement.

    However whilst accepting the River's limitations as cheap constabulary vessels and the very tight manpower situation i don't think we should be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Even just keeping HMS Clyde alongside the other 5 as per the SDSR and retaining/expanding the Scan Eagle fleet to provide containerized air surveillance in lieu of a hangar would let vessels deploy to the West Indies and Mediterranean for flying the flag, anti narcotics and migrant patrols etc.

    Ok they aren't the ideal solution to these standing commitments, but if they take some of the pressure and free up expensive escorts needed for the carrier-group then they will surely suffice and the Royal Navy needs to get creative and more flexible now more than ever.

    The 3 other batch 1 River's should be transferred to the boarder force (or whatever it's called now) as they could well be needed post Brexit and either scrapping or flogging them cheap would be a terrible waste.

  6. OPVs speck-ed out by SDR accountants for fantasy missions in the Gulf and Caribbean; without sufficient speed to catch a drug smugglers high speed boat in the Caribbean, and without credible force to defend against sailors getting captured by Iranians in the Gulf. OPVs are only credible for fishery protection, and reducing the UKs embarrassment when Spanish warships sail into Gibraltar waters. Upgrading OPVs are wasteful of hard cash which is needed to keep HMS Ocean from becoming lost before she has become obsolete. One good thing about having a few OPVs is that they provide a training path for sailors who in time will serve on frigates. OPVs need a hanger to host and maintain UAVs with night vision capability. UAVs would increase the radar horizon of these little OPV boats and better detect Spanish trawlers. I would much rather see a few type 46 destroyers with LAWS and Mk41 launch tubes, than a fleet of many accountant friendly OPVs that are not credible for anything other than chasing slow Spanish trawlers.

    1. "I would much rather see a few type 46 destroyers with LAWS and Mk41 launch tubes..."

      Fantasy Fleet alert!

      Seriously, please read the article again. We DON'T have the money to build more Type 45s. That means replacing the supply train, training more sailors....

      Oh, heck, why am I bothering to explain this? You should know all these problems, otherwise you wouldn't have posted here. The problem with what you've written is that you've spoken out against one fantasy, but replaced it with another.

      That misleads people, please don't so it. The fleet doesn't need more ships. We have extraordinarily capable civil servants, and the fleet is the size it is FOR A REASON!

    2. Thanks for making me laugh, this army of civil servants that you are talking about, sack em, this would release funds to build the type 46 warships. Seriously though, war is more expensive than peace time defence budgets, the Falklands demonstrated that cutting 6 warships from the John Notts defence budget ended up costing more in destroyed warships (plus Atlantic conveyer and etc), loss of life and arguably destroyed the Argentinian economy for the last 20+ years. Building warships in peace time serves the economy and paradoxically creates tax revenue from extra ship building / sailors jobs. There was a time when the UK supplied ships to India / Australia / Argentina / Canada and several other countries. Spending money, paradoxically makes money. When the civil service educate MPs to cut defence budgets, we lose things like Nimrod or harrier development, and then we end up spending more money in the long run on things like Lockheed martins P-8 and F35s. So when you export defence jobs to foreign countries, you not only loose the tax earning revenue from loss of foreign sales, but you also loose engineering skills. The people that you no longer employ to make local equipment who used to also pay tax are now unemployed or end up leaving the country to use their talents in foreign companies. The short term gain of not spending money on Nimrod and harrier development has cost us much more in what we are now spending to P-8 and F35 procurement. So now the british tax payer is propping up foreign engineers (research and development) and foreign companies whose foreign employees who pay tax to foreign governments; thus the long term cost outweighs the short term political / financial gain to purchase equipment from overseas government.
      It’s cheaper to make things yourself, so building extra warships would mean that we could also sell extra warships, this which is what we used to do before the civil service had the bright idea of reducing defence budgets. So now we make almost nothing and our Belfast and Portsmouth and other ship yards are no more.

    3. Sack em! Great stuff and shows a limited knowledge of what it takes to bring any ship into service and keep it there.

      Civil Servants don't set the budgets.....

      You need to research the subject more before typing!

      Sir H's article is about people discussing a complicated subject with little or no actual've just reinforced that position!

    4. Keith I'm sorry but as well as fantasy fleet for U.K. you have fantasy fleet ambitions for shipbuilding, "we used to supply the ships for Australia, Canada, and India" well yes we did but we also had an Empire on which the sun never set and a fleet bigger than at least the next 2 biggest fleets on the planet. Sorry but that is ancient history, The Canadian fleet is Canadian buit, the ships recently decommissioned were as well and the generation before that, as well. If you go back 3 generations they probably shared more equipment with the RN than the USN but you are back in the 1950's it is a similar story for Australia and India. We have occasionally disposed of second hand equipment withdrawn from service with RN I.e. Conventional subs to Canada in the 90's or HMS Hermes to India in the 80's but actual competitive sale of warships I'm sorry you are back in the 1940's and that is ancient history in today's world.

      We did sell 2 Type 42 to the Argentine facist junta and that worked out really well, and we sold a couple of purpose designed ships to the Shah before the Iranian revolution, but post WW2 we disposed of lots of surplus equipment we didn't win orders.

      The RN wanted high end specialist ships that can operate in the Artic and the Gulf or fight in a mid Atlantic Storm or in shallow waters off Africa or Malaysia, no one else that can afoard such high end equipment is going to buy from a foreign power, and if you want a more niche capability we don't make it.

    5. @ Keith Sware

      That was extremely arrogant of me. I let my anger at my ignorance get to me and I took it out on you. I apologise for my behaviour.

    6. Thanks Dan and Anonymous! OK, I'm not going to be characterised as someone from the type writer generation. I agree with your points albeit they are missing a few sales with many countries, but hey, we don’t want a big list of past sales. We are future looking, because the Russians are building 1 ship a year in a way that is cost effective, because the sandwich islands are being colonised in a way that is going to deny shipping routes to UK registered traffic, because we want to preserve the oil off the coast of the Falklands for our own use, because we owe a debt of responsibility to Anzac countries and several others commonwealth countries around the world.

      A satellite takes 10 years to design and get into orbit, similarly, a warship or submarine takes 10ish years to design and put into sea trials. Military design and development is relentless. If you don’t fund R & D, then prospective enemies discover that it is commercially lucrative to-take-what-you-can’t-defend, for example Somali Pirates / Ukrainian Crimea / Cyprus / Falkland’s / …
      History is a tool to be used to combat future mistakes being made by newbies who have not yet learnt some lessons concerning how nasty or devious or greedy or power hungry the human race is. I don’t believe in utopian ideas because other countries don’t practice following any kind of morality. The human race practices slavery, butchery, theft, … and defends itself with propaganda and turning the other cheek when it’s inconvenient or embarrassing.
      All of this unpredictability is why the Navy needs more ships that are capable of surviving in contested land sea and air space; but, we are cash strapped. This country is in debt and is spending more than 1Bn per week in debt interest payments, thus, we are obliged to sell kit to foreign countries to make up the short fall, so that the navy can get what it needs (30+ warships is far less than what we had in the Falklands war). Fantasy MISSIONS by politicians cannot be achieved using long boats and rowing boats although the Dutch did pretty well with single cannon gun boats at keeping the royal navy out of their harbours long long time ago. Technology moves on, Zircon missiles have made British capital ships a bit of a giggle amongst the Russians. When HMS Sheffield got hit by a Argentinian French Exocet, the military world moved on. The defenceless / empty British carriers are embarrassing, so are the OPVs, they are not credible in today’s world. British governments come and go, but the civil service stays forever; British MPs like to believe that they are in control, that’s a very utopian perspective. The civil service are the ones who advise the MPs what is viable in financial terms; this is how the UK seems to muddle through, from one disaster to the next.

      Warships are a long term R & D investment in security and prosperity for an island nation. The media and British politicians have demonstrated that they are incapable of understanding the relevance of the three services. It’s down to engineers and historians to keep them on a straight and narrow path that insures the UK economy is committed against unpredictable despots like Assad who like to drop barrel bombs onto the heads of his own citizens. Let’s not determine the military funding according to the polls and political capital earned. Let’s fund the military machine according to the risks of Zircon missiles, the needs of foreign navies like Singapore, Brazil, …, the needs of shipping in areas such as Somalia, the needs of commonwealth and Anzac countries, credible, viable, sustainable and an let’s put an end to utopian hope and glory nonsense that originates from poorly educated people who are frightened of change or looking at the lessons of history.

      The royal navy appears to be doing a Stirling job in the Caribbean… so far, will the British press print that story, or will it, attack their endeavours?

    7. Hi Ex Student, I like it when folks say what they want to say. Its important to hear, learn and understand other folks perspective. I like the articles being written by Sir Humphrey as well.

  7. Might as well never upgrade then

  8. Everything in this article makes perfect sense.
    But do we design our shops so that they can be upgraded in the future?
    If it's really expensive and time consuming to add SeaCeptor to Type 23s, are we adding "blank slots" to the designs of the Type 26 and Type 32es?
    Surely that's a lesson we would learn from and plan for?
    You could even do it with the OPVs. Just a bit of deck space and nearby cabling for a Phalanx, just in case the future gets a bit hotter and more dangerous.

    1. Or indeed an empty space for some VLS on the Type 31e.

  9. Dear Sir H

    I love really your blog, and I respect your general analytical framework, but I think in this particular circumstance the arguments are a bit weak.

    The constabulary mission and the ability to self defend are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The floreal class for example carries a 100mm gun and a pair of exocets. Presumably the French did their homework. Big splashes carry a deterrent power, and getting hold of stray ASM or even ATGM is probably not outside the ability of rebel groups and non state actors. Why would they attack the ship? To cause trouble, escalate the situation and attract attention.

    In terms of the cost changing the design - HMTS Krabi ships an Oto Melara 76mm and a pair of 30mm, her sister ship will reportedly carry Harpoon, at a cost significantly less than River B2 (I understand it's a make work project).

    BAE talks about the plug and play nature of their combat system :
    BAE describes Shared Infrastructure as "a state-of-the-art system that will revolutionise the way ships operate by using virtual technologies to host and integrate the sensors, weapons and management systems that complex warships require. "

    In terms of new supply chains, it would be ironic if the RN ended up buying the Italian weapon for T31. And the INS is right next door, surely some shared support could be worked out.

    I don't understand what the crane is for, and surely an extendable hanger must save manpower by making it easier to support whatever aviation is to be carried. The ability to use these ships as a test bed for deploying UAVs and adding to the overall information picture must surely be worth an investment in a glorified tent . Surely the ability to properly deploy 'copter or at least a UAV must be critical for constabulary work / disaster relief. A Hangar has already been added to the Bays.

    It is hard to escape the feeling that the Navy never asked for these ships and is desperate for them not to look like frigates - which they aren't of course, but in the process the baby has gone out with the bathwater