With BAE Systems making it clear that there is no job in sight for its shipyards after the work on the aircraft carriers is complete, Portsmouth is living days of well justified worries as its shipyard is the one most at risk, and closure means 1500 jobs lost, in a time of economic crisis.
To make things worse, closure of Portsmouth, the only active shipyard in England that can build complex warships could become even more of a damning issue is Scotland was to become independent with the referendum.
Not later than yesterday, in Parliament it was proudly announced that the "residual UK", left without Scotland, would have the capability to build its warships in its own yard(s). The statement was, frankly, pathetic. There is only one active yard capable to build warships, Portsmouth, and it might soon close.
As minister Peter Luff honestly admitted on Twitter, there are potentially locations and yards that could in line of principle build warships, but all of them would need development. Development means costs, and important ones at that. Where would the money come from? From additional defence cuts, probably from a further reduction in the fleet. And i'm not even getting in on the immense headache (and cost) that would come with the need to re-base the whole SSN fleet and, much more challenging, the nuclear deterrent fleet and facilities.
The prospect of having to move back to England the submarine fleet is already enough of a financial and operational nightmare in itself, without closing Portsmouth's yard to add another problem to the list.
If only for prudence, a wise government, no matter how "confident" about Scotland making the right choice, would preserve its only realistic plan B.
Not to mention, again, that in times of economic crisis closing major sources of employments is just dumb and exactly what is not needed. Particularly when MOD and BAE have signed a Terms of Business Agreement that means that the shipyards get either work orders, or money, in order to live on.
Closing the shipyard and paying for it is dumb not one but two times.
So there's who has sensibly proposed bridging the gap between the aircraft carriers work and the Type 26 by ordering a couple of Oceanic Patrol Vessels for the Royal Navy, with an investment of 150 or so million pounds.
So far, the plan is being resisted and it has already been described as unlikely to be adopted, but it has so much merit that i truly struggle to accept that it won't be considered.
A relatively small investment such as this could greatly help the Royal Navy, providing it with two much-needed, cheap patrol vessels more adequate for some of the standing tasks at hand: OPVs would be perfect for the Caribbean and for anti-piracy patrols, as well as for the protection of the minesweepers in the Persian Gulf from the very real threat of fast attack crafts and suicide speedboats.
The "bridge" offered by the work on the two OPVs could keep Portsmouth viable well past the Scottish Referendum vote, keeping England's shipbuilding option alive in the facts and not just in empty statements.
In addition, the OPV order would keep 1500 people employed, and it might help the shipyard rebuild some international prestige and credibility, essential requisites for aiming much more aggressively to winning export orders. The sale of 3 OPVs to Brazil was great news, but even those 3 ships were available because of an export disaster. Much must be done to improve Britain's exports chances in the shipbuilding arena.
The "gap-filler" order would keep Portsmouth active until work on the Type 26 frigates starts. At that point, for many years, the british shipyards might be happily busy: it'll take over a decade to replace the Type 23 fleet (if the plan does not change, the first Type 26 should enter service around 2021, and the last Type 23 should bow out in 2036!), and around 2028 the Navy expects to replace its Hunt and Sandown minesweepers with at least 8 newbuild vessels under the MHPC program.
There's a four years gap between 2014 and 2018 that needs bridging, but assuming that the Type 26 program goes ahead as planned, after 2018 there should be work for everyone. It would be a shame not to allow Portsmouth to live on to that date.
As for the Royal Navy, would two OPVs be useful?
HMS Black Swan and HMS Starling
For the Navy, two OPVs would be great additions. The fleet is overstretched, and short of hulls. It is being asked to be present in too many places at once, and it currently lacks a credible, long-range second-tier fleet of simple, cheap patrol vessels for the more mundane tasks, such as contrast to smuggling and drug traffic and anti-piracy.
The Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards recently admitted:
"One of my biggest concerns is the number of frigates and destroyers the Navy has."
“You get to this ridiculous situation where in Operation Atalanta off the Somali coast, we have £1 billion destroyers trying to sort out pirates in a little dhow with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] costing $50, with an outboard motor [costing] $100. That can’t be good. We’ve got to sort it out.”
The problem is that there are too few hulls in the water. There are standing tasks that are regularly met by RFA vessels more or less removed from their natural roles: i'm thinking about ships such as RFA Argus, sent to the Caribbean to patrol its waters and provide disaster relief instead of working as the hospital ship she is meant to be. The Royal Navy deployed an amphibious Task Group in the Mediterranean sea for Cougar 12, as we know, and the whole task force only had the limited medical facilities of HMS Illustrious and a makeshift hospital ward on the frigate HMS Montrose.
It is more than fine to test the ability of Montrose to deliver forward medical capability on exercise, but the navy should be able to call on its hospital ship for such deployments, not have it doing OPV work on the other side of the Atlantic.
And when it's not Argus, it's a RFA tanker, which is equally more or less removed from its intended job.
Cougar 12, again, deployed with no RFA support vessels assigned: no tanker and no solid support ship, because there was none available. Sure, Cougar is an exercise and happens in the friendly waters of the Mediterranean, where ships can just go into a friendly port to refuel and load stores, but the RFA support vessels are not there to do OPV work: they should accompany Task Groups to enable them to stay for long periods at sea with minimum to no support from the shore. And the major exercise the RN faces in one year should never happen without testing and exercising the ability to sustain the fleet out at sea with the RFA's ships.
Cougar 12, again, put to sea an amphibious task group without a single air defence destroyer, but just two frigates with short-range missiles, one of which has then left the task group to head into the Gulf to take over the patrol role there.
The Royal Navy lost to cuts one of the invaluable Bay-class ships as well. Fundamental to enable the UK's amphibious capability, the 3 remaining vessels are never really available for their role as amphibious transports, because one is constantly in the Gulf working as "Sea Base" for the command and sustainment of the mine countermeasures fleet in Bahrain.
Add to that the awareness that another of the two remaining is likely to be in refit after spending two years in the Gulf, and the amphibious force deploying to the Mediterranean manages to bring along only 1 Bay.
And we should not forget that Cougar 12 is, of course, a training deployment planned months before it started, but it is at the same time a temporary forward basing of the UK's premium rapid reaction force. The Response Force Task Group of the Royal Navy uses Cougar to prepare itself for war, but while it is at sea it is at Very High Readiness to deploy for military operations. Last year it was Libya, this year it is Sirya, and the next place is not yet known.
Training exercise, sure, but also first available tool to respond to crisis, so the Task Group should be as capable and "warlike" as possible. And this year's Task Force wasn't at its best, to say the least.
These are all alarming signals. There are not enough high-end and specialised vessels to do the job, partly because there is just too few ships, and partly because many of those which are available are being used in the wrong way because there is not a second-line of ships.
The frigates that Nelson notoriously wanted in greater numbers were not the frigates of today. They were lower-rank vessels, meant to operate widely dispersed, on a variety of tasks, while the capital ships - the big ships of the line such as HMS Victory - were the big fist meant to knock the enemy down.
Today's frigates and destroyers are the Ships of the Line and Nelson's frigates are OPVs, corvettes and small, cheap warships. To be clear: the place of the Type 45 destroyer is not in the sea in front of Somalia to chase pirate boats, but it is at the flank of HMS Illustrious in the middle of the Cougar 12 task group. Or at the side of HMS Ocean near Libya last year. Or in the Gulf, where the situation can get hot very quickly and the other vessels in the area could suddenly need protection.
This is where OPVs step in. The OPV goes to the Caribbean, or to Somalia, and lets the warships do their actual job.
Building two OPVs (two truly excellent names would be HMS Black Swan and HMS Starling, if i may suggest even the names...!) and forward-basing them (like HMS Clyde, which is permanently assigned to protection of the Falklands) would take quite some heat away from the overstretched fleet of frigates and destroyers.
One ideal location for a forward-based OPV is the Caribbean. The Royal Navy in this area delivers two main effects:
- Counter Narcotics and Terrorism (CNT)
- Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)
To face these missions, the vessels deploying to the area are normally assigned a Lynx helicopter with its complement of 12 to 15 men (including two Royal Marines heli-snipers) and a 20-man specialised HADR team of Royal Navy personnel, to whom 30 men from the core crew of the RFA vessel at hand provide support.
A good OPV, forward-based in the area, is better suited than a tanker to CNT role, and being permanently based in the area it relieves the navy from the pressure of having to rotate ships in and out of the Caribbean, releasing vessels such as Argus and tankers that can so better focus on supporting the fleet in their intended roles.
Crews and Lynx personnel can rotate every six months, reaching the Caribbean by airplane and taking over the vessel for the successive period. During the Hurricane Season, the HADR team can fly from the UK to the Caribbean and join the ship.
What the OPV needs to have is:
- Good endurance (both in terms of fuel, and thus of range, and in terms of stores and supplies for the crew): the UK needs its OPVs far away from the home waters, so it needs them long-legged. They must not become a nuissance, needing excessive support from RFA support ships: they must work on their own as much as possible.
- An hangar sized for a Lynx / Wildcat helicopter. An helicopter is fundamental to almost all missions, and a hangar for its recovery and maintenance is very much needed.
- Good accommodations for a sizeable additional force embarking for HADR operations or other roles
- Ideally, space for at least a couple of standard TEU containers for additional supplies and material for disaster relief and other roles.
The second OPV could be forward based in Bahrain, like the minesweepers, and from there provide security all the way down to Somalia's waters.
It would be fantastic if the OPV could support and command the minesweepers fleet and release the Bay LSD for its intended amphibious role, but this might prove impossible: the Bay, after all, is a wonderfully capable 16.000 tons ship with a well deck, a huge cargo capacity, good sensors and communications and a very large helicopter deck. A true sea-base. A 2000 tons OPV would never match the possible output of a Bay.
However, the OPV would offer better speed, an hangar for the helicopter (the Bay LSDs do not have one) and possibly a sensors and communications fit just as good as that of the LSD, so perhaps it wouldn't be totally impossible to release the Bay.
The US Navy has converted the USS Ponce, an old LPD, into a sea-base for supporting mine-countermeasure and boat operations in the gulf and elsewhere, but the UK cannot afford the luxury of such a path. Nor can it afford to continue depleting its precious amphibious power projection option by "wasting" one of its few amphibious ships in the Gulf.
Perhaps the OPV in this particular case is not the answer, but a converted civilian ship could make a cheap and effective sea base: the UK used to be very, very good at modifying civilian vessels quickly. Two examples are still in service, after being prepared for action as far back as 1982, when the Falklands War raged: RFA Diligence and RFA Argus, both unique and invaluable within the fleet.
The Royal Navy should not shy away from the option of adapting a commercial vessel to the military role, when and where this is possible, because the first way to solve the problems of the navy is ensuring that the warships available are all used in their intended roles, and are available when and where needed.
In any case, the OPVs could certainly help the Royal Navy and the UK.
And another certainty is that getting rid of RFA Largs Bay was very, very stupid.