Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Solving the Ocean problem

The LPH(R) program has been dead for several years now, and like it or not it is officially down to the carrier(s) to replace the capabilities currently brought to the table by HMS Ocean. Now alone in the LPH / Commando Carrier role, with HMS Illustrious going out of service, the newly refitted HMS Ocean is almost certainly on the last leg of her life. Her OSD is likely to be confirmed for 2018, and the carrier, hopefully but not certainly the both of them, will have to accomodate her role into their schedule as well, or the Royal Marines risk to face a grim future. 

Since 2010, years of effort to build up the most complete and credible amphibious capability in Europe have been squandered and crumbled by reductions in shipping, in supports, in vehicles and landing craft projects. Having recently re-read "3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands No PicNic", by Major General Julian Thompson RM, it is very much alarming to see how the last three years have brought back the Marines on the same dangerous edge of destruction they faced in the early 80s.
The brigade today would have much the same problems it had in 1982, which means, to my cynic mind, that 31 years have been largely wasted and no lesson has actually been learned firmly enough to avoid falling back into the same old pits. The brigade was desperately short of helicopters back then, and would have even less today: 847 NAS is going to have just four, perhaps six on deployment Wildcat helicopters, and the Sea King HC4s (which was new in 1982, and is very old today) are far less than back then. Their replacement, hopefully fully online by 2020, will be of just 25 Merlin HC4 in total.
Save for the introduction of Viking and some other kit, the brigade has less of everything: less light guns, less helicopters. The loss of HMS Ocean and the incoherent, messy plans for embarked fixed wing aviation would put the brigade back in the same position as in 1982: no air superiority, no adequate air reconnaissance, little in the ways of air support, and no appropriate helicopter support ship for amphibious operations.

The Royal Navy is probably not without its faults. Thompson in his book remembers how the Navy already in 1970, pressed by cuts and budget problems, tried to halve the number of Commandos from the then 4 down to 2. Ironically, back then it was the Army's opposition that prevented that from happening.
In 1980, the Navy tried again, because faced by the cost of the submarine-borne nuclear deterrent (see the similarities? There's the Successor SSBN on the horizon...) and by a very limited and precise sets of roles assigned in the Cold War scenarios by a MOD 100% focused on Germany and convinced that out of area operations would never happen again. Instead of directly proposing the disbandment of Commando units, the Navy focused then on axing the amphibious shipping (again, see the similarities...). Thompson was told so in December 1981 by First Sea Lord Henry Leach. Not without sadness, of course, but that was the direction the Navy was inclined to follow to preserve other parts of its "body". Argentina's hurried, foolish move came a few months early: had they let the winter pass, and acted later, the carriers and amphibious ships would have all vanished, victims of cuts, and the islands today would be named Malvinas.

The Royal Marines of today are precious to the Navy. Their involvment in Afghanistan has made the whole navy proud and has kept the admirals at the table. During 3rd Commando Brigade tours in Afghanistan, up to 40% of the total british involvement in Afghanistan was covered by the Navy. In a land locked country. This was an immense demonstration of how flexible and full-spectrum the navy is, one aspect that should very much be used to reinforce the case for maritime power investment when sitting at the budget table. Investing in the Navy does not and should not mean "just" ships. There are excellent reasons for making the Navy the centre of what is supposed to be an expeditionary armed forces structure.

Moreover, the flexibility of the RN Response Force Task Group has been proven multiple times since the SDSR came out, with the quick response to events in Libya and, to a lesser degree, to Sirya, and then the Philippines natural disaster. 
In a time in which Her Majesty's Government wishes to continue to play a big role on the international stage while avoiding to put boots on the ground in a traditional, expensive and risky way, the unique ability of the Response Force Task Group to bring enduring, self-supporting power (land, sea, air) without having to actually "go all in", is a major premium that needs to be highlighted, understood, funded and exploited.  

The Navy HQ is, this time, on the Marines's side, thankfully. The involvment of Navy HQ in the fight to save 148 Meiktila and 24 Cdo Eng is telling, in this sense, and has had some success, with both being (at least partially) saved from the chop. 1st Sea Lord Zambellas has said recently while speaking in the US that he sees a strong case for the Marines, and that he does not expect further reductions, but actually thinks there's a case for growth. 
I absolutely agree, but despite the nice words, the many problems remain and the way ahead isn't clearly marked.
Only recently, the cuts in manpower to supporting elements of 29 Commando Royal Artillery (REME in particular) have forced the commander to decide that the planned retention of 3 gun batteries is pretty much unachievable. 7 (Alma) Battery is to leave Arbroath (save for a Fire Support Group which continues to fly the flag, possibly to avoid scottish rage!) to retreat to Plymouth, where it will join the pooled resources left to the gun batteries, to task-generate one battery to support the Response Force Task Group. 
As always, the shortage of supporting elements stemming from Army 2020 comes out in the light: and again i ask, what use 31 infantry battalions if to keep all of them they have to be small and scrawny, while also affecting disproportionately the supporting elements that make them deployable and useful in the first place...?

The Army, faced with its own painful cuts, is rowing against the Marines as it has been trying to redirect cuts away from its main formations. The cuts to 3rd Commando Brigade army supports were originally planned to be even worse, and thankfully Navy HQ stood up firm for once, and avoided the worse scenario becoming true. The parts have inverted from the 80s, but the Royal Marines still sit in the middle, in an uncomfortable position. 
The Royal Navy itself, while supportive, is stretched far too thin in manpower and budget terms, has accepting tough reductions in amphibious shipping capability despite its support for the Marines, and the senior service notoriously faces an uphill struggle in manning figures over the coming years, which put both the second carrier and the three new OPVs in danger: the first might "enter service" only partially, being tied mothballed most of the time and only pulled into activity when the other hits refit time (like with the LPDs HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark post-SDSR 2010); the seconds might end up being brought into service at the expense of early decommissioning of the three River class vessels currently in service. Despite them having entered service as early as 2003 and despite a 39 million investment in 2012 to purchase them outright, as they earlier were contractor owned and given to the Navy on lease. 
I fear this is a defining moment: the SDSR 2015, despite the optimism of some, is highly unlikely to be a happy rebirth of defence. It'll be a matter of new, painful choices. May the 350th birthday not be the last of the Royal Marines as we know them.

Under Carrier Enabled Power Projection it has been effectively written in stone that it will be down to the carriers to absob the amphibious force's aviation requirements, as the previous practice of geographically separated Amphibious Group and Carrier Group has been cancelled as unaffordable, and replaced by the all-singing all-dancing Response Force Task Group. A number of studies have been launched as a consequence, and most of them are centered on the carriers.
HMS Queen Elizabeth's commander has said in its Twitter answering event a while ago that carrying LCVP landing crafts in the boat bays is being considered for the future; a study is underway (or has finished, the wording in the reports does not make it too clear) on how to organize and paint the deck of QE to provide 10 spots for simultaneous helicopter operations (up from an initial design of 6 very large spots. There are, anyway, 12 deck positions serviced to serve as aircraft / helicopter operation positions).
The carrier has room for 250 Royal Marines and can carry more depending on how the air wing is shaped (and the related manpower figure changes consequently); using the boat embarkation area aft of QE for some Marines to boat transfers will probably be investigated as well. 

The 200-pages book let out by the Royal Navy in occasion of the naming of QE also adds that using some of the available space to increase EMF accommodation and support spaces at the first refit is being looked at. There will be a lot of work to be done to certify ships spaces and facilities for the Embarked Military Force's helicopters, stores and ammunition.
An indicative all-LPH TAG has been defined as a flight of 3 Chinook, 12 Merlin HC4, 8 Apache and 6 Wildcat; while an Hybrid air group comprising 6 - 12 F-35B plus helicopters for a Commando group is being studied.
(see pages 68 and 69).

The vehicles capability of HMS Ocean is not particularly noticeable, and anyway it was relatively often out of the picture when HMS Illustrious or another of the CVSs served as Commando carriers. As was to be expected ever since her sister was not built. So in itself this will not be too much of a blow, while certainly not helpful. 

HMS Ocean's capability to carry light and medium vehicles, and deploy them to the shore, is quite limited. The vehicle deck is small, and the vehicles can only drive down to landing crafts thanks to a ramp and a floating, folding pontoon that the ship carries on deck and deploys in the water by crane.
The vehicle deck, (53) is small. There is a ramp leading to the flight deck, one leading to the stern exit, and a RoRo ramp in the side for port embarkation / disembarkation
The floating pontoon can be seen on deck in this photo. The exit of the flight deck vehicle ramp can also be seen. The pontoon, folded, is carried on top of the structure of the ramp's exit.
The side RoRo ramp for embarkation
HMS Illustrious, serving in the Commando Carrier role, has no RoRo ramps or vehicle deck. Still, it has been seen embarking small numbers of vehicles, including BV206s as in this photo. Helicopter delivery to the shore via Chinook, though, becomes the only available option.

There is also a chance to absorb some or all of the negative impact depending on how MARS FSS shapes up to be: the Fleet Solid Support requirement has merged with the previously separated Combat Support Ship Auxiliary (earlier called the Joint Sea Based Logistics, a ship that would have been designed and built specifically to support ground forces ashore with stores, vehicles and afloat maintenance workshops) and the early designs the MOD and the industries of the Naval Design Partnership have put together include carrying a couple of LCVPs and having a RoRo deck with steel beach or even a well dock, giving some very real capability to carry and deploy ashores stores and even vehicles. Depending on if and how MARS FSS progresses post SDSR 2015, the problems might be in large part ironed out. 

The early concept for MARS Fleet Solid Support would help plug the gaps in amphibious capability, making it twice as important. Her new generation Heavy RAS equipment and vast cargo holds already make this vessel extremely important to support the logistic requirements of the carriers in high intensity ops.

The next SDSR will be a turning point of huge proportions. And the navy desperately needs to get this one right.

There is always some room for dreams, as long as you remember what reality is like.

A perfect solution would be to have HMG get serious about sanctions versus Russia, by exploiting the unique chance represented by the two Mistrals being built by France. It is painful to observe how well things could slot into place, if there was the money and political will to place such a blow. The two vessels could probably be taken up and re-fitted with RN communications, weapons and essential kit to enter in service in 2016 and in 2018: the first could replace the LPDs Albion and Bulwark. 
In 2016, Albion is expected to be re-activated from her current sorry state in HMS Tamar, Devonport, by removing the seals and controlled humidity kit that keeps her dormant and, hopefully, well preserved and by re-storing her to bring her back into active service. Bulwark, which would hit her refit point that year, would be mothballed in her place. 
The first Mistral could be used to replace the LPDs, and it would be a painful (they are still young ships) but actually pretty advantageous trade, capability-wise. The Mistrals have greater troop and vehicle cargo spaces, a well dock of equivalent capability, and, crucially, a hangar and flight deck allowing them to be a replacement for Ocean at the same time. On the other hand, Mistrals have no davits for LCVPs. 

The vehicle deck of Dixmunde, french Mistral-class LHD, used to bring armoured vehicles to Mali

The vehicles / cargo spaces are much larger than on the Albion-class LPDs

The cost would be (partially) offset by doing away with the need to refit the LPDs any further, and by a substantial reduction in the number of LCVPs. The second Mistral, in 2018, would directly replace HMS Ocean, and two ships would replace three, of different types. 

HMS Bulwark's vehicle deck. The ramp in the centre leads up to the flight deck. Beyond the ramp, there's the well dock with the LCUs. Behind the standing officer, there's the side RoRo ramp of access.
the dock of HMS Bulwark. Rolls of Trackway and BV206 vehicles can be seen in first line in the vehicle deck.

It would be a more than happy trade in terms of capability, but not financially fair enough to make the plan cost-neutral. Which is the reason why this scenario is a dream. It is a semi-serious, dreamy suggestion due to the high and sudden up-front cost of taking the ships and fit them out for RN use. 

Then again, it would be a great investment for the future. 


  1. Although I think almost everything you say is very well thought out, I have to disagree regarding the Mistrals. The loss of jobs and money would be enormous and it is something that we simply cannot afford to lose. I for one am very thankful this will not be the case. Its a sad fact that everything in this world is governed by money but a truth none the less. On another note I read somewhere recently that for the 5 or so years from around 2017, the Royal Navy will be taking 50% of the equipment budget so its not all bad news for them (although it still leaves some massive capability gaps despite this)

    1. Loss of jobs and money because of what, the missed refit on the LPDs?
      It would hurt, perhaps, but it is not like the Mistrals won't need their own refits. Plus there would have to be the fitting out of british kit on the ships. Things would even out quite reasonably, actually.

      As for 50% of the budget, even assuming it is true, it will be mostly due to the ramp up of the expenditure on the SSBNs. Which are as much of a curse as they are a blessing. The Royal Navy is proud to supply the deterrent, but at the same time, many in the Navy have hoped more than once to be relieved of the weight. The Navy has lost a lot of ships to pay for Polaris first, then for Trident, and the new SSBNs will be a big drain once more. So that does not actually solves anything.

    2. Loss of jobs and money?!?! This kind of thinking is one of things that has got us into procurement trouble time and again over the decades.... We do not buy military equipment to "make jobs" - we buy it for military need. In this case the military need is there (replacement of 2 Albions and Ocean) and would be wonderfully linked with genuine diplomatic and political need. Frankly I had been toying with thinking about what would come after the Albions and two LPAs is the obvious answer and, btw, I would full expect their hulls to be manufactured in South Korea and then fitted out in the UK - just as would happen with the Mistrals.... Ah well, as Gabriele says - a Mistral purchase will never happen. When it comes to the Albion replacement in the future I'd be interested to understand if the previous poster would prefer 2 hulls built abroad or 0-1 hull built in the UK, because that is likely to be the budgetary reality....

  2. I can’t believe NATO can’t "fund" the price of not giving these ships to the Russians. However I suspect the technology transfer has already taken place, as the third Mistral was to be Russian built, last I heard?
    If we took them, you just know it would spell the end for the Prince of Wales, and personally I would rather have a QA Class than 2 Mistrals.
    I think you did a good piece a time ago (think it was you) on the advantages of 1 big flat top over 3 small, including AEW, CAP’s etc. etc.
    Perhaps in a vision of well-run project involving Russia. The French could model the Mistral contract on the Russ \ Indian carrier INS Vikramaditya, they could sell the basic ships ( incomplete ) for a huge price, and 6 years behind deadline. Only for Russia to find there were major problem with the propulsion systems, where upon they have to be shipped back to France for 3 billion in repairs \ enhancements, and then finally delivered for sea trials in time for their own obsolescence.
    Final cost something in the region of a Nimitz class, look on Putin’s face priceless.
    I’d be ok with that? you?

    1. Even assuming that money was found to purchase the two Mistrals, yes, they might be a potential danger to Prince of Wales and no one would want that. But note that, in an effort to keep some realism, i have suggested the early withdrawal of the LPDs to free up money and manpower.
      In addition, the Mistrals have a much smaller crew than the Albion class and Ocean, and that would help too.

  3. Good post as usual. However, while a Mistral would be a lovely replacement for Ocean, I don't think it would be easy to replicate the C3I fit in Albion/Bulwark. As for the look on Putin's face, it would be priceless!

    1. Depends on how much things would have to be changed. That is the problem with even the idea of taking up a ship built for another country, one with stuff as different as Russia's, besides.

      But Mistral is an excellent base. The ship has a 850 square meters command centre with up to 150 consoles versus 73 work stations in Albion and there should be plenty of room for that and more, in theory.

  4. While there would be a financial cost to purchasing the Mistrals, just think of the political benefits of it. At the moment the Russian government thinks that NATO and Europe are weak, since we've allowed them to invade a peaceful sovereign neighbor and bully us around. France cancelling the sale of these ships is one of the few things that would make Putin seriously stop and reconsider. It would also give Britain and France greater influence and authority on the international stage. As for the money, sooner or later we're going to have to replace the Albion class, and this seems like a great opportunity to snap up a great piece of kit at a bargain price. We'd also make up some of the costs in reduced manning requirements and from selling off the Albion class ships. Unfortunately that would require serious balls and a strong imagination, so I expect the government will simply let this opportunity pass them by.

    Assuming the UK doesn't buy the Mistrals then when it comes time to replace both the Albion and Bay classes, I wonder if it would be possible to combine their roles into a single class? I say that because they both seem to have effectively the same role: to transport a large amount of equipment/supplies overseas and then to disembark them via landing craft or barge. However I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on what the future of RN amphibious assault capability will/should be.

    1. The problem is that i don't think the Mistrals would actually come at bargain price, unless UK and France agreed on some kind of special payment plan. France will want to get the money for the ships, every penny of it, in a way or another. And further expenditure would be needed to fit the ships with RN kit. Can't work with russian stuff, for obvious reasons.

      As for the Bay class replacement, when the time will come, i think keeping them to one side makes more sense. They have big storage and vehicle spaces, in a simpler and cheaper package than a first line LPD / LHD.
      Combining the requirements would be tough, and probably result in a smaller lift capacity at the end anyway.

      LHDs like Mistral instead are a proven, well known hybrid of LPD and LPH. An extremely flexible combination.
      It is not like separate LPDs and LPH aren't desirable, but they are unaffordable. Ever since Ocean's planned sister was not built, the UK's amphibious fleet hasn't been quite as balanced as it was meant to be.
      With the knowledge of today, we can say that two large LHDs were more desirable than the Albion class and Ocean.

    2. Was the reason that we did not go down the large LHD route and ended up with the Albion class due to the fact that when the Albions were on the drawing board there was no firm commitment to build new carriers? Had the RN pushed for a pair of ~30,000 ton LHDs which could also have fulfilled the STOVL carrier role (as with the Juan Carlos/Canberra classes) they may have been concerned that this would result in the new carrier requirement being abandoned. Decommission the Invincibles early and drop from 5 large ships excluding Ocean (3 Invincible plus 2 Fearless) to just 2. Certainly a highly attractive option for the Treasury. Perhaps the RN wanted to get the LPDs in the bag at an affordable price so that they could make a separate case for the new carriers? I have heard that this may have been the plan but have no idea whether it is true or not.

    3. May be, i don't know. Similar stories always come out for pretty much all main programs, which are tweaked somewhat to protect other requirements.
      I guess there is a degree of truth about the story, but how much i don't know.

    4. You make a fair point about the separation of the Bay and Albion class, I suppose it makes sense to two tiers of ship, one for high intensity operations and the other for simple logistics/support. One interesting point about the Mistrals is the lack of a ski-jump, which is where I think the JC1/Canberra class are superior. Obviously they are much larger and more expensive than the Mistrals, but given that we're buying the F35B I think it would make sense to invest in making any future LHD compatible with them, assuming the Royal Navy goes down that route.

  5. The Mistral's are a nice idea but as other commentators have said i think that even if they were seriously on the cards the money and manpower needed to purchase, refit and crew them would be very difficult to find. I'd worry that if the RN could find a way to get and utilize them it would be at the expense of more than just Albion/Bulwark, as in PoW and maybe more.

    My own pennies worth is that the RN needs to play a patient, long game here.

    So use QE and hopefully PoW in the LPH role as best as possible whilst focusing any potential (if probably fanciful) extra resources on getting both Albion and Bulwark back into active service and as much amphibious capability as possible out of MARS SSS when they eventually turn up.

    Then in 2030 or around there the RN can push for 2x proper LHD's to replace Albion and Bulwark at the end of their service life.

    Not ideal, but in my mind the most realistic approach to take.

  6. Wouldn't it make it more economically justifiable to replace Albion, Bulwark and Argus with the two Mistrals? That would still be a significant increase in capability but be a better use of personnel and save more money.

    1. Definitely - but as has become clear over the years and indeed decades, neither the Forces, MOD or Politicians seem able to think either quickly, differently or strategically.....

  7. I would transfer Albion and Bulwark to RFA to replace the duties of Argus, which would be withdrawn from service, giving a suitable fitout and continue the policy of rotating the two. I would make it very clear that operating costs would be paid by DfID, as they would cover the "hurricane season", be on call for any humanitarian duties, along with additional "medical diplomacy".

    Once SDSR 2015 confirms PoW will be brought into active service I would ensure Ocean is replaced by a Mistral class ...

  8. Imagine a relatively defenceless and newly independent Scotland being 'influenced' by a couple Mistrals off shore and you have another reason for the UK making France an offer for these two ships.

    Add the fact that it would give a homogenous marine amphibious fleet to a NATO/OTAN/Eurofleet and all the other advantages and you have the makings of something so sensible and beneficial that only our politicians could pass it up!
    Great blog Gabriele, keep up the good work and Thanks.

  9. there is no way the RN or UK government would buy these ships as we don't buy complex warships outside of the UK it would blow are not building the Type 26's in an Independent Scotland out of the water I doubt they have even considered it what they could do is design the MARS SSS with a through deck ala through deck cruisers and stick a well deck on it and a proper hanger surely this is a way around it to design them through the back door and man them with RFA crews lean manning

  10. I think it's a bit OTT to compare 3 Commando Brigade now with the situation the RM's were in back in 82, or to say they are on the "edge of destruction". The Albion class LPDs & Bay class LSDs are still hugely more capable than the old Fearless and Round Table class's, the RM's will have less helos, but of course on an operation the CHF would be augmented by Chinooks and Apaches. Also it would be very strange if two 65,000 t strike carriers/LHAs could not offer an increased capability over two 22,000 t helo carriers, even if the QE's are rotated in service as Lusty & Ocean have been since the SDSR.
    The RN still has a much greater sealift capability than the MN, even though they have 3 Mistrals in service, which says it all. Only two of the Mistrals could be deployed on one operation, and the MN's last LPD is being sold. The RFA also provides the RN with a much greater replenishment and support capability than the French fleet has.
    At 21,000 t the Mistrals are too small for LSDs, much better two wait and build to 30,000 t plus vessels to replace the Albions and Bays.


    1. Typo, I meant Mistral LHDs.


  11. thanks once again for the article, Quick question slightly off topic. But has any thought been given to replacing RFA Argus with Ocean. It may give a plan B option

    1. Pretty sure that is not at all on the cards. Argus will be pushed on as far as it can go... and who knows if and how she will be replaced. There's a notional Maritime Role 3 Medical Capability (MR3MC) or Joint Casualty Treatment Ship (JCTS) ambition ever since the labour SDSR in the 90s. But money to go ahead...? Not in sight.

  12. 2 Carriers!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)

    Now, whats the catch?

    1. A step in the right direction, at least in the words. Manning still looks tight on current plans, and i want to be sure there are no nasty cuts behind the good news.

      The other things that hold my happiness back are the risks coming from the Referendum and from SDSR 2015.
      But surely today's news was good. Must build on that.

  13. Hi Gabriele

    With chaos in the Middle East and Russia stirring out of its post Cold War slumber I'm praying even the idiots in charge will not cut again in 2015.

    Do the current crews of Illustrious and Ocean get earmarked for the new carriers?

    1. It is not so automatic. The crew of Illustrious, and when the time comes of Ocean, will be reabsorbed into the wider RN, and personnel will get reassigned all around. It won't be exactly a case of crew moving from one ship to the other... but the manpower released will be crucial. And many will indeed end up on the new carriers, especially those who have relevant experience and specialisations.

  14. I suppose it is good news that the "Prince of Wales" will enter service, rather than being mothballed, or even worse, sold, thereby giving us, in theory, two carriers.

    However, it is highly unlikely that we shall have two carriers in active service at the same time (i.e. sailing around the world's oceans at the same time). The reason - we only have one crew between the two of them.

    That leads me to my main question. Will the situation which we are told is to prevail: i.e. having one ship at sea while the other is in maintenance (for want of a better term) be any better than having one ship at sea and the other in mothball, or extended reserve.

    In other words, I would like to know whether there is much difference in terms of time in getting a ship out of "maintenance" and getting one out of "mothballs". In other words are we much better off as a result of Cameron's "decision"?

  15. THE CHILLEANS HAVE BROUGHT THEIR TWO TYPE 23 FRIGATES (EX r.n.) into refit for what they are calling life extending maintainance, shouldthe u.k do the same,?keeping the type 23 while the type 26 or 31 are built, makes sense.

    1. Well, the UK plans the CSP to keep the Type 23s going and plans to only withdraw a Type 23 as a new frigate comes into service.

  16. the bmt venator(google it) design could point the way for the propOSed type 31 'light frigate proposed for the R.N.


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