Monday, March 14, 2016

What's a Type 31?

The Seat of Purpose is on the Land. For British maritime power, the real focus of maritime strategy is on what you do once you have control of the sea; ‘the essence of maritime power is the ability to influence events on land’.
 This means that while sea control is essential, only the minimum level of effort, commensurate with the acceptable level of risk, should be employed in it. The rest of our resources should be used to influence events on land, both at, and from, the sea. This also requires sea control, of course, which enables the holder to use maritime power and, if required, denies an opponent that same ability. At sea, the military, diplomatic and economic impact will depend upon the opponent’s dependence upon the maritime
environment for its security and resilience; for many states sea dependency is growing. On land, the military, diplomatic and economic impact will depend upon the holder’s ability to influence its opponent from the sea; this influence could take a variety of forms from a low-level focused maritime blockade
(such as one focused on components for weapons of mass destruction), to an invasion of the opponent’s territory.

MOD Joint Concept Note 1-12 (JCN 1-12), dated May 2012

The promised second part of my reasoning on the future "Lighter Frigate" for the Royal Navy, apparently to be known as Type 31. My question, detailed in Part 1, is whether traditional escort designs can still do their intended job. Several developments suggest that they can't, or that at least they will not be able to do it in the near future. 
So the question becomes: what should Type 31 be? 

The answer, as we saw in Part 1, is "a ship meant to deploy a number of air, surface and sub-surface systems meant to expand its capabilities and allow her to survive, to protect other ships and to contribute to the widest possible range of missions.

Part 2 looks at some ship designs from around the world and details my proposal.

The two extremes

A growing number of designs, either built, planned or simply offered, are meant to embark and employ modular mission payloads. The list would includes vessels such as the American LCS, the Italian PPA, the Damen Crossover, the Black Swan concept, up to the Danish Absalon class.
The first observation to be made is that the importance of the modular payload varies from design to design: the capability of some ships depends almost entirely from the embarked payloads, while other vessels have a wide range of equipment which is only complemented and expanded by embarking payloads.
At the two extremes, we find Black Swan (entirely shaped by payloads) and the Absalom (a fully fledged and well armed warship which also offers a large cargo space). 

The Black Swan concept, which caused lengthy debates online when it was revealed a few years ago, was a deliberately provocative proposal which brought reliance on external payloads to the extreme. The briefing paper argues for the construction of “sloops-of-war” costing no more than 65 million pounds apiece; 2000 to 4000 tons in terms of size; built to commercial standards albeit capable of operations in marginal ice; armed extremely lightly, basically like a current River OPVs perhaps with the addition of a CIWS based on laser (once mature); crew as small as 8, with room for up to 60 more; low, extremely modest speed requirements to reduce costs and complexity; diesel-electric propulsion.
The Black Swan sloop is described as a mothership vessel which operates at stand off distances by sending unmanned systems in the contested, denied area. Its capabilities are entirely driven by the payload embarked and the ship is not meant to operate in isolation but in small groups (assumption is that 4 Black Swan plus mission payloads would be built for the cost of a traditional large escort vessel).

The Black Swan has a very basic sensors fit, and it is even described as having a rather basic communications fit, which feels contradictory and dubious since, depending on the force of the group and having to stay in constant two-way contact with multiple unmanned vehicles, the ship can be expected to have serious ICS and bandwidth needs.     

The notional design provided at the end of the briefing paper shows a 95 meters ship, a bit over the 3000 tons, with a core crew of 8 and space for 32 mission specialists, which would all live in SSN standard accommodations (HMS Astute being the benchmark). The payload would reach 400 tons and the requirement is for a volume equal to at least 20 containers. A large hangar (Merlin + rotary wing UAV) and a Chinook-capable flight deck complete the design. 

The design comes with a 600 square meters mission bay and a 370 square meters hangar bay. Each of the 20 containers on the mission deck is individually accessible and can be connected to ship services. A stern ramp for boats is provided aft, flanked by two container positions for modules that require direct access to the water, such as towed array modules.

The Black Swan is an extreme concept, which tries to ensure a large number of ships can be built, and that, however cheap, each is flexible and precious even in a high end warfighting scenario. However, the reliance on external systems is pushed to the extreme, and is arguably excessive. It will be very challenging (both technically and financially) to ensure that the Black Swan can constantly keep UAVs in the air to have sensors coverage and firepower at the ready. Costs will merely shift from the mothership to the vast array of UAVs and USVs and UUVs needed, especially since the authors seem to envisage particularly capable unmanned systems, able to strike enemy targets deep into contested space in a high end warfighting scenario.

Other evident bottlenecks are:

-          Power generation and supply. It is one thing to trade speed off to lower costs, but the mothership will have to provide power to its modular payloads, and this might require substantial amounts of electricity. It might be impossible to cut down the power generation.
-          Space. The tyranny of space imposes the choice of submarine-like accommodations for the crew, and reduces the space available for the specialist teams accompanying the unmanned systems. While they have no men in the cockpit, unmanned systems to this day remain far from “unmanned”, requiring a substantial crew back at the base for maintenance and mission control. We can assume that the systems will become more and more autonomous, but betting that 32 men will be enough for everything and specifying an 8 men core crew is very likely to lead to trouble. It will also put greater pressure on the unmanned systems, which will need to be much more autonomous and much more reliable, making their development riskier, more demanding and, inexorably, more expensive.
Of course, part of the Mission Deck could be used to add accommodation modules for extra personnel, but then the space for the systems is reduced, and finding the good balance might rapidly become challenging.

The Black Swan, in my opinion, chooses the wrong hull. I’d rather have fewer but larger motherships, individually more capable, than groups of small sloops. This because the availability of great space and weight margins greatly eases integration of new systems and evolution through life.

The LCS is just one step above the Black Swan, since it has relatively little capability unless it is carrying a specific mission package.
Much has been said of the LCS, a program which has repeatedly encountered serious difficulties and has thus gained a vast armada of haters which have by now poisoned the whole debate about their merits and shortcomings.

The critique I move to the LCS is that they are trying to be two things that do not mix too well: nimble, ultra-fast littoral “street fighters” and, at the same time, motherships.
The LCS ended up absorbing features of the “Street Fighter” ship envisaged in the 90s by Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski, head of the Naval War College. The “Street Fighter” was going to a cheap, small (less than 1000 tons), extremely fast and nimble, disposable ship meant to go in the littoral and fight off FACs and other anti-access threats in the challenging brown waters were, it was felt, the big Burkes would struggle badly.
In the early 2000s, under the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, small ships and “transformational” approaches to warfare gained traction. The LCS was born, and the navy began to work on a mission and on a design for them. The LCS grew quickly as a result, to over 3000 tons, and the requirements piled on it included replacing minesweepers and Perry frigates as well as fighting back FACs in the littoral by means of speed and maneuver. It is not what the original Street Fighter was meant to be, yet it insists on extremely high speed (even if a lot lower than what was wanted from Street Fighter). The compromises that have had to be built into the design as a consequence are the root cause of most of the trouble and of the skepticism that surrounds the ships.
They have large mission bays, but the mission package must weight no more than 105 tons, which is proving difficult. Growth margins are almost inexistent. Accommodations have had to be expanded as more men are required to accomplish the missions. Autonomy is not very good, as the ships are thirsty race horses. And their armament, EW and sensors fit limits their warfighting capability. 

The LCS ASW module. Ship-mounted torpedo tubes are not included. Even the Type 26 might not have ship-mounted torpedo tubes, but there is no definitive confirmation.
Somewhat predictably, the US Navy is now working to make some of the modular payloads permanent components of the ships, particularly in the “Fast Frigate” evolution of the LCS which will represent the last batch of ships to be built. Anti-ship missiles will be added, as will a proper EW outfit. The Fast Frigate will also permanently sport light guns and a towed array, instead of having to add them as modules.
The US Navy so far is refusing to accept the evidence that, if the LCS is to become more fighting capable, it needs a capable lightweight anti-air missile fit. They are putting considerable effort into adapting a vertically-launched Hellfire missile variant as an anti-FAC weapon instead, but if the Pentagon was a bit more open to adopting foreign products they could just buy into Sea Ceptor and use it to give the LCS both decent local area air defence and anti-surface strike capability. The impossibility to mount bulky MK41 launchers would not be a problem with Sea Ceptor… 

From LCS to "Fast Frigate", several bits cease to be add-ons and become permanent features.
The rest of the problems with LCS are due to the immaturity of the modular payloads. The development of the payloads started after that of the ship, and in a period in which unmanned vehicles were still somewhat primitive. But developments in the unmanned world are becoming faster and I’m convinced that the mission bay will allow the LCS to stay relevant in all missions.
The lack of weight margin, though, is a problem. It goes to reinforce my belief that if you are going to build a carrier, you must make sure it is actually built to carry stuff.

The Italian PPA (Pattugliatore Polivalente d’Altura, which could be translated as Multimission Oceanic Patrol) is a completely new design produced by the Italian Navy’s own projects office in collaboration with Fincantieri, that will build them. The PPA is an innovative ship, introducing new systems and new concepts and it is meant to replace several classes within the Italian navy, from the 2 Durand de la Penne destroyers (due to be de-classed to frigates due to the removal from service of their old air area defence weaponry, still using the Standard SM-1) to the Minerva class corvettes, the Soldati-class “patrol frigates”, the Minerva-class corvettes and the OPVs of the classes Costellazioni and Comandanti.

The ship is required to carry out a wide range of tasks which go from disaster relief to warfighting, and will be procured in multiple configurations. Curiously the expectation is that there will be 3 levels of fitting-out: Light, Light+ and Full. The Full will, obviously, be fitted at build with all sensors and weapons, while the Light+ will have an intermediate fit and predispositions to accept the missing systems as required. The Light will have no missiles and will come fitted-for-but-not-with only in some areas. 

The PPA will be a large vessel with an empty weight just short of 5000 tons, 143 meters in length, but slender due to a beam of “just” 16.5. They are also required to be pretty fast: a maximum sustained speed of 35 knots was originally envisaged, although it seems the requirement has been relaxed to 32.
The PPA is equipped with a complex propulsion system, in an “evolved” CODLAG arrangement: at slow speed, two electric motors will give a silent, fully electric propulsion up to 10 knots; the use of one Diesel will allow cruising up to 18 knots, while adding the second Diesel is meant to give a speed of 25 knots. Engaging the gas turbine allows to keep speeds higher than 31 knots. General Electric MV300 drives will be installed on the ships, allowing them to generate and send ashore 2 MW of power when stationary in port, converting the frequency from 50 to 60 hertz to allow smooth shore connections whatever the location. The capability to generate electricity and potable water are part of the requirements for Disaster Relief: it is intended that one PPA will be able to cater for the immediate needs of a disaster-struck town of 6000 people.
The autonomy figure seen so far merely says that 5000 nm is the minimum required, but the information available is still incomplete and sometimes uncertain as the design is still being finalized. 

PPA Full, profile. Copyright team Forum Difesa (
In terms of sensors, the PPA is intended to carry a newly-developed Dual Band AESA radar by Selex, employing two sets of 4 fixed faces: one set, in C band, works as the long range volume search radar while the other set, X-band, tracks surface and air targets for engagement. At the moment it is expected that only the Full variant will have both installed.
A new IFF with a fixed, circular array for 360° coverage is part of the design as well as a 360° IRST.
The ships will be armed with a new variant of the 76/62 mm gun, the “Sovraponte”, a non-deck penetrating CIWS turret containing its own ammunition. It will fire the DAVIDE / Strales guided shells for anti-missile, anti-aircraft and anti-surface self defence. The main gun will instead be a 127/64 with a fully automated magazine and Vulcano guided, long-range ammunition.
Two 25mm light guns are provided for close range engagements.
The ship comes with two Sylver A50 modules giving 16 cells for Aster 15 and 30 missiles. The Full variant should come with space reservation for 16 more cells and the possibility of installing the A70 launchers in place of the A50, enabling the use of cruise missiles.
The missiles will be carried by the Full and Light+, while the Light will be fitted for but not with.
All ships will be able to accept 8 Teseo anti-ship missiles, although they are not expected to be installed at build, not even on the Full. 

The schemes as shown on television by the italian navy. The scheme suggests that 16 A50 cells and 16 A70 cells could be installed at the same time.
The PPA will have two mission spaces: one is located in the stern, under the flight deck, and includes one launch ramp for a boat, flanked by two spaces for container-sized payloads. On the Full, these two spaces will be used for a towed array sonar and for two 533mm Heavy Torpedo Tubes facing aft.
There is space for 5 containers or mission modules and two side openings are also part of the design: these doors will add flexibility to the procedure to deploy unmanned vehicles and will also serve as Rescue Zones for taking aboard shipwrecked migrants, a task which unfortunately is a daily occurrence for the Italian navy these days.
Another modular space is located amidship, on the weather deck, and can take another 8 containers and/or RHIBs and boats up to 15 meters. A powerful crane is provided to handle the boats and containers.

The crew varies from 90 in Light configuration to 171 for a Full with complete crew and embarked force element.
The PPA will have an innovative cockpit, similar to that found on aircraft. Sitting two men side by side, and using augmented reality in the glass windows, it is meant to ensure unparallel control over the platform, enabling the ship to be fought by as few as 4 men on bridge.
The large hangar can take one AW-101 or two NH-90 helicopters. 

Towed array module and Heavyweight torpedo tubes plus RHIBs and potentially unmanned ASW vehicles give the PPA Full a powerful array of anti-submarine capability. Heavyweight 533mm torpedoes are increasingly common in industry offers (see also the DAMEN CrossOver): looks like an admission of the fact that ship-launched 324mm light torpedoes are not a credible ASW weapon anymore.

The Italian navy has signed a contract for the construction of 7 PPA, with another 3 options to be exercised within 2021. The 8 ships on order are expected to be Light, Light, Light+, Full, Light+, Light+, Full. The options are for a Full, a Light, a Light+.
The Italian Navy has expressed a requirement for 16 PPA in total, which in addition to the 10 FREMM frigates would make for an impressive fleet. Whether so many will ever be effectively procured is far from certain. The PPA is not exactly cheap, although the first 7 vessels are expected to cost no more than 4 billion euro, including a 10-year logistic support contract. They come as part of a massive 5.4 billion “Navy Law” which the current chief of Navy staff, admiral De Giorgi, has been able to obtain by campaigning tirelessly for new ships to replace the aging equipment of the navy. Intended as merely the first step in the renewal programme, the Navy Law funds 7 PPA, 1 LHD (costing over one billion) and 1 Logistic Support Ship (around 400 million), plus two small, fast special forces support boats. 

The Augmented Reality cockpit with HUD functions

The PPA clearly leans more towards a traditional frigate, putting a lot of focus on the ship’s own sensors and weapons rather than on modular payloads. This is to be expected, since the Italian navy still hasn’t put much work into those. Cost is contained by realizing variants with a simplified combat system.
The approach of multiple sub-variants is not what the Royal Navy needs, but the ship remains a very interesting product in its own way.

The Absalon is the hybrid of a frigate and an LPD, so much so that the danes gave her a L rather than F or D pennant. It was not really thought out for operating with modular ASW systems, but rather to transport troops and vehicles, or modular hospitals or headquarters. The vast space available could be exploited with future systems of unmanned vehicles if a suitable launch and recovery system can be installed in the stern. The current gauntry crane for boats is just a beginning. It has an excellent fit of sensors and weapons but commercial standards and CODAD propulsion have allowed the danes to keep the costs down.

The large door has a ramp which can take even the weight of MBTs like Leopard 2. The smaller door allows a gauntry crane to launch and recover large boats.

The Damen Crossover is a proposed design that mates frigate and LPD, offering more flexibility than the Absalon in terms of embarking and deploying offboard equipment, thanks to a stern ramp and side doors. 

It could be an excellent starting point for the Royal Navy’s requirement, although the flexibility of the stern area does not appear to be quite matched by the flexibility of weapon options up front. The number of missile cells seems to stay low in all configurations and the largest gun offered is the 76mm.
Moreover, the fear is that, since it is really impossible politically to build the “Type 31” anywhere else other than on the Clyde, going with a Damen design would not enable cost control. Probably its cost would end up swelling a lot when construction is done in Govan and Scotstoun. 

I also want to mention the proposed BMD ship based on the LPD-17 hull. This monster is definitely not cheap and not something the Royal Navy could or should pursue. But it is an impressive example of how missions traditionally associated with destroyers and cruisers can be transferred, with serious capability gains, on top of the most flexible of all naval assets: the amphibious ship. The Ballistic Missile Defence ship is armed with a rail gun on the bow, meant to engage even ballistic targets. An enormous 4-face radar, far larger than the one that can be installed on DDGs or even current cruisers, offers increased search, detect and track at longer ranges. The ship carries an amazing 288 missile cells in a multitude of MK41 modules arranged along the sides, in peripheral way. The well dock is enclosed and has been turned into a below-deck hangar, with aircraft lift sized for MV-22 Osprey. 

The impressive BMD ship is a derivative of the LPD-17 design. Of course, it is not cheap.
Adapting an LPD to a more generic, loosely defined escort mission against surface, air and sub-surface threats would actually be a very good solution. The problem, of course, is cost, as LPDs are not cheap. 

Or are they? 

Algeria has procured from Italy a "command vessel" which is "just" an evolution of the "Santi" (Saints) class of mini-LPDs the Italian Navy has been using for many years. 
This derivative built for Algeria keeps all of the amphibious capabilities of the LPD, but adds a FREMM-like mast with EMPAR radar; a 76mm gun and a battery of Aster 15 missiles for local area air defence. 2 light guns and a comprehensive fit of decoys and sensors complete the vessel, creating a sort of hybrid between a frigate and a LPD.
While not quite as cheap as we'd need Type 31 to be, it was still delivered for around 450 million euro, initial crew training included. That is an LPD costing less than a frigate. 

Being so small, the ship is somewhat limited. There is no separate hangar deck: the helicopters and the vehicles end up parked on the same deck, which ends with the well dock at the stern.

This profile by Ennr shows an italian San Giorgio LPD. The algerian ship is a derivative.

At 143 meters long and some 8000 tons, this ship is directly comparable to a Type 26 (actually, it is even shorter!) dimensions-wise. The crew is pretty large, suggesting a low reliance on automation (150 men are the given figure) and Algeria will be embarking up to 440 soldiers on them.
Two helicopter spots, a sizeable cargo deck and a well dock make it a very flexible asset, and an interesting solution worth being mentioned.

How much modularity?

Systems Not Platforms. Much as torpedoes, submarines and aircraft changed the face of maritime warfare in the last century, unmanned systems will do the same in the 21st Century. In the future, unmanned systems could help to provide a solution to maintaining a balanced fleet by matching the required capability to future threats, available resources and mandated tasks.
This future concept would concentrate investment in systems, rather than the ship, and a change in emphasis to one that does not see the ship as the fighting platform.

MOD Joint Concept Note 1-12 (JCN 1-12), dated May 2012

The Danish STANFLEX approach sought to make even weapons modular and rapidly swappable. However, its success has been somewhat limited: there is no real reason, nor any real gain to be obtained, by swapping weaponry modules on a mission by mission basis, especially since each weapon requires personnel trained and current on its employment. The STANFLEX modules continue to be employed, but their benefit has reduced to ease of installation. The ships are normally fitted with their gun and missile modules, and only lose them at the end of their service life or when a new, improved system can be added. The change can be expected to typically happen during a refit and then last for a long time. The benefit is thus mostly felt in building the warship and in recovering precious sub-systems from it at the end of its life, to move them rapidly across to another hull.

The truth is that any warship has a minimum set of capabilities that are basic requirements and never really go away. There is no real point in seeking modularity at all costs.
It seems wise to give the mothership, at a minimum:

-          Its own air defence missile battery, with the appropriate suite of sensors and EW that goes hand in hand with it and that ensures the ship can protect itself and other units in the area. For the moment there does not seem to be any advantage to be gained by trying to offload the anti-air missiles upon the “parasite” platforms deployed by the mothership.
-          A main gun, for naval gunfire support. A mission that has never gone away and that seems set for an actual rebirth in a few years time if the rail gun will keep its promises.
-          Light guns for close range self defence

The mothership ideally would also carry land-attack missiles (a fundamental part of “influencing events ashore”) and at least an hull mounted sonar for obstacle and mine avoidance at a minimum. Adding anti-ship missiles, while not strictly indispensable, would complete it.

These are the mission bits that are pretty much always needed and that are most difficult to transfer onto offboard solutions.
The Black Swan and, to a degree, the LCS chose to simply ignore these requirements, leading to units that have serious survivability and capability gaps.
The Absalom and the PPA, and the CrossOver to a degree, come with the necessary “fixed” bits of capability installed on the mothership. Their approach is to be preferred: there is nothing in sight that suggests that unmanned vehicles will be able to provide distributed air defence in the near future, nor is it clear if it would be actually advantageous to try and do so. Years ago, the Skunk Works created the stealth ship, a Small Water Area Twin Hull vessel with a low RCS, great stability and good speed. The idea they put forwards was to lead it with 64 Patriot missiles and use it as an alternative or at least a complement to Aegis cruisers and destroyers. Exploiting stealth, the ship would sail hundreds of miles up threat, ahead of a carrier air group, and shoot down incoming air targets.
The prototype, the Sea Shadow, was a 560 tons vessel, 70 feet wide, and had no weapons aboard. The idea was fascinating, but it eventually did not materialize. The Sea Shadow was used for trials and tests and for RCS studies at sea, and ended up scrapped in 2012.  

The Sea Shadow at sea. In his memories, Ben R. Rich, then director of the Skunk Works, explains that the concept for an operational Sea Shadow derivative was to carry 64 Patriot SAMs and sail up-threat to form a stealthy SAM screen ahead of a carrier battlegroup. The stealthness of the vessel was meant to allow it to target the launching aircraft (especially the russian bombers, given that we were in the late 70s and early 80s), rather than the anti-ship missiles, like Aegis. According to Rich, during tests the problem was that the Sea Shadow ended up being too stealthy, and looked like a suspicious black hole in the background radar noise caused by the waves. The problem was eventually solved, but the Sea Shadow never progressed into the air defence ship that the Skunk Works office had imagined.

Much as aircraft allow an aircraft carrier to remain at range from an engagement, so will unmanned systems for the future warship. This means that the investment needs to be in the weapon systems, manned or unmanned, rather than the ship. While crew survivability is important, money should not be wasted on the ship. Instead it should be designed along cheaper commercial lines.

MOD Joint Concept Note 1-12 (JCN 1-12), dated May 2012

Distributing air defence on “small” stealthy offboard “systems” (boats / mini-ships) would have merits and seems to be what the authors of the Black Swan study bet on for the future. However, missiles are large and require a big platform. One big enough that it would have to deploy directly from the port, rather than be carried by a mothership (unless it is a big, dedicate Float On, Float Off transport!). Is it doable? Is it financially feasible? Isn’t it a needless complication? Won’t it end up requiring many small crews, which summed up will amount to even more manpower than needed for large “traditional” warships? What impact would it have on naval base infrastructures? The placement of adequate sensors on such a launching platform would also be challenging. So, for the “visible” future at least, I think evolution, rather than revolution, is to be preferred. While unmanned, distributed MCM and ASW are rapidly becoming a reality, air defence and anti-surface don’t yet show signs of major change, and pressing on with revolutions at all costs will immediately kill any hope of keeping the costs of the programme down.

The mothership should as a consequence come with the basic bits installed; yet with vast space available for “offboard systems”, intended in the widest possible sense, to include manned helicopters and boats and embarked troops.
At the same time, cost must be kept low. Impossible?

Maybe. But what about working with container ships?

Return of the escort carrier?

The future sloop-of-war will be more akin to an aircraft carrier, or an amphibious ship (albeit on a much smaller and less sophisticated scale), providing command, hotel services, maintenance facilities and a taxi service for a range of unmanned and manned systems. These systems would be deployed in the form of a range of capability packages that can be added to the ship to meet its required tasks.

MOD Joint Concept Note 1-12 (JCN 1-12), dated May 2012

A US Navy project gives us the latest visualization of the kind of capability that can be squeezed out of a containership if it is modified in the right way. The ship in question happens to be almost a twin sister of the Point class RoRo ships the MOD already uses, making it a particularly interesting example. The MV Cragside is being transformed in a “maritime support vessel” able to support an embarked force of 207 in addition to the crew, with an endurance of at least 45 days, a range of at least 8000 miles and the capability to keep a 20 knots transit speed for at least 5 days and transit at least 3000 nm in Sea State 5. The ship is being given the equipment to simultaneously launch and recovery 4 large boats (12.5 meters); a flight deck with 2 MH-60 spots and clearance to handle single spot CH-53, MV-22 and Chinook operations. A two-bay hangar is being added, sized to take MH-60 helicopters of the special forces (folding rotor, but no folding tail boom and refueling probe adding some to the length). Aircraft maintenance spaces, storage spaces, a workout area and mission planning rooms thought for the need of special forces (including secrecy requirements) are being added to the ship. Receiving stations for fuel and stores delivered via RAS and VERTREP are being provided, and the ship will be used to refuel the boats it deploys.
8 large boats plus 4 jet skis, 4 Zodiacs and one 10 meter craft are required to be carried, next to the launch and recovery davits.
The ship is required to have 4 separate fueling stations for aviation and another four for embarked crafts and vehicles, to be provided eventually employing containerized systems and filtering tanks protected by steel armor. The requirement includes carrying 150.000 gallons of JP-5.
Obviously, ample space for stores and spare parts is specified.
A medical space with 10 beds and 2 surgical tables and supports is also part of the project.
So is a full facility for the need of divers.

Built in 2011, the MV Cragside is owned by Maersk, and the US Sealift Command is buying her services on an annual basis. A first contract, worth 73 million USD, was placed to acquire her and have her modified for the new role. 

The only photo I’ve found showing MV Cragside being re-built for the new role shows the massive enlargement of the original superstructure, the addition of the flight deck above what was the original top cargo deck and the construction of the large two-bay hangar. Large openings have been cut in the side walls of the top cargo deck, suggesting that the boats will be carried and deployed mostly from there.
The extent of the modifications is impressive, and so is the array of capabilities that the MSV will offer.

Photos by The ferry site. The MV Cragside is extremely similar to the Point ships. The base design is exactly the same.

The MV Cragside being rebuilt for her new role. Note the huge block of extra superstructure aft; the two-bay hangar forward, the flight deck added on top and the large openings in the now otherwise fully enclosed upper deck.

What if the “lighter frigate” was replaced by modern day escort carriers, built upon the Point class RoRo basic design?
There is a lot of space available, which would enable installation of a rail gun on the bow even if several containers of below-deck power storage equipment were required. A Flight deck would be added like on the Cragside, but instead of the two-bay hangar I would recommend a lift leading down to the Main Deck, which would become the main mission space of the ship. Its aft half would be mainly devoted to unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles, while the first half could serve as the hangar. This deck is 6.8 meters high, the tallest on the ship, and would enable comfortable storage of any helicopter.
The lift should be large (say, 22 meters long, for full compatibility even with folded MV-22 Ospreys), but if installed perpendicularly, it would still leave a 60 meters flight deck, only marginally shorter than that of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which means that simultaneous operations of even two Chinooks should be possible.
Like on the Cragside, the enclosed deck obtained beneath the flight deck could take the RAS rigs, the davits and the ship’s manned boats plus the spaces for their maintenance.

MK41 launcher modules could be fitted along the sides, in a peripheral arrangement, like on the proposed BMD ship or DDG-1000 destroyers. This should help maximize survivability. The depth is not a problem, as even the strike-length modules would have plenty of room. Sea Ceptor canisters would be even easier to integrate, if, as it is very likely, that turned out being the most the MOD would fund. Ideally, as we saw in the first part of this discourse, a longer range and heavier surface to air missile would be required to make the ship a true escort. Sea Ceptor is good mostly for self-defence and even in that role the short range missiles like it are probably going to become less and less effective as faster and faster sea-skimming anti-ship missiles appear.
An integrated sensor mast would be added to provide the necessary sensors, and an EW and decoy fit would also have to be factored in.

The Point class has a service speed of around 22 knots, which is not bad, and can travel 10.000 miles. It has also some capability in marginal ice and comes with enhanced stability and VERTREP clearances. Having been built with the MOD service in mind, they were given some extras right at build.
More power might be required, not for additional speed but for feeding all the new systems and the embarked modules.
Finally, a large and flexible launch and recovery system would have to be built in the stern. Using a wet dock is out of the question: it would require a costly redesign and would be a constant source of maintenance requirements. What is needed is a ramp leading to a “dry dock” system able to push-out and pull-in boats and unmanned vehicles also of important dimensions, as might be the future ASW drones that will give this novel “escort carrier” its wide-area anti-submarine capability. 

The Point class can carry a lot of stuff. It has vast, empty, strong decks which can take a lot of weight. There is much that can be done with a Point as the starting base.

The possibilities of such a vessel would be great and would cover requirements going from disaster relief to convoy escort, passing even by strategic sealift. It should be possible to keep the costs within acceptable values, and survivability would not necessarily be bad, even with the built happening at commercial standards: size has a survivability value in itself, and once adapted for her new role the ship would be separated in areas and compartments, rather than being made of completely open decks from bow to stern.
The MOD intends to soon award the contracts for the first prototype unmanned MCM system, jointly with France. What everyone is hoping is that the modular, unmanned systems for hunting, sweeping and clearing minefields will make it possible to migrate the MCM role to larger, steel-hulled ships. The US Navy is already going that way with LCS, while the Royal Navy has been forced to push the OSD of current minesweepers well to the right, and no new ship is expected before 2028.
If the MCM system of systems will keep its promises, the family of unmanned systems could well find its seabase on the “escort carrier”, removing the need for a separate, smaller class of motherships.
The “merchant escort carrier” could also be fitted out as a perfect replacement for RFA Argus, in both the auxiliary aviation and joint casualty receiving roles. This would reduce the number of separate programmes to be launched, and would release more funding for building a few more “escort carriers”, helicopters, unmanned systems and for resurrecting the Force Protection Craft effort of the Royal Marines. Imagine an Escort Carrier stationing just outside the brown waters, with its long-range missiles and its embarked helicopters, deploying and covering from behind a squadron of Royal Marines with their Force Protection Craft. It is a better way to control the Littorals then sending a “light frigate” or an LCS and engage in evolutions with smaller, faster FIACs which could still prove to be a problem. It influences a much greater area, too. 

I'm clearly not a naval engineer, but images are the best way to quickly explain an idea. This little graphic shows the general idea behind the Point Escort Carrier.
MHPC was initially going to deliver “OPV-like” motherships with some utility in constabulary tasks in addition to their main role of seabase for MCM and hydrographic unmanned vehicles.
Clearing a minefield in a contested area from a platform of that kind would be little better than doing it from a current minesweeper: intimate protection should be provided by well armed warships.
The Escort Carrier could have what it takes to protect itself while its drones accomplish the mission at stand-off distance.

The flexibility of the “Escort Carrier” is, in my mind, the real manifestation of the escort, and of the “general purpose” warship. You can find a good use for it in pretty much any scenario, from disaster relief to ASW hunting (provided, of course, that ASW unmanned boats and underwater vehicles receive investment over time) all the way to amphibious operations.


  1. Two other concepts along the same lines,

    1. The ThinkDefence "A Ship that Still Isn't a Frigate",

    2. The Frigate Helicopter Dock proposal (though it seems more like an "FPD" to me) from the 2014 US Naval Institute Proceedings,

    I carried this second discussion further over on Warships1,

  2. Hi Gabriel, really interesting ideas, and also in what you discussed for restructuring the Army with 82,000. I think the main difficulties are that, in addition to the cap-badge issue, there isn't in UK military circles any clear, comprehensive vision of what future warfare might involve, and therefore no real doctrine of substance that could propel concepts and acquisitions. One issue might be that the MOD spends a lot of time reacting to other people's concepts of war, and then spends energy and resources countering it, rather than creating our own unique concept fitted to our means. Ours is a passive defence process. A more agressive posture would be refreshing and energizing. Why not, with defence not conquest as the core objective, develop a concept of carrying war to the enemy, create solutions that would shape the battle space and not simply attempt to fit to. I think its called initiative.

  3. In broad terms i think the basic problem with OPV's masquerading as very light frigates like the Black Swan or Venator concepts, or a stretched/beefed up River class in the HTMS Krabi style is that they aren't combat vessels and nor do they really have the space to act as floating platforms for helicopters, UAV's, large special forces teams, humanitarian relief efforts etc. In this respect they essentially offer the worst of both worlds and although you gain in them being cheaper (and thus potentially more numerous) you lose in terms of 'warfighting' capability.

    Fine in the eventual C3/MHPC mother-ship role, but in my view not as a T23/T26 replacement.

    Whilst the plan for 6 larger OPV's has a lot of merits and will enable the RN to fill 1 or 2 slots currently filled by frigates or destroyers you can only really take this so far and it becomes a problem when we're talking about actually replacing significant amounts of high-end combat ships instead of complimenting them. It's also pretty apparent to me that the RN would seriously struggle to maintain all it's commitments which require high-end ships with only 14 T45/T26.

    Personally i think if we want to keep 19+ vessels and not suffer a serious degrading in quality/capability then something like the Absalon class is the best avenue to pursue.

    That kind of 4,000-6,000 ton multi-mission platforms seems to offer a decent balance between the traditional escort and the space, accommodation and aviation/amphibious capabilities to occupy a wide range of other roles, for a seemingly decent price-tag as well.

    A RN Absalon with say 24x CAMM, a couple of Seahawk Sigma mounts, perhaps a main-gun, a bow sonar, Artisan, a combo of Merlin for ASW screening and a couple of Scan Eagle for enduring surveillance sounds like a very respectable range of capabilities for (at least on paper) a reasonable price.

    Add to this the ability to provide lots of humanitarian aid, or effectively hunt pirates and drug-runners, or host and transport a 100 or so troops and you've got a vessel which can add real utility to a task-group in a shooting war AND provide presence for low-intensity ops in a more economical and flexible fashion.

    Sadly and worryingly though the problem of cost control is going to be a major factor in any decision on a future ship to supplement the existing escort force.

    I am frankly still staggered by the cost inflation we're hearing about with the T26 considering all of the de-risking and cross-decking of equipment the program still includes.

    It doesn't exactly bode well when considering either taking the Absalon, or another design or starting from scratch. Seems as soon as BAE and MoD procurement get involved the prospect of huge price inflation becomes a tedious inevitability.

  4. @Challenger; I agree with you points on the smaller ships, they do offer the worse of both worlds. They could offer a greater effect by grouping the platforms, however efficiency is then lost and the crew requirement then goes up. Bigger and lean is definitely the best way to go.

    I also think the abalone would be a great model to follow. I feel there is still some value in looking like a war ship, so I prefer designs like the Absalom and Damen crossover which can offer the best of both worlds. I would leave mine very un-fighty though, just CAMM and an integrated mast, fitted for but not with Mk41 VLS and a gun, then it gets it punch from off-board systems.

    @Gabriele; I very much like you concept, it is much better placed to adapt to disruptive technologies than a traditional frigate. However do you not think there is value in all so looking like a war ship? I acknowledge the value in looking like a merchant vessel too, so I think there is a need for both. I would have a fleet of credible Damen crossover type, complemented by a fleet of less credible merchant adapted types.

    I agree air defence doesn’t have a future being distributed from the platform, it makes very little sense, but every other domain does make sense. You say anti-surface doesn’t show signs of change, I would disagree. The wild cat is the Royal Navy’s anti-surface weapon of choice, a distributed off-board system. As anti-ship missiles now have a range of hundreds of kilometres the off-board systems become more important than ever. There is no way the ships fixed systems can collect data at that range, so it will have to rely on distributed systems to collect data at standoff range to effectively use the standoff missiles. I think we are already seeing the beginnings of this with drones like scan eagle and swarming drone technology.

    This concept is where we need to be heading, especially for a general purpose frigate, whatever that term actually means. Delivering it affordably is the challenge, which I think is achievable. Decoupling the systems from the platform reduces risk and makes it easy to scale the ambition depending on the funds available. Some restraint definitely needs to be shown with these designs, resisting the urge to full all of that space with complex systems. Keep that stuff out of the scope, be content with the space, and then think what to do with is later.

    On a side note, I am now more impressed by the PPA. I have never found any good material on the program in English and as such mostly dismissed it as a glorified patrol boat. However that assumption was clearly wrong, and it seems to be more capable. The Royal Navy should watch closely, likewise borrow some ideas from the Danes, put them together and we could have great platform. Do you think the ambition to reach 26 surface combatants is realistic?

    1. Helicopter-launched anti-ship missiles are hardly a new thing. And mid-course updates from embarked helicopters / offboard sensor nodes for the employment of long range ASM also are the norm. It has been done for decades. Nothing truly revolutionary is in sight. Besides, Wildcat is stuck with Sea Venom, a missile too small to really take out of commission large enemy warships, so i don't get too excited about it if the scenario includes enemy frigates / destroyers.

      As for "looking like a warship", i do not put much importance on looking like a (traditional) warship. Having a powerful array of embarked capability, that is what matters at the end of the day.

      As for the italian navy plans, the numbers seem very ambitious, especially since the PPA is only part of a larger plan. A second Logistic Ship, a new submarine rescue ship, at least 2 more U-212 submarines and another LHD or two are all on the list as well. It is a lot of stuff to be funded, and i don't know if De Giorgi's successor as chief of staff will be as energic and successful in getting politicians to follow his lead. Securing even this first tranche of extraordinary funding was very much De Giorgi's personal triumph. He campaigned for it with all his energies, and won.

    2. Agreed, I though you may have been suggesting the anti-ship domain cannot be preformed by distributed systems, which is clearly not the case.

      Regardless, I am a big advocate of distributed off-board systems and any modern surface combatant needs to be designed to accept these systems.

      A while back I actually developed a shocking similar concept you yours, again based off the point class. My intention was for an argus/dilligence/ocean/mothership replacement, but a lot of those qualities hold true for a general purpose frigate.

  5. @ Challenger
    "I am frankly still staggered by the cost inflation we're hearing about with the T26 considering all of the de-risking and cross-decking of equipment the program still includes."

    The German 7200mt F125 frigates were ordered in 2007 for 650 million euros plus escalation. If you take the UK cumulative inflation from 2007 to 2015 its 30%, so at 1.3 euros to £ that gives you £650 million, so the Type 26 costs looks comparable to the F125, also the Type 26 is a slightly larger ship.

    What was misleading was the early PR of a £350/400 million ship. The mission creep, gold plating some might call it, a flight deck to be capable of taking a Chinook for special operations, a mission bay sized for twelve twenty foot containers for disaster relief, twenty four Mk41 strike VLS containers (the largest) for anti-ship missiles, none of these capabilities were/are part of the Type 23. Perhaps if the Type 31 were to be a true replacement for the Type 23 you might be looking at a 5,000mt £350/400 million dedicated ASW frigate.

  6. The key to this is to have a UK yard compete with BAE. Portsmouth or elsewhere doesn't really matter, I almost think a new yard enterprise in the UK under foreign management needs to be put together to get costs under control.

  7. Thanks Gab, great article. The RN does need to be clear what it wants from a T31, I strongly feel it must have a primary role given the fleet is so small. The current plans for UK amphibious ops is flawed with the departure of HMS Ocean and the lack of manpower and escorts to operate a separate ARG. There is no way that a Task Group based around CVF with a LPD and a couple of LSDs is going to work, given that parking a CVF close to shore is utter madness. Therefore, the T31 should be a LPD / Frigate hybrid aimed at replacing the GP T23s and Albion LPDs able to operate independently from the carrier group and perform a broad spectrum of peacetime roles. A variation of the Algerian LPD would be a good start for design.

    This combined with a slightly larger T26 ASW order and an enhanced River patrol ship (based on the Khreef) would be the best way to go. A fleet of 6 T45s, 9 T26s, 6 T31 LPD+s and 9 Rivers is affordable and balanced to support 2 CBGs, Global standing commitments and independent amphibious assault.

  8. The Japanese tend to have their heads screwed on when it comes to surface vessels, fleet composition and MPAs. They fleet is due to grow to 54 vessels, oh the luxury!

    Interestingly they are replacing their destroyer escorts, the Abukuma class, with a current program ( DEX ).

    Seems to be a remarkably similar requirement to Type 31 in many ways, about 3000 tonnes with a fairly basic fit of 5", hull sonar and CIWS.

    Interestingly though they appear to be going for IFEP though in order to generate pulsed power for future fits of DEW or railguns. Can't say I completely understand the engineering requirements regarding the pulsed power however it might make sense to copy their thoughts.

    Hence take a stretched River with 5" ( which fits ) and a handful of CAMM cells. Add a hull sonar and take the back end of the Type 26 with the mission bay and a stern ramp as towed array is very unlikely. Just a basic ship really though with one important difference..

    If you use IEP then the total power output could be configurable at a later date. ISO based generators are very common and I'm sure hooking as many as were required or capacitance modules would not be an engineering problem.

    Hence your IEP powered hull could either be a cheap and throwaway escort whose only obvious mission speciality would be NGFS.

    Or it could be a properly fact escort with the addition of extra power generation modules ( each iso seems to be roughly 2MW). I can't see any reason why these couldn't just be plug and play as far as electrical generation.

    Or it could be a MCM vessel with the addition of undersea unmanned vehicles. Or it could merely have extra refrigeration and whatnot for long patrols...

    Most intriguingly of course it could mount a DEW or similar once developed with the space and power generation necessary within a very small hull.

    In effect all you are building is medium sized and rather empty ships. CAMM doesn't require a sophisticated 3D radar. If we used something similar to the Danish Stanflex modules then even the weapons fit could be tailored - though in practise this is unlikely. Still though being able to equip a 57mm as a fleet CIWS vessel, or strike length cells should the mission so require would make these small ships into swiss army knives. Little development cost up front as almost all of the electrickery and payload going be developed later as threats evolve.

    Good for export too. Customers would be able to tailor their requirements simply by changing the installed power and weapons fits.


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