Friday, April 29, 2016

The Shipbuilding Strategy: beware of the "Pointless" class

The Shipbuilding Strategy document is expected in October this year. It is hard to say what we should expect: there are many very serious, very important questions waiting for answers, but all previous experience of MOD documents sadly suggest that the question marks are likely to continue floating even when the paper is published. Possibly, we'll have even more questions popping up. 

The largest question mark floats above the whole General Purpose Frigate (GPFF), also known by most as “Type 31”, even though this designation does not appear to be officially accepted. The many questions connected with this project begin with a massive: “what is it good for?” and continue through "how it fits in the wider Royal Navy situation and budget".

Type 26 and GPFF

The new favorite line of HMG is that “nothing has changed since the SDSR”, which is probably true (we don’t really know, since we were never given clear timeframes and details to start with), but conveniently ignores how everything has changed compared to what had been the earlier plan. We have gone from a plan for 13 Type 26, 8 kitted for ASW and 5 “without sonar tail” to just 8 in the ASW configuration; from a 2016 start of build to at least a 2017 date (and we are not sure that will be it, either, maybe it’ll slip further), from a 12 months drumbeat to 18 months or two years.

Assuming that the first Type 26 still enters service in 2023 (we don’t actually know if and how this has changed), delivering one every two years means that the last of 8 ships will be delivered possibly in 2037, one year later than earlier planned for delivery of the 13th and last ship in the original schedule.

We are told that the numbers will still add up, though, thanks to the “cheaper, simpler, exportable” General Purpose Frigate (GPFF, despite reports of the contrary, the “Type 31” designation does not seem to be official) which will be designed over the next X years for build “somewhere” in the timeframe Y. We have literally no idea yet what the GPFF will be like, and how, where and when it’ll be built. We are told that the Shipbuilding Strategy is “looking” at building the GPFF and the Type 26 “concurrently”. One would hope so, because otherwise 5 of the Type 23s will have to be stretched and dragged over several more years than currently planned (and already their originally intended service life has been stretched a lot as it is).

There is a potential political bomb in there, as buiding two classes concurrently looks likely to mean building the GPFF away from the Clyde. The MOD and BAE, in fact, are expected to invest some money to upgrade both the Govan and Scotstoun sites, but the uplift will still mean that the Type 26 is built across both sites, with the project for consolidation into a single "frigate factory" yard having been rejected.  
It is quite hard to imagine GPFF blocks being built between the Type 26 blocks, at the same time, unless the commonality between the two is so high that the same procedures and manpower can be employed. But this would mean reverting to building Type 26s for both roles.

The problem of building GPFF away from the Clyde (SNP bitching aside, and this unfortunately is a big issue in its own right) is that other british shipyards options are far from evident. Thanks to the closure of the BAE shipbuilding plant in Portsmouth, it might take a significant amount of money to restore/uplift infrastructure and manpower elsewhere, further eroding the supposed margin for cheapness of the new class.

Let’s spend a few words about the GPFF and the “General Purpose” frigate as a whole: who has been following this blog for a while has already read a sizeable two-parts article with my considerations on GP and alternatives to “frigates” for the role.
I hate the guts of the GP frigate idea, simply, because its effective usefulness is dubious at best. The current “GP frigates” are just mutilated Type 23s which did not receive the 2087 towed sonar array when the earlier sonar was replaced on the rest of the class. Tail-less, their ASW capability is immensely reduced. They are just less capable ships, with the saving grace of having been built originally as ASW frigates, keeping, in theory, the door open for a future retrofit of the towed array. I say in theory because it is extremely unlikely to expect the emergency regeneration of ASW capabilities on these ships: even assuming the sonars themselves can be sourced “quickly”, the specialized personnel cannot.
The Type 26 GP would have perpetuated this absurd situation. 

The run-down of ASW capability in the 90s was part of the “peace dividend” following the fall of the Soviet Union, which was seen as including a “holiday” in the submarine threat to UK interests. I find that assumption was always very, very, very debatable, since submarines are incredibly dangerous and even a small and weak flotilla of SSK in the hands of an enemy becomes an enormous risk factor around which operations have to be planned, and large forces have to be assigned to counter it. The ARA San Luis and ARA Santa Fe, during the Falklands war, were a major menace and it is very fortunate that Santa Fe was caught on the surface and thus easily dispatched. San Luis was never nailed, and the Royal Navy can be grateful for her unreliable torpedoes, because she launched a few attacks on british ships that could have been fatal.
The submarine threat is now growing quickly once more, and much of the threat is once more represented by Russia, which couples a resurgent, modernizing fleet to a muscular foreign policy which is causing tension at levels unseen for years.
In this scenario, it hardly make sense to have frigates that aren’t frigates. If they aren’t useful for ASW and they have just a basic local area air defence fit (CAMM / Sea Ceptor), what are they good for? What is their realistic wartime role and position? How do they solve the shortage of escort vessels in the Royal Navy?
Simply: they do nothing to solve that shortage.

Abroad, the french are purchasing a cheaper "intermediate" frigate design to complement their own expensive new FREMM frigates, but they are showing greater wisdom with their FTI (Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire), which will have ASW capability.  
The US Navy, after its own ASW capability holiday, is now retrofitting towed arrays to all DDG-51 and all Ticonderoga cruisers, while fitting a powerful ASW sensors kit to some of the LCS and requiring a towed array as a permanent fit on the "Fast Frigate" LCS derivative. 
The UK, for unclear reasons, seems to be "copying", so to speak, the italian navy, which is building several ships in "GP" configuration, without towed sonar (including 6 out of 10 FREMM frigates and several of the incoming PPA "patrol frigates"). There are several good things that the italian navy is doing with its warship projects, but the UK, amazingly, seems determined to copy the one dumb thing.  

The latest reports suggest that GPFF designs being proposed are a modified Khareef, stretched by some 12 meters in length to gain a Merlin-capable flight deck and some space amidship; and the BMT Venator 110. Very modest ships, destined to be lightly armed, lightly crewed, with little to no mission spaces and with no ASW equipment. 
Supposedly, the idea is that Type 45s and Type 26s will be devoted to providing the escorts to the Task Group, while the GP ships will “cover a variety of other tasks”.
One has to wonder what those tasks are. Op Kipion? Not really, in the Persian Gulf, to keep an eye on Iran which would present a very sizeable air, missile and sub-surface threat, you’ll want, guess what, a Type 45 and an ASW frigate.
South Atlantic…? Yes and no. Yes mostly just because the Argies are unlikely to want to pick up a fight anyway.
NATO Standing naval groups…? Yes, they could be sent to SNMG-1 or 2, but would it make much sense to try and deter Russia with a 127mm and a small battery of CAMM missiles…? No. It would be a statement of political will, but not one of meaningful capability.
Caribbean? You don’t need CAMM and 127mm to chase drug smugglers, while you need space for carrying Disaster Relief supplies and personnel, so that for half the role the GPFF would be overkill and for the other half it would be too small and inadequate. Little better than a River, the currently deployed ship type.
Counter-piracy? Yes, but even here the effective usefulness depends on how many boats she’ll carry, how many embarked Marines, what helicopter / UAS options she’ll offer for surveillance and intervention.
Fleet Ready Escort? Yes and no. If she is suddenly needed to react to a crisis where submarines are part of the threat, she’s out unless escorted herself by ASW vessels. If it has to keep watch on peacetime passages of Russian task groups in the Channel, her equipment fit won’t make that much difference. River OPVs have done that before, and while it doesn't "look" right, it doesn't make too terribly much difference in practical terms. 

Venator 110 

And frankly, there is every chance that the GPFF will have no anti-ship missiles other than Sea Venom for the embarked Wildcat, so she won’t be of much help against large surface warships either. Remember that the Harpoon replacement is still an open question, and that whatever is chosen is highly likely to be vertical-launched, due to the Type 26 having 24 Strike Length VLS and no space for traditional over-deck launchers. A stretched Khareef or a Venator won’t have MK41 VLS, so the problem is pretty obvious. Problem that extends to Type 45 too: currently four ships are being retrofitted with over-deck Harpoon ramps, but the future of the SSM capability for the class is absolutely unclear. While missiles like NSM/JSM and LRASM are heading down a path which will see both tube and VL launch variants offered, recent history suggests that the RN will not put much money into solving the issue.
The Type 45, though, has room for 16 additional cells, MK41 Strike Lenght sized, which, while primarily considered these days as an "easy" path to anti-ballistic capability (via adoption of the US SM-3 missile), could also help solve the SSM problem if there ever were the will and the money to do so. 
The GPFF could end up being exceptionally lightly armed, and I don’t think anyone would be actually surprised. 

Khareef class corvette. The close relationship with the River Batch 2 is evident.  

The question is always the same: what is the GPFF actually good for?

Building a 3000 – 4000 tons lighter escort ship, and do so by re-activating a second shipbuilding site in the UK, is not at all a bad idea. If it can be done, it is actually an excellent thing. But an escort and a “GP frigate” can end up being very much different things. The Royal Navy is certainly short of hulls, but moreover it is short of escorts, and building “frigates” that haven’t a clear usefulness in a war scenario isn’t a good solution. The escort problem is only solved by escorts, the hulls problem can be solved in cheaper, alternative ways.

It should also be noted that, unlike what is apparently being suggested now, it would make more sense to use the smaller frigates to beef up the protection of the Task Group (where the presence of other ships and intimate helicopter and aviation support from the carrier better compensate the single ship’s weaknesses) rather than send them abroad on single-ship deployments.
Personally, I think that it makes a lot more sense to cover Op Kipion with a Type 26 rather than with a GPFF, even fitted with towed array for ASW: the Type 26 will have more Sea Ceptor rounds available; better aviation, small boats / Unmanned Vehicle capabilities and capacity; and, possibly, Tomahawk and/or land-attack capable anti-ship missiles in its Strike length cells.
If It has to be a single ship, doesn’t it make more sense to use the large, well armed one that is less dependent on intimate support and that can, via Tomahawk, give an immediate firepower option in the area without having to relay entirely on the SSN(T) positioned east of Suez or having to wait for the task group to arrive?
It will also be a far better fit in NATO Standing Maritime Groups, for obvious reasons.    

The “Pointless” class?

There are another two reasons why GPFF could become the “Pointless” class: they could be born old and obsolete; and much of their limited usefulness could end up being almost duplicated by another ship class the Shipbuilding Strategy will have to tell us about: the MCM and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) mothership.
They could be born old and obsolete because technology is evolving incredibly quickly and we are on the edge of a major revolution in naval warfare, brought about by several technologies which are maturing steadily and are likely to become an ever greater factor over the coming decade. These are, in no particular order:

-          Hypersonic missiles
-          Ballistic (including anti-ship) missiles
-          Rail gun
-          Laser
-          Unmanned vehicles

It is already concerning enough that the Type 26 herself is potentially going to struggle to adapt over the course of her life. It will introduce the 127mm gun with 40 years of delay, right while the rail gun enters the frame. It will use CAMM missiles right while hypersonic and ballistic anti-ship weapons become part of the picture. It will use Artisan, a single-face, rotating radar in the age of unblinking, fixed-multi plate radar coverage.
It will have a CODLOG propulsion arrangement that could make it complex to squeeze more power out of her to retrofit the new systems.
But at least she’ll have the mission bay and 24 MK41 cells, enabling carriage of new missiles and new systems. The GPFF might not have any of these saving graces due to the size apparently being considered and the need to save money.

Finally, MHC. This programme, earlier known as MHPC, with the P standing for “Patrol”, is meant to introduce a replacement capability for the current Hunt and Sandown MCM vessels and for the hydrographic vessels Echo and Enterprise.
The P has been provisionally dropped as a consequence of the order for 3 new River Batch 2 OPVs, followed by another 2 to be ordered. This has removed the “short-term” (the first MHC mothership isn’t expected before 2028!) patrol requirement represented by the need for a River Batch 1 replacement.  
The MOD is so far “keeping the options open”, not refusing the possibility that new build, “traditional” minesweepers could end up being required. But the direction of travel is completely different, with the money spent so far going all on creating a family of unmanned systems (Surface, Sub-Surface and potentially Air) destined, initially, for embarkation on suitably modified Hunt ships. A UK-only combined influence sweep package is in the development / prototyping phase, and a wider MCM family of systems prototype is due to be formally ordered, jointly with France, later this year.

If the unmanned systems keep the promises, the mothership will be built out of steel and will be pretty large (the only known, very generic indication is for a ship in the 3000 tons range). It will have long legs and good deployability plus, almost certainly, aviation spaces (at least an helicopter pad, probably also a hangar), all things that the current minesweepers do not have.
This makes the new ships useful across a wider range of roles. They will be a lot fewer than the MCM hulls they replace, but they will be more useable, not to mention that the unmanned systems could also be launched from vessels “of opportunity” or from the shore, giving new options for training and deployment.
France has given a few indications about their own plan, which would involve 8 system of drones and 5 motherships, two of which normally used to cover home waters needs, 2 expeditionary and 1 for training.

The Shipbuilding Strategy will have to tell us some more about the MHC direction of travel, especially if the 2028 ISD for the first new mothership is confirmed: that date would imply that the construction of the MHC vessels would overlap with that of Type 26 and GPFF.
Where does everything fit, in shipyard terms and in budget terms? Because it is unthinkable that MHC does not happen at some point: sooner rather than later, it will start eating into the GPFF and Type 26 plate. 

A particularly important question for the Royal Navy is: how many motherships should be built to replace the 15 (but soon enough 12) MCM ships and 2 hydrographic vessels? And again, even more key to the whole strategy: what usefulness can be squeezed out of the MHC mothership in addition to carrying MCM and hydrographic drones? How does adding capability to MHC impact the role / need for GPFF?
This question is of absolutely key importance.

In simple terms: GPFF, if it is built, should be about increasing the number of credible escorts. If it can’t, perhaps it is better to just built 2 more Type 26 ASW and cancel GPFF altogether and focus entirely on MHC to make it as useful and useable as possible.
Hulls and Standing Tasks should be an MHC and OPV concern and opportunity.
If GPFF ends up being good only gor “glorified constabulary tasks” with CAMM and a big gun, it will offer little additional value over OPV / MHC ships while still eating a considerable amount of money.

With 5 to 6 OPVs (depending on the fate of HMS Clyde) in the future fleet, the Royal Navy will have a healthy “second tier” flotilla. Assuming all 6 OPV remain, one should be forward based in the Caribbean and one possibly in Gibraltar. The Rivers, even the Batch 2, have the big defect of not having a hangar (a rather dumb trade-off on capability if there ever was one), but can do well enough against drug-smuggling and for presence / defence engagement in north and western Africa. The OPV forward based in Gibraltar could also take part in non-combat operations in the Mediterranean (where the current instability and migration crisis will probably last for a long time)and even move as far away as Somalia or Nigeria to take part in counter-piracy missions in the two areas. In these missions, it will do almost as well as the proposed “stretched Khareef” GPFF, at very little additional cost (they are being built anyway, let’s give them a meaning).

And then there will be MHC. What will MHC deliver? Back when it was MHPC, it was described as “an OPV mothership”, with a 30mm gun and River-like constabulary capabilities.
If the GPFF gets built, this is what most likely will be built, as there won’t be money for anything more, nor an easy case to be made in front of the treasury for fitting more.
That would give an oversized constabulary flotilla, since there are only so many things that an OPV can do.

Another question arises, at this point: what if the GPFF and MHC were merged?
Before Type 26, the Royal Navy was considering a 3-tier fleet made up by C1 (10 high-end ASW escorts, 8 C2 (more or less what the current GPFF is supposed to be) and then a number (8?) of C3 patrol / MHPC vessels.
Type 26 ended up merging C1 and C2, in what turned out to be (predictably, for how I see it), a bad decision and one that the budget would not support.
The alternative to a return to C1 (Type 26), C2 (GPFF) and C3 (MHC) at much reduced numbers could be a two-tier approach in which C1 is ideally returned to 10 ships, supported by a C”23” which puts the “fighty” bits of a “cheap” GP frigate together with a sizeable work area in the stern for the needed MCM / Hydrographic (and one day, possibly and probably, ASW) unmanned systems. The DAMEN CrossOver would then become the obvious example to follow in designing such a vessel.
The LCS is the obvious example in terms of concept / philosophy, as it has merged the role of small combat ship with ASW and MCM. Just not in the happiest of ways, due in no small part to absurd speed requirements. Don’t copy the ship, but do copy the base idea.

The Royal Navy should not suddenly go from a “we want no 2nd Tier warships, no matter how much we struggle to put together a task group while wasting destroyers to chase pirates” to a “multi-layered constabulary flotilla with uncertain/no wartime usefulness at the cost of real escorts”.
The relationship between GPFF and MHC should be very carefully considered, because the wrong choices in this area will completely screw up the shipbuilding strategy as a whole. And the Royal Navy too as a consequence.

Make GPFF a light but capable escort by including ASW capability, or don't bother with it, because there are probably better ways to spend that finite, precious money and obtain greater overall capability.

MARS FSS: Fleet Solid Support Ship

The SDSR finally gave the go ahead to the much delayed programme for building three replacement ships for the current Fort class (Fort Austin, Fort Rosalie, Fort Victoria) “around the middle of the 2020s”, but we don’t yet really know what design will be chosen and, moreover, we have no clue about where these massive (we are probably talking of 40.000 tons ships at full load) vessels will be built. Is there a place in the UK that can handle this project? Will they be built abroad?
The assumption, years ago, was that the complex and sensible nature of these replenishment vessels destined to carry ammunition, stores and spare parts would require building them in the UK. Now, it is hard to guess what the thinking might be. If built in blocks around the UK, these ships could probably give quite a bit of work to several shipyards. But what would be the cost implications?

Will this be the FSS, or will the budget dictate a drop in ambitions compared to this proposed design? 

In terms of timeframes, it seems likely that there will be a slide to the right, as current OSDs for the Forts (2023, 2024, 2025) would require the replacements to enter service before, not after, 2025. It seems this will change.

Argus and Diligence?

RFA Argus has a 2024 OSD, and Diligence’s own OSD has been pushed to the right again and again. We’ll see if the Strategy document will make any mention of them and provide any indication for a replacement. These two vessels provide invaluable capability, and losing them without replacement would be a major blow.

Long term shipyard sustainability

If the GPFF (or my proposed “C23”, for that matter) resurrects a british yards down south, how can it then be sustained in the longer term? Answering to this question might prove pretty complex, to say the least.
The Clyde shipyards have an answer at easier reach: by 2037, when work on the Type 26 should be over, the Type 45s will have more than exhausted their intended 25 years service life. HMS Daring will have already been in commission for 28 rather than 25 years.
Of course, we all expect to see the Type 45 service life stretched, as always happens, but it seems reasonable to assume that its replacement will keep the Clyde going almost without interruption, if things are done well.

But the first Type 26 won’t reach the end of an assumed 25 years service life before 2048, and the first GPFF / C23 will hit hers later still, meaning that two “escort yards” continue to look unsustainable in the long term. Export cannot be counted upon as the savior: even assuming GPFF turned out being an export success (something I sincerely think will not happen, in a market which already offers tons of well established options from GOWIND to MEKO designs), the chances that export ships would be built in the UK are pretty low. The design might gain the interest of some customers, but the building is very likely to take place in the customer’s country. 

On the large ship front, sometimes in the 2030s the LPDs could do with replacement via LHDs, and building two large LHDs would be a blessing for, potentially, more than one shipbuilder.