Why we need a fleet…but also need Ferraris

First published: 16th May 2011 | Dr. Alexander Clarke

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You do not know how much it hurt to write that for a lifelong Aston Martin fan…but it’s important for the point, Britain needs high end warships for war fighting, she needs the Astutes and the Darings – even with all the strange decisions[1] she needs them to provide the technological edge to make up for lack of numbers, to continue providing for her security in an age where her principal ally is more and more focused on the Pacific and the problems of that area; rather than those of Britain and Europe. This in an age where resource conflicts are becoming more and more likely, when seemingly minor territorial disputes might have huge ramifications due to multi-national alliances & opportunists, and when ‘free’ trade as a given fundamental of the ‘market’ which capitalism is built around is looking more and more like an ideal of the western world that is less and less a reality with growing protectionism + resource competition.
So why not build a fleet of Ferraris[2]? Well the trouble is then Britain is in the current situation she is in now, unable to build enough ships to support her commitments throughout the world and maintain the level of maintenance, training and experience needed for a navy to be properly put together…She has too few ships for junior officers to be tested, and certainly too few subs when they are younger; something which is a definite contributor in some of the problems experienced recently. On top of that whilst the fact that Ferraris are justifiable and completely necessary in wartime, for just providing the Caribbean anti-drugs patrol/warship on station, for providing a point defence escort in war time, for providing a presence ship, or in the submarines case for providing defence in depth of key national assets[3]…they are too expensive and simply put over-kill for what they need to do. Most importantly though Britain cannot afford to build ‘Ferraris’ for those roles – it would never be allowed by the Treasury. So ok, then why not procure a fleet of Suzuki Liana’s[4]? Well they are not powerful enough for being the principle escorts/backbone of Britain’s navy; they won’t carry enough missiles, a gun of sufficient calibre, and enough electronic equipment or be able to support the level of operations that would require.
So Britain cannot afford or really justify enough Ferraris and fleet of Suzuki’s whilst providing the numbers would create a hollow shell – so what’s the answer? Build both…well yes and no, both are needed but the cases need to be made for them and they need to be procured sensibly.

It makes sense for the war fighters to be as general purpose/multi-role as possible, and those are not just cool phrases, in naval terms general purpose means the vessel will carry a full range of weaponry, from land attack to area air defence, from anti-surface to anti-submarine – it needs to have it all, and in Britain’s case we are lucky the Type 45s were built to have it all, thanks to being fitted for the Mk41 VLS[5]…12 more of these ships would cost only build to build them, all the research & development has been done, the support facilities have already been built – they would just need a little extension, all the crew training facilities are in existence; this would therefore allow the Royal Navy to harmonise onto one type of major escort with all the cost and logistical benefits that would bring. Multi-Role means that the vessel can be used for Task Group or Escort Group command, can provide support for inshore operations, can be used as the big stick in certain circumstances and will provide the ‘heavy muscle’ for allied operations such as is taking place off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. Therefore with the construction of 12 General Purpose Type 45s Britain would provide along with the 6 Area Air Defence Type 45s a core of escorts which would enable her to fight alongside allies whenever required, or to conduct operations such as took place 29 years ago in the Falklands.

The Argument for it is therefore simple:

Britain’s security requirements justify the retention of a war fighting capability; this capability must be enough to support amphibious operations and to enable the free movement of supplies + the carrier battle group in a peer on peer conflict (the highest level of conflict likely without Britain being able to draw on American support) – 18 vessels will allow the generation of 6 escort groups/surface action groups, with 3 being operational and 1-2 being in various stages of working up at any one time, that means an escort group for the Carrier Battle Group, the Amphibious Task Group and the follow on/STUFT group, plus enough escorts that in the short term the patrols of sufficient importance to justify such vessels would not have to be sacrificed(i.e. the Falklands Guard Ship).

The case for the presence vessels/point escorts is based in them being cheap and plentiful, certainly it should be a minimum of 24 for escort duties…and this is not a number plucked from thin air, as with the war fighting vessels its based around the concept of the 6 escort/surface action groups, but whilst the war fighters will be providing up threat picket, inner picket and escort command ship, the smaller ships would provide the up threat picket’s second ship, one will be protecting the Task Group’s capital ship (this could be either a Carrier or an Amphibious Operations Vessel depending on the Task Group), one will be protecting the auxiliaries, and the last will be hanging back checking for any ‘tattle tale’ submarines. However, these would not be their only role in wartime, as they should have the ability to embark Unmanned Undersea Vessels (UUVs) for the conduct of minesweeping operations in support of specialised minesweepers & amphibious preparation; these units could also enhance the ASW capabilities of the vessel as instead of a towed sonar array, it would be a self-propelled sonar array enabling the ships greater movement should a submarine be detected – something it increases the chance of as hiding below thermal layers (a key method for submarines) would be rendered more difficult by the fact the UUV could actually be on the bottom of the ocean (or at least below them) looking up, silhouetting submarines against the open ocean[6].

These vessels primary ASW weapon would be their helicopter, but their functions in ‘peace time’ would dictate their design and the rest of their weapons fit – for example they will need the range and speed to keep up with the bigger escorts so as not to slow down fleet movements, they will not really need a massive sensor suite, they should have as small a crew as possible, but will probably need a good sized set of state rooms for the conducting of ‘soft diplomacy’ on port visits. Their armament could, in fact should be as basic as possible – for example BAE MK110 57mm on the front, Sea Sparrow or Sea Wolf SAMs, Harpoon SSMs (or perhaps simply 4/5 STANFLEX systems which can take a range of missiles[7]), and a 20mm Orelikon on each side and a phalanx on top of the hangar[8]. What matters is the number of vessels procured, these ships are to provide the Foreign Office with the ability it hasn’t had for many years – to be able to make a phone call and a ship turns up to say hallo, to host dignitaries, to conduct exercises with the local nations and stress the benefits of peace, harmony, and not calling on its bigger cousins[9] to visit.

Finally again like the general purpose Type 45s, synergies are achievable, should these vessels be made cheap enough, then enhanced/more specialised versions might be built to take over the role of minesweeping or oceanography, they might even be built instead of Ocean Patrol Vessels, under such circumstances a total class of 48 might be built, with at least 12 of them specialised on to minesweeping and 4 for oceanography. This would mean that money would again be saved by the commonality of the hulls in the various operations, but also from the economies of scale…something which could be increased by the fact that such a class would no doubt generate international orders.
The argument for presence vessels/point escorts is even simpler:

Does Britain rely upon trade for its security and a large part of its financial wellbeing? Yes.

Does Britain have the 5th Largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world? Yes[10].

Does Britain have several major alliances it is a member of, which provide greater diplomatic strength and presence, but also come with a large number of commitments? Yes.

Does Britain at the moment suffer from an almost crippling shortage in all areas of the fleet, but especially in terms of escort numbers and junior commands? Yes.

Would such a class of vessels go a long way to filling those gaps? Yes.

A careful reader will have noticed something, at no point were the C1s or Type 26 mentioned, in fact the presence ships as envisioned by the author are corvettes not frigates, although for sake of national pride they might well be called frigates. There is a reason for this, the C1s are an attempt to get Ferrari level quality out of a Suzuki…or to get Suzuki level cost out of a Ferrari whichever way the reader wants to look at it. It may work, but it doesn’t look like it will, and whilst there may be some who say that whatever it is, those who support a maritime approach to Britain’s security should get behind it; well it can be argued that the reason the Type 45s turned out as they have, fitted for but not with the MK41 VLS and all the capability that system would have brought to the Royal Navy and the British Government, is because not enough of those who support the maritime approach were willing to say “yes Britain needs the ships; but for goodness sake we are being illogical in their procurement”. The C1s are an example of this, as by trying to do both they are most likely going to fail, come to fruition with the cost of a Ferrari but the capabilities of a Suzuki. Britain has designs ready and waiting to go for both these roles, the corvettes provided for the Sultan of Oman would make a great starting point for her own presence vessels, and as has already been pointed out all the hard expensive work has already been done on the Type 45s…knocking out another 12 in a general purpose configuration would be very simple, and with the experience of operating those already in service, more than likely a number of small changes could be included to improve their operation without adding to cost[11].



[1] For example the whole VLS saga…please take a look at other entries on Type 45 for further details on this

[2] Ferrari is being used in this analogy to represent ultra-high end performance machines.

[3] Submarines are not the subject of this blog for the simple reason that a report is currently well under production within the PTT, and it seems sensible to wait till that is published.

[4] Suzuki representing “cheap and cheerful”, a basic system which provides what is needed with no “whistles or bells”.

[5] Again please take a look at other entries on Type 45 for further details on this

[6] UUVs are still in development…http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=183

[7] For more information on this:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StanFlex#Ships_with_StanFlex,http://www.amiinter.com/samples/denmark/DA1703.html, http://articles.janes.com/articles/Janes-Navy-International-95/STANFLEX-OPERATIONAL-IN-MCM-ROLE.html,http://articles.janes.com/articles/International-Defence-Review-2000/Denmark-takes-Stanflex-system-further.html

[8] To consider this concept in greater detail please go and read the earlier post on the Leander Class

[9] James Cable, Diplomacy at Sea¸ and Julian Corbett Some Principles of Maritime Strategy are good for any readers wishing to delve further into this, for those with less time the Conventional Deterrence papers explain the concepts from a maritime perspective.

[10] For further information please go to:http://www.seaaroundus.org/eez/ & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_Exclusion_Zone#cite_note-searoundus-35

[11] This is not to say that they are bad, it’s just with familiarity of operation small things which looked good on paper but could be improved.


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