Apparently it's bad luck to keep your Christmas tree up past the 6th of January, so down she's come. In her place you should find a picture of a Type 23 Frigate, specifically HMS Iron Duke. By now the picture is probably hidden mostly behind the text, which means that all you can see is her bow and one of her deployed boats, with her arse end in the background (but what a nice arse it is).
This picture (the original can be found here on the official Royal Navy site) wasn't chosen by accident however. I chose that picture for two reasons; one, because we're going to be talking a bit about about the Type 23's replacement, the Type 26, and two, because it shows Iron Duke stopping and searching a "go fast" boat, presumably as part of her previous counter-drug operations/training.
Now while combating drug running isn't neccesarily considered a part of Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations, many insurgent/terrorist groups around the world use things like drugs smugling, along with similar activities like arms and people smugling, to help fund their operations on dry land (it also makes a catchy title).
But is dealing with such activities - along with fighting piracy off the coast of Africa - a suitable job for something like a Type 23 or the Royal Navy's new Type 45 Destroyers? To drop bombs on insurgents in Afghanistan do you really need a twin jet engined aircraft like a Tornado? That's the subject for discussion today.
It's certainly a subject that draws a lot of opinion. Just look at the comments section of this post on Think Defence (462 comments) or the fact that a later post on the same site has drawn 234 comments in just a little over two days. It's very much a hot button issue, predominantly because it deals with a core theme that is very much at the heart of the wider defence debate right now.
With the defence budget tightening to help pay for the current governments long term economic plan, there is a feeling that the MoD must do everything it can to squeeze the maximum amount of "effort" out of its current budget allocation. For many people that means not using high end assets like modern Type 23 Frigates - designed as one of the worlds premier Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) platforms - to chase Somalian pirates sailing in what amount to little more than cheap fishing vessels, or using highly sophisticated and expensive to operate strike aircraft like Tornado GR4's to drop bombs on Afghan insurgents armed with AK-47's and RPG's.
To some degree I can accept these arguments. It does seem like "overkill" in many regards. But the real question at stake here is what do we save by doing things differently? It doesn't help the MoD (or its budget) to use lesser platforms for these tasks unless somewhere it creates a net gain financially or operationally.
For example, let's say you own a Ferrari (lucky you). Now the reason you're able to afford the Ferrari is because you've spent your entire life being fiscally prudent (except when you bought the Ferrari of course) and you've decided it's a bit extravagent to drive the three kids to school in it, especially considering the fact that it only has two seats and you're occupying one of them, which means effectively having to do shuttle runs.
So you go out and buy a family hatchback as a compliment, something with enough seats for all the kids and a smaller, lower consumption diesel engine. You can also use this vehicle to drive to and from work, as well as taking it to do the family shopping run, not least because the Ferrari only has enough spare storage space for a slightly undersized cucumber. The Ferrari is reserved for weekend "fun" use.
In the short term you've most definitely not saved anything, as you've just bought a second car, taxed it and insured it. The benefit has to be derived from long term savings, predominantly the lower fuel use during normal, mundane weekday driving, along with a reduction on your insurance for the Ferrari because you're not using it as much (good luck with that) and the lower long term maintenance cost of the Ferrari, because again you're not using it as much and thus reducing the routine wear and tear.
But what happens when the wife decides she wants to go back to work and decides to use the Ferrari instead of the bus? Alright, so she's only using it to go to and from work, and perhaps you have some agreement that whoever takes the kids to school gets the hatchback and the other person gets the Ferrari. The fact remains that the Ferrari is back on the road, burning fuel and wearing down its mechanical parts.
It may not be doing so at the previous rate, but it's still doing it, and now you have a second car on the road burning fuel, being worn down, as well as the tax and insurance issue. The likely hood is that your long term net gain has been significantly eroded, if it exists at all anymore.
The same issue presents itself to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force anytime we talk about replacing high end assets with lower cost platforms. The net financial gain is only achieved if the high end asset that has been replaced now sits in a hangar somewhere or laid up in a dry dock doing nothing, or at most being used on a more minimal basis.
"Ah Chris, but now that the wife is working again, we now have two income streams coming into the household, so we are making a net financial gain!"
That's true (you clever thing you) and I can't dispute the logic. I only over looked it earlier because their is no ready comparison in military terms to the second income stream. Generally speaking our forces don't get paid by the hour by someone like the Afghanistan government to fight the insurgents. The closest thing we have to that second income stream is a net operational gain.
Or in other words, because the COIN task or the counter-piracy task is being covered by "low end" assets, that frees up our "high end" assets to do other things. The question now is... what things?
For example, when I first heard about the idea of using lower cost vessels in the Royal Navy to handle tasks like counter-piracy (probably about two years ago now) I was intrigued, mainly because a running theme at the time was the idea that the Royal Navy did not have enough "escorts" like the Type 23 and Type 45 to cover all of the tasks being demanded of it.
Since then I've spoken to a number of people, some of them serving naval types, and come to the conclusion that much of those complaints about the number of escorts was largely bo***cks.
It's certainly true that the more escorts we have, the better. The more highly capable ships we have the more tasks we can take on, or the more ships we can put into the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) for example. But right now we appear to have enough vessels to carry out the tasks required of the Royal Navy.
Not least because tasks like counter-piracy - from what I can gather - are not 24/7/365 requirements that are demanded of the service, but instead our vessels contribute to the ongoing fight against piracy when they are in the area, for example as part of a wider deployment to the Gulf region.
Unless the government demands that fighting piracy is to become a full time task of the RN, one that must be covered in the same 24/7/365 manner as the continuous at sea deterrent, then to me there seems little point in investing in a whole new class of vessels for a mission that we currently deal with (adequately enough it would seem) on a somewhat ad hoc basis.
For the sake of argument though, supposing the government does decide that it wants to fight piracy in a continuous, year long, round the clock manner. What then? One option is to assign that role to our "escort" assets, but that would mean diverting them from other tasks. So the two escorts that we routinely deploy to the gulf would have to become one, as one would now be tied down to the counter-piracy task.
The alternative is this idea about building a new vessel, specifically to the task. It would do the counter-piracy work so the "escorts" wouldn't have to. And here we come up against that seemingly timeless problem that has dogged defence in this country for many years; the budget.
Or more specifically, the fact that the budget will not be growing anytime soon. It has not been the typical policy of any recent UK government to provide new funds for new tasks that they have created for the forces. The forces are expected to adapt and fulfill these new obligations out of the same pot of money that existed before the additional task was created. I think we can all see the problem here.
That means that logically if you want to build a new class of vessels to handle counter-piracy work, and possibly contribute to counter-drugs operations in the Carribean as well, then something has to give inside the MoD budget. It's unlikely that either the army or the RAF would be expected to make cut backs to fund this new class of vessels, which means the funding would have to come from the RN, which most people seem to agree would mean cut backs to the proposed Type 26 fleet, which currently stands at an expected 13 ships, providing a one for one replacement for the Type 23's as they come to the end of their service lives.
Alright, so how many Type 26's will we lose? To figure that out we need to know how many of these new vessels we need.
Actually, first lets come up with a definition, so I don't have to keep writing the extremely vague word "vessels" (or "wessels", as I'm sure some of you are reading that in a Chekov voice. You know who you are. And I'm watching you). The names that commonly get bandied about range from Corvette to Sloop, Offshore Patrol Vessl (OPV) to Sloop of War.
I'm going with Corvette, partly because I think that Wandering Offshore Light Frigate (WOLF) was too wistfully aggressive, partly because I thought Lexicon Ambiguous Military Boat (LAMB) was humourous but lacked punch, and partly because I've just realised that I've wasted an entire hour trying to come up with a suitable title, when frankly I couldn't give a f**k what we call them.
So, how many "Corvettes" do we need? Well, a while back I did a post called "Royal Navy Deployment Cycles", which was essentially just a pinched comment from Think Defence, written by the commentator APATS. You can find that post here. (I asked first in case you're wondering. I also said at the time that one reason I posted it was because I thought it would come in handy one day. I was right).
Based on that post we can see that you need at least 3 ships minimum to cover any single patrol task, but given the need to account for ships going in for refits and such, you actually need 3.5 ships per task, or roughly 7 ships to cover two tasks.
That leaves us in a bloody tight spot regarding the finances for these Corvettes. We either have to sacrifice one Type 26 and somehow squeeze out 4 corvettes, or trade two Type 26 for 7 corvettes. The first option gives you 12 Type 26, which along with the six Type 45 destroyers is enough to guarantee escorts for five expeditionary tasks and maybe six at a push. The second option would only leave us with 11 Type 26 which, along with the destroyers, is enough to guarantee cover for about 4 expeditionary taskings simultaneously, 5 at a push.
The trade off in the second case is that at least the 7 corvettes would be able to pretty much guarantee coverage of two tasks, which in all likelyhood would mean counter-piracy/people smuggling off the Somalian coast, and the predominantly counter-drug running/humanitarian assistance role in the Carribean (Atlantic Patrol Task North (APTN)).
Here is where part of the operational economy takes place, because if the government decided that counter-piracy off Somalia was to be a full time job then you've just saved having to divert an "escort" to handle it. You've also saved having to send any escorts, or indeed any Royal Fleet Auxillary (RFA) ships like tankers to go and fill in the APT(N) task, which is a current standing task of the Navy.
On the other hand, if counter-piracy is treated as more of an ad hoc tasking, something that ships contribute to as they pass through and/or intermittently during their deployments to the Middle East, then it only makes sense to trade one Type 26 in favour of four Corvettes, which would then cover the APT(N).
It should be considered at this point that the Corvette idea provides a potentially additional financial loss and operational loss. The financial loss is that every Corvette has to be manned properly for its task. A Type 23 appears to be rated for about 180 crew, which might even be less on the more advanced Type 26, which means that to make a net saving on your crew costs for the Corvettes then you have to keep the routine manning below about 52 if you replace 2x Type 26 with 7x Corvettes, and below 45 if you replace a single Type 26 with 4x Corvette.
From an operational perspective, although you've relieved one or two tasks that the "escorts" would otherwise have had to cover, you've also just robbed yourself of one or two high end ASW platforms that might be needed in a more conventional naval warfare role, such as helping to protect a future carrier task group on some operation.
But lets just go with our "Corvettes" for now.
So we've now figured out that we're going to lose either one or two Type 26 in order to pay for our Corvettes. We now need to figure out how much the Type 26 will cost, then we can do some simple division and figure out how much money we have to play with for building our Corvettes.
BAE Systems Maritime - Naval Ships and the MoD reckon they can produce the Type 26 for a cost (excluding R&D) of about £250 million per ship. Now that you've finished laughing, I suggest we start work on a more realistic estimate (NB: if you work for BAE and would like to dispute these costs, or me taking the piss, then feel free; email@example.com).
For a start, the Type 26 isn't expected to go into production until the later part of this decade, so lets add some inflation to that figure above. We'll even ignore for the dreaded "defence inflation". Which, by my reckoning, will put each one at around £285 million at least (and possibly as much as £300 million) by 2018, assuming that BAE and the MoD have costed these ships properly (stop laughing).
For comparison purposes lets look at the Type 45 destroyers. The estimated cost of those ships, excluding R&D expenses, was about £550 million per ship. Now the Type 26 shouldn't cost that much, not least because it won't need the large S1850M search radar (Type 1045 radar in RN service) found towards the back end of a Type 45 (that big, black, single face radar just forward of the hangar) and the Artisan radar to be fitted on the Type 26 is a single face radar, less capable radar versus the Type 45's dual face SAMPSON (Type 1045 radar in RN service, which is the big sputnik-esque object on top of the mast).
From there it really becomes something of a crap shoot based on what systems make it onto the ship, what propulsion is selected etc. One of the key problems that I can see is whether the Type 26 will inheret its Artisan radars second hand from Type 23's as they go out of service, or whether the Type 26's will be fitted with brand new sets? Obviously if it's the former then there is a significant cost saving to be had, but not in the latter. Then we have the question of Sonar 2087 towed sonar arrays and whether, again, the Type 26 will inheret sets from outgoing Type 23's or be furnished with brand new sets?
All in all I think a more realistic working price for the Type 26 is probably around the £350-400 million mark per ship. Based on that assumption then, if we want to cut just one Type 26 and build four Corvettes then we need to be able to do it for about £87-100 million per ship, including any design costs. If we're going for seven corvettes at the expense of two Type 26 then we get a bit more room to play, with a price of £100-114 million to work with.
Of course if BAE and the MoD are right about that £250 million per Type 26 (stop laughing), then we could be looking at as little as £62-71 million per "Corvette".
If we go with what I think are the more realistic figures then you've just about got enough to invest in something like the Dutch Holland-Class OPV's, which came it at around £95-100 million per ship depending on where you go fishing for your numbers.
For that you get a 3,500 ton, 350 foot long, 50 foot wide boat, with twin diesel engines giving a top speed of about 21 knots, max range of about 5,000 nm at lower speeds, a crew of just over 50 with space for another 40 in a squeeze, Seamaster 400 air search radar (which as best as I can discover is a 3D Radar), 76mm Super Rapid main gun from Oto Melara, a 30mm remote weapon station, a hangar and facilities for launching small boats. Which to be honest is pretty good.
In fact it might actually be too good. The thing to keep in mind is just because you have x amount of money to play with, doesn't mean you have to blow all of it on new toys. One question for me is just how much of a "fighty" ship do you need? Bearing in mind that the opposition consists of Somalian pirates armed with AK's and RPG's, or Columbian drug smugglers, armed with likely at most AK's and RPG's, though that's less likely given their proclivity for speedy escape over offensive attack.
This is where many of the debates about "Corvettes" start to break down as the minute details are poured over. Does a Corvette really need a 76mm gun over, say, the 57mm mount from Bofors as used by the US Coast Guard on a number of their Cutters? Do you really need a full on, 3D radar to chase pirates and drug runners? Would a 2D version suffice just to track the range and azimuth of contacts?
My inclination is to say that a 57mm gun should be able to handle anything realistically required of our little Corvette, and that a 2D radar would probably suffice. The helicopter carried would provide a greater punch in the form of light torpedos and anti-ship missiles, but on a counter-piracy or counter-drug mission I can't really see those coming into play.
Indeed, I'm not convinced that something even of that nature is required.
There are two things that stick in my mind. Number one is that the RFA has been operating ships like fast tankers on the APT(N) and assisting in counter-piracy operations off Somalia for a while now and has done some excellent work in the process.
Number two is that the Malyasians have approached the counter-piracy problem by converting the 9,000 ton, 435 foot long container carrier MT Bunga Mas Lima into a make shift escort ship, manned by civilian sailors signed up to the Malaysian Navy Reserve. A strong top deck and hangar has been installed to permit the use of a helicopter, along with the ability to launch small boats. Malaysian Commandos provide the muscle for boardings and rescues.
Which really begs the question again; just how much capability does such a ship really need? I mean really need. Not what we'd like to have with the money etc, or sitting down and dreaming up the most obscure scenarios we can. I mean what level of capability does this sort of ship really need to be able to combat pirates in fishing boats and drug runners in speed boats?
Would a more simple ship, perhaps one more tailored towards the humanitarian aspect of the mission but with the facilities still to stop, board and search various vessels, as well as helping merchant ships to fight off pirate attacks, be sufficient? And indeed could such ships have a role outside of just counter-piracy and counter-drugs?
At this point I'd like to bring in the RAF and the concept of using less "fighty" equipment in theatres like Afghanistan to support Counter Insurgency operations.
A popular theory is that we could use aircraft like the BAE Hawk or something like the Embraer Super Tucano for counter insurgency tasks, relieving the burden placed on aircraft like Tornados.
Again we go back to our Ferrari vs. Hatchback debate from earlier. If the Tornados are not deployed in Afghanistan, then you only make a significant financial gain by stuffing them in a climate controlled hangar somewhere and diverting their pilots to fly the COIN craft.
Now there are two difference from the Naval example here. One is that we already own aircraft like the Hawk and are due to replace the old Shorts Tucanos in the coming years with a new prop trainer, for which the Super Tucano is likely to be a front runner.
These aircraft have been demonstrated as capable, thanks to investment by other nations, of being able to carry things like laser guided bombs, albeit not especially heavy payloads. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to get them in RAF service carrying Litening pods.
There perhaps is a small financial gain to be made from doing this, in the sense that Tornados back at home would be working on a less rigourous schedule, in a less rigourous environment, so the long term maintenance bill might go down a bit.
But really - like with the Naval example - what you're looking for (or banking on) is an operational gain. And it's here that I think the gain for the RAF is even less than it would be for the RN, on account of the RN having a greater tasking load during day to day peace time activities. For certain the RAF has many training engagements, and due to the nature of the situation with Typhoon is undoubtedly being roped in to helping to sell the platform in some regards.
The high demand for operational deployments is not quite the same though, at least not as far as I can tell (if you'd like to beg to differ and come up with an RAF equivalent of the "Royal Navy Deployment Cycles" post, then by all means; firstname.lastname@example.org). The more I think about it, the less I'm sure that the RAF stands to gain a significant amount by doing this.
The real relevancy of bringing the RAF into this is the idea that "COINcraft" for them would involve using platforms that serve other purposes in their service, i.e. training aircraft. So perhaps their is a secondary role to be had out of our "Corvettes"?
Maybe we could afford a more capable ship on the principle that it could be used when in home waters to help train new recruits on various tasks, without having to rope in other assets (where feasible of course)? Maybe if our Corvettes are built with humanitarian missions closely in mind, we might end up with something that can also double as a stores ship for use in general service?
Sadly the main conclusion that I've come to recently is that I'm not sure as this debate really has an end. It has multiple angles, some good arguments on both sides, and frankly I think it could go on for a long, long time (oh don't worry, I'll be covering carriers and the F-35 at some point down the road! Such fun).
For my two pence worth, I'm not sold. Originally I was quite keen, but that was back in a time when the words constantly coming from the mouths of senior officers was about stretched resources and a lack of reserve. Of course that time period coincided with the tail end of government decision making about defence budgets and doubtless there was an element of trying to avoid further cuts, protecting "at risk" projects and hoping for a now infamous "U-Turn" from ministers. Things have gotten a lot quieter since the budgets were finalised.
I just think that both the financial and operational gains - where they even exist at all - are slim at best, and at worst largely unworth the risk. Because let's not doubt there is a risk. Projects go over budget. They often get delayed at the producers end and/or at the political end, causing cost over runs. There is also the question of where ship building capacity can be found in the UK, with the Carrier project still running and Type 26 round the corner, plus the Mine Counter Measures requirement coming up soon.
Indeed that last ship class, the MCM issue, may be the best hope for getting some kind of "Corvette". If the ship is built with a hangar and certain boat launch facilities, and enough of them are built, there may just be some wiggle room to deploy them against the Pirates and drug runners.
Perhaps just to close, my biggest issue is this; I don't see the political will to fight pirates or drug runners on any real scale. As we've seen, the requirement for APT(N) is often covered by an RFA vessel for a large chunk of the year and frankly I don't think the government could especially give two hoots whether piracy off Somalia is tackled properly. It seems to get a mention from ministers more in passing than as an issue of central importance.
Obviously our forces do what they can and do it well. I just don't see the kind of focused political support that would be needed to really make counter piracy or counter drug vessels a reality, and I'm not sure as the issue is even really that big enough to warrant diverting resources away from our main fighting forces, even if the political will were there.
Adding that to the slim financial and operational case for "Corvettes" really kills the idea for me. I'm glad that the subject has come up and has been looked at in depth in a number of quarters, as new ideas should, but this time I think we're holding a busted flush.