Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Equipment Plan 2019-2029

Earlier today I did a thread on Twitter pulling out extracts from the National Audit Office's (NAOs) report on the MoD's 2019-2029 equipment plan. Here I will attempt to condense that down into a more coherent set of thoughts.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

The escort is dead. Long live the escort.

With all the hoo-hah about the Type 26 and Type 31 programs for the Royal Navy, in particular the concern that the size of the escort fleet will shrink and the resulting panic that the UK navy will end up smaller than Italy's, this seems like an appropriate time to jump on the bandwagon and cash in on a good crisis. 

Did I just say that out loud? I of course meant; produce a serious and thought provoking article that challenges previously held assumptions and stimulates debate. And the topic of today will be the question of what actually is an escort and where is the best place for the RN to find savings in the escort fleet?

I ask this because the current received wisdom is that the RN should develop what is essentially a two tier escort fleet. Tier One, for want of a better phrase, revolves around the Type 45 Destroyer and the Type 26 Frigate. These two ship classes represent the high end of the future escort fleet, the most capable and expensive vessels, which are envisioned to be used to escort around the UK's brand spanking new aircraft carriers, and/or other high value ships in a task force such as amphibious assault vessels. 

Tier Two will be represented by the Type 31; cheaper but less capable frigates, designed for the more routine and less dangerous (relatively) day to day tasks around the globe, such as patrol tasks in the South Atlantic and the Caribbean. While the Tier One ships would be expected to perform such tasks at times, such as during periods of lower tension, the main role for the Tier Ones will undoubtedly centre around the protection and escort of the primary high value assets like the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and their associated carrier group.

This article will attempt to argue that this approach might just be completely arse about face, thus generating clicks of outrage from traditionalists in the navy establishment stimulating debate and provoking thought. Let us begin.

The Royal Navy has a long and illustrious history of operating away from the shores of our perma-rain hellhole green and pleasant land. In times of yore it achieved this by stationing ships of the line at various harbours and ports across the globe, but primarily by using the iconic frigate to ply the sea lanes, protecting British trade from those bastard Americans, French and assorted types pirates and privateers, carrying messages around the Empire, flying the British flag, and generally asserting the dominance of the Royal Navy across the worlds oceans.

Then along came a thing called the US Navy "coal" and the frigate's days were suitably numbered. While in the age of sail the frigate was an ideal vessel for long range operations, the era of steam power brought with it the need to now bunker large quantities of fuel, rendering the frigate too small for the task. As such over time the frigate was replaced by what became generally known as cruisers.

Without getting too involved in the slightly bizarre arms race that took place in the cruiser sphere, which ultimately led to the Royal Navy building the battlecruiser, suffice to say that cruisers occupied a middle ground between smaller ships like destroyers and the large battleships, capable of patrolling for extended periods without refuelling, carrying sufficient armament to see off enemy gunboats and light vessels, and having sufficient speed to run away from tactically outmaneouvre larger enemy vessels such as battleships.

Meanwhile, back at the main fleet, "escorts" were becoming more common. While in the age of sail small vessels had no place in the main battle line, they were of use to a fleet for scouting, communications, signal relay, and the like. But as sails gave way to steam engines, so the torpedo and and the submarine began to emerge (and eventually merge). Fast torpedo boats over promised and under delivered threatened the supremacy of large battleships, to the point where various naval thinkers even began to suggest writing off the battleship alogether. They would eventually get their wish, but not for a little while longer.

In part this was because of the rise of the torpedo boat destroyer, later just "destroyer", which was equally as fast and much better armed than the torpedo boat. Destroyers were designed to help screen battle fleets initially (alongside various forms of cruisers) and then to remain close enough to them that they could leap into action in order to avert any torpedo boat attack. Over time the destroyers themselves ended up carrying torpedoes, and specialist torpedo boats largely went away, except for shorter ranged costal defence craft.

Destroyers would also later form one of the primary defences against submarines. Although "frigate" has become synonymous in modern parlance with anti-submarine warfare, it was specially kitted out destroyers that became the main anti-submarine threat during the heyday of the German U-boat service during the second world war. During said war the concept of the modern escort also came into being.

Basically, aircraft carriers were much like they are today; large floating airfields, densely packed with highly flammable aviation fuel, bombs, torpedoes and machine gun ammunition. They blew the fuck up bro reacted very poorly to being hit with high explosive ordnance such as enemy bombs, shells and torpedoes. For that reason it became a priority to protect the aircraft carrier from said threats.

While the carriers own air wing played a big role in this by detecting enemy ships at distance and then mercilessly pelting them with bombs, torpedoes and small arms ammunition of their own, it was still necessary to provide the carrier with a variety of additional defensive layers. Prime among these were the assortment of destroyers and cruisers assigned to provide close protection to a carrier, especially against air attack, through the virtue of having decks smothered in a mixture of radar directed and manually aimed guns that could put up a wall of fire to meet any incoming attack.

And here is where the clickbait begins contention of the article lies. Whether it be in the anti-submarine role protecting the convoys, or on air defence/anti-submarine duty protecting a carrier task force, usually it was smaller, less capable vessels that were assigned to escort duties, primarily because they were quite cheap and therefore could be produced in the numbers required and because they could be tailored to meet a specific threat.

Although larger ships such as various flavours of cruisers and even battleships were also often assigned to escort tasks, they mainly did so in lower numbers and were there to provide a bit of beef to their otherwise diminuitve allies. A much more important use for such vessels, both before, during and after the war was to act independently or semi-independently (with other crusiers for example, in a small flotilla) to protect interests further afield where their range and superior firepower was more useful.

Hence my earlier comments about the whole escort/cruiser dynamic being potentially the wrong way around. One of the primary crticisms of smaller vessels is that they tend to be less capable and have difficulty acting alone at distance. If they get into trouble without back up around the shit hits the fan things can go very south, very quickly. 

So let us propose a hypothesis; what if we switched the dynamic of expensive ships tied to carriers and lower cost ships deployed independently? What if now we still retained a Type 26 and a Type 45 - which are effectively modern day cruisers in size, cost and capability - to protect the carrier and add a bit of beef, but supplemented this with a group of lower cost, lower capability "goalkeepers"; ships that could act as picquets and whose limited range air defence capability could be used to engage sea-skimming and other low altitude missile threats, leaving the longer ranged and higher altitude targets to the Type 45?

In turn while the Type 26 could provide something of an ASW command presence, smaller ships could be used as launching points for helicopters and unmanned systems (providing a degree of mass) and potentially towing sonar arrays and sending the data to the command ship? The Type 26 itself could be deployed along the most serious threat axis, as would the Type 45 in its domain. In times of more serious conflict this escort force could be pumped up with additional Type 26/45 stripped from other tasks to add that extra, extra beef.

Meanwhile the day to day job of sailing the seas and flying the flag would fall to our modern day cruisers; ships that are much more capable of defending themselves alone and of acting with independence. A Type 26 in a far flung corner of the globe can not only provide itself and nearby allies with a limited anti-air capability and an impressive anti-submarine capability (we hope), but it will also provide the ability to respond immediately with land attack weapons like Tomahawk (we hope). Similarly a Type 45 can provide both itself and its allies with an impressive bubble of first class air defence, and via a Merlin helicopter a decent ASW capability, making it a much more suitable asset for independent operations than a smaller and much less capable Type 31.

Moreover (I hate that word; the only reason I used it was so I could complain about it), it allows the Type 31 design to be a bit more focused than just some nebulous "general purpose frigate" with an undefined large empty space "mission bay". Instead the Type 31 could be designed with a view to optimising its short range goalkeeping ability and support for anti-submarine warfare. 

Rather than having to rock up with a more generalised (and expensive) set up designed to cover the multitude of possibilites it might encounter on its global travels, instead the whole thing from the main gun to the missile systems could be selected primarily for the express purpose of providing close defence to a carrier battle group, potentially accepting a lower level of overall capability in exchange for a lower overall cost.

For real this time In the long and outstanding tradition of the MoD.