Friday, 28 October 2016

Britain needs to re-discover its understanding of sea power

This is an article by guest writer Christian McLean-Mair who recently completed a Masters degree in military history.

In recent years it appears that much of the British public has lost their passion for the sea; there is far less interest in the Navy than the Air Force, and Parliamentary approaches to funding have reflected this trend. Yet it must not be forgotten that it is sea power that has remained the arbiter of British policy throughout our nation’s history, and that it is upon the seas that the fate of nations are decided. 

Britain, it must always be stressed, is an island nation. The English Channel was to serve as a moat throughout our early history, and allowed the successive rulers of the country a greater degree of flexibility than their European neighbours who were forced to maintain sizeable armies to deter potential threats. It was indeed this lack of standing forces that was to allow the early development of accountable rule in the British Isles; as the lack of standing forces left the monarchy without the means to violently put down dissent, and created a more receptive form of leadership. The lack of a large army did, however, ensure that control of the seas was doubly important – for Britain to survive it was vital that no enemy should be able to land upon her shores, a role served by the Royal Navy since its inception in 1660.

Whilst Britain has long needed to place a greater level of trust in sea power than other nations, all are dependent upon the seas for their continued survival. The majority of the world’s trade is still transported by sea, as is much of its food. Since the economic and population booms of the colonial era and industrial revolution, vast amounts of resources have been moved by sea to sustain the nations of the world, yet the interconnected nature of global trade creates a great vulnerability. Commerce raiding has long been a staple of war, but came to a head with the development of the submarine in the World Wars – an early lack of effective tools against the U-Boat menace was to see Britain face starvation in two major conflicts, and should demonstrate just how important control of shipping lanes and global trade is to national survival.

The raiding of commerce is a powerful tool to a nation without naval supremacy, as isolated ships can inflict major material damage without risking an open battle, but what of major naval powers? A control of the seas allows for another means of forcing an enemy to submit without the risk of open battle: blockade. The threat and imposition of blockade were the main means by which Britain was to exert her power throughout history; without a strong army to launch offensive operations British naval power was employed to starve an enemy into submission. From the time of Napoleon to the rise of Imperial Germany, the threat British blockade was to prove a deciding factor in war and maintaining the protracted period of peace known as the Pax Britannica.

Beyond blockade, seaborne forces offer a variety of offensive options to a commander. Whilst air power is lauded as the fastest means to deploy force, it is through control of the seas that lasting gains can be made through the seizure of territory. A naval force can crucially carry enough supplies to sustain itself in operations for a protracted period of time, allowing for more expansive operations to be launched. Over 40% of the global population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast, leaving them vulnerable to direct influence by sea power. Naval forces can extend this reach even further by bringing their own air field with them in the form of carriers; these greatly enhance the capacity of a navy to not only defend itself, but strike hard at an enemy.

Since the invention of the aeroplane, there have been theorists predicting that it will dominate future conflict, and they were correct in this prediction. However, air power is not a means to an end in its own right; recent interventions from Kosovo to Libya have proven that air strikes alone cannot win wars. Attempting to influence events from afar has often proven counter-productive; by refusing to commit fully to a conflict its conclusion is left to the ability of the enemy to endure the strikes, whilst the attacking power is left appearing weak and cowardly; unwilling to risk lives for their goal.

To achieve victory in modern warfare, all arms of the military must act together, but it is naval force that provides the backbone: a strong navy allows for force to be projected and supported across the vast majority of the globe.

Within the modern world, Britain faces a large number of defence commitments, all of which require the capacity to project power overseas. Whether joining NATO to contain Russian aggression in the Baltic to aiding in the policing of the Mediterranean and the Gulf there is a clear and present need for capable shipping. Beyond alliance commitments Britain is responsible for the wellbeing of fourteen overseas territories, the vast majority of which are primarily accessible by sea. Beyond regular patrolling, and the need to continue training with allied nations, the navy is also the primary means of delivering aid to the needy overseas. With such extensive peacetime obligations alone, the need for a greater volume of surface ships should be apparent.

In its current form the Royal Navy is stretched to meet its regular commitments and would be unlikely to be able to sustain a major campaign. The last great success of British sea power that was fully understood by the public was the Falklands campaign. Since then our capacity to sustain forces overseas has declined but we still managed to make a significant contribution to the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, both Gulf Wars and to many other operations right up until the present day. Even now the RN presence in the Persian Gulf plays its part in ensuring the steady flow of oil and gas so critical to the UK economy. Unfortunately the steady hollowing out of the Royal Navy has left Britain’s ability to control the seas a partial, or even token capability. We can still project power round the world but the forces are too small in number, lacking the depth and reserve for a sustained presence and quite unable absorb combat losses.

It is not enough to hope for peace when planning the future of the armed forces; a nation must be ready for any eventuality, and if we are to retain our position within the world a strong navy is essential. Warships allow for the exertion of influence and power in times of peace and war, serving as a powerful symbol of might and intent.

The arrival of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers provides an opportunity for Britain to properly rebuild its navy. The carriers are a strong core that could one day take their place as the centrepiece of a powerful fleet. At present the RN is without the manpower, the escort vessels, the aircraft and the submarines in sufficient numbers to fully support the carriers and be considered a true global sea power. With the political will to substantially increase funding over the next decade, the UK could once again be able enjoy the security and influence that befits its history and status as an island nation and the 5th largest economy in the world.


Main image: HMS Cardiff, HMS London and HMS Manchester at sea during the first Gulf War, 1991. @Crown copyright. Imperial War Museum

from Save the Royal Navy

Soldier to Officer: Week One

Hayley Larcombe served in the British Army as a qualified nurse for nine years. After a successful career, including deployments to Afghanistan and Kenya, she decided to apply for a commission into the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps as an officer. She was successful at the Army Officer Selection Board and has recently started […]

from The Official British Army Blog

Poppy Pin

Get your naval poppy pin from Forever Jack. Profits go to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. £3.00 + (£1.75 p&p)


from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper

Army Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is currently serving as a Kingsman in the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission. Leaving my family in Blackpool and my nurse training in Lancaster behind as I started my journey to Cyprus was difficult, […]

from The Official British Army Blog

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Longer Farewell

Last Friday I let everyone know of my intent to shut up shop and close Think Defence. I also said I would pen a more considered farewell by way of an explanation and look forward. Beginnings The reason I started Think Defence was simply to provide a forum for (hopefully) sensible conversations about UK defence ...

The post A Longer Farewell appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Saturday, 22 October 2016

So long, fish and all that

After nearly eight years , time to call it a day. Has been a hoot, made some great friends and had the honour to interact with current and ex service personnel, academics, people from industry and members of the great British public who care about the defence of this nation, plus of course, the same ...

The post So long, fish and all that appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Friday, 21 October 2016

Monuments Men: Part One

It has been more than 70 years since the British Army last had the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections during the Second World War. Their job was to protect, stabilise and recover cultural property on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy and, after D-Day, across northern Europe. Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick, an Army Reservist […]

from The Official British Army Blog

The Royal Navy – quietly getting on with the job

In spite of frequent claims that the Royal Navy is “barely able to defend its own waters”, two of its escorts are shadowing the largest group of Russian warship to pass near to the UK since the end of the Cold War. Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sailed from the Northern Fleet base of Severomorsk on Saturday accompanied by seven other surface ships and probably at least one submarine.

Given the heightened tension with Russia, this is deployment is a little more significant that usual, although the UK media perhaps tends to over-play the direct threat to the UK. The ships are destined for operations off Syria but passing his warships through the English Channel is useful to Putin as it demonstrates his military reach and raises questions about Europe’s ability to respond. Russian carpet bombing of civilians, targeting of aid convoys and hospitals in Syria are war crimes that mark a new low in Putin’s behaviour and signal further decline in relations with the West. Naval vessels have always had the useful ability to imply a threat without actually engaging in combat or violating sovereign territory.

Escorts ready

HMS Richmond sailed from Shetland on Monday and was well positioned to intercept. HMS Duncan sailed from Portsmouth and a few other NATO warships have shadowed the task group as they passed down the North Sea, conducting flight operations and then into the English Channel. It is also highly likely that a Royal Navy or US Navy nuclear submarine is silently trailing them. By historical standards sailing two warships for escort duty in home waters would be a bare minimum expectation and of little note, but the under-sized RN escort fleet has had to face numerous challenges in the past few years. Today it is still getting on with the job, demonstrating it can respond to events and has the defence of UK waters covered. The RN is also active around the world. Four of the much-maligned Type 45 destroyers are at sea. HMS Duncan escorting Russians, HMS Dragon sails from Portsmouth today, HMS Diamond in the Mediterranean and HMS Daring is escorting US warships in the Gulf region.

The Russian ships are old and are typical of the decrepit state of much of the their larger surface fleet units. However they do carry some threat. The battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy is a Soviet-era giant built in the 1980s, one of the most heavily armed ships in the world with a battery of 20 ship missiles and up to 224 surface to air missiles. The carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is of a similar vintage and can been seen belching thick black smoke, a sure sign of tired machinery that may struggle to complete voyage. In the recent past she is often been accompanied by an ocean-going tug in case of break down. Her air group of SU-33 and MiG-29s strike fighters may not be the most modern Russian jets in its inventory but still present a credible threat to NATO ships and aircraft.

Carrier overmatch

By next year the Royal Navy will be sailing its own aircraft carrier in the English Channel and North Sea. It will be some time before HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves its full operating capability but the ship and its air group will eventually be vastly superior to Russia’s single carrier. The Russians do however, tend to arm all their warships with heavier self-defence weaponry, an aspect of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s equipping that should be addressed more seriously. It is also important that government places further orders for F-35 Lightnings so the 138 aircraft promised becomes reality. The carriers require a credible airgroup as quickly as possible, a priority the RAF must also remain committed to.

Type 26 – action this day

The RN’s ability to respond to the arrival of foreign warships arriving near to the UK is dependent on its surface fleet. With every passing day the backbone of that fleet, the Type 23 frigates are ageing while their replacements have still not started construction. Now would be a good time for Theresa May’s government to announce they are placing orders for the Type 26 frigates as a mater of national priority. Such an action would be a politically advantageous statement and would probably have more impact on Russian thinking than calls for further economic sanctions. It would welcomed across the the UK, by the navy, by shipbuilders and be seen as a sign the government is serious about defence.

HMS Richmond and Russian Udaloy class anti-submarine destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov

HMS Richmond escorts Russian Udaloy class anti-submarine destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov, part of the Kuznetsov carrier group, 19th October 2016. The clock is ticking on the replacement for HMS Richmond and the other Type 23 frigates.



from Save the Royal Navy

Thursday, 20 October 2016

When will HMS Queen Elizabeth arrive in Portsmouth?

HMS Queen Elizabeth will arrive for the first time in Portsmouth in 2017 but the exact date is still unknown at present, even to the Royal Navy. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) who are constructing the ship are determined she be tested thoroughly and the majority of teething problems eliminated. Only when the ACA and the RN are is satisfied she has passed initial sea trails and meets the specification will she be formally handed over.

With the ship now in an advanced state of completion alongside in Rosyth, a power and propulsion trial will be conducted towards the end of 2016. The ship has been has been fitted with brake blades in place of propellers which allows the shafts to turn for engine testing without moving the ship. There will be harbour trials of most on-board systems including propulsion, steering, navigation, or communications before she puts to sea. “Pretty much everything is now installed in the ship and working,” said Ian Booth, managing director of the ACA last month. Much of the equipment was thoroughly factory tested before installation and the ACA is confident that sea trials will go well.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is the world’s first fully electrically-propelled aircraft carrier. She is powered by two Rolls Royce MT-30 gas turbines and four diesel engines which can provide up to 110MW of electrical power to the 4 induction motors that turn the propellers as well as providing the ship’s electrical supplies. Like the Type 45 destroyers, the QEC aircraft carriers have an Integrated Electric Propulsion system. Given the problems with the Type 45, there is some concern about the carriers having similar issues. However the MT-30 gas turbine engine is a much more proven and well-tested engine than the WR-21s used on the Type 45. The power arrangement of the QE class is innovative but in many ways lower risk than the Type 45, utilising many elements that are already at sea in cruise ships and other naval platforms.

Designed to operate with a relatively small crew, the QE Class are fully networked ships and has several complex internal systems to monitor and control all aspect of the ship. The Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) controls and power and propulsion and can asses combat damage. The Combat Management System (CMS) assists the crew in fighting the ship. The Air Group Management Application (AGMA) is used to control flight operations. There is also an extensive network of CCTV cameras feeding the Visual Surveillance System (VSS). All this technology will have to be integrated and will undoubtedly throw up initial problems. Fortunately much of it can be at least partially tested and fine-tuned before the ship ever goes to sea.

Assuming sea trials run smoothly, an educated guess would suggest that HMS Queen Elizabeth will enter Portsmouth for the first time in the second quarter of 2017, maybe in May or June.

The delivery date for HMS Queen Elizabeth has already slipped from what was promised several years ago and everyone is keen to see the ship in service as soon as possible. However it is prudent to wait until initial sea trails have been successfully completed before committing to a date of arrival. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a high-profile vessel and will attract much comment and media interest wherever she goes. With the Type 45 debacle fresh in the memory, any problems, even during initial sea trials could generate a storm of unhelpful headlines so it is wise to ensure the vessel is a ready as possible before putting to sea. The First Sea Lord has called 2017 “The year of the carrier” and there is justifiable excitement about the arrival of the vessels that have dominated RN planning for the last decade. It is important that the delivery and introduction onto service goes smoothly. There is also likely to be plenty of ill-informed anti-carrier rhetoric and negativity doing the rounds so any technical failure or minor mishap that may damage public perception of these great ships is to be avoided.

The aircraft carrier project is very much a long-game. HMS Queen Elizabeths’s arrival in Portsmouth in 2017 is an important milestone but one on a very long road. There will be further trials for the ship and considerable time spent supporting flying development with various aircraft. The RN will need time to learn about how to run these new and very large ships, develop operating procedures and re-learn some long-forgotten carrier aviation skills. She will not go on operational deployment until sometime in 2021. She is not expected to achieve full operating capability with F-35s until the first quarter of 2023 and even then the UK will probably not posses enough aircraft to embark 2 squadrons. It could be 2026, almost 10 years away before both carriers and sufficient aircraft are available so the RN can sustain a continuous aircraft carrier capability. Nevertheless the wait will be worth it, these are potent ships that will serve the nation for 50 years and be globally-deployable platforms for generations of future aircraft.



from Save the Royal Navy

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Why your CVF should not moonlight as your LPH

In part 1 of this article we argued that HMS Ocean (LPH) should be retained and then replaced. If this does not happen the official plan is for the RN to operate the Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) aircraft carriers (CVF) in the LPH role. Here we look at how this might work in practice and why this solution is flawed.

The RN is currently developing its concept of operations for the QEC with a broad definition of their purpose called Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP). CEPP offers four main capabilities – Carrier Strike, Littoral Manoeuvre, Humanitarian Assistance and Defence Diplomacy. The carrier strike role is what the QEC were originally designed for but the requirement to perform the littoral manoeuvre/LPH role has been added and then expanded during their construction. HMS Queen Elizabeth will go to sea without the full modifications for the role and will be occupied working up and operating as a strike carrier with the F-35, at least for most of her first commission. She could be expected to enter major refit around 2025 when she will be modified. HMS Prince of Wales is being constructed with these modifications from the outset, essentially internal changes to accommodation, equipment storage and access for the embarked military force. F-35 trials will be conducted with HMS PoW in 2020/21 but she may then be configured and tested in the LPH role soon after.

Tactical headaches

Assuming that the RN was conducting an amphibious assault with any sort of opposition the primary role of the aircraft carrier (CVF) is to provide local air superiority and air-ground support. Both of these are prerequisites before contemplating a serious amphibious operation. In the next decade at least it is unlikely the RN will be able to have both aircraft carriers operational simultaneously. Even if the necessary manpower can be generated and sustained, there is no guarantee in the time of need that one will not be in refit or under training. Without HMS Ocean (or her replacement) we are either reliant on another nation to provide a CVF or LPH, or our available QEC must attempt both roles at once.

It is unclear if the RN would embark any F-35s when the QEC is in the LPH role. When configured for the carrier strike role, the QEC Tailored Air Group (TAG) is planned to typically consist of 24 F-35Bs and 9 Merlins for ASW and ASaC. The littoral manoeuvre TAG would see most, or all of the F-35Bs replaced by Chinooks, Merlins, Apache and Wildcat helicopters. In all but the most benign environment, air cover must therefore come from somewhere else.

In their designed Carrier Strike role, the QEC would need freedom of movement to operate her fixed wing aircraft with plenty of sea room. Less critical with VSTOL aircraft operations, but at times it is advantageous to turn the ship to head into wind at speed. Most importantly, large high-value ships try to keep as far away as practically possible from the threat of land-based aircraft and missiles and even small boat swarms or mines. It is also far easier to defend a ship against submarines in the deep ocean than in the more acoustically challenging littoral environment where small conventional submarines have a great advantage.

Acting in the LPH role ideally requires the ship to be reasonably close to the beachhead so the helicopters can quickly shuttle back and forward with troops and equipment, at least in the initial phase of the assault. The range of the Merlin would allow the ship to sit considerably offshore but speed and timing are critical in the initial phases and this would slow everything down. There is a fundamental conflict between the carrier’s need to maintain its speed and distance from the land and the requirement to close the shore and reduce to slow speed during amphibious operations.

Using the 65,000 ton fleet flagship, the sole available carrier as an LPH would expose her to increased risk. The loss or even damage to the ship would probably end the operation, be highly symbolic and politically unacceptable. The loss of a smaller LPH like HMS Ocean would still be a disaster but a political risk that could be contemplated. Historically the RN accepted it must sometimes lose ships to win wars.

Although effectively forced on the RN by underfunding, this is a case of too many eggs in one basket, operationally challenging and tactically unsound.

The QE carriers have been designed from the outset with fairly generous accommodation for up to 1,600 people. With her very lean complement of 733 there is a lot of space left for aircrew and an embarked military force (EMF) of least 250 which can live aboard for long periods in relative comfort. It is interesting that as the disposal of HMS Ocean gets closer, government is now saying up to 900 troops could be carried in extremis. We can assume that the modified HMS PoW will have space for about two Marine companies (500 personnel) to live aboard in tolerable comfort for an extended period. The hangar is spacious but, unlike HMS Ocean, there is no separate vehicle deck. Storing and maintaining aircraft and vehicles in close proximity at sea is potentially hazardous. There is also no means to unload vehicles at sea, except perhaps the odd one underslung beneath a Chinook helicopter for very short trips.

There are no plans for the QEC to be fitted with davits for LCVPs like HMS Ocean (small landing craft capable of carrying up to 35 troops). Landing craft have some advantages over helicopters, not least being a quieter way to approach a defended beach. Apart from the cost of adapting the ships, it could be argued the powerful airlift capability of the ship makes LCVPs slightly redundant, especially if the ship is forced to operate a long way from the beachhead. Fundamentally the QEC contribution is about troops on foot with whatever weapons they can carry, delivered by helicopter.

On the upside…

HMS Ocean can launch up to 6 Merlin helicopters almost simultaneously. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is currently evaluating how many helicopter spots the QEC could safely support. It seems likely that up to 10 Merlins could be launched together, allowing a full company of around 250 Marines to be transported in a single lift. This raw capacity would be the biggest single advantage the QEC has over a more normal-sized LPH. Operating in the humanitarian (HADR) role the QEC also has the clear advantage over HMS Ocean. The sheer amount of space, additional manpower, cavernous store rooms, good medical and command facilities would all be beneficial.

  • Deck comparison. Apart from QE's obviously more spacious deck, the deck-edge lifts can cope with larger aircraft including the Chinook and V-22 Osprey.

    Deck comparison. Apart from QE’s obviously more spacious deck, the deck-edge lifts can cope with larger aircraft including the Chinook and V-22 Osprey.

  • chinooks

    CGI showing Chinook helicopters aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Chinook can lift a lot more than a Merlin but is slower, has shorter range and less protected. They are not properly marinized and don’t have folding rotors like the Merlin. Embarking a lot of Chinooks for an extended deployment would be possible but problematic.

  • Companionways down to a waterline boarding platform at the stern of the QE class offer the possibility of troops boarding landing craft or mexflote directly in very benign weather. However this is a very unlikely scenario and more for use when accessing the ship at anchor in peacetime.

  • It will be instructive for the RN to observe how the US Marine Corps develops its concept of operations for the F-35B and the LAH.

    The aviation assault ship USS America. It will be instructive for the RN to observe how the US Marine Corps develops its concept of operations for this ship and the F-35B.

American cousins

In the US there has been controversy surrounding the recently commissioned USS America (In US parlance designated as LHA – Landing Helicopter Assault). Designed as an assault ship but without the traditional well-dock they are something of a parallel to the QEC when configured for the LPH role. Smaller than the QEC but very large for an assault ship, at 44,00 tons they can carry 1,700 marines, have an enlarged hanger and expanded aviation support facilities. The V-22 Osprey and the F-35 aircraft have been the drivers of the America design. The Osprey can transport troops further and faster than any helicopter allowing the ships to stay a greater distance offshore or deliver greater numbers of troops to the beachhead in a given amount of time. US Ospreys may well occasionally embark on the QEC but there is no funding available for the UK to obtain these versatile but expensive aircraft. (For the cost of around 6 Ospreys the UK could probably build a replacement for HMS Ocean.)

It is planned that the LHA will typically operate six F35-Bs (together with its Ospreys and helicopters) that would provide close-support for the troops. They also have the capacity to operate as emergency aircraft carriers embarking up to 20 F-35Bs. It may lack the ski-ramp to help launch F-35Bs but the LHA may well moonlight as CVF better than QEC can moonlight as an LPH.

Equipped with the Osprey and operating under air cover from their main aircraft carriers, the America class perhaps makes more sense for the USN than the QEC LPH does for the threadbare RN. However is interesting to note that only two LHAs will be built, it has been decided that over-reliance on aircraft by the US Marines is undesirable, the remaining ships of the class will be LHDs with well docks.

Are historical precedents still relevant?

Since the 1950s the RN has operated ships originally designed as aircraft carriers as helicopter assault ships, formerly referred to as commando carriers. The main difference was that these ships were all originally light carriers, much smaller (approx 20-25,000 tons) than the QEC and were part of a larger fleet that included at least one other fleet carrier or strike carrier (CVF) to provide air cover. Even in the 1980s and 90s when there were just 3 small Invincible class carriers, this allowed for one in refit, one CVF and one LPH. The limitations of the Invincible class in the assault role were recognised even then, but the RN was always a master of improvisation with inadequate equipment. During the Falklands War the RN had no LPH in service at all, the main amphibious landing was conducted from 2 LPDs and a converted cruise liner.

In contrast to the fleets of the past we have just two large carriers/fat targets, with only one fully operational. There will probably be no second deck available to provide air cover for the LPH and to compound the problem we lack mass in the fleet, too few escorts to protect the QEC at a time when threats to surface ships are on the increase. Risk upon risk.

In summary, the QEC assault ship will either have to be placed at extreme risk or operate along way from the beachhead reducing its effectiveness. Without its own air cover, the RN is therefore reliant on foreign support to mount a significant amphibious operation against even moderate opposition. The case for procuring a new LPH is overwhelming, this would complement the QEC, allowing them to operate primarily in their intended carrier strike role.


from Save the Royal Navy

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Strike Brigade – what, why, how?

A GUEST POST FROM JED It appears to this humble arm chair general, that the British Army has a fundamental problem, or three. After over a decade of constant deployment and action in a counter-insurgency role, there appears to be a resurgent interest in “high intensity” operations against so called peer level adversaries, perhaps fueled ...

The post The Strike Brigade – what, why, how? appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The campaign to retain, and eventually replace HMS Ocean starts here

Under current plans the RN’s sole helicopter assault ship HMS Ocean, will be decommission on 31st March 2018. There will then be a gap in capability for some years but the official plan is for the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers to eventually double as both strike carriers and assault ships. Although this concept is not without precident, in the current circumstances it is fraught with problems, limitations and dangers. Many inside and outside the RN strongly believe the best solution would be to retain HMS Ocean, at least in reserve and then build an affordable replacement vessel.


Built at a cost of around £150M (£300M in today’s money), HMS Ocean was a very good deal for the taxpayer. Although partially constructed to merchant ship standards, the RN was able to obtain a large and useful ship for about the same price as a Type 23 frigate.

As Landing Platform, Helicopter (LPH) she is designed to lift troops quickly onto a beachhead usually in parallel with troops carried by landing craft from the Landing Platform Dock (LPD) HMS Bulwark or Albion. As well as her 285 crew, she has accommodation for an embarked military force numbering approximately 500 personnel (or upto 800 for short periods in austere conditions). Primarily designed as a helicopter landing ship, she is able to supplement the LPDs with her own small landing craft and some extra vehicle stowage. She has a small vehicle deck and 4 LCVP Mk5 landing craft able to transport around 35 fully armed troops. A small stern ramp and pontoon allow vehicle and personnel access to landing craft or using mexeflote.

The helicopter hangar has space for up to 18 aircraft, depending on their type. Over her lifetime she has embarked RN, RAF and Army helicopters including Lynx, Sea King, Merlin, Chinook and Apaches. US Blackhawk’s and V-22 Osprey have also operated from her deck.

Clearly a large helicopter carrier, even if built on the cheap has a great deal of flexibility and offers a lot of options to any navy.

The RN’s rather underrated amphibious capabilities offer the government a very flexible tool. Amphibious assault has the advantage of being able threaten or attack at a point and time of your closing. The ships are also ideal platforms for humanitarian relief operations, transport and general sealift or evacuation. Without the Harriers and HMS Ark Royal, during the Libya operations of 2011 the RN employed HMS Ocean as a poor man’s ‘strike carrier’ using Apache attack helicopters. Never designed for anti-submarine operations like her Invincible class half-sisters, in July 2016 she was flagship for anti-submarine exercise Deep Blue II. Ocean embarked 7 ASW helicopters and hunted submarines around the clock, working up skills that will be required for the protection of HMS Queen Elizabeth when she comes into service.

  • HMS Ocean Launch

    Although the contract to build HMS Ocean was awarded to VSEL, construction of the hull was sub-contracted to what was then the Kvaerner yard in Govan, Glasgow. Seen here being launched in October 1995, she was subsequently fitted out in Barrow.

  • Cameron's makeshift aircraft carrier - with Army Air Corps Apaches embarked, Operation Ellamy, Libya, 2011

    David Cameron’s makeshift aircraft carrier – Army Air Corps Apaches & US Blackhawk helicopters embarked for Operation Ellamy, Libya, 2011.


    In company with LPD USS San Antonio and other NATO warships during BALTOPS exercise, June 2015.

  • HMS Ocean, Devonport

    Looking like she means business. A truly ‘joint’ airgroup – Army Apaches, RN Merlins and RAF Chinooks on deck as she leaves Devonport for Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) deployment, September 2015.

  • HMS Ocean with V22 Osprey

    US Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft embark on HMS Ocean during the COUGAR deployment in the Mediterranean, November 2015.

  • HMS Ocean Pontoon

    A crane aft of the island is provided for loading and unloading of a folding stern ramp pontoon which allows vehicles to exit via the ramp into landing craft.

  • hms-ocean-stern-2

    With stern ramp down. HMS Ocean typical vehicle load is a few Land Rovers, BV206 tracked armoured personnel carriers and light guns.

  • HMS Ocean ramp

    Stern view showing access ramp and pontoon stowed on deck

  • Canberra LPH

    The large LHD design in service with the Spanish and Australian navies. Could this be the basis of a replacement for HMS Ocean, Albion and Bulwark?

Manpower and reserve

When HMS Ocean leaves the fleet in 2018 the manpower this will release will almost immediately be needed to crew HMS Prince of Wales. The current personnel available to the RN means there can be no question of keeping HMS Ocean active while manning both carriers. It would require a very dramatic improvement in retention rates plus an increase in recruitment and associated funding which is simply unlikely to happen in the next 2 years. The sensible solution would be for HMS Ocean to go into reserve instead of for scrap or sale. This would give the option of activating the ship in an emergency (using naval reservists and moving manpower from non-essential jobs). It seems likely that top of the RN wishlist for the 2020 SDSR would be funding for a more significant increase in manpower, ideally at least 2,000 more people. If the manpower situation was to ease HMS Ocean could possibly be reactivated in future. Even if she was never re-activated she would at least be part of the RN’s nominal order of battle (ORBAT). In the short-sighted world of Whitehall, it is much easier to argue the case for the replacement of a ship that exists than to get a new ship from scratch. Keeping HMS Ocean in reserve would cost little, offer a valuable addition to the fleet in a crisis and point the way to an eventual replacement.

The biggest argument against keeping Ocean would be the material state of the ship. Built only to semi-warship standards and with a 20 year hull life, she could require expensive work to keep her seaworthy after 2018. Ocean underwent major refits in 2007 and 2014-15 and she could probably be realistically kept as a viable reserve vessel for another 5-10 years. Keeping her alongside and internally de-humidified reduces corrosion and wear on the ship. To re-activate her might require some work but better to have a ship in an imperfect state than no ship at all. Who would bet against her giving good service for at least another decade if sold to a lower-tier foreign navy?

Replacement possibilities

While the aircraft carriers cost more than £3Bn each, for about a tenth of that price, around £300M it would be possible to build a direct replacement for HMS Ocean. Using commercial standards for construction may produce a less battle damage-resistant vessel but it keeps costs down and helped get HMS Ocean built in the first place. Perhaps the RN should use this procurement model again and make the case for another affordable LPH in SDSR 2020. Sadly the UK has very little commercial shipbuilding left, her hull could be built overseas and then fitted out with military equipment in the UK.

An alternative approach would be to consider the replacement of HMS Ocean together with HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark in one go. For around £1.8Bn it would be possible to build two large LHDs (Landing ship Helicopter/Dock) similar to the French Mistral class or the Spanish/Australian Juan Carlos class. These ships have both a well dock for landing craft and a large flight deck. They have far superior troop, vehicle and aviation capacity to both Ocean and Albion. The Juan Carlos design also has the space and a ski ramp to operate F-35Bs in emergencies. The challenge of how to fit the construction of two large ships into the National Shipbuilding Strategy in a similar time frame to the Type 26/31 frigates would be a complex issue.

The case for having as many ‘big decks’ in the RN fleet as possible is overwhelming. Although the new carriers have a great deal of space it will always be desirable to have more hulls to give mass, flexibility of operation and resilience. The RN should fight hard to somehow retain and ultimately replace HMS Ocean. In part 2 of this article we will look at why employing the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers in the LPH role is flawed.



from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

HL1779 – Unmanned Air Vehicles (Answered)

Lord Kennedy of Southwark To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Earl Howe on 21 January (HL5353), whether they will provide an update on the timeline and consultation planned for (1) the proposed defence policy on the use of remotely piloted air systems, (2) the revised Joint Doctrine Note 2/11, The ...

The post HL1779 – Unmanned Air Vehicles (Answered) appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Sunday, 2 October 2016

NEW LONG READ – Digging and Working with Wood

A new long read post on the subject of field defences and using timber in their construction. Are we doing enough in the context of a resurgent Russia and their fondness for indirect fire? Click to read… Digging and Working with Wood  

The post NEW LONG READ – Digging and Working with Wood appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence