How OPVs could be important to the future of the RN (Part 1)

This is the first of a two-part article by John Dunbar who suggests a much greater role could be played by offshore patrol vessels in a future Royal Navy force structure. The role of OPVs in the RN has been a long-standing source of controversy, with many seeing the construction of 5 new OPVs as an unnecessary diversion of money and manpower merely to sustain UK shipbuilding. Concerns also persist about the creation of a two-tier Navy with ‘up-gunned’ OPVs cast in the role of faux frigates lacking genuine fighting capability. This has sometimes precluded full consideration of OPV’s potential.

The problem

These are challenging days for the Royal Navy. There are continued delays in procuring the new Type 26 frigate, the Type 31 is still a concept and what remains of the 19 ship escort fleet is experiencing further reduced availability due to manpower problems and propulsion issues with the Type 45 destroyers.

As a result, RFA vessels and River class OPVs, as well as survey vessels such as HMS Enterprise are now regularly dispatched to cover duties previously undertaken by more capable warships. This ‘role drift’ has a dual impact, forcing vessels into roles for which they are unsuited (and preventing them training or operating in the roles which they are designed for) whilst creating a void in basic surveillance and patrol capability, particularly in UK waters. In June 2016 only 1 OPV was available for UK waters patrol work (Clyde was in the Falklands, Mersey was in the West Indies, Severn was in a Dutch Harbour) leaving UK waters unpatrolled, except by inadequate numbers of UK Border force cutters.

At the same time, Brexit suggests a need for improved surveillance and protection of the UK EEZ including an increased role in counter terrorism and anti-people smuggling operations; incursions by Russian Surface vessels and submarines have become more frequent. A shift in foreign policy to ensure the UK retains a visible, outward-looking global presence to address concerns of isolationism emphasises the importance of meeting standing commitments.

A realistic assessment of utility

Key to getting the best out of the current investment in OPV’s is a sharper focus on the utility of patrol vessels both in UK waters and in overseas deployment. OPV’s remain the most appropriate vessels for EEZ and basic constabulary duties, and have some simple plus points to consider in this respect. They require a modest level of manpower (typically a crew of 30-40 with accommodation for 50-60); as a result have low running costs (4 OPV’s can be crewed and maintained for the running cost of a single frigate); are simple designs with a high level of availability (around 220 days per year); and can provide vital command experience for the Royal Navy’s future leaders.

In their current form they are effectively limited to radar, Mk1 eyeball and boarding parties which limits effectiveness and sphere of influence. However, modest investment in capability improvements could enable OPV’s to contribute much more to intelligence gathering and surveillance activities where a frigate or submarine is not available to do so. Unmanned platforms in particular will transform the way in which OPV’s are able to operate in this respect.

If OPV’s are viewed, optimised and deployed as intelligence gathering and surveillance platforms in the first instance, with constabulary intervention capability in low intensity roles as a secondary role, they could become a far more useful asset in both UK and overseas deployments, enabling better strategic decisions about deployment of more capable warships and justifying the case for investment in manpower and capital.

HMS Forth fitting out

First of the five new OPVs, HMS Forth begins fitting out at Scotstoun, Glasgow, August 2016. Photo: BAE Systems

A sensible assessment of OPV numbers

What does this mean for the number of OPV’s the RN might want to operate?

One OPV – currently HMS Clyde – is required for Falkland duties. It should be assumed that one further OPV is deployed to the West Indies for around 2/3 of the year from a UK base to undertake constabulary and counter-narcotics duties, perhaps with a more capable helicopter equipped warship or RFA vessel deployed during hurricane season for disaster relief operations.

To provide a continuous (at sea) UK EEZ patrol presence of three OPV’s – one in the Channel, one in the North Sea and one in the Irish Sea / Atlantic – requires five OPV’s. Having four OPV’s at sea would be preferable given the size of the area of ocean they will be required to cover, and this would require a UK-based fleet of seven. It is worthy of note that France (11-13), Spain (16) and Italy (10 ) all operate substantial numbers of OPV’s in excess of 1000 tonnes (and many more smaller OPV’s) even though their EEZ’s are considerably smaller.

Forward basing of an OPV in Gibraltar, or deployment to the Mediterranean in order to undertake constabulary activities would provide flexibility in preventing migrant trafficking and rescue missions which appear likely to remain a political and compassionate necessity in the medium-term. Forward-basing an OPV in Bahrain to cover anti-piracy operations on the east African Coast and to support mine counter vessel operations in the gulf may also be sensible at some point in the future, which would require at least one further OPV. Overall, this suggests useful roles for at least nine and up to as many as eleven, OPV’s.

A clearer view of the future

The MoD has now decided that the ‘up to six OPV’s’ set out in SDSR 2015 actually means 5. Whilst 5 new OPVs are marginally more desirable than existing 4, this will not go very far in preventing role drift and shortages in UK waters patrol capability. If one further OPV is deployed to the Caribbean, this would leave 2 Batch 2 OPV’s to patrol UK waters, meaning at most 1 OPV at sea for most of the year with a short period where two are available. The need to fly the flag and contribute to Mediterranean humanitarian relief programmes suggests that it will not be long before at least one and perhaps both of the remaining OPV’s are deployed outside UK waters.

Make the best of Batch 1 and the Batch 2 programme

Even given the constraints on spending, a fleet of 10 OPVs is a realistic possibility. Rather than retiring Batch 1 OPV’s, a decision to retain HMS’ Mersey, Severn and Tyne (in addition to HMS Clyde) is by far the cheapest and quickest way to improve the Royal Navy’s ocean going hull availability. These vessels remain largely fit for purpose for UK EEZ patrol activities and still have a good service life ahead of them.

Alongside the five new Batch 2 OPV’s that are already planned, this would provide a total of nine OPV’s in service by 2018. Making the most of the ships the RN actually has, as opposed to just structuring around promises of future ships seems a sensible option to rebalance deployment patterns in the short-term.

Cost and benefits

Sustaining a fleet of nine (rather than 5) OPVs need not be expensive – retaining Batch 1 OPV’s for UK water operations would increase annual costs by perhaps £16-20m, and increase manpower demands by around 200 including crew and shore staffing. Building additional Batch 2 OPV’s beyond the five already planned could be funded from existing MoD commitments to minimum annual spend with BAE system if it is necessary to bridge the gap to Type 26 construction.

The benefits of a larger fleet of OPVs are two-fold. Firstly, cost-effective deployment of patrol vessels will allow other surface combatants and support vessels to return to a more normal model of deployment or training – HMS enterprise could return to its ocean survey role in support of submarine operations rather than rescuing migrants, frigates can spend more time in high-end rather than constabulary roles, or with greater availability to deploy in response to events. Deployment pressures on overstretched crews could be eased.

Secondly, suitably equipped OPV’s could provide an affordable way of sustaining and improving the Royal Navy’s capacity to monitor UK waters, and to gather intelligence overseas, making a potentially significant contribution to UK security which would otherwise be lacking in the absence of sufficient number of frigates and submarines.

Conclusion

The fleet of five OPV’s is likely to prove inadequate in numbers to meet demand for deployment, particularly given the increasing, rather than decreasing need to patrol UK waters. Retaining batch 1 OPV’s would be a low-cost way to bring resources in to better balance with likely demand, and one or two additional Batch 2 OPVs would provide politicians and the navy with a much improved range of options over time.

It is also important to recognise that two wrongs don’t make a right – curtailing patrol capability to fund frigates results in role drift which degrades overall capability in other ways. So getting the right number of OPVs in service is a first step in getting the overall balance of the fleet right – as we are in OPV building mode, now is the time to make clear-sighted decisions as to how many OPVs we really need, and what they should be optimised to do.

To justify this increased investment OPV’s do arguably need to be capable of contributing more to UK defence. Part 2 of this article will explore the investment needed to maximise the intelligence gathering and surveillance capability of OPV’s, alongside consideration of the need for adequate protection to provide crew safety when deploying into an increasingly dangerous maritime environment.

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