A closer look at the Littoral Strike Ship concept

In February 2019, the then Defence Minister, Gavin Williamson, announced the plan to rapidly procure vessels around which two ‘Littoral Strike Groups’ would be formed. Here we look further at the Future Littoral Strike Ship (FLSS) concept and at the design developed by Prevail Partners as one of the potential candidates to meet this requirement.

Background

Since the ministerial announcement, there has been limited further official comment about the FLSS concept, although the previous First Sea Lord was enthusiastic about “refreshing our littoral strike credentials” when speaking at RUSI in May 2019. £35M has been allocated from the MoD’s Transformation Fund for the development of FLSS although, at the time of writing, no commercial company has received a contract for detailed design work. The concept clearly makes sense but information in the public domain is sketchy.

The FLSS has been evolved from an earlier Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) pre-concept study undertaken between 2017-2018.  Conducted by the MoD’s Naval Design Partnering (NDP) team, the MRSS study was tasked to consider options for replacing the LPDs, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark as well as other amphibious capabilities. The FLSS are intended to be procured quickly to complement the LPDs, rather than replace them. The FLSS is unlikely to fly the White Ensign and may either be operated as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary, or more likely run as a government-chartered vessel.

MV Ocean Trader is a merchant ship conversion belonging to the US Military Sea Lift Command and was perhaps the inspiration for the FLSS. Ocean Trader is not painted all-grey and looks like a typical merchant vessel in appearance. Iran also operates the MV Saviz, supposedly a general cargo vessel but in fact used as an offshore surveillance and special forces base, recently operating in the Red Sea probably supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen. At times there are advantages to not advertising the military capabilities of a vessel.

Merchant ship conversions can be done rapidly. This is the MV Baltic Ferry, one of many British-flagged merchant Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) at very short notice for used during the 1982 Falklands War. Ro-Ro vessel Baltic Ferry was converted in a week with a flight deck welded to her upper deck. FLSS will be much more sophisticated and capable but probably not entirely dissimilar. (Photo: RFA Nostalgia)

MoD thinking appears to be that there will be two ships, both forward-deployed, one based East of Suez and the other covering in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic as required. The main role of the FLSS will be as a base for special forces operations. The world has seen an increase in groups fighting hybrid conflicts in the so-called ‘grey zone’ below full-scale war. This has been one of the reasons the Royal Marines are transitioning away from operating like infantry to return to their traditional commando and amphibious specialist roles. For the foreseeable future, ‘light footprint’ operations delivered from the sea against terrorist, criminal or extremist groups that threaten UK interests are more likely to be politically acceptable than large scale troop deployments.

Having a low-cost FLSS permanently deployed not far from potential trouble spots offers a deterrent and a tailor-made platform for these operations. Designed to be flexible in the way they are deployed, the FLSS may operate semi-covertly and independently for special forces and commando insertion or for disaster relief work. Alternatively, in higher threat areas the ship could be integrated into a naval task group. Using UAVs and ISR capabilities they may even be able to contribute to the protection of the group. Of course, the FLSS is not limited to low-intensity operations and would be a very useful asset in a more serious conflict by providing an additional amphibious lift for troops and supplies.

The FLSS will have a dual role, also able to perform Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions which could include aid to civilians in the wake of natural disasters, civilian evacuations and medical emergency support. Analysis of the Hospital ship concept (See previous article) reveals it is unlikely the FLSS will be painted white and be used as a dedicated Geneva Convention-compliant hospital ship, except perhaps in a long term major conflict with potential for large numbers of battlefield casualties. Using the FLSS as an ‘aid ship’ is more flexible as it can quickly be reconfigured from offensive operations to HADR in a matter of hours or days. A dedicated hospital ship is more complex to fit out and is subject to very strict regulation of people and equipment it may carry and where it may sail.

The Prevail Partners MRV

Prevail Partners Ltd (PPL) is the first company to go public with its Multi-Role Vessel (MRV) proposal that would meet the FLSS requirement. PPL is a group of British companies with expertise in defence and national security that provide consultancy and bespoke services to industry and government agencies. Both of the founding partners have considerable experience serving in UK Special Forces to senior levels. PPL has assembled a strong consortium of European companies including Siem Industries (ship leasing), Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft (shipbuilding), Houlder, (naval architecture) Vestdavit (boat davits), Prism Defence (helicopter-ship integration) and Clarksons Platou (shipping support) who have the specialist expertise to deliver and equip the vessels.

  • The MRV is offered as ‘fitted for but not with’ naval self-defence systems which can be selected by the customer. In this mockup, she carries a relatively heavy armament of 3 Phalanx CIWS. Cannons, mini guns and decoy systems would complete a balanced defensive weapons fit similar to that of Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels when deployment to higher threat regions.

  • The spacious main flight deck could comfortably embark a mix of Chinook and Merlin helicopters. (US Army CH-47 Chinooks and UH-60 Black Hawks are shown in the mockup). There is hangar space for at least one Chinook or four Merlins.

  • The MRV supports naval Level 2 helicopter operations to enable day and night flying with class 1 aircraft servicing facilities. The MRV can be raised to Level 1 heli-ops, day, night and all-weather if specified by the customer. The large boat bays visible below the flight are designed to embark vessels of various sizes.

  • Flyco is fitted on the port side of the ship adjacent to the hangar having a clear, unobstructed view of the flight deck. Note the powerful 30-tonne SWL deck crane that gives a substantial self-load/unload capability.

  • For launch and recovery of boats, the MRV would be fitted with Vestdavit advanced Telescopic Dual Beam (TDB) system, suitable for a wide range of USVs, interceptor, raiding and landing craft up to 24 tonnes when paired in dual lifting configuration. With self-tensioning, sophisticated wave motion compensation, shock absorbers and hydraulic guiding they can recover boats in high sea states.

  • The Royal Navy’s LPDs can deliver just a single Main Battle Tank in each LCU. The Point class ships operated by the MoD are currently the main means of moving Army vehicles. The additional capacity of the MRV offers the potential to deliver heavy armour and military vehicles in greater numbers as a ‘follow on force’.

The MRV is based on the FSG 4100 ro-ro ship that is already in commercial service. Four of the original six Point class vessels in service with the MoD were built by FSG to a similar design. The 7,500 tonne DWT vessel uses an efficient hull form that has good seakeeping qualities. Simple twin diesels will propel the ship up to 20 knots with an endurance of 28 days and 10,000nm. There are about 2,428 lane-meters available for vehicles and the vessel can accommodate an embarked military force of up to 400, although the ship’s core crew requirement would be just 35. The vessel is compliant with SOLAS Passenger Ship Rules, being fitted with davit-launched lifeboats, rescue boats and life-rafts.

The MRV can carry the equivalent of 90 C-17 Globemaster aircraft loads of stores and, for example, could get from Plymouth to the Caribbean in under 7 days while transporting its own helicopters, boats and headquarters to enable a substantial operation on arrival. Sockets are provided and power supplies are available for standard TEU containers and refrigerated containers for food storage. The vehicle deck could transport the equivalent of 65 European lorries, 55 military vehicles containing a mix of main battle tanks, armored fighting vehicles, trucks and artillery. Another 1,200 lane-meters would be available by using the flight deck and top deck. The stern ramp designed to work with Mexiflotes and facilities the rapid loading and unloading of wheeled and tracked vehicles up to sea state 2.

Drawing on the expertise of Vestdavit, already and established RN supplier, the 4 main boat bays would be able to embark a wide variety of craft from RIBs to small landing craft (LCVPs). Royal Marine Offshore Raiding Craft (ORC), workboats, and potentially UUVs could all be handled by the sophisticated davits.

The MRV is fitted with a spacious 900 m2 command centre based on UK Special Forces 1* and OF5/4 Task Force headquarters. Access to the facility can be strictly controlled for secure handling of above secret information. A full suite of communications facilities and antenna arrays can be added subject to customer requirements. The ship is intended to host a variety of unarmed systems for Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

Prevail-Partners-Multi-Role-Vessel-General-Arrangement

PPL say their project plan is very well developed and they could even deliver the first ship in basic configuration within a year if the MoD was flexible in its procurement approach. A newly completed 4100 RoRo vessel is alongside in Germany at present and could be fitted out with accommodation block and other modifications at a shipyard in Poland. Given constrained budgets and limited RFA manpower, an attractive option would be to take the ships on a wet-lease charter basis where PPL finance, build, deliver, crew and manage the vessel through its life. Alternatively, on a bare-boat charter, PPL would build the vessel and lease it to the MoD who would be responsible for crewing and maintaining the ships.

PPL see the MRV as having export potential for sale to other navies or government organisations. The Hospital/Aid ship version could also meet the requirements of charities and NGOs. Just as RFA Mounts Bay is currently involved in a major disaster relief operation in the Bahamas, a new charity Britannia Maritime Aid, has launched a campaign to build a disaster relief vessel. There is growing momentum and interest in building a UK hospital/aid ship, either through a government DFID/MoD initiative or delivered independently by an NGO.

Although the Bay class have a floodable dock and can use the mexeflote to offload in higher sea states, the MRV has several advantages when used in the disaster relief role. The MRV has more than twice the stores and vehicle capacity, can carry lorries and is slightly faster at about 21 knots compared with the 18 knots of the RFA. Aviation facilities are far superior with a large hangar and a helideck that can support high tempo, multi-spot day/night/all-weather flying. The command and communication facilities would also be more capable.

  • Pictured here as a fully Geneva-Convention compliant hospital ship.

  • When configured as a hospital ship then there is sufficient space for at least a 200-bed hospital. The command & control, helicopter and boat operations capability would make it ideally suited for this role.

  • As a Ro-Ro vessel stern ramp can be used to deliver aid in vehicles, pictured here using large Mexflotes. Note also the UAVs on the secondary flight deck above.

  • The MRV would have a NATO Role 2+ medical facility, including a surgical and intensive care unit. Alternatively, the entire vessel could be reconfigured as a hospital ship.

The FLSS appears to offer the UK a low cost and flexible way to increase its amphibious capabilities. It could also provide a usefully poised deterrent to asymmetric threats to UK interests, particularly in the Middle East. A potential achilles heel would be finding enough helicopters to equip the ships on a permanent basis. The UK military’s rotary-wing assets have approximately halved in the last ten years. The FLSS could quickly flex to become the base for humanitarian operations, a requirement that seems to be ever-more frequent. The PPL consortium has put together a very credible solution in the form of the MRV which the MoD should consider carefully, although there will probably be competition from other companies.

Images: Prevail Partners Ltd