Bahrain or bust – Type 23 frigate to be permanently based in the Gulf

This week the Defence Secretary announced a Type 23 frigate will be permanently ‘forward deployed’ in Bahrain. This presence in the Gulf region and the global reach of the fleet, is certainly an asset to Britain but is the expanding portfolio of demands on the Navy workable and sustainable?

The RN has a presence in the Gulf going back decades. At least 3 escort ships were assigned to the Armilla Patrol during the 1980s-90s but none were permanently based in there and each ship spent considerable time on passage to and from the UK. British military involvement in the region is now called operation Kipion and until late 2017, the RN maintained at least one surface escort on Kipion. (In addition to the minehunters and RFA based in Bahrain). HMS Diamond was on her way to relieve HMS Monmouth in Gulf when forced to return home in November 2017 (due to a propeller shaft defect). Other priorities have left the RN with no escort vessel available to take her place. The main image above shows HMS Iron Duke handing over Kipion duties to HMS St Albans in March 2015 but this scenario will be become rare, with a ship permanently based in Bahrain for 4-5 years.

Vessels assigned to Kipion are involved in a wide range of activity in a large area that spans the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Much of the work is maritime security, disrupting trafficking in people, narcotics and weapons. Tasking may also include in the escorting US carriers or merchant ships in the Northern Gulf, facing down the Iranian navy, equipped with shore-based anti-ship missiles, mini submarines and swarms of small gunboats. Another important responsibility is maintaining freedom of navigation in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and Straits of Hormuz, maritime choke points that are critical to the flow of energy and trade to the UK. Recent operations have involved protecting merchant ships off the coast of war-torn Yemen.

Sending ships to the Persian Gulf and/or the Pacific, a renewed commitment to NATO maritime groups and dramatically increased Russian naval activity all add to the pressure on the fleet, never mind providing escorts for the aircraft carriers. Giving a positive inaugural Sir Henry Leach lecture at RUSI this week, the Defence Secretary highlighted the global ambition for the navy “Deterrence isn’t just four nuclear boats, it’s about aircraft carriers, it is about a presence in the Pacific, a presence in the North Atlantic, a presence in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf.” Reading between the lines of his speech, Williamson is demonstrating to the Chancellor how the UK’s expanding ambitions underline his department’s need for greater funding.

Of our 17 non-mothballed escorts, 6 or 7 are typically at sea at one time, some conducting training or post refit work up with around 4 or 5 available for operational tasks at the sharp end. There are those that might argue the Government’s ego is writing cheques the fleet can’t cash. The RN’s commendable can do attitude can occasionally be counter-productive in the long run. In the period 2010-14 in particular, over-working a reduced fleet damaged morale and led to a further exodus of personnel.

For a service still struggling with significant manpower issues, extending commitments will involve another balancing act.

The First Sea Lord rightly highlighted this week, the desirability of an increased focus on the Pacific, the region is becoming the epicentre of global trade and it is advantageous to have visibility amongst our partners and potential adversaries. UK interests in the Middle East and Gulf region are similarly important. Thanks to the navy and a constant culture of adapting and maximising the output of our assets, the UK does possess a global reach that few other nations can match.

The soft power benefits of showing the White Ensign, defence diplomacy and having a ‘presence’ are not in doubt. But is it sensible to be stretched so thin that the actual assets in theatre amount to single ships and have limited military impact? In most cases, should a conflict arise, they could even be a liability, quickly overcome by the local opposition unless rapidly reinforced with significant help from the United States.

A frigate permanently based in the Gulf will certainly be welcomed by regional partners. The US Navy has been impressed by the Type 45’s capabilities and might be rather more excited if there was a powerful air defence vessel available it could entrust with escorting its aircraft carriers.

The Kipion frigate, her ships company and maintenance staff will benefit from the newly-opened naval support facility, HMS Juffair at Mina Salman in Bahrain, UK trade and diplomatic relations with several of the Gulf states continue to deepen and Exercise Saif Sareea 3 will see 4,500 UK forces personnel deployed to Oman later this year. The basing of a frigate at Juffair appears to signal a greater commitment to our partners in the Gulf but the forward-deployed frigate may find itself in demand for forays further afield, perhaps into the Pacific.

Routine work for the Kipion frigate. HMS Somerset’s boarding team inspect a vessel of interest in the Arabian Gulf , 2014.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

In September 2006 HMS Edinburgh arrived in the Falklands and remained in the South Atlantic for more than a year. This was a rare experiment with crew rotation on a surface escort, after 6 months the crew of another Type 42, HMS Exeter were flown out to relive the original ship’s company. The idea of crew rotation is attractive because it saves on fuel costs, wear and tear on the ship and in particular, the long time the ship must spend on in transit.

The four minehunters forward-deployed to the Gulf and the hydrographic vessels and the OPVs have been successfully using variations of the crew rotation system for several years. The minehunters ship’s companies are provided by 16 crews in 2 squadrons (MCM1 crew 1 ,MCM2 crew 5 etc) and work up together on an identical sister ship in the UK before being flown out to Bahrain relive one of the crews on a six-month cycle.

Hydrographic vessels HMS Echo and Enterprise have been ‘forward deployed’ in the Mediterranean for periods of more than 2 years. They operate a 3-watch system – the total Ship’s Company is 72, with 48 personnel onboard at any one time working a cycle of around 75 days on, 30 days off. The frequent changeover of personnel works in the relaxed environment of hydrographic survey but is not suited to combat vessels where the crew must be a very sharp and cohesive unit. A similar rotation system is used for the Falkland Island patrol ship HMS Clyde which has not returned to the UK since first arriving in 2007. (Maintenance is conducted locally or in South Africa).

Despite making crew rotation a success in other parts of the fleet, and after conducting numerous studies and a few experiments, until now the RN has avoided this practice for its major warships. (Historically the RN had several separate ‘Fleets’ with ships permanently stationed across the empire in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malta etc, often with sailors away for periods of up to 2 years).

For the modern navy, there are significant drawbacks of permanently stationing a frigate in a foreign base. When the ship’s company arrives to take over a ship that is on an operational deployment and sailing into danger within a short time after arrival, they must be fully trained. This requires that they are already trained on an identical ship with the same equipment outfit. Even between ships of the same class, there are some differences and modifications that must be quickly understood. It is possible a brief, tailored ‘in-theatre’ Operational Sea Training package may be needed for the incoming crew.

Typically sailors spend at least 2 years serving on a ship and tend to become rather attached to their floating home which may have its own ethos and personality. Crews are strongly encouraged to take pride in their ship, its name, history and reputation. Although ultimately one Type 23 frigate is much like another and it’s the people that really matter, swapping whole crews around risks damage to this sense of ownership. The transits to and from the UK also give sailors the opportunity to visit a variety of other ports and time to further bond together as a crew.

The effects of basing just a single frigate in Bahrain will be felt across the whole fleet. The controversial nine-month Kipion deployments guaranteed leave periods before and after, plus a one-month support & leave period mid-deployment. With personnel numbers in a very fragile balance, this change to a 6-months pattern affect the majority of ships and sailors in the training cycle.

Likely candidates to be sent to the Gulf would be one of the Type 23s about to emerge from Life Extension refit at Devonport, HMS Kent, Richmond or Lancaster. A deciding factor in selection could between ships with a towed array sonar ‘tail’ or one of the ‘general purpose’ ships, the ASW capability may be more urgently needed in North Atlantic and European waters.

A stable RN presence in the Gulf region that fully exploits the value of HMS Juffair it to be welcomed. Unfortunately, the surface fleet lacks the numbers to deliver effectively on every promise. The Defence Secretary tacitly admitted in his speech that the Navy needs more escorts. The Type 31 programme is the most realistic hope for an increase in numbers,  though the five promised are not yet even in the MoD equipment funding plan.