HMS Severn heads for the Caribbean amid questions about the RN’s Offshore Patrol Vessels.

For the first time a Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) HMS Severn will be sent to undertake an Atlantic Patrol (North) in the Caribbean and this raises some interesting questions. HMS Severn is one of 3 vessels usually patrolling UK waters undertaking their prime task of fishery protection. Antarctic patrol vessel HMS Protector was briefly deployed to the Caribbean this year (between Antarctic Summer seasons) but otherwise the APT (N) task has been usually been a job for frigates or RFAs (auxiliary ships).

Interdiction of drug supplies coming from South America and the provision of disaster relief support to UK Caribbean territories in the event of seasonal hurricanes are the main remit for the APT(N). The Caribbean hurricane season is between June and November so HMS Severn is unlikely to be called on in the disaster relief role.

HMS Severn has undertaken an extended period of sea training with FOST to ensure her ship’s company is prepared for this unfamiliar role. The River class OPVs (Batch 1) are very seaworthy but have bare minimum armament of a 20mm cannon and a couple of machine guns. With diesel propulsion designed for reliability and economy, they can manage 20 knots. They are also built to commercial standards, have comfortable accommodation, small crews and high levels of automation.

While the RFAs that take on this role have similar limited speed, they have large flight decks and hangar facilities for at last one Lynx helicopter. The helicopter is central to the mission in the Caribbean, able to provide reconnaissance over a vastly wider area than the ship and able to outpace and intimidate high-speed drug running boats. In the disaster relief role the helicopter provides valuable initial reconnaissance as well as transport of supplies and personnel. HMS Severn has no flight deck or hangar and lacks this key helicopter capability. She is at least, more economical to operate than a frigate or even an RFA.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The obvious question is how will the RN will meet its UK fishery protection commitments that the Marine and Fisheries Agency partially funds. Not only does the UK have no dedicated maritime patrol aircraft, but this aggravates the already woeful lack of vessels to patrol home waters.

The basic lack of ships is the main driving factor behind this innovative deployment. However HMS Severn will gather useful experience about how the vessels perform in this role and perhaps this is a signpost to an expanding future employment of OPVs.

There are 3 new River class (batch 2) OPVs on order although it will not be clear until after the 2015 SDSR if they will just be replacements in for the Batch 1s in the fishery protection role or true additions to the fleet. Sister ship HMS Clyde is permanently stationed in the Falklands and the ability to permanently deploy an OPV to the Caribbean, Gibraltar or even Bahrain would be very desirable.

Three expensive new OPVs being built for the RN

Although welcome, the new OPVs being built by BAE Systems in Glasgow are something of a curiosity. They are primarily a means of keeping workers employed until the Type 26 frigate programme begins, rather than ships the RN particularly needs. The existing Batch 1 ships are relatively modern and not in urgent need of replacement. The Terms of Business Agreement signed by the previous Labour government guaranteed BAE a minimum level of work and it makes more sense to spend the money on shipbuilding rather than just pay hefty penalties. The cost of these very simple ships is extraordinarily high.

BAE recently completed 3 very similar vessels (Amazonas Class), eventually sold to Brazil for around £44M each, while the RN is paying £116M each for their vessels.

They have some equipment modifications for RN service that will add a little to the cost and will include a Merlin-size flight deck but this does not fully explain the huge £72M, 162% mark up. In a case like this where the design work has already been done and BAE has recent experience of building almost identical vessels, one would expect the cost to be the same or less. Perhaps some of the discrepancy can be explained by introducing deliberate cost-inducing delays to the OPV project as the start of the Type 26 project appears to have slipped further. Lets hope yet another unpleasant procurement omnishambles is not already brewing as the MoD has missed the deadline for placing orders before the general election. The First Sea Lord recently gave an interview suggesting the RN would consider building frigates abroad. Since it is a political and commercial certainty that the Type 26s will be built in Glasgow by BAE, this seemed like a rare slip by the normally inscrutable and diplomatic Admiral. The Defence secretary quickly denied that warships would ever be built abroad but perhaps the Admiral was deliberately trying to put pressure on BAE to control costs and highlight the dismally slow pace of the program?

River class (Batch 2) SpecMod/BAE Systems graphic showing basic specification for the new river class OPVs to be named HMS Forth, HMS Trent & HMS Medway. Landing a Merlin helicopter on that flight deck will be a challenge. (Click for larger version)

Lack of hangar – a critical weakness

If we remain optimistic and assume that the new OPVs will be additions to the fleet rather than just replacements, then the design of these ships represents a major missed opportunity. If these ships were designed with a hangar their potential for overseas service would be transformed. Although the new ships will have a flight deck, it is not practical to embark a helicopter for an extended period without the protection and facilities for maintenance that a hanger provides. A helicopter gives a warship a quantum leap in the speed at which it can respond to events as well as its offensive capability. In a more serious conflict a helicopter can help mitigate for the OPVs light armament. (Virtually unarmed patrol ship HMS Endurance was able to by send her helicopters into action in the Falklands/South Georgia operation of 1982). The Amazonas design provides space for 2 standard (20ft) TEU shipping containers to be lashed to the deck and one these could perhaps be used as a shelter for a small UAV.

Even with the best radar and sensor fit, a surface ship can only survey a fraction of the area that airborne assets can cover. There are plenty of OPV designs that include a hangar and are comparable to the BAE design, potentially offering the RN a far more powerful and flexible ship. If we had used one of these designs as a starting point instead of the ‘bare bones’ Amazonas, it would not have cost much to make minor changes to suit RN needs.
Offshore Patrol Vessels of the Spanish Navy

The BAM (Buque de Acción Marítima) OPVs of the Spanish Navy, 2,500 tons, helicopter hangar, roomy flight deck, medium calibre gun, 20knots and costing €167 / approx £130M – what’s not to like? (Photo: Spanish Navy)

HMNZS Otago

Protector class OPVs of the Royal New Zealand Navy, 1,900 tons, 25mm gun, hangar, flight deck, 22 knots, cost less than £100m (Photo: NZ Defence Force)

HMS Forth

The future HMS Forth, 2,000 tons, 30mm gun, 24 knots, flight deck but no hangar, cost approx £116M. Are we getting value for money from our precious defence budget? (Image: BAE Systems)