Migrant boats crossing the Channel demands a measured response

Small numbers of migrants intent on entering the UK illegally have started taking to small boats in an attempt to avoid the strict controls on cross-channel ferries. As the Brexit debate climaxes, media focus on migration is at fever pitch with some journalists even trying to blame the navy for being ill-equipped to respond. A few migrants in rubber dinghies that make it across the Channel should not be cause for over-reaction. There is undoubtedly a shortage of RN, Border Force and Coastguard vessels available to patrol UK waters but sensibly addressing this issue should not undermine the RN’s main purpose as a globally-deployed, ocean-going navy.

Every problem can be blamed on aircraft carriers…

Both The Times and The Telegraph turned to their “defence experts” for poisonous editorials about how a lack of small ships is a problem and the Navy’s fault. Max Hasting disciple, Con Coghlin claims “the RN is obsessed with big ships”. The RN is not obsessed with anything, other than trying to create a fleet that can fight and win in conflicts of all kinds. The RN would like more OPVs and patrol craft if they were given the resources that ensured they did not come at the expense of warships that could actually fight a war. Coughlin suggests the RN somehow has its priorities wrong.. “Left to its own devices, the Navy would equip itself with a fleet of state-of-the-art frigates and destroyers” Whatever next? a properly equipped navy with more than 19 surface escorts!

Ex-Army journalist Allan Mallinson tried to find a parallel between failures at Jutland in 1916 and the size of the RN’s carriers. Through no fault of its own, the RN is certainly lacking in numbers but is constructing a balanced force with capabilities that are both flexible and future-proof. If we dispose of conventional naval forces in favour of greater numbers of cheaper/simpler ships we might cope marginally better with asymmetric threats, but be unable to defend against the much more serious threats from other states.

The US, Russia, China and many other nations are investing heavily in conventional naval forces and are not fooled into changing their whole concept of operations by a few terrorists in a speed boat or migrants in rubber dinghies.

Effective carriers need to be big and like all ships, have their vulnerabilities but they remain firmly the centre peice of every world-class navy. For several decades hordes of amateur commentators have been trying to tell us the aircraft carrier is obsolete, like the battleships became in WWII. They forget that their aircraft armament has continued to rapidly evolve in a way that battleships never could. Mallinson’s corvette navy could do little but protect against low-grade seaborne threats and could not project much power ashore, the most likely role for the RN’s carriers.

There are plenty of proponents of the ‘two-tier navy’ that would rush to build more OPVs, corvettes and patrol vessels. Unfortunately constrained budgets would almost certainly mean these snatch Land Rovers of the sea would come at the expense of vessels with a full range of fighting capability. These craft would undoubtedly be useful for policing and patrols until the day the RN had to take on a serious foe when they become a liability. There is much hope that the National Shipbuilding Strategy could bring a measure of stability to the industry and it begin to deliver the balanced force the RN needs. The NSS should not be derailed by a rush for OPVs.

Keep calm and carry on

The English Channel itself is one of the most monitored stretches of water in the World. It is also an exceptionally busy shipping lane subject to strong winds and tides, hazardous to cross in small craft if you are not an experienced mariner. Although there is no room for complacency, there is unlikely to be anything like the number of migrant boats attempting to cross the Channel as there are crossing the Mediterranean.

Although the English Channel presents a formidable barrier, the UK as whole has 17,820 Km of coastline (the exact figure is widely disputed) and 3,200 sq Km of territorial waters that needs to be kept under surveillance. There are an abundance of quiet harbours, estuaries and beaches which could be used for illicit activities. There is evidence that people smuggling into the UK by sea is on the increase. Besides people trafficking in our waters, terrorist activity, drug smuggling, illegal fishing and waste dumping are a concern. Offshore oil, gas and wind farm infrastructure may also need protection. Even Mumbai-style terror attacks launched from a ‘mothership’ remain an outside possibility.

No one can be comfortable with the paucity of assets available to patrol our territorial waters. France has a shorter coastline than the UK but the Marine Nationale alone has at least 21 OPVs and patrol craft. At present HMS Severn and HMS Tyne are the only RN ships dedicated to continuous patrols, while HMS Sutherland is currently the ‘Fleet Ready Escort’. The FRE routinely escorts ‘unfriendly’ warships near UK waters or may be involved in hunting submarines, search and rescue and general surveillance. However calls to place a frigate permanently in the Channel is plainly overkill and not the best use of sophisticated warships in very short supply.

In addition to RN vessels, the UK Border Force has 5 patrol cutters (pictured above). The UKBF has not as yet explicitly stated that it needs more vessels to tackle the migrant problem, although it is shortly due to receive 8 additional large RHIBs.

Already without long-range Maritime Patrol Aircraft until at least 2019, in November 2015 the Home Office bizarrely terminated a contract with civilian firm Cobham to provide basic airborne surveillance of UK waters.

The specific migration issue cannot be fixed by any navy and is a complex global problem that needs to be solved on land. Although politicians talk about ‘stopping people traffickers’, most of the naval actions in the Mediterranean have been humanitarian. People at the risk of drowning cannot be left, are rescued and landed in Europe which may actually encourage more to put to sea in flimsy boats. If the RN picks up migrants in the English Channel it is hard to imagine the French government allowing them to be returned to France.

Affordable solutions are possible

Under current plans the 3 batch 1 River class OPVs (HMS Severn, Tyne & Mersey) are simply to be replaced by the marginally more capable (but grossly expensivebatch 2 class currently under construction (HMS Forth, Medway and Trent, with 2 more on order). SDSR 2015 only promised upto 6 OPVs which includes HMS Clyde permanently stationed in the Falklands. Keeping the batch 1s in service would increase capability without costing a great deal. As relatively modern vessels they would be an attractive prospect for many navies, especially at the MoD’s usual knock-down prices, but we would be foolish to sell them. Manpower and running costs would require some extra resources but keeping our home waters secure must surely be a political priority. Successful patrols in the Caribbean by HMS Severn, and now Mersey also demonstrate they can usefully relieve pressure on the surface fleet.

The RN operates 16 Archer class P2000 patrol boats but have very limited endurance and ability to operate in rough seas. Apart from the two used for fleet protection duties around Faslane, they are unarmed but could be useful for short patrols. The RN’s minehunters could also be deployed on patrol duties in an emergency but for a sustained period would be another waste of relatively expensive specialist vessels.

  • P2000-HMS-Raider

    HMS Raider. Primarily used to give students and prospective officers of the University Royal Navy Units (URNU) some time at sea, at 50 tons the P2000s should not be considered a serious part of the RN ORBAT. However they might be suited to providing surveillance on short migrant patrols.

  • HMS-Tyne

    HMS Tyne. The 3 batch 1 River class OPVs commissioned in 2003 and could comfortably continue to serve far beyond their decommissioning currently planned for 2018-20.

  • HMS-Blackwater

    HMS Blackwater c1992. 12 of these river class minesweepers were completed in the mid-1980s originally designed to sweep deepwater mines but mainly employed on fishery protection, training and patrol duties by the RNR. All victims of defence cuts 1991-93 and sold to foreign navies were they are all still in service.

  • HMS_Jersey

    HMS Jersey c1988. Based on a simple, robust fishing trawler design, these 6 vessels conducted fishery protection and maritime security patrols from the 1970-90s before being sold to foreign navies where many of them are still doing sterling service

Although it is unlikely to be on the Navy Board agenda, creative thinking might deliver some cheap home waters patrol ships. Not long ago the RN operated the Island class fishery protection vessels and the River class minesweepers. Based on fishing trawler designs and manned partly by reservists, these simple ships had the sea-keeping quality and endurance to provide plentiful surveillance around the UK. Similar patrol craft could be purchased off the shelf quickly and cheaply and would only require small crews. A mini ‘flight deck’ on these vessels to launch and recover UAVs would vastly extend the area that can be monitored.

As a final thought… while we are paying BAE Systems around £116M for a single OPV, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force was able to procure 9 Patrol vessels & their complete berthing facilities for around £130m.


Main photo: Bill Scott via Flickr, UK Border Force Cutter HMC Seeker departs Ramsgate