Up close with the Royal Navy’s new OPVs – HMS Medway
HMS Medway arrived in her base port of Portsmouth for the first time on 17 June. She is in the process of working up before commissioning into the RN in September. We went on board to speak to her officers and look around the newest ship in the fleet.
Growing the fleet
Medway is the second of the five Batch II river class OPVs. What makes her somewhat unique is that she is the first new ship to join the RN for many years that is actually an addition to the strength of the fleet, rather than just a replacement for a decommissioned vessel. (Thanks to the sensible decision to retain the Batch I vessels). The first BII OPV, HMS Forth, is a direct replacement for HMS Clyde and will take over her role as permanent Falklands guard ship in the latter part of this year.
From one perspective, the Batch II OPVs may be seen as symptomatic of UK defence procurement failures, hideously expensive and comparing badly with more capable foreign equivalents. Their hefty price tag was paid to keep the shipbuilding skills base alive during delays to the start of the Type 26 frigate programme. Broadly speaking, this was the least-worst choice in the situation created by successive governments’ unwillingness to place regular shipbuilding orders. The more positive side of the story is the Type 26 design already proving to be a global success while the RN is getting five modern vessels which can make a contribution to reducing the workload on the rest of the fleet.
The birth of a ship
As reported previously, there were significant material defects discovered with HMS Forth soon after she was accepted by the RN. Her builders, BAE Systems’ reputation was not enhanced by this debacle and HMS Forth’s entry into service was delayed by more than a year while construction mistakes were rectified. Against this background, the smooth delivery and entry into service of HMS Medway assumed particular strategic importance for BAES. Their determination to get it right with Medway has been evident to her crew, with the workforce in Glasgow putting in long hours and much oversight by senior BAES engineers. Contractors sea trials were conducted in February and the ship was formally handed over to the RN on 5th March.
Manpower pressures in the RN have seen Medway’s ship’s company generated in a rather condensed period, building up from a handful of sailors to about 50 people right now. A new crew must first prove they are safe to live on the new ship and the Ship’s Staff Move On Board (SSMOB) date was in achieved on 1st May. An intense period of drills and exercises while the builders finish their work and hand over to sailors culminated in the ship passing the FOST Ready for sea inspection on 7th June. With sailors living on board a vessel that is still under construction and keen to get to sea, there are inevitable tensions between builders and crew but during the construction handover period an officer on Medway commented the BAES “did everything they could when asked… all things considered, the process worked very well”.
A new crew must establish routines and administration procedures while embarking a myriad of stores and adjusting to their new home. Most importantly, the first ships company have the privilege of setting the right tone and atmosphere, the intangibles that may define the ship’s personality and may last for the lifetime of a ship. The ship’s company is around 50 people with a relatively low proportion of them junior rates. There are 13 officers (3 of them officers under training) and almost a third of the crew are senior rates. Although the ship is highly automated about a third of the crew are marine or weapon engineers. The OPV crews rotate through a ‘three watch’ manning system, similar to that in use on the RN’s hydrographic vessels. Two watches are on board at any one time, while the third watch is on leave or ashore training. Typically each sailor serves for eight weeks on the ship before going ashore for four weeks. This predictable working pattern is popular with personnel who have families, allowing some certainty about when they will be home.
Medway has accommodation for an additional embarked military force (EMF) of up to 50 troops. This could be used by special forces or a small raiding force. Alternatively, extra personnel to assist in disaster relief might be carried or evacuated civilians could be accommodated. Access to the EMF accommodation (without going via the upper deck) is through the generator room, which is one of the less ideal features of the design, although they have their own bathrooms and food servery.
During her two weeks of builders sea trials and 10-day summer transit to Portsmouth, HMS Medway has not yet encountered any heavy weather. When tested at high speed and hard turning, the crew report her handling to be excellent, with good acceleration. The Batch II are based on the BAES-built Amazonas class corvettes serving with the Brazilian Navy since 2012 and the hull form is well proven and understood. The basic design has been changed little, although there were 29 separate small changes for RN requirements which mostly relate to the combat system, improved damage control measures and helicopter operations. A simple and reliable propulsion system consists of two 7,350kw high-speed MAN 16V 28/33D diesels driving the ship up to speeds of 24 knots, which is fast by typical OPV standards. Like the Batch I vessels, they are fitted with active stabilisers, bow thrusters and controllable pitch propellers.
There is often some criticism that these OPVs are under-armed but the naval staff is clear that these ships are designed as patrol vessels intended primarily for constabulary and maritime security operations. The 30mm gun, modern but affordable radar and the Electro-optical cameras are more than adequate for operating where the biggest threats are pirates in boats armed with RPGs. The small operations room is fitted with a cut-down version of the BAES CMS-1 (Now re-branded as INTeACT) combat management system. Its main function is not control of weapons, but to present an integrated tactical picture to the command gathered from all the sensors on board.
Although there is some potential to ‘up-gun’ these vessels with heavier weapons and even guided missiles, one has to question why? Adding more weapons and sensors would just add to the manpower and maintenance costs while producing a mediocre combatant. There is evidence these ships have been designed with space and margins ready to accept the future addition of new equipment. The open architecture combat system and space for TEU containers offer options to host technology that may not yet even exist. Instead of an expensive manned helicopter, operating UAVs could be the best use of the flight deck, vastly extending the area that can be kept under surveillance.
HMS Medway is alongside in her home port for a couple of weeks before sailing for further workup and trials. After the summer leave period, she will then undergo FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) serials and inspections. FOST staff based in Faslane will focus on seamanship and safety before she goes to Devonport where the emphasis is more on operations, aviation and replenishment at sea. After commissioning into the fleet at a ceremony in Chatham in the Autumn, she is likely to spend some time in UK waters and may conduct fishery protection patrols before being forward-deployed overseas for an extended period.
You can follow her progress on the lively Twitter account @HMS_Medway