THE former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Jonathan Band says the government should look seriously into establishing a squadron of six offshore patrol ships.
Sir Jonathan’s comments come in an interview he gave to the website shephardmedia.com. You can read the article here.
Sir Jonathan says that the recent order for three new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) for the fleet is a welcome one and far from being replacements for the three existing River Class OPVs, the new ships should fit into the fleet and work alongside them.
How right the Admiral is. With defence budgets tight, with Royal Navy hull numbers at an all-time low, and with new front line warships becoming increasingly complex and expensive, the time is right for the white ensign to fly over a sizable flotilla of Offshore Patrol Vessels.
The absurdity of tasking very expensive front line warships on minor constabulary roles has long been highlighted by commentators including me. Deploying a Daring Class Type 45 destroyer with its advanced sensors and world class missile systems to take on pirates in a fishing boat is not a sensible use of resources. With only six in the class, the Type 45s should be doing the job they were designed for - defending the fleet from air attack. The same can be said for that other backbone of the Royal Navy, the Type 23 frigate. While their general purpose mission may make them more suited to constabulary operations, a vessel with first class submarine hunting capabilities, anti-ship missiles and advanced air defence systems is another example of the inappropriate use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
That is where the OPV comes in. Slow, unglamorous, and with limited fighting capability, they are what they are, honest, inexpensive patrol ships, perfectly suited and equipped to hunt down pirates, track drug smugglers or support border and maritime security operations.
If the world’s navies are like police forces, then the OPV is the community beat officer, the local bobby who treads his or her patch, who tackles low level crime and whose presence may even deter criminal activity. You wouldn’t send a fully tooled-up riot crew to deal with a broken greenhouse window and sending a front line warship to track a boat full of asylum seekers, or to check the legality of a fishing vessel’s nets is equally as silly.
The Admiral points out that in 2015 the defence review is likely to decide if the Royal Navy’s existing three River Class OPVs will be replaced by the new ships or if they will remain in commission. If the latter happenes, it will give the UK a force of six UK based patrol ships, plus another OPV which is based in the Falkland Islands.
The Admiral makes a compelling case for retaining these ships. The UK does not have a strong border force, and HM Coastguard does not operate like other coastguard agencies in that it does not possess a fleet of patrol vessels. Whether it is fishery protection, anti-terrorism, or border patrol, more cheap Royal Navy ships make sense.
The Royal Navy has a bright future just around the corner. Two new aircraft carriers are coming and a new class of frigate, the Type 26 will be joining the fleet in the next decade. It does sound good, but the numbers of ships involved are small, the costs high, and the duties expected of them are not likely to shrink. Put simply, there will not be enough ships to go round to enable the UK to do everything it wants.
The protracted and incredibly expensive acquisition of the Queen Elizabeth Carriers has crippled the Royal Navy. Its single minded aim to get two new giant carriers has seen it sacrifice a lot, perhaps too much. 12 planned Type 45 destroyers have turned into just six ships, the previous aircraft carrier force has been retired early their jets sold to America. Useful frigates with life in them have been decommissioned, only seven Astute Class submarines will be built, and the Royal Navy’s force of amphibious ships have been cut, with an auxiliary transport sold and a Landing Platform Dock put into mothballs. All the while the demands on the Royal Navy increase with roles like that of Fleet Ready Escort being “gapped” because there are not enough warships to go round.
Cheap - at just over £100M a throw - the new OPVs will be very capable vessels. They will not be experts and submarine hunting and they will not have banks of missiles to shoot down aeroplanes. They will carry sensors, radar and communications equipment that will make them very suited to carrying out patrol tasks. They will also operate rigid hulled inflatable boats to carry boarding teams and crucially there will be space for a helicopter. All for roughly a tenth of the price of a Type 45 destroyer.
The Admiral is right, the Royal Navy needs three new OPVs in addition to the ships it already has. There must however be an air of caution.
It must be made clear to the treasury, politicians and whoever else has a say in the Royal Navy that these cheap patrol ships are not cheap front line warships. They must not replace the high-tech high-end fighting platforms that one day lives may depend on if the UK becomes involved in a maritime military conflict.
The OPV is strictly for peace time. The bobby on the beat, rather than the riot squad.