NEWS that the Royal Fleet Auxilliary ship RFA Lyme Bay is about to take part in humanitarian relief operations in Dominica jogged my memory. Back in 2011, I wrote a lengthy piece on the class promoting their vitrues as a multi-role vessel ideal for humanitarian relief operations. Note that 3 ships are now in service with the RFA. Largs Bay, the lead ship of the class was sold to Australia and renamed HMAS Choules. The video animation in this post comes from the Royal Australian Navy.
So, I dug the story out, and here it is:
Are Bays the Way? The Case for the Low-Tech Royal Navy.
TIMES are hard, and in the case of the Royal Navy, things are about as dire as they can get.
The recent defence review cut the already cut to the bone service down to the marrow while retaining many of its roles.
The term used in naval circles is “overstretch.”
It is time to move away from the rights and wrongs of The Cameron/Clegg government’s reasoning behind the ill-conceived defence review and instead focus on probably the only sensible decision to come out of the whole debacle.
That decision, to replace a Royal Navy warship on station in the Caribbean Sea with a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA)
The RFA has been around for 106 years. Civilian manned, the ships though painted grey, are not warships, and not really merchant ships. They carry a port of registry like merchant vessels, but are often armed with defensive weapons. They can carry military grade sensors, and some are capable of deploying armed aircraft and troops. They can go places Royal Navy ships often can not. Not always requiring the same diplomatic clearances to enter a foreign port or territorial waters that a warship does. The RFA’s main role is support of Royal Navy activities worldwide. Its ships carry fuel, ammunition, food and spares for deployed RN vessels.
The service is more than just about freighting diesel from A to B, and providing sustenance for the hungry crews of warships. In recent years, the ever-sophisticated ships of the RFA have found themselves in the thick of military action. As far back as World War Two, RFA ships were mixing it with the enemy. In 1982 two RFAs were the target of Argentine jets at Bluff Cove in the Falklands war. One of the ships was lost to enemy action.
Now, with defence spending at an all-time low, it is the time for the RFA to come into its own.
The Royal Navy has a lot of work to do. From reacting to fast moving political crises across the world, tracking drug smugglers, and perusing pirates, to amphibious operations, submarine hunting and mine warfare. What ships it has are kept very busy.
This is why the decision to replace the UK’s presence in the Caribbean was a smart move by government. Operations in that part of the world are part PR, part law enforcement, part humanitarian. They are rarely warlike and rarely demand the capabilities offered by a modern destroyer or frigate. In future, an RFA vessel, like the capable Bay Class will be deployed to the region.
With a displacement of 16,000 tonnes, a Bay Class ship has a large flight deck capable of operating any type of helicopter in service with the UK. It has a floodable dock which can carry small boats and landing craft, it has a good communications and sensor fit, and it has space for vehicles, and personnel.
Powered by diesel engines it is also cheaper to run than a warship and is more capable of operating for long periods away from a base without support.
A ship like this is just what you want pitching up on the horizon when your island has been devastated by a hurricane. It can treat your sick and injured, accommodate your homeless, and act as a mobile air field and harbour.
Put a helicopter on board together with US Coastguard personnel and you have the perfect platform for tracking and hunting Caribbean drug smugglers. Replace those Coastguards with Royal Marines, and you can do the same job against East African pirates.
Trouble in a foreign country? A civil war that is nothing to do with you, but requires intervention to secure evacuation of civilians? Deploy a Bay Class. The recent evacuation of civilians from Libya by a Frigate and Destroyer highlighted the need for a big transport ship in the region. The Royal Navy ships did the job. A Bay could have done it better. They are able to dock without the assistance of tugs, and can swallow up hundreds of refugees as well as providing a very visible military presence.
The case for the Bay Class and ships like it is clear. As the cash-strapped Royal Navy finds itself under more pressure, military planners need to take a long hard look at what it is they want the navy to do, and what it needs to do that job.
New destroyers costing £1Bn a shot are undoubtedly important. The problem is that they are unlikely to be used in their primary war fighting role that often.
What we need is a 2-tier navy based around a small hi-tech first fleet of world-beating aircraft carriers, escorts mine countermeasures and amphibious ships. Then a bigger cheaper low-tech fleet of workhorses to take care of the less hostile business of modern naval operations. Ships carrying earth moving gear, medical supplies, and helicopters rather than missiles, shells and fighter planes. Vessels that are RFA manned, cheap to build, cheap to run that can support policing roles, coordinate disaster relief operations and generally take charge in situations where front-line warships don’t really fit.
Add to this fleet lightly-armed RN-crewed offshore patrol vessels similar to the existing River Class Royal Navy patrol ships. The truth is, no RN warship is going to engage suspected Somali Pirates or Columbian Drug Smugglers with a sophisticated anti-ship missile. The world’s best submarine detection system is merely excess baggage when hunting bad guys in converted fishing vessels. What you need is a gunboat costing a fraction of the price of a frigate to do the job.
Perhaps the government’s decision to make more use of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in operations overseas signals a change in thinking.
Times are tough, cash is tight, and jobs have to be done. If the RN is to flourish in future, it needs to push the limits of what is possible rather than pushing its existing and shrinking fleet of front-line warships any further on operations they don’t have to be involved in.
*It has to be noted that government intend to withdraw one Bay Class ship and sell it overseas.