Amongst the announcements about naval construction made in November 2020, the Prime Minister stated the intention to build new “multi-role research vessels”. No further detail about these ships has been given, although more may emerge when the Integrated Review is published. Here we look at the background to this project.
The term “Research Vessel” covers a very broad spectrum of ships types and designs in terms of capabilities, equipment, management and ownership structures. Most developed nations operate some kind of platform for observing the ocean, European countries alone own around 100 such vessels, including 8 deep ocean and 9 Polar RVs.
There are 5 main areas of interest for RVs; Fishing. The fishing industry requires vessels to monitor stocks and provide data to government and private sector. This information is used to support statutory and legal obligations, develop fishing quotas, plan marine protected areas and assess the impacts of offshore wind farm developments. Marine Biology is the study of the broader marine ecosystem and marine habitats in the cause of conservation, including the interactions of marine plants and animals with coastal areas and the atmosphere. Oceanography may include marine biology but is primarily the study of the ocean itself, the dynamic mechanisms of the water column, currents, ice caps, waves and tidal movements. Hydrography is concerned with mapping the underwater topography of the seabed and coastline, from data gathering at sea to the production of charts. Seabed operations encompass the mining of minerals and the laying of pipes, cables and infrastructure for communications and offshore energy installations. There is a more secretive naval dimension, including mine warfare, tapping or interfering with seabed infrastructure, construction of seabed sensor arrays, submarine rescue operations and the recovery of sensitive items.
For an island nation such as the UK, all of these elements are of prime strategic interest and building new RVs to enhance the existing fleet very much makes sense. Environmental issues, competition for resources and increasing dependence on the sea for communications and trade makes understanding the ocean of growing importance for the world as a whole.
The new vessels that have been promised are likely to be ocean-going and capable of global operations and it is useful to examine the existing vessels of this type and those of the recent past. For the RN, the two most significant vessel in this category are HMS Scott and HMS Challenger. Scott is a dedicated ocean hydrographic survey platform tasked with charting the deep oceans and gathering oceanographic data, both for the production of commercial charts but also in support of submarine operations. She carries no off-board systems and is reliant on specialist sonars for the majority of her work. She entered service in 1997 and is scheduled to leave service in 2022, although this could be extended. Even if the new RVs are intended to take on the hydrographic duties of HMS Scott, they are unlikely to be in service anytime before the late 2020s.
HMS Challenger (main image above) was a seabed operations vessel ordered from Scott Lithgow on the Clyde in 1979 and was finally completed in 1984, her costs having spiralled to £154M, (the equivalent of £500M today). Her troubled construction reflected the sorry state of British shipbuilding at the time, a very ambitious specification and the MoD’s lack of experience in building such a specialist vessel. She was supposed to have three main systems; a Towed Unmanned Submersible (TUMS) that trailed on an umbilical cord up to 2km behind the ship, able to operate very deep, down to 5,000 meters. A central ‘moon pool’ to lower a very large diving bell for saturation divers down to 300m. The ship was also designated to carry the LR5 submersible which comprised the UK submarine rescue system. The TUMS was riddled with technical problems and never worked properly. The enormous diving bell was very expensive to operate, requiring large amounts of costly helium gas. Although the ship was exceptionally manoeuvrable and controllable, with a cutting-edge dynamic positioning system, a top speed of 15 knots was rather slow if ever she had ever been called upon to be involved in a submarine rescue.
Despite her many design flaws and unrealised capabilities, Challenger was a remarkable vessel and did achieve some successes during her short naval career, including some that are still classified. This included the first-ever transfer of personnel between two pressurised submarines at depth and recovering a Sea Harrier from HMS Ark Royal that crashed off Portland. In 1989 the ship and her divers helped avert an environmental catastrophe by recovering highly toxic chemicals from a cargo vessel, MV Perintis that sank 35 miles north of Guernsey.
She was a luxury the RN could not really afford and many of her tasks could have been done more efficiently by hiring civilian specialists as required. Her procurement was likely partly inspired by the complex, and still largely hidden, undersea battle that raged during the Cold War, in particular the use of seabed sensors. She was withdrawn in 1990 and subsequently sold to commercial interests. She is still in service but has been modified beyond recognition and is now one of the world’s ugliest ships, employed by De Beers to mine diamonds from the sea bed. The experience with Challenger has many useful lessons when considering new RVs. Deep-sea diving, ROV and UUV technology have improved dramatically and costs have fallen since she was conceived but much care is required in designing a single platform for multiple roles.
The construction of the £250M RRS Sir David Attenborough (SDA) by Cammell Laird for the British Antarctic Survey has been seen as a significant success for UK shipbuilding. She is almost two years behind the original schedule (only in part due to COVID) but is currently on sea trials preparing for her maiden deployment to the Antarctic in the Autumn. She is a modern and sophisticated icebreaker-RV and aspects of her design and equipment fit may inform the development of future RVs. Her notable features are an internal moonpool for ROV / UUV operation and heavy-duty cranes, A-frames and winches for deploying equipment overboard. She has a hangar and large flex deck for containerised stores and laboratories and machinery noise-reduction measures to reduce interference with sensitive instruments and marine life.
As part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is a virtual certainly that construction of the ships will be restricted to predominately UK consortia or companies. CL would be in pole position to be involved again although the newly revived Harland and Wolff may also participate.
The UK also has two other modern globally-deployable RVs, the RSS Discovery and RSS James Cook operated by NOC, the largest UK integrated ocean research institution. Both were constructed overseas, in Spain and Poland respectively, at a time when there was less political sensitivity about awarding government-funded shipbuilding contracts abroad. The two vessels are employed collecting data with a broad scientific remit to understand the oceans. They are fitted with azimuth thrusters and dynamic positioning systems and are able to deploy sensors and off-board systems up to 30 tonnes.
Although NOC has charitable status, much of its income is derived from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which is mostly funded by the Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). NERC also funds the British Antarctic Survey. How the new RVs will be owned and managed is another aspect that will have to be considered. Whether they are operated by the RN or a civilian agency may depend on whether they are primarily involved in national security-related work or have a more scientific focus.
In conclusion, the UK has the requirement, the operating knowledge, recent construction experience and will shortly have the funds to build new research ships. The Prime Minister specifically mentioned “vessels”, implying the intention will be to build more than one. There are pitfalls in attempting to design a vessel that is ‘jack of all trades but master of none’. Perhaps the ships could share the same platform design (hull and propulsion) but one fitted for hydrography work (to replace HMS Scott), while the other was optimised for seabed operations. Antarctic patrol ship, HMS Protector will be 30 years old by 2030 and some thought also needs to be given to her replacement. Protector is not a ‘pure’ RV, having a much wider remit to support UK interests in the region than the BAS vessels but she does conduct hydrography, oceanography and scientific work.
In our next article, we consider the threat to undersea cables which may have been a significant factor in the decision to build new RVs.