Survey vessel, HMS Echo arrived in Portsmouth on 29 March. For the last few weeks she has been de-storing and has now joined RFA Wave Knight laid up in the non-tidal basin. She has not been decommissioned but her future is undecided. Here we look at why the RN will, at least temporarily, make do without another ship.
The RN will not officially confirm the status of HMS Echo as they do not routinely comment on readiness levels, although there may be a more formal announcement in the future. Reliable sources say the decision has been made to place Echo in reserve to free up funding and people in order to deliver the next generation of hydrographic survey capabilities. Echo has been moved onto 7 berth in 3 basin which is rarely used, and certainly not for maintenance work.
No formal decision has been taken on the immediate future of HMS Echo and Enterprise (SVHOs) that will reach the end of their intended service life in 2028. They may be retired early but this strategy could also mean their replacements are ready sooner. With some life left in these ships, they could also be viable for sale to other navies. Ocean survey vessel HMS Scott was recently extended in service for another year at least, although she is older than the SVHOs.
There is mention of “Future Hydrographic Vessels” in the new National Shipbuilding Strategy but just what form these ships could take is very uncertain. Autonomous and uncrewed systems offer radical new ways to survey the oceans. Off-board sensors on UUVs could replace the use of conventional ship-mounted side-scan sonars. Multiple UUVs could cover large areas and operate autonomously, potentially more cheaply and more efficiently than existing methods.
While future developments are exciting and hydrographic capability could be delivered in all sorts of interesting ways there is no actual ‘sunrise’ hardware ready right now to replace the ‘sunset’ capability. Like the uncrewed mine hunting systems the RN is bringing into service, some form of (relatively cheap / rapidly procured?) motherships will also be needed to deploy and support these autonomous systems globally.
The crewed MCMVs and SVHOs also carry out a range of other tasks and have a presence that matters beyond their core roles. This is a significant issue for the RN as it undergoes transformation resulting in an ever-reducing number of hulls. Naval strength and capability is not defined purely by hull numbers but perhaps autonomous systems, for the next decade at least, should be seen primarily as an extension of ship capabilities rather than complete replacements for ships.
The work of the Hydrographic vessels charting the world’s oceans generates revenue for the MoD and contributes to the safety of mariners worldwide. More critically, understanding the seabed and the water column is important for both the RN’s submarine operations and its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. When not employed on survey work, HMS Echo and Enterprise have been involved in maritime security missions, support of mine warfare vessels, humanitarian operations and scientific research.
In the current environment, the RN is understandably keen to reconsider how units are managed at the end of their life in order to introduce their replacements faster. This may come at the cost of availability in the near term and is symptomatic of a very taut budget that leaves increasing capability gaps. In some cases, this does not allow the phasing out of the old to overlap with the introduction of the new.
Clearly, difficult financial trade-offs and risk balancing decisions are still having to be made about even relatively small funding issues at secondary levels. This indicates just how difficult it will be to manage far more expensive and urgently needed increases in offensive lethality for the frontline fleet. The case for a major uplift in defence spending has never been stronger.