The UK and Netherlands have formally announced they will explore opportunities to work together to purchase a new generation of amphibious warships. Here we look at the background and the options for this important programme.
The Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) project is a plan to develop a single design to replace the two LPDs HMS Albion and Bulwark, the three LSD(A)s RFA Mounts Bay, Cardigan Bay and Lyme Bay together with RFA Argus. If the RN wants to retain its amphibious/littoral strike capability, then the acquisition of these six ships in the early-mid 2030s must happen.
A pre-concept study for MRSS was conducted between 2017-2018 by the MoD’s Naval Design Partnering (NDP) team, initially focussed on possible replacements for the LPDs. MRSS officially entered the concept phase in 2021 and has yet to progress beyond this exploratory period. The 3 types of vessels to be replaced have similar but subtly different roles. The LPDs are intended to be the main platform for amphibious assault delivering the first wave of troops and act as the command platform. The Bay class were loosely intended to carry follow-on troops and provide additional stores, ammunition and general logistic support to the bridgehead. The Bays have proved especially versatile in other roles, including as motherships for mine warfare. Veteran RFA Argus is an aviation training ship and has a medical facility to act as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS). As ‘Cinderella of the fleet’, in her old age she has now been transformed with minimal modification into a Littoral Strike Ship, soon to be operating from Oman for an extended period.
As the two nations are both at a similar stage in considering how to replace amphibious vessels and already have a close defence relationship, the UK government has approached the Netherlands to propose a joint project. The idea makes sense from the RN’s perspective and is good politics because MRSS is not yet a funded programme. By involving another nation it makes it more likely it will become a programme of record. Withdrawal from a bilateral endeavour is more politically embarrassing than it would be to quietly cancel a UK-only project. The politicians currently running defence are unlikely to be around when the tough decisions have to be made and it looks good for now to be signing up for more cooperation with one of our closest NATO partners, whatever happens in future. Putting the cynicism about political motives aside, this is also a sensible and practical idea that could benefit both nations.
The Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) needs to replace HNLMS Rotterdam launched in 1997 and HNLMS Johan De Witt launched in 2006. These ships and the Spanish Galicia Class were collaboratively designed as a nation-to-nation project between Spain and the Netherlands. Damen (Royal Schelde at the time) subsequently developed the modular LPD ‘Enforcer’ design from this work, used the basis for the Bay Class RFAs launched between 2003-05.
Something of a complication is the RNLN desire for the new programme to encompass the replacement for their 4 large OPVs of the Holland class, built 2010-11. There does not seem to be a great deal of synergy between the very different capabilities and size of an OPV and an LPD, other than possibly cost-savings derived from a common hull. The project is known as LPX in the Netherlands and, like the UK, their requirement is for a total of 6 ships.
Joint development of warships with the UK’s European partners does not have a good track record. The last attempt was the Common New Generation Frigate (CNGF) programme which the UK abandoned in 1999 to design the Type 45 destroyers alone as Italian and French requirements proved to be too divergent from RN needs. Developing a ship together from scratch is quite a different scenario to selling an existing platform design to another nation for customisation as in the case of the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates.
The advantages of cooperation would be to spread the design cost and the economies of scale when using the same components such as propulsion machinery for potentially up to 12 ships. It is important to note that there cannot be too much deviation in outfitting a common hull otherwise the costs start to rise and the advantages are lost. At the start of the process, there would need to be firm agreement on the Key User Requirements (KUR) that drive the overall design. This needs to be followed by a very disciplined approach to the detailed design avoiding significant changes being demanded by either party.
In the case of these vessels the ‘main armament’ is the embarked military force and the core design revolves around the means for their accommodation and delivery ashore, together with the command and control spaces. Provided this core remains the same, then it should not be too difficult to customise the sensors and light self-defence armament to national requirements. The longer-term benefit of a common platform would be shared operating experience, logistic support and ships familiar to two forces that are already used to operating closely and embarking on each other’s amphibious vessels.
Key User Requirements
Defining the requirements for MRSS-LPX will be complicated as there are some conflicting demands and hot debates about the direction of amphibious warfare. Both the Royal Marines and the Dutch Korps Mariniers are reconfiguring their commando forces to operate in smaller, more agile, dispersed and highly networked teams. The ever-increasing vulnerability of a stationary vessel positioned close to the shore suggests troops, weapons, vehicles and their logistic support will have to travel longer distances from the main assault platform. This in turn suggests greater reliance on helicopters. Albion and Bulwark’s lack of hangar facilities has long been regretted as a major weakness.
Assuming the ambition for Littoral Strike extends beyond light raiding, then heavy equipment and stores will still have to come ashore by boat. A helicopter carrier (LPH) is not the solution and a well dock will remain a key part of the design. The Landing craft (LCU) will also need to be faster, capable of independent operation over longer ranges and in higher sea states than the slow craft Royal Marines make do with today. Good aviation facilities and a well dock for capable LCUs appears to demand a large ship.
There will be a balance to be struck between size, expense and capability. It may be possible to go for a smaller LPD depending on the total force projection requirement. The aim is to have the KURs agreed by both parties by the end of this year. These will dictate space for troop accommodation, lane-meters for vehicles, hangar capacity and the ship’s displacement. 19,500 tonne HMS Albion is designed to carry around 400 marines with 65 assorted vehicles and has good command and control facilities. 14,000-tonne HMNLS Rotterdam can carry around 600 troops and similar vehicle numbers to Albion. The Bay class have a smaller well dock, accommodation for 356 troops but a large vehicle deck reflecting their cargo-carrying role. (In all ships at least 30% more troops can be carried in austere conditions if required).
At this stage, it is difficult to predict what MRSS-LPX may eventually look like. In the Netherlands, Damen has developed their Enforcer LPD concept with variants of various sizes aimed at both the domestic and export markets. The smallest ‘Enforcer 7000’ is 121m in length up to the ‘Enforcer 13000’ which is 163m in length. (The number denotes the approximate displacement in tonnes). In the UK, BMT have proposed the ELLIDA MRSS concept, although this vessel emphasises the logistic support element and includes replenishment at sea capabilities which is likely outside the scope of the current requirements. In both cases, these are still outline designs that would need a lot more work to mature them to the point of manufacture.
Is is pretty obvious that far more firepower will be needed by any force attempting landing operations than is available to the Royal Marines today. Whether this includes GLMRS / HIMARS type rocket or missile launchers or the facility to launch swarming drones and loitering munitions, some novel approaches will be needed if MRSS and its ship-to-shore connectors are going to be more than warmed-over versions of what is currently in service. Direct Naval Gunfire Support is likely to decline in importance and is not a role for the LPD anyway but other ways of giving fire support to the troops must be found.
In an ideal world, Sea Ceptor air defence missiles would be fitted but are probably well outside the budget envelope. The BAES/Bofors 40mm Mk 4 shown on the ELLIDA mock-ups and fitted to the Type 31 frigates would seem like an optimum self-defence solution. It is interesting to note the Thales NS100 4D radar, also the primary and fire-control radar for Type 31, has recently been fitted to HMNLS Rotterdam and Johan De Witt.
RFA Argus has a Role 3 medical facility with 100 patient beds; comprised of 10 Intensive Therapy beds, 20 High Dependency and 70 general beds. The MoD has stated that future Maritime Deployed Hospital Care (MDHC) capability may not replicate the Argus/PCRS model, rather it may be disaggregated between several MRSS, with an option to re-aggregate into a single ship in time of crisis. Essentially all MRSS will have space allocated for medical facilities that can be reconfigured as needed.
When and where?
Even if the joint design effort succeeds, construction is likely to remain a national endeavour with Damen certain to build the Dutch vessels. In the UK it is more complicated to predict where the ships could be built. The construction of 6 ships displacing anything between 10-25,000 tonnes will demand considerable shipyard capacity and it may involve an industrial consortium. Assuming the FSS project remains on track, then the regenerated Harland & Wolff shipyard at Belfast could be an ideal assembly site for such large vessels.
The official Out of Service Dates (as of 2016) were RFA Mounts Bay (2031), Cardigan Bay (2031) RFA Lyme Bay (2032), HMS Albion (2033) and Bulwark (2034). The precise retirement date for Argus is unclear but she has been extended in service “beyond 2030”. In order to replace these vessels on a timely one-for-one basis then the MRSS project needs to proceed quickly and deliver more than one ship per year. A decision on this multi £billion project is unlikely to be made before the post-election defence review which will probably take place in 2025. Completion of the first ships within 6-7 years to replace the Bay class is possible but modest extensions of service for at least one or two ships of the class may be needed.
HMS Bulwark can be expected to serve for a maximum of six years after she emerges from refit in 2024. If she is not decommissioned prematurely, HMS Albion may need another substantial, and potentially expensive refit in order to serve for a few years until MRSS is ready to take over from the LPDs. All these assumptions are based on maintaining the existing slender force without gapping but it is quite possible the scale of UK amphibious capability may be reduced further in the intervening years and the total number of MRSS acquired is less than six.