Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that the first Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS) will be purchased this year and be operational next year. A second vessel designed specifically for this task will subsequently be constructed in the UK. Here we take a brief look at the context and implications of this project.
Official discussion of a seabed surveillance ship has been in the public domain since Boris Johnson’s Speech in November 2020 promising “to make the UK Europe’s foremost naval power” and included the plan to build a “new multi-role research vessel”. The vulnerability of submarine infrastructure has been a growing concern. In 2017 the think tank, Policy Exchange published a landmark document written by Rishi Sunak outlining the threat to undersea cables. The attack on the Nord Stream pipelines on 26 September has further focussed minds on the danger to undersea energy installations.
Seabed warfare in the Baltic
The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were built to deliver gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany. NS1 was damaged by two explosions and NS2 by a single explosion in incidents recorded off the coasts of Denmark and Sweden. Seismologists report the explosions were equivalent to the detonation of around 100 kilograms of TNT. Since the war in Ukraine, neither pipe was supplying Gas to Europe but the new NS2 was already filled with 177 million cubic metres of gas (worth about €358 million) to bring the pressure up to 300 bar ahead of pumping which never started. The leaking gas posed a small danger to local shipping but the unburned methane, a powerful greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere represents a minor environmental disaster. About 500 million cubic metres of gas escaped – the equivalent of 8 million tons of carbon dioxide or 0.02% of total annual global CO2 emissions.
It cannot be stated with certainty who caused the explosions but the Russians are by far the most likely culprit. Not only does their navy have the expertise and experience to carry out such an attack, but this kind of sabotage is also straight from their playbook of deniable nefarious activity covered by bare-faced lies and distractions. Significant Russian naval activity has been noted in the Baltic and it is not hard to imagine that UUVs were discreetly deployed to place explosives near the pipes to be detonated at a later date. There is even some speculation that the Russians may have placed explosives in the pipelines while they were constructed giving them an option to weaponise energy supplies if needed. Further investigations of the damage to the pipes may eventually provide more conclusive evidence about the method of attack and even the culprit.
The usual suspects were out in force to suggest the US was responsible for this “false flag” operation because President Biden had said he could “put an end” to Nord Stream during a speech on February 7th. His implication was that this could be done by sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Germany and no one sensible considered him to be threatening a clumsy kinetic attack. It should be remembered that Trump, Biden and others repeatedly warned Germany about the folly of energy dependence on Russia but were ignored. The US Navy certainly has the capability but it is not credible to believe they would physically attack NATO allies in this way.
Gas prices surged again after the event, placing further financial pressure on Europe as Russia desperately tries to undermine NATO support for Ukraine. Most significantly, Russia is signalling it has the capacity to attack other oil and gas installations such as in the Norweigan Sea and North Sea upon which the UK is highly dependent.
With this wake-up call making seabed warfare a hot topic again, the Defence Secretary admitted how fragile the UK economy and infrastructure might be in the face of such hybrid attacks. “Our internet and our energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables. Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure, so for that reason, I can announce we recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe. The first multi-role survey ship for seabed warfare will be purchased by the end of this year, fitted out here in the UK and then operational before the end of next year. The second ship will be built in the UK and we will plan to make sure it covers all our vulnerabilities.”
The details of how MROSS (1) will be delivered have not yet been announced but the first ship will be obviously purchased from commercial service for conversion. This could possibly be a platform supply vessel (PSV) or diving support vessel (DSV) with a large working deck at the stern, cranes and A-frame for recovering UUVs. Ideally, the vessel will have adequate accommodation for crews on long patrols, a UUV ‘hangar’ and workshop, a command and control facility and a good communications suite. (The video below provides a good example of the type of vessels operated by Ocean Infinity.) Other than light force protection weaponry, it is unlikely the ship will be armed. The ship may retain a civilian crew but have an embarked RN party. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is short of people and it is unclear if it is in a position to generate the crew for an additional vessel within a year.
MROSS (2) will be purpose-built for the task but the ‘Multi-Role’ aspect of the project should be noted. A replacement for HMS Scott is needed but her main task of plodding up and down the ocean mapping up to 150Km2 of the seabed per hour using powerful sonar is rather different to monitoring undersea infrastructure. A balance will need to be struck between hydrographic survey and seabed surveillance capability. It is pure speculation but the RSS Sir David Attenborough perhaps could offer the basis for the design and could be built more quickly by Cammell Laird than if a clean sheet design was adopted. With some joined-up thinking, the same platform could be used again to build a replacement for HMS Protector.
Purchasing and converting a merchant ship for MROSS (1) may be the easier part of the project to implement. Uncrewed systems and sensors will be key to the new MROSS capability with the vessel likely acting as a mothership for a fleet of UUVs. New developments make the deployment of a fleet of UUVs to patrol up and down sections of pipelines and cables practical and affordable. Persistent Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (PAUV) that use very little power and can operate independently for several months are maturing and could be part of the solution. These systems need to be controlled and coordinated over a wide area and the data they gather needs to be transmitted and collated. The RN has limited in-house expertise in deploying UUVs on this scale and will likely lean heavily on expertise already accumulated in the civilian energy sector
There are thousands of miles of cables and pipelines as well as hundreds of separate energy installations that need protection. The scale of the task means this activity cannot be undertaken by the Royal Navy alone, one or two ships and some UUVs are a step in the right direction but more resources are needed. Securing this vulnerability will require broader international collaboration between governments, navies and industry. It is also perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the affluent energy and telecoms corporations that own this strategically important infrastructure make a direct financial contribution to its protection.