Two brand new Offshore Patrol Vessels have sailed for the Indo-Pacific where they are expected to spend the next five years or more. Here we look at the outline plan for this deployment and the wider implications of basing these ships in this vast area.
West to East
HMS Tamar and Spey made a coordinated departure from Portsmouth and will conduct a few days post-maintenance workup, most likely putting into Falmouth for any minor last-minute repairs. They will then take the westerly route to the Pacific, crossing the Atlantic in company (possibly replenishing in Bermuda or a Caribbean port before transiting the Panama Canal). As with all naval plans, this may be subject to change and, like the Carrier Strike Group deployment, the impacts of COVID may restrict or impact when and where port visits are made. A two-week visit to Hawaii is the enticing first port of call in the Pacific. Delays to their departure mean the OPVs will not arrive in the region in time to meet up with the CSG, as had previously been announced.
By virtue of having the ranking Commanding Officer, HMS Tamar is the senior of the two ships and will lead this mini task group. Subsequently, they will mainly operate independently to cover this huge Joint Operations Area (JOA) which extends from the East coast of Africa to the West coast of the US.
Tamar and Spey have now switched to the same rotating crew model used by the other Batch II OPVs and survey ships. The ship’s company, totalling around 65 is divided into three watches, with two of the three watches on board at any one time. The third watch is on leave and training courses and is flown out by commercial flight to join the ship when it is their turn at sea. The watches rotate approximately every 5 weeks in a predictable 10 weeks at sea, 5 weeks ashore pattern that is generally appreciated by personnel. The crew rotation model has enabled the RN to significantly increase platform availability across a large part of the fleet. Drafts to HMS Tamar or Spey are likely to be popular with sailors, offering an opportunity for a varied programme of exciting runs ashore.
These 2,000 tonnes vessels are very lean-manned with ship’s company of just over 40. There is very limited capacity for additional tasks but the core crew may be supplemented by officers under training and other augmentees. For fishery protection, counter-narcotics or boarding operations, specialists or Royal Marines will join the ship as the small ship’s company is not trained in these skills. With an embarked military force (EMF) mess under the flight deck that can accommodate up to 50 extra personnel, the ships have considerable flexibility to be tailored for different tasks. The ships will not sail with embarked UAVs but in future, shipping containers can be carried with equipment for specific missions, including uncrewed systems.
The OPVs will be ‘forward-deployed’, not ‘forward-based’. They will not be reliant on a single base but will be maintained, resupplied and conduct crew changes at ports of convenience. Especially when operating in such a large area, this makes sense as the ships do not always have to transit back to the base port. Politically it is simpler to make use of a variety of ports than be permanently based in a host nation. From a logistical perspective, this arrangement is more challenging but BAE System is contracted to maintain the ships and will fly out engineering staff and send spares to wherever support is needed. HMS Medway and HMS Trent are already deployed using this operating model in the Caribbean and Mediterranean respectively.
Visits, once on station in the Pacific are still being planned and the programme will remain fluid for some time, subject to COVID levels. It is expected at least one ship will participate in RIMPAC, the world’s largest naval exercise in 2022 and future Konkan exercises with the Indian Navy.
Soft power projection
The reasoning behind the deployment of these vessels has been the subject of considerable misunderstanding and controversy. OPVs armed with a 30mm gun and other light defensive weaponry are neither capable of, nor intended to, affect the military balance in the region. Trade and diplomatic engagement is their primary mission with maritime security and constabulary work their secondary task.
Their main work will be to visit a variety of nations and host receptions and capability demonstrations in support of UK trade and diplomacy. They provide 90 meters of ‘British sovereign territory’ that can be used to influence decision-makers and connect with people. There are those who dismiss this as ‘merely holding cocktail parties’ but the ships can potentially play a small role in securing trade deals that may be worth millions. The RN has been ‘showing the flag’ across the globe for many decades and is renowned as an exceptionally good host, but also for its competency. HMS Sutherland visited Sydney in March 2018 and entertained Australian officials and at sea, she exhibited her ASW capability. In a demonstration to RAN representatives, she was able to detect two submarines deployed by the Australians, although they had only declared one would participate. While not the only factor, this visit played a part in securing the $multi-billion Type 26 frigate export deal.
This is not just about defence exports but the promotion of UK products and services across the board. HMS Tamar is affiliated with Cornwall and will promote Cornish products such as gin and clotted cream. HMS Spey will carry Spey whisky and be an ambassador for other products from the Moray area and the wider UK. Visiting Ministers, trade delegations and British companies may use the ships as an attractive platform for hosting visitors and potential clients.
Sending OPVs to the region is relatively inexpensive and much lower profile than a transitory CSG deployment but a signal to partners and allies that the UK wishes to be permanently re-engaged in Asia where the world’s fastest-growing economies are centred. The last RN warships based in the Pacific were sold off when the Hong Kong Patrol Squadron was disbanded in August 1997. Critics and adversaries will attempt to portray the OPVs arrival as some kind of attempt to revive British colonialism in the far-east but this is simply not the case. Britain wants to uphold established international law across the globe but this deployment is mainly focused on trade links and the ships will be invited guests of other nations.
The ships will also help re-build local knowledge and acquire intelligence relating to naval operations in the Indo-Pacific. Visits can also be used to strengthening ties with friendly militaries, open official channels and build up personal contacts. Behind the scenes, this is useful preparation for further visits by the Carrier Strike Group, other RN warships and the future basing of the Littoral Strike Group (South). Their size offers options that larger warships don’t have. With a 4.5m draught, they can potentially come alongside at more than 500 ports in the region, whereas 7.5m draught destroyers or frigates would be limited to around 22 ports.
In the maritime security role, the ships could be employed on general surveillance, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics duties, most likely in partnership with, or at the request of other nations. The First Sea Lord has suggested that they might be deployed to the Pitcairn Islands (a remote British Overseas Territory) on fishery protection duties. Protection of the marine environment in some form is a very worthwhile role for the ships and would certainly be a PR win. Whether the ships might conduct more demanding Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in disputed waters is unclear.
Some worry that despite the stated mission, as 2,000-tonne warships the OPVs have enough symbolism and significance to attract trouble, but lack the ability to get themselves out of trouble, should it arise. Conflicts have a habit of breaking out quickly and there will not always be reinforcement at hand. There are many smaller combatants that would out-match these ships which are mostly built to commercial standards. OPVs could have a role to play in intelligence gathering and special forces operations, but in the event of any serious conflict, it would be prudent to remain confined to port.
The current plan assumes the OPVs will not return to the UK for anything up to 10 years but it is hard to be certain of their future that far ahead. With the planned National Flagship in operation by 2025 and dedicated to the promotion of UK trade it is possible that the need for naval vessels assigned to this role may diminish slightly. It is unclear when the Batch 1 OPVs will be withdrawn and there is no plan to begin their replacement, at least before 2030. The Batch IIs that are overseas could be needed closer to home although the RN’s role in Fishery Protection has reduced as the use of commercial charter vessels and airborne surveillance has increased. The RN says the OPVs may be eventually replaced by Type 31 frigate(s) in the Indo-Pac but frigates (although relatively lightly armed) send a different signal and come with some of the advantages and disadvantages already discussed.
The bold moves to forward-base more vessels overseas carries some risks but is part of a wider RN transformation programme, maximising ships availability and increasing a regular low-key presence across the globe. The naval ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pac should be seen through the lens of post-Brexit Britain engaging with Asian partners. It will be interesting to watch the progress of the two ships flying the White Ensign in far-flung places and we wish them well.
(Main image: Andy Amor)