LCS Alternative-Support Ships
I thought the following story from the EU Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy task force in the Gulf just fascinating. Titled “Pirates attack French Military Replenishment Ship SOMME“:
FS SOMME had been engaged in a support mission for the EU NAVFOR anti piracy operation Atalanta, replenishing her supplies, when she was attacked during the night of 19th April 2010. The pirates, mistaking the SOMME’s silhouette for that of a merchant vessel, opened fire on the French ship. FS SOMME responded with warning shots, causing the two pirate skiffs to flee. During their flight the two pirate skiffs were separated.
Whilst chasing one of the skiffs, FS SOMME detected another boat which turned out to be the pirate mother ship, the vessel which controls and resupplies the pirate skiffs. The mother ship was captured less than half an hour later with two pirates on board, and her fuel and pirate paraphernalia (weapons and grappling lines) were seized. The mother ship was destroyed and sank.
Can’t believe I’m cheering the French but this was actually well done! Note that the Somme is a Durance class command and replenishment ship, about 8000 tons light and 157 meters in length, with a top speed of only 20 knots. She only has a helicopter pad, and according to Wiki, here is her armament:
- 1 Bofors 40 mm guns
2 Oerlikon 20 mm cannon
2 12.7 mm M2 Browning machine guns
3 Simbad Mistral missile launcher
On several occasions the pirates have mistaken navy support vessels like amphibious ships for helpless freighters, to their everlasting regret. The Royal Navy consistently uses their Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships as patrol vessels, mainly out of necessity from their shrinking resources, but they have proved surprisingly ideal for the mission. A while back I made a reference to modern Q ships, after reading this article from Marine News:
Pirates who attack a Malaysian containership may find they have made a fatal mistake.
Malaysia’s MISC Berhad, in collaboration with the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) and the National Security Council (NSC), has successfully modified its containership Bunga Mas Lima into a RMN Auxiliary Vessel for the purpose of escorting and protecting MISC’s ships sailing through the Gulf of Aden.
Their resemblance to merchant vessels appears to be a bonus here, and their cost-effectiveness compared to high end guided missile warships is considerable. According to Strategypage, the anti-piracy patrols as currently configured are very expensive for the gain:
With about 40 warships off the Somali coast, fewer ships are being captured. But it’s still profitable to be a pirate, and not very dangerous. So the pirates keep coming. While it costs $300-400 million a year to maintain the warships off the coast, what worries the naval commanders the most is that their efforts only inconvenience the pirates.
Support vessels are hardly what comes to mind when thinking of combat fleets, and they are often the last on the Navy’s list of priorities, who are usually focused on supercarriers, missile battleships, or deep-diving attack submarines. Yet they are the backbone of any Navy, as noted in this Aviation Week report by Andy Nativi:
Support vessels may not be at the top of an admiral’s wish list, but these workhorses are becoming more important as many navies try to build blue-water fleets, and those with the capability seek to better manage extended missions far from home waters.
France and the U.K., for example, are planning new replenishment vessels, Italy wants two refueling ships, Turkey wants one, and Greece and Spain have just added support ships to their fleets.
The U.S. Navy is also modernizing support forces. The recently released U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review depicts a medium-term force structure of at least 30-33 combat logistics vessels and 17-25 command and support vessels, on top of the 51 RORO (roll on/roll off) ships tasked with strategic sealift.
Though not cheap, with prices ranging from $200 million to $400 million USD, their uses are widespread:
There is a trend to use support vessels in multiple roles, replacing specialized ships with multimission vessels. Some navies, including those of France and Italy, use large AORs as command vessels, fitted with sophisticated communication suites and equipped with command and control systems and workspaces, as well as berths for additional personnel. The Italian ship Etna, for example, accommodates an 80-man command staff and is a NATO Maritime Component Commander ship.
These ships also play roles in delivering humanitarian aid. Witness the deployment of the USNS Lewis and Clark T-AKE dry cargo ship—technically a Combat Logistics Force Underway Replenishment Naval Vessel—among others, in support of Haitian relief. Many support craft can add hospital facilities, provide power, water and technical and mechanical shops, move massive amounts of cargo and deploy heavy-lift helicopters.
These vessels also participate in combat operations and maritime patrol and interdiction duties, enabled by the electronics, sensors and helicopters they can carry.
They seem tailor-made for the mothership role New Wars and others have advocated. You could place the same high tech sensors now deployed on billion-dollar Aegis warships, but on a low cost hull. Motherships would then be command and control vessels for many low cost combat vessels such as corvettes and patrol ships, often maligned by Big Ship advocates. The latter prefer to deploy capability in a few very expensive platforms like frigates and destroyers. Except with these you suffer gaps in your presence worldwide, as we see with the anti-piracy efforts.
Plus, high tech battleships should be used mainly to combat peer foes. Yet, the bulk of naval operations in this new century have been against low tech navies, pirates off Somalia, smugglers in the Caribbean, plus speed-boat equipped fleets of Iran. So, building practices are seriously askew and should instead focus on the threat, not on the Admirals wishlist.
Call them support ships, auxiliary cruisers, or motherships, the new warfare-off-the-shelf has finally reached the naval forces and may be part of the solution of shrinking fleets in a age of persistent warfare. The Navy’s battleships get fewer, while less particular seapowers like the Somalis spread their ideology into the domain of the Great Powers, threatening their traditional sea control.
Though the Navy probably wouldn’t agree with my conclusions, even they grudgingly concede the value of auxiliary cruisers. Last week we detailed how a top USN admiral has called for the arming of merchant ships:
U.S. Admiral Mark Fitzgerald says commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean should carry armed guards to help defend against Somali pirates.
“The area is enormous and we just do not have enough assets to cover every place in the Indian Ocean,” said Fitzgerald, who commands U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa.
While trying to open a corridor through the Gulf of Aden, some of the pirates have been forced into the Indian Ocean as far away as the Seychelles.
And to the point, recognizes that space age warships are not always required to contend with some threat, like the light and widespread pirates:
“Those security detachments that are on some of the large commercial ships have been very effective.”
Finally, it may be possible for some rogue nation to bypass the decades or so needed to build a significant Blue Water capability, to use auxiliary warships for this purpose. Again we hear from Strategypage, where we learn about “Arming Container Ships With Anti-Ship Missiles“:
A Russian firm is marketing a version of the Klub cruise missile that can be carried in a 40 foot shipping container. The launcher and the missile have to slide out of the container before firing, thus limiting where it can be placed on a ship, particularly your typical container ship. But you could get two or three of these shipping container Klubs on most cargo ships, turning the vessel into warship.
And the possibility such asymmetric weapons might fall into the wrong hands:
…it is unusual for a firm to offer such a weapon for concealed transport on a merchant ship. So far, there have not been any buyers. Or, rather, the manufacturer will not admit to any sales.