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LCS Alternative-Support Ships

April 28, 2010

French command and tanker ship Somme in Toulon Harbor. Photo by Yannick Auberger.

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.


RFA vessels like Wave Ruler (top) has been used for numerous roles such as anti-smuggling and on the anti-piracy patrols.

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.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jed permalink
    April 29, 2010 3:54 pm

    Marcase said: “I was told that the law on having RFA/MSC running anti-piracy/constabulary (“coast guard”) ops is vague enough so RN/USN/USCG personnel must be embarked to perform the actual (para-)military action”

    In one respect your right. RFA crewman are taught to man the guns, but this is purely for ship self defence purposes (think of the Falklands where even NAAFI civillians manned GPMG’s !), deliberate action against pirates (or anyone else for that matter) is taken by RN ‘”Naval Parties” or embarked RM teams.

  2. leesea permalink
    April 29, 2010 11:57 am

    Marcase, MSC in fact embarks military units to provide “force protection” when the threat exists and when directed by the fleet commander. MSC ship have had a mulitpilicty of units on them (indicating the USN’s waffleing on this issue). I know of these: CIVMAR security teams, private security teams, PR Natl Guardsmen, Marine FAST dets, and currently NECC MESF teams. None of whom report to COMSC – get the picture?

    Hence my strong recommendation to re-establish the Naval Armed Guards under COMSC.

    BTW there are many advantages other than the obvious ones to using “US military personnel” on US flag merchant ships, but that would take another page.

    Remember it is international law which restricts the use of weapons on merchant ship (but not on naval vessels which have sovreign immunity.

  3. Marcase permalink
    April 29, 2010 2:50 am

    “You may be thinking about MSC’s privately owned and chartered sealift ships”
    – Yes actually, I was.

    I was told that the law on having RFA/MSC running anti-piracy/constabulary (“coast guard”) ops is vague enough so RN/USN/USCG personnel must be embarked to perform the actual (para-)military actions.

    Thanks for clearing that up leesea, I stand corrected.

  4. leesea permalink
    April 28, 2010 9:34 pm

    Marcase you are wrong. Both the RFA and MSC are government owned fleets of ships. RFA has registered many of its ships as Naval Auxiliaries a number of years ago. MSC’s NFAF ships are all crewed by CIVMARs civil service mariners who are managed by SECNAV regulations. They are Navy owned (I worked on the Certificates of Ownership signed by SECNAV).

    MSC NFAF ships have been used to fight pirates off Somalia for several years now. Likewise they supported NSW ops in the Persian Gulf. Hence there is not much public knowledge of MSC ships supporting recent actions, but is has happened.

    You may be thinking about MSC’s privately owned and chartered sealift ships most of which are crewed by contract mariners, but once again there are USNS versions which are owned by the Navy. Sealift ships do not perform commercial service.

    All MSC ships conform both to IMO and in addition USN force protection and phsyical security regulations which are kicked up several notches from ordinary merchant ships.

    My suggestion is to arm the USNS NFAF ships by adding sailors to their crews to operate the weapons and sensors as does the RFA now.

    Taking it another direction, I have suggested re-establishing the Naval Armed Guards to be assigned to MSC sealift and US flag merchant ships.

  5. Marcase permalink
    April 28, 2010 2:17 pm

    I guess it’s also a legal issue, both RFA and USNS are civilian manned, under contract from the MoD/DoD, so technically they’re not military/combattants, and you can’t send a (semi) civil flag to fight pirates.

  6. leesea permalink
    April 28, 2010 11:28 am

    My vote for a good (existing) mothership is the German Berlin class Type 702. They have a better mix of cargo capabilities and larger accomodations for both helo and boat support.

    What many folks miss it that it takes more than POL to support small warboats and helos (as would be in an Influence Squadron). One needs a large hangar for aircraft M&R. One needs cranes to lift boats onboard and deck space and shops for M&R.

    Not that it would make much difference but the RFA ships are armed naval auxiliaries (ANA). The USN apprently doesn’t believe in that? Blue water navy myopia again. My choice of ship type as mothership is ANA but there are cheaper quicker versions in the form of specialized sealift ship (as expedients and more for support).

    Bottom line a mothership does NOT have to be a warship nor ANYTHING like an LCS.

  7. Marcase permalink
    April 28, 2010 6:24 am

    I’m a bit more reserved when using fleet support ships (oilers) as motherships. Afterall, there is a lot of volatile stuff stored aboard…


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