Apparently such a move would be partly motivated by a need to keep the BAE shipbuilding yard in Portsmouth occupied between the end of the Type 45 and QE Class programmes, and the beginning of the Type 26 project. The proposed new ships would be built in 2014 and 2015, at a combined cost of £150m. BAE in Portsmouth already have a good track record of building Patrol Vessels, having completed HMS Clyde and similar vessels for Trinidad and Tobago, which have recently been sold to Brazil. I am very dubious about the idea of building ships solely to preserve jobs, but in this case there is a strategic need for them.
I have long been of the opinion that well-armed Offshore Patrol Vessels are the answer for tackling low-intensity operations in places such as the Horn of Africa and the Carribean. A helicopter is a must, and the current 30mm gun is probably not powerful enough. A few more miniguns would probably not go amiss either. The ability to operate and launch several RIBs would also be important. Some might point to the lack of decent anti-air defences as a downside, but is this really needed for anti-narcotics and anti-piracy? Perhaps a shoulder-launched SAM or two might be the answer?
But looking at the current situation, is it a good use of a £1bn air defence Destroyer to have it sat east of Suez chasing Arab Dhows and Pirate Skiffs? Basing a patrol vessel in the Carribean and the Horn of Africa semi-permanently – as with minehunters – and rotating crews would free up a lot more escort hulls. An RFA as a mother ship would be pretty sensible as well I should imagine. It’s not far from the global corvette concept that was advanced a few years ago. And if you think about it, 30 or 40 years ago Frigates were not much bigger than River Class patrol vessels anyway. Yet the size of escort vessels has creeped up relentlessly, with the addition of ever more complex weapon systems.
Aside from the operational considerations, such a move would safeguard jobs in Portsmouth, and keep BAE’s shipbuilding in England running. Portsmouth is now BAE’s only shipbuilding operation in England, with its other main yard being on the Clyde. The political implications of Scottish independence do not bear thinking about, and it is surely sensible for the Government to play it safe when it comes to ensuring that such a strategic industry remains in British hands for the future. The shipbuilding industry in Scotland has enjoyed many years of political subsidy, and now must endure the consequences of Alec Salmond’s bluff and bluster.