By David Hambling, technology expert
On 11 February, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a whole range of new initiatives, the most dramatic of which were new littoral strike ships.
‘Littoral’ simply means the part of the sea close to the shore, and the new ships are support vessels which can provide assistance to personnel with offload and aviation capabilities.
These would form the core new of littoral strike groups, made up of different elements of the fleet and able to carry the Future Commando force into action anywhere in the world.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones followed up with a tweet showing an artist’s impression of the new vessels.
The new littoral strike ships will be able to command an assault force rather than just transporting it, and they would carry equipment ranging from helicopters and fast boats to unmanned underwater vehicles. Plus, of course, large numbers of troops.
Some commentators immediately noticed how similar the ship looked to both the American MV Ocean Trader and the UK’s own Point-class sealift ships.
Rather than being a purpose-built warship, the Navy concept will be a modified commercial vessel (one newspaper unkindly compared it to a cross-channel ferry) with the advantages and limitations that brings.
America’s innocent-sounding MV Ocean Trader is actually a sophisticated floating special forces base, sometimes described as 'the world’s stealthiest vessel'.
It started life as the MV Cragside, a 200-metre merchant ship.
In 2014, it was acquired by the United States government, and a $143m upgrade project gutted the vessel and filled the space with high-tech gear.
Its helipads are rated for all of the helicopters used by US special forces, from giant MH-53 Sea Dragon transports down to stealthy Little Birds, with extensive hangars to store and maintain them.
The MV Ocean Trader can also launch and recover speedboats, including the ‘low observable’ craft for covert landings and Zodiac inflatables. There are even ramps for jet skis. It has an unspecified capability to host divers and submersibles.
The ship has a crew of 50 and can house up to 159 additional ‘government personnel.’ Being registered as a merchant ship allows MV Ocean Trader to blend into the background, and it has evidently been a valuable asset, though there are virtually no details of its operations.
The UK’s Point-class sealift vessels are merchant ships, but a contract with the Ministry of Defence allows them to be taken into military service whenever necessary. Crew members are required to be Navy reserves who can be called into service so the ship seamlessly transitions from civil to military mode.
Sealift vessels are simply big transports, able to carry 130 armoured vehicles and 60 trucks in one load, but would form an obvious basis for a conversion to littoral strike ships.
The advantage of this type of conversion is that the new capability can be acquired rapidly and at relatively low cost, without the long delay and expense involved in designing a ship from scratch.
The disadvantage is that being built to commercial rather than military standards they may be more vulnerable to enemy fire and less able to control battle damage.
However, this may not be important, as the littoral strike ship is highly unlikely to be taking part in amphibious assaults in the teeth of heavy fire; that is a role more likely to be taken on by HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, the Royal Navy’s two amphibious assault ships.
Decades of experience have shown a requirement for lower-intensity but equally important operations. A littoral strike ship could be involved in peaceful activities like disaster relief and evacuations, through more kinetic operations assisting local security forces.
The ability of the littoral strike ship to provide a fighting force and everything it needs without relying on local infrastructure means it can operate anywhere in the world.
Counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, policing and peacekeeping operations similarly require UK forces to be located in far-flung parts of the world, but not necessarily facing forces with anti-ship missiles or attack jets.
And of course, it may end up being involved in the sort of cloak-and-dagger stuff which MV Ocean engages in, acting as a mobile base for commandos, SBS or other forces to undertake rescue missions or other activities.
If circumstances call for it, the Defence Secretary said the two littoral strike ships could join with the UK’s two aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships to form a major task force and project significant fighting power anywhere in the world.
The littoral strike ships are certainly good news for the Royal Marines, though may not be so popular with those who argue that what the UK really needs is more frigates.
Maintaining a navy is always a matter of juggling resources, and nobody can say for sure what the requirements will be down the line.
But flexible, versatile ships able to deal with any sort of crisis globally, from hurricanes to hot wars, should certainly prove useful.