Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arsenal Ships for the Royal Navy

Arsenal Ships are one of the strange oversights of naval procurement. The relatively low cost and high capability of such a platform would suggest every major navy in the world would have dozens. However to my knowledge no navy has every fielded an arsenal ship and none has any immediate plans to do so.

What is an Arsenal Ship?

The term Arsenal Ship was coined by the US Navy in its procurement plans at the beginning of the last decade. The idea was simple. A low observable vessel almost like a stealth container ship. With a small crew of around 80 and vertical launchers for up to 500 cruise missiles.

Despite its massive firepower the most impressive feature of the arsenal ship was its cost. Initial estimates for the vessels were around $80 million not including missiles.

However with the US Navy eager to gain support for its new $3 billion Zumwalt class death stars the project was cancelled. The project would appear to have been killed off by the navy brass who did not want a new radical, capable and very cheap platform that did not require allot of sailors or commanders. If an arsenal ship for $80 million can launch 500 cruise missiles would you invest $2 billion in a Burke destroyer that can fire a maximum amount on 90 (if carrying no AA missiles) or a carrier costing $25 billion + with its aircraft.

In the end the US Navy did decided to convert 4 of its Ohio class submarines into SSGN each carrying 154 Tomahawks. However this conversion cost $ 2 billion and an Ohio Class boat itself costs around $7 billion a piece. Hardly a cost effective solution compared with an arsenal ship.

Submarines and Cruise Missiles

Submarines are the Royal Navy's only platforms capable of launching land attack missiles. Much has been made of these platforms in recent years. RN SSN's have been the first platforms to launch weapons in every conflict we have fought since Kosovo in 1999.

However a submarine is an expensive platform to launch missiles from. The cost of the New Astute class is over £ 1 billion per boat. The argument is that SSN's or SSGN's can sneak quietly up to an enemy coast and launch a deadly barrage of these missiles before disappearing again.

However this premise is false. Launching a cruise missile is an exceptionally noisy business. It takes an Ohio Class SSGN 8 minutes to launch its full complement of weapons. Those 8 minutes are a life time in anti submarine warfare terms close in to a defended coast.

Instead missiles are launched well our too sea away from enemy defences. Tomahawks have a range of a thousand miles and are themselves stealthy weapons. The New storm shadow missile actually incorporates Low Observable Technology as well as terrain following low level flight. If the missiles are launched well away from the enemy coast then the submarine justification does not hold up. Surface ships are a much cheaper option and equally capable platforms.

Arsenal Ships for the Royal Navy

As so many people point out all the time the Royal Navy is not the US Navy. We don't have 11 super carriers, 1000+ strike planes, SSGN's or $12 billion to spend on death stars and rail guns. In short a low cost Arsenal ship would be ideal for the Royal Navy.

With only 6 Destroyers none of which are able to launch cruise missiles and in future probably only 6 SSN's we are in desperate need of something to up gun the navy's land attack capability. The New Queen Elizabeth class carrier's will go some way to achieving this however with only 2 being built we will not always have one in the right place or time.

Costs’ of the Project

If we assume the vessel will be little more than a cargo ship with some low observable features then we can probably look at a vessel cost of £100 million. The vessel should be armed with a mixture of VLS 41 strike launchers and A70 Sylvia Launchers. This will allow us to incorporate both Tomahawk Block 4 and Naval SCALP or Storm shadow. We will also be able to incorporate any future US or European weapons such as Loitering munitions. Total missile load would likely cost £500 million. That would give us a cost of £600 million around half the cost of a Type 45 or Astute SSN. One vessel would have the cruise missile fire power of 5 US Carrier Battle Groups.

Two vessels could be built. The Vessels would deploy with the Royal Navy's Amphibious Taskforce. This would give us additional strike capacity away from the carriers.

Other Advantages

In the initial US study the ship was designed to incorporate large buoyancy tanks like a submarine to submerge itself and lie very low in the water. A ship like this becomes immensely difficult to sink. This was seen during the tanker Wars of the 1980’s as well as recently by a Japanese tanker hit by a suicide bomber near the Straits of Hombres. With a small crew and relatively cheap cost as well as a high survivability it would also make sense to incorporate one or two 155 mm guns on the ship for shore bombardment. The Germans have shown it is possible to strip the Gun from a land based platform such as the AS90 Braveheart and incorporate it into a ship turret. This was done on a German Frigate with limited room. Incorporating it into a 15-20,000 tonne vessel would be very simple and cheap. Obviously with limited self defence options the ship would not go in alone close to shore however almost every operation we participate in we have basic control of the costal environment. A ship such as this could operate with ease in this position.


  1. Arsenal ships are unnecessary and too costly (only SSGNs are worse).
    Large missiles aren't much more expensive than smaller ones, thus you can simpy use long range cruise missiles and fire from afar. A container ship could easily sneak into firing range, shoot and escape. An auxiliary monitor basically.

    The German MONARC project with the PzH2000 turret on a frigate is understood to be a failure. The demands of service on a ship on a salty ocean including all the rolling required greater effort than believed beforehand. A dedicated naval turret makes sense.

  2. I don't agree with your comments on Arsenal Ships being to expensive. Given the ability of this platform to launch a devastating barrage I think a couple of hundred million dollars is a reasonable price. The Low observable features like an angled superstructure would cost little to incorporate vs a standard container vessel. Sensors and weapons systems as well as extravagant propulsion systems are what cost's most of the money in a naval vessel. Features such as water armour are cheap.

    I was not aware that the MONARC system had experienced problems with salt water. I thought the issues were with the ship structure not being strong enough for the 155mm weapon. As far as i am aware there is no naval 155mm system fielded by the west today. Developing a purpose built naval gun would likley be expensive. Might be better just to swap out the AS90 turrets when they are damaged by salt water. After the SDSR we are likley to have allot of these turrets available.

  3. No matter how much the arsenal ship costs - it costs more than a small container freighter.
    In the event of a major war you could easily use some container freighter for missile launches and the enemy wouldn't even know its acoustic profile. Its superstructures could be altered to look different on SAR radar imagery.

    The stealth of an arsenal ship is simply unnecessary luxury. The merchant raider equivalent is much cheaper.

    You would also need more than one arsenal ship because one might be undergoing repairs. Even with two arsenal ships you could end up having put all eggs effectively into one basket, while it would be simple to disperse missiles on different long ISO containers on several chartered/confiscated freighters.
    Think of the subsidized post steamers of the late 19th. The were available as auxiliary cruisers in wartime and it was really cheap in comparison to light cruisers of the time.

    Btw; MilSpec is what costs much in a naval vessel. There's no real hope that an Arsenal ship would not be designed to MilSpec.

  4. Interesting stuff, I didnt realise a cruise missile launch took so long.
    The guns are a waste in my view, its not worth risking the ship for a couple of artillery batteries, stick a gun on a couple of C3's and risk those.

    £100mn isnt a lot for a ship.
    Its easy to say "just use a container ship" but most containers move at trawler speeds, 5-10 knots, so cant keep up with a warfleet.
    An Arsenal ship really has to be your spear tip, its designed to decapitate your enemy before anything else engages, not provide fire support once your forces took a beating landing and have dug in.

    Thats before we take into the account the time it takes to find a ship, *borrow it* load a few hundred containers.

    I'm also not sure about your point Re larger missiles.
    Hellfire costs about £30k, Javelin about £70k.
    Storm Shadow costs almost £1mn.
    If we buy into the French Naval Version (SeaShadow?) I can only assume that the extra rockets cost more than hardening for repeated take off and landing.
    That said, the extra range more than compensates for cost.
    Missiles are expensive when used for general support fires targeting Johny Afghan, but they're cheap as chips when your hitting command posts, tanks, jets, airfields, or even Johny Russian if he needs killing PDQ.

    £600mn (x2/3/4 for availability) is cheap as chips when you can shut down your enemies entire defence establishment for, well, how long would it take Germany to reshuffle if 500 key strategic targets were destroyed with a 90% success rate?

    Its usualy viewed as a failure in Iraq, but I think its more a misunderstanding of desired effect.
    It doesnt force a surrender, it simply paralyses the enemy, and its hard to argue that Iraq managed to fight back effectivly.

    Gaza is probably its most obvious success.
    If you compare Lebanon, where Hezbollah managed to fight an organised and effective resistance where command sent specific orders to front line fighters, to Gaza, where command was badly damaged and the palestinian army just broke and ran en masse.

  5. small/large missiles was written with range in mind. Tactical Tomahawk costs actually less than Storm Shadow.

    Many container ships cruise at 15 kts and most operations require logistical support by ships fo that speed anyway.

    No matter how much an arsenal ship costs - it's more expensive to buy two of them than to use a part-time approach with covert container ships. The container solution would also allow for firing missions from trucks and even allow for air deployment.
    No arsenal ship is going to beat a cruise missile air deployment in speed.

    It's also noteworthy that to paralyse a nation which cannot be paralysed with cruise missiles fired from allied territory equals a war of aggression and thus a war crime of the highest order.

  6. Sven
    Again, to Germany, your last comment makes sense.
    But the UK is scattered around most of the world.
    We dont have allies (signed ones rather than friends) that are in range of any of our territories.
    Lisbon isnt worth spit and NATO doesnt cover them.

    Thats before we discuss that war crimes dont apply to winners, only losers, the UK could happily throw biological weapons at Bolivia and broadcast footage of its soldiers gang raping children and the world would send us a letter asking us to be nice but being clear that there would be no action beyond further letter writing.

    Containerised missiles would have a use, alowing 4 or 5 ships (£100mn each) to be supplied by 2 or 3 missiles sets (£500mn each).

  7. Sven,
    Your strategy of using civilian platforms seems to be more like an terrorist insurgency than a modern navy. The main job of the navy is to protect world shipping. Power projection is secondary. If we start disgusing naval platforms as civilian vessels then we would have to expect our advesioary to start sinking those vessels. For that reason its illegal to disguise a combatant as a merchant man. Its been done in the past with Q ships in world war two but it would not fly in modern warfare.

  8. Also I realise mil spec is what cost the money however outside of the US most large utility platforms are built on commercial lines. Mi spec is the differenc between a few hundred million and a billion.

  9. Civilian platforms are routinely used in wartime.
    Civilian trucks, cars, trains, ships, boats and aircraft are self-evidently being pressed into service in a war of necessity.

    There's no relation to terrorism at all. The UK and many other nation used armed merchant cruisers in great quantity and hundreds of historical minesweepers were originally civilian boats.

    There's even no real need to disguise the ship. It could fly the correct colours and show off its correct (although not necessarily original) name. No synthetic aperture radar could tell the difference between a merchant cruiser and a container freighter, and that kind of sensor is abut the only hope for reliable identification of ships in a 1000 nm radius.

    May I remind you that there's today little outrage about CIA personnel (con-combatants) steering armed drones over war zones (and elsewhere)?

    Besides; containers could also launch missiles from normal fleet auxiliaries, and it would be very hard to prove the actual origin of a cruise missile barrage..

  10. Sorry Sven but the Royal Navy does not break the law just because its hard to prove. You are correct that the military uses civilian transports for logistics however thats along way from secret container ship's carrying cruise missle containers and launching them. Naval Auxilaries could perform this role although not for the RN as they are maned by Civilians crews of the RFA. However Naval Auxilaries aint that cheap and we don't have enough of them to perform current role. Remember to launch a cruise missle you need a deep launcher not just some ISO sitting on deck. It really needs a purpose built vessel. Weather thast a stealthy low profile arsenal ship or something more like a container ship its going to have to be a single purpose vessel.

  11. Good point, we complain when terrorists base themselves in schools, yet we want to militarise commerical shipping?

  12. An interesting concept. May I suggest adding some point defense systems such as Sea Sparrow 3 and BPDS as well as some ASROC in the Standard Container mix as this would give such a vessel a limited anti-air and anti-submarine capability. Certainly a low profile platform with good ECM would be a cheap alternative to massive high-value naval vessels for area control over a large section of enemy territory.
    Given the nature of modern warfare at sea, new radical thinking should be given credence over the outdated Big Stick mentality that has taken over since WW2.
    Carriers are big targets and although they provide flexibility, they require huge expenditures in both manpower and logistics in order to support them.
    Modern SLCM's are 90%+ in effectiveness and a salvo of 200-300 of such missiles could severely cramp the war-making capabilities of most states.

  13. WRONG!
    a. If you want it as cheap as you want it, you're going to have to skrimp out on everything else that matters, especially speed, agility, and ability to defend itself. Now as a fleet-missile-boat this may work, but so would a sortie from an F35, which would have A LOT more range. But heck, 1,700-2,300km without having to launch a plane, tempting, but drawbacks amount.
    b. For the size and price, it would present a deliciously huge radar signature, heat signature, horizon signature, and sound signature to anyone with pre-Vietnam equipment.
    c. You forget missiles are old tech, the most recent case when old tech properly beat new tech was the yank/hick civil war. Missiles are slow enough for any banana republic or third world tyrant who bought some ex-Soviet hardware last year to shoot down. You would need supersonic terrain-skimmers, or hypersonic high-cruise divers.
    d. What is the point of them? They provide no additional capability that air sorties already have - at a far shorter time from command-to-fire
    e. New tech is guided munitions, lasers, and naval gauss guns. Currently the RN's standard 4.5" will go 12nm, which is about horizon distance from the Bridge. There are semi-confirmed plans to replace these with the Oto Malera/Otobreda 127mm, with a maximum effective range of 120km/75mi/65nmi - comparable with the Aster 30. This is hardly the 1,700km of a Tomahawk, however that missile presents such an opportunity for itself to be shot down. Artillery ammunition is literally in a state of falling at Mach 2/3 which protects the survivability to impact - except against an Aster 30.
    I personally think the RN should take on the 3"/76mm Super Rapid from that company, which is just as capable of accurate shore bombardment, inland artillery strikes with plenty of range, and most significantly, has a >1rps rate of fire, and an accuracy and speed or axial rotation that makes it a highly useful anti-air asset at horizon range.
    I see the advantages of a cheap missile ship that you can plant in the middle of NATO fleet with all the protection that offers, but special forces could do the same job better, with air support than can make an explosion happen more accurately within a minute, not many minutes.
    By moving the (small and more compact and more space efficient 76mm) gun forwards in the bow, space could be made for an additional 2x12 cell VLS between the current two (for more Aster 30's, please) and thus a 2x8 cell for 8xESSM's/Harpoons and 8 cruise missiles - which is plenty for an operation provided you've got another set spare in the storeroom.
    Also the damn ships need some bloody armour! The obvious choice since they're so advanced is a non-Newtonian liquid armour in M5 fibre or kevlar (10-20 layers both sides) pouches, and active armour too, active armour is very good against the kind of stuff that is most likely to sink a T45 - close range rockets.