Saturday, September 25, 2010
Arsenal Ships for the Royal Navy
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.
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.