Are the new UK RN OPVs a waste?

Today, BAE Systems announced the beginning of the construction of three new 90m-long Offshore Patrol Vessels that will be delivered from 2017 and there has been much praise for going ahead with this acquisition.

Unfortunately it seems to be a big smokescreen as these are being built to serve an industrial purpose not Royal Navy requirements. Although some might see nothing wrong with that as we do need to preserve the UK’s naval shipbuilding capacity and skills, other countries do the same (think France with additional Mistrals and Gowind OPVs).

RS17176_CS044514.01.02_still_sea_defused

Let’s put it like this, the 90m OPV design being used to build the Forth, Medway and Trent is similar to that BAE used to build three ships for Trinidad and Tobago. They did not want the ships and BAE managed to sell all three to the Brazilian Navy at a nice knock-down price of £133million (about £44million each) although second hand were basically new.

So the Royal Navy gets the same three at a cost of £348 million (£116 million each) almost three times the price. Even Trinidad and Tobago were due to pay £155 million for all three!

The Royal Navy already has the relatively new River-class OPVs in service. So why replace them so soon? Yes they are larger and have a better aviation capability, but the answer is due to an industrial policy developed by the last government when it signed the Terms of Business Agreement (ToBA) with BAE Systems in 2009 to guarantee shipbuilding and support work worth £230 million a year.

With the QE carrier work moving on there is a bit of a gap opening up between them and the initiation of work on the Type 26 therefore the MoD decided to fill this with the OPVs. Although not an urgent requirement the RN can always use three more OPVs but these will replace the Rivers, not add to them because the RN does not have enough crew for three more ships.

Could the money have been better spent on something else like a maritime patrol aircraft capability for the RN that the Coalition government stupidly canned in 2010? That would seem like the most pressing requirement that has not really been addressed.

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