MPs slam 'disgraceful' Type 45 destroyers
You don't know the half of it, Mr Leigh
Analysis The Royal Navy's new billion-pound Type 45 destroyers are back in the news again for unfortunate reasons, with the head of an influential parliamentary committee saying it's "disgraceful" that they will enter service without their French-supplied primary weapons ever having been fired from the ships.
The Royal Navy's first billion-pound gunboat.
The Type 45s are fleet air-defence ships, designed primarily to carry the Principal Anti Air Missile System (PAAMS), which the Royal Navy nowadays likes to refer to as Sea Viper. PAAMS/Sea Viper will use radars - especially the Sampson masthead firecontrol radar on the ship - and two different kinds of French "Aster" missiles to shoot down airborne targets.
At the moment, though Type 45s have been launched and the first one, HMS Daring, is now steaming around with a naval captain and crew, PAAMS/Sea Viper isn't ready to go. As the Commons Public Accounts Committee points out in its latest report, the ships won't really be completed for at least two years.
There have been a number of problems on the project, meaning it will enter service over two years late and £1.5 billion over its original budget... Although the Type 45 will enter service in 2009, it is a disgrace that it will do so without a PAAMS missile having been fired from the ship, and will not achieve full operational capability until 2011. Other equipments and capabilities which will enhance the ship's ability to conduct anti-air warfare operations will not be fitted until after the ship enters service in some cases.
The six destroyers for the navy are now projected to cost £6.46bn, up by £350m just in the last 18 months. In addition to PAAMS/Sea Viper, they are intended to carry basic 4.5-inch "Kryten" gun turrets and a pair of single-barrelled, manually aimed 30mm cannon for such tasks as shooting up pirate dhows, small boats etc.
Space has also been included in the design to fit much more powerful Phalanx gatling robocannon, useful for last-ditch air or missile defence, and/or Tomahawk cruise missiles. However, no money is planned in for these latter refinements. While the navy will probably manage to cannibalise a few Phalanxes from retiring ships in coming years - meaning that it can perhaps put some on at least those Type 45s it sends to dangerous regions - Tomahawk is only a dream.
Right now, rather sadly, HMS Daring is sailing around with nothing but her 4.5 and a brace of 30mms - a rather pathetic capability for a £1.1bn ship with a crew of 200. Her captain's brave boast that she is "the most capable Air Defence Destroyer in the World" will ring more than a little hollow until at least a couple of years have passed. He'll most probably have moved on by then, as he's already been in command for over a year.
That's not 'disgraceful', that's normal
Late, overbudget, doesn't work yet? That's not 'disgraceful', that's normal. But Type 45 will be disgracefully bad value even once it's sorted.
You'd really have to take issue with the "most capable" idea even once Sea Viper is in service, considering the example of America's latest Flight IIA Arleigh Burke ships, air-defence destroyers too. These carry two helicopters to the Type 45's one, and 96 missiles to the Type 45's 48. They can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets hundreds of miles inland - the main useful employment for surface warships in modern wars.
The American ships bristle with other useful weapons. Their Aegis/Standard missile system, unlike PAAMS/Sea Viper, can be upgraded to shoot SM-3 interceptors, able to knock down targets in low orbit or ballistic missiles fired by rogue states.
Aegis ships can also fire the latest SM-2s if the problem is sea-skimmer attacks; here the high siting of the Type 45's Sampson and cunning French tech in the Aster 15 missile might offer some advantage*, but one probably more than counterbalanced by the Aegis ship's much larger missile magazine and the endless millions poured into developing the SM-2 over the years by America.
Disgracefully indeed, buying a hugely more powerful Arleigh Burke type ship would have actually been a lot cheaper than Type 45; and we could still have handed out a bit of good news to politically-important UK shipyards. South Korea's KDX-IIIs, essentially Arleigh Burkes in locally built hulls, are estimated to cost 1.2 trillion won apiece. That's less than half the price of a Type 45 at today's rates, for a hugely better ship. And the Korean shipyards got lots of lovely government work on KDX-III, just as Clydeside did with Type 45.
Defending itself against the Parliamentary report, the MoD points out that PAAMS/Sea Viper has actually been tested - just on a trials barge in southern France, rather than in a Type 45. After all, it is largely a French and Italian system.
"The government is surprised and disappointed that the Committee does not recognise the extensive trials that have taken place," says kit minister Quentin Davies. "In these circumstances, the use of the word ‘disgrace’ obviously makes no sense at all and is absurd.”
He has a point. PAAMS/Sea Viper, once it's finally fitted and working, will probably be very good against sea-skimming missiles and moderately capable against targets further off (though the ships will have no anti-surface capability to speak of, again very disappointingly). But actually it's no new thing for Royal Navy ships to be supplied in a non-functional condition; the previous class to arrive, the Type 23 frigates, had no working combat computer system for several years after their entry into the fleet (and this is every bit as serious as it sounds).
So perhaps the term "disgraceful" is a bit harsh for merely supplying ships years late, massively over budget and without their main weapon system. That would actually be about par for the course in the MoD.
But deliberately choosing to pay double for mostly French and Italian weapons, thus rendering yourself so cash-strapped as to turn the resulting ships into largely irrelevant one-trick ponies, when you could have bought powerful Aegis ships in a Scottish tin... that's disgraceful, yes. ®
*Not in the case of a fleet or task group with a proper airborne-radar aircraft up, of course. But as the expense of the Type 45 seems likely to mean no proper, fully capable flying radar for the RN in the foreseeable future, we may be glad of the Sampson's measly 30m height above the waves one day.