The MOD announced last week that HMS DARING has returned from her maiden deployment to the Middle East. This highly successful trip allowed the RN to deploy her via the Med, through Suez, and then conduct operations with the US and other coalition partners in the Arabian Gulf. She then conducted wider operations, including a trip to India to demonstrate the vessel to the Indian Navy.
The deployment is good news for several reasons. Firstly, it marks the return of a UK high end AAW capability in the Gulf region. The UK hasn’t sent T42s up in to that area for several years, so it is a significant enhancement to both UK capabilities, and also regional security that the DARING was able to deploy there. It will have been seen as a clear sign by allied nations in the region that the UK is prepared to deploy its most potent military equipment in support of the region.
The deployment provided an excellent chance for the RN to demonstrate to the USN, and other premier naval powers, just how potent the T45 capabilities are. Working as part of a CVBG, the DARING was able to show the potential of the SAMPSON/PAAMS combination, and initial feedback suggests that the USN was impressed by what it saw.
Additionally, the deployment was an excellent opportunity to show off the T45 to a range of nations, both as an influence tool – by demonstrating the potency of the vessel, and UK abilities, but also as a sales device. The visits to nations such as India were an opportunity to provide emerging maritime powers with the chance to see a T45 close up, and get a better indication of how the UK is bringing its future fleet into service. It provides the chance to work with them, and get an idea of their ability to exercise with the UK, which in turn gives an idea of the ability to operate alongside us on operations. Visits like this are immensely important, as they lay the groundwork for future exercise programmes and co-operation.
The RN has spent a long time cultivating its links with the Indian Navy, as seen by the regular series of ‘Konkan’ exercises, which have included naval aviation, SSNs, and high end escorts working together. The visit by DARING continues the trend of providing visible access to the newest and highest quality vessels in the RN fleet. So, from an influence perspective, this deployment has been successful – there is immense interest in the T45 by many nations, so to see one deployed, working and operating in a highly challenging environment such as the Gulf is a major event.
More broadly, the deployment has been a chance to showcase the next generation of RN vessels – there is considerable interest in the T26 design, and its likely that many nations will have taken a close interest in the design, capability and role of DARING as she was deployed. This was a chance to try to increase polite expressions of interest, and in turn, turn it into more tangible financial or other commitments to the T26 project.
The broader signal though, and one that should not be missed, is the fact that DARING was relieved by another T45. It now appears that the RN will be committing a pair of vessels to the Arabian Gulf region until further notice – both a T45, and also a T23. This, coupled with the wider RFA, SSN and MCMV presence means that at any one time, the RN has got potentially a dozen ships in the Arabian Gulf. This hugely capable force is able to respond to the majority of challenges posed in the region, and represents a very potent fleet, with capabilities far beyond most regional navies.
While it is customary to decry the RN as a dying beast, Humphrey would suggest that very few navies can permanently sustain a dozen warships, a few thousand miles from home, on a permanent basis, and still deploy on other operations. Even while the RN is busy in the Arabian Gulf, there are still several warships in the South Atlantic, Caribbean and home waters on live tasking. When one looks at lists of world navies, outside of the USN, it is hard to find any other navy capable of sustaining a balanced force in one geographic area well removed from its home base. Don’t forget that the RN remains an immensely capable force, even if it is smaller than before.
Another key point is the arrival of the T45 as a deployable platform. While the T42s have performed sterling work for many years, they have been past their prime. The fact that two T45s are on deployment, is a sign that the RN is once again able to put high end AAW vessels out on global patrol, and employ them in a high threat environment. In addition to being able to do ASW in the gulf, the RN is now again able to contribute to the AAW battle. This significant uplift in capability will be appreciated by partners, and makes a real difference. It has taken many years to get here, but the RN is finally able to put T45s on to the most challenging operational deployments.
This does come at a cost though – the sight of two 45s on deployment, one returning and the other two still on trials shows that this small fleet of hulls will be worked hard in their lives. The indicator as to how often they’ll be deployed will be when we see where HMS DARING deploys to next. It looks likely that with only 6 hulls, the T45 fleet will be most likely committed to an East of Suez task, and also another task – possibly the ‘Southlant’ task, which now encompasses Africa, Falklands and the West Indies.
The T45 hulls, once they settle into a fully in service programme, will essentially be able to support two, gusting three, tasks at a time. It is worth considering that with an available fleet of five hulls (essentially 2 deployed, 1-2 working up, 1-2 returning/maintenance, 1 deep refit), the RN is going to have to prioritise how it deploys the T45. The RN is unlikely to see much of the much vaunted ‘Carrier Battle Groups’ so desired by internet discussion boards. At best some joint training may be accomplished over the next few years by hulls on work up, but in order to maintain a fairly punishing cycle of one hull East of Suez, and one hull likely to be deployed either on wider task group operations or into the South Atlantic, the RN is unlikely to have capacity to do much more with the T45. The sight of an RN task group, with integral carrier, T45 and T23 frigate is likely to be a rarity – more likely is that a T45 hull will be assigned to the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) and then sent off on a pre-determined task, only coming together for wider out of area deployments for short periods. The chances of having spare hulls to do the sort of ‘Orient Express’, ‘Ocean Wave’ or ‘Taurus 09’ deployments, while still maintaining commitments are near zero. This sort of commitment will come at the price of either gapping tasks, or only token participation.
So, the reality is that the RN has acquired a world class AAW capability and brought it into service with genuinely excellent equipment. The hulls will be worked hard, and as can be seen, it will probably be a case of ‘one in, one out’ at Portsmouth Dockyard with the vessels employed on singleton detachments, or in the case of the Arabian Gulf, employed alongside coalition assets, or occasionally working with RN units.
The loss of the extra hulls originally planned (first 12, then 8) will be keenly felt. Although one could argue that the RN has struggled to generate many T42s for several years now, the fact remains that T45s will be expected to work hard from the start, and that in years to come may start to struggle as their maintenance needs increase. The other challenge will be to using the vessels without the CEC upgrade which has not officially been cancelled, it merely hasn’t been prioritised as a spending need in the current planning round. CEC would have gone a long way to mitigating the reduction of hulls in terms of task group operations, and the RN is likely to regret not having full access to it for some time.
In summary then, its great news for the RN that the T45 is operational, and that the vessels are now integrated into the RN deployment cycle. They represent a step change in capability compared to their predecessors. The challenge comes from the reality that these ships will be worked hard, and will not exist in sufficient numbers to participate in the wider discretionary tasks that more numbers of T42s enabled. The RN will continue to have a world class AAW fleet, but it will probably be operated as a fleet of singletons, and not as a fleet of vessels integrated into wider RN task groups.