Hostage to fortitude: come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

7 December 2018
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Who could forget the classic Battleship board-game, but I don’t recall a tanker plotted with plastic pegs. Perhaps that’s why I lost…

Yet again we puzzle over a collision that, but for the colossal expense and security fears, might be better described as a bump in a car park. I mean, just how can a navy frigate of state-of-the-art spec be taken out by a tanker?

Mercifully no crew were lost when the 5,000-tonne KNM Helge Ingstad collided with the Maltese tanker, Sola TS in a fjord near Bergen, a month ago. But the gravity – never mind the irony – isn’t lost when you consider the lengths, the expense and conceptual innovation that a warship’s development goes through to be the tough guy, the defender of realm – and NATO itself.

Helge Ingstad was returning from a major NATO exercise – the biggest for many years – of maritime cat and mouse and western muscle. This voyage ending in embarrassment for Norway, and yet one with greater providence when you compare the human cost to the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet. The USS John S McCain, may have limped into Singapore last year, but she did so missing 10 of her crew. Two months earlier, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo vessel off Japan, killing seven crew.

With only minor damage to the cargo vessels, the scratching of heads at naval dockyards surely doesn’t relent. Yes, the rationale is clear on stealth, absent from AIS and with the radar signature of a trawler; the light-weight hulls for silence and speed. But don’t compromise resilience and strength. Thinner-skinned hulls, it would seem, may have done just that.

Build it hard enough: depleted uranium, titanium… graphene – an atom thick and 200-times stronger than steel. Well OK – right back at me – X-times as expensive.

Internal compartmentalization: survivability is in the design of modern warships. The US Navy has added Kevlar and strengthened hulls; spall armour protects magazines. But it remains a trade-off. Adding armour to the superstructure can impact manoeuvrability, stability and weapons capability. And what is any defence against sheer tonnage?

If ships can’t be both invisible and invincible then best stay out of the way.

It’s a similar conundrum in the air. Lockheed Martin’s Hercules C130J, built for tactical ro-ro, resupply and lift, was lighter, faster than previous variants. But a Kevlar laminate protects the cockpit, not the fuselage.

Incoming SAM-7 threat; sit on your flack-jackets, the sobering missive squawked as pilot aborts a tactical descent. My stomach landing instead, as I clung to webbing.

I’m no expert. But you don’t have to be. An investigation will explain Sola’s attempts to raise the alarm, the concerning course of the warship and her confused responses.

Helge Ingstad, you need to do something, you’re getting very close… Helge Ingstad! Turn! We are going to collide.”

Basically, get out of the way we’re bigger than you.

About 10 times bigger by displacement tonnage, and that’s not including the cargo. The 113,000-dwt Aframax was fully loaded with crude. Her deadweight, at seven knots, something to be reckoned with.

I was aboard a navy destroyer for a live-fire exercise in the English Channel. A glorious summer’s day – interrupted by cannon fire and BAE Hawk trainers buzzing the deck. But I clearly recall the agility of the vessel as it took evasive action – what might pass for a hand-brake turn.

All the speed and manoeuvrability you like can do very little when your fortitude and stealth is blown by nothing more than being dead ahead of a tanker with a breaking-distance of 1.5kms.

But the cat and mouse – or mouse verses elephant – is the point. Accidents no longer wait to happen; a threat without intent.

A tanker might be launched within two years of first steel being cut. The Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier took two decades.

Strategic naval assets, such as Norway’s Nansen-class frigates, go through conception and development phase after development phase, evolving with the innovation and new technologies; the cost on cost, the overruns, the sea trials – never mind the wargaming and threat assessment on paper. Cost commensurate to threat, the resounding Treasury mantra.

So, at what point does the elephant leave the room …leave the yard?

Today’s sea tussles come with piracy and migrant or drug traffickers, as much as from blockade disputes and rubicon-standoffs. Naval threats evolve, with the strategic defence reviews that look decades into the future. But asymmetric warfare has been in the ball park for decades, and a silent slow-sailing giant full of crude…

This damage done in an incidental clash; some judgement error on the bridge… I’ll leave the blame for others. It never helps, just cushions the claim.

But you don’t have to be Forsyth or le Carré to underwrite the darker consequences. The weakness of warships flagged up for all at sea, when all is lost and a frigate founders.


Jonathan Spencer

Crisis Response Manager

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