Worth exploring: cargo ships could be fitted out with containerised missiles at a relatively low cost. Image: enanuchit / Adobe Stock
Long-range strike capacity is essential to ensuring that the Royal Navy is fit for any future conflict, but the fleet is currently lacking in this area. Q-Ships could provide an effective solution.
The next large-scale maritime conflict the Royal Navy expects to participate in will most likely occur in the Indo-Pacific region or the High North, as identified in the 2021 Integrated Review and reinforced in the Integrated Review Refresh of 2023. Long-range strike capacity is a key capability for operating in these regions, and one that the current Royal Navy fleet lacks. A cheap platform capable of launching long-range strike missiles such as Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles or Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapons would fill this capability gap. This is the role of the modern Q-Ship.
Means of Deterrence
As stated in the Integrated Review, the Royal Navy has a mandate to focus on operations that help to contain China’s and Russia’s long-term expansionist goals. Conventional deterrence is essential to achieving these objectives. It provides more rungs on the ‘escalation ladder’, and consequently more strategic options for the UK. Capability is one of the three central pillars of deterrence, and the capabilities of the Royal Navy’s conventional platforms and munitions are central to achieving these goals.
A key defence priority for China and Russia is protecting their national assets through creating strategic depth. This is an important element of their defence culture and resides at the heart of their strategic thinking. Their national assets must not be seen to have any vulnerability. This is shown through the heavy emphasis on defence in Chinese and Russian public messaging. It is also shown through the creation of defensive positions in the South China Sea and the focus on defensive lines. Thus, having capabilities that can pierce this strategic depth and strike their valued national assets is essential to deterring their offensive actions. As Dr Strangelove said, ‘Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack’.
Currently, the Royal Navy has a paucity of strike capability, and this situation is not going to significantly improve in the foreseeable future. The Type 23 Frigate only has eight Harpoon missiles, while the Type 26 and Type 31 Frigates will have 32 MK 41 VLS cells (these will be needed for both strike and interceptor missiles). Some Type 45 Destroyers have eight Harpoon missiles, but not all of them. The Queen Elizabeth class can carry up to a maximum of 36 F-35Bs. These carriers and jets are far too valuable and difficult to replace to be credible to deploy against a peer opponent where there is a significant risk of losses. All the above ships can carry helicopters with various armaments such as the Martlet missile, but they have a very short range and consequently will not have the strategic deterrence effect that the Royal Navy requires.
The Royal Navy currently has a paucity of strike capability, and this situation is not going to significantly improve in the foreseeable future
These capabilities are not enough for the Royal Navy to provide significant support to deterrence against the UK’s expected adversaries. There will be too much pressure on the limited MK 41 VLS cells on the Type 26 and Type 31 Frigates. They will be needed to carry interceptor missiles for point defence as well as strike missiles. Protecting Royal Navy assets will be the top priority when deployed against a peer opponent, so strike capability will be of secondary importance. Thus, a platform that can carry a large number of missiles for a relatively low cost would be a solution to this problem for the Royal Navy.
The Q-Ship Solution
A modern Q-Ship would be a platform that could fill the capability gap identified above. Containerised missiles are a well-developed concept. The Royal Navy has already examined them in recent years, and the Russians have been advertising the Club-K for many years. A similar system would be perfect for the Royal Navy’s purposes. It can be deployed from any platform capable of accommodating a 40 ft ISO container (that is, any cargo ship capable of operating on the ocean). The Club-K most likely costs between $10–20 million per unit of four missiles, and there is no reason to think that a Western system would be more. This means that fully outfitting a medium-sized cargo ship would cost between $420–840 million, and would allow it to carry roughly 168 missiles capable of being launched. A ship of this size would cost roughly $25 million and no modifications would be required, since the missiles can receive target information through other existing ISTAR assets; the total cost of the platform would therefore be no more than $900 million, and most likely far less. While more than three times the cost of the Type 31, it would deliver more than five times the strike capability, making it significantly cheaper per missile. A dedicated naval ship providing a similar capability, such as the Arsenal ship concept explored in the late 1990s and more recently by the South Koreans, would be extremely expensive. However, the Arsenal ship alone (before any missiles have been procured) would likely be as expensive as the entire cost of one Q-Ship, including its missiles.
There are also further cost savings that can be realised. Deploying the ship will require only the crew that would have been needed for the cargo ship – generally no more than 25 personnel. Given various military considerations including security personnel, a naval deployment may require a larger crew. However, even double the above crew number would still be roughly half the number required for a Type 31 Frigate. Also, since the missiles would be containerised using standard ISO containers, they could be slotted onto any cargo ship at short notice, meaning that the running costs of the ship would only need to be paid when the capability is needed.
A modern Q-Ship would be a platform that could carry a large number of missiles for a relatively low cost
Furthermore, since the most expensive element of the Q-Ship would be the missiles, distributing the missiles among several ships would significantly increase the resilience and flexibility of the fleet’s strike capacity for comparatively little cost. Distributing the missiles among several ships or just reducing the number on a ship would also give the Q-Ships spare capacity for other containerised capabilities, such as those being developed by Subsea Craft. Considering the Royal Navy’s limited procurement budget, shipbuilding capacity and personnel shortages, this increase in firepower, flexibility and resilience and decrease in cost (including opportunity cost) makes this concept essential to explore.
These cost savings do have a price, though. A merchant ship cannot have the stealth capabilities of a purpose-built naval ship. Merchant ships have a large radar cross-section, and managing electromagnetic and acoustic emissions would be extremely difficult. This would compromise the position of any task force that such a ship is part of. However, there are mitigation strategies for this. Due to the long range of modern strike missiles and improvements in communications technology, the platforms involved in the kill chain do not have to be close together. A Q-Ship could be positioned away from the main force and protected by a minimal defensive screen.
Speed will also be an issue. While container ships are capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots, they are generally designed to cruise at 24 knots. This will limit the speed and thus the manoeuvrability of any force a Q-Ship is attached to. Commanders of such a force may find this frustrating, as they would be unable to react to changing circumstances as quickly as they might otherwise. However, while these drawbacks are notable, they could only be solved by a purpose-built naval ship, which would be prohibitively expensive. Having long-range strike capability at a reasonable financial cost would be a significant advantage, and needs to be seriously explored.
Overall, advanced, long-range precision strike capabilities are essential to successfully influencing a future maritime conflict. Central to the UK’s peer competitors defence policy is ensuring that its national assets cannot be credibly threatened; thus, threatening competitors’ assets is the key to a successful deterrence strategy. A modern Q-Ship would be capable of providing this capacity at a reasonable cost, ensuring that it would be credible to deploy and capable while deployed to a hostile theatre. A dedicated naval ship capable of providing this capacity, like the Arsenal ship, would be vastly more expensive and correspondingly less credible to deploy. This makes the modern Q-Ship a valid option for the Royal Navy to exert the influence that it desires.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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