Quality vs. quantity – should navies scrap high-tech ships?
Buying defence equipment such as tanks, ships and jets often comes down to a stark choice; do you want a highly capable platform but only in limited numbers because of cost, or a less capable platform which you can buy in greater numbers? It's an age-old debate in defence, and one that still divides opinions among experts today.
It's a well-worn phrase for today's politicians and top brass that you can do more with less. Why has the Royal Navy got the smallest fleet in its history? Why are there fewer tanks? Why are there only a fraction of fighters jets compared with 20 years ago? In our modern age, they say, it's not about quantity, but the quality of our equipment.
Take for example the Royal Navy's newest vessel, the Type 45 destroyer, also known as the Daring class. It is one of the most technologically advanced ships ever built for the Royal Navy, and one of the best anti-air warfare destroyers in the world in terms of capabilities. The 152m long ships feature an advanced Sampson multi-function radar and deadly Sea Viper anti-air missiles.
The only problem is; there are only six of them.
The UK originally wanted to buy twelve Type 45 vessels to replace 14 ageing Type 42 ships which had been in service since the Falklands War. By 2004, the Ministry of Defence had reduced the number of Type 45s to eight, and eventually only six were ever built due to inflating costs and delays on the programme.
"[The Type 45s] are significantly more capable than the Type 42s," says Stuart Young, who heads the Centre for Defence Acquisition at Cranfield University, "but the numbers are so constrained."
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With six ships, Young explains, two will be in maintenance at any one time which leaves just four operational. If two are deployed on operations, that leaves the other two either coming back to base or going back out. Put simply, with six ships it is only ever possible to have two ships on the frontline.
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Despite their young age, the stealthy-looking Type 45s have already been used in a variety of roles including anti-piracy operations in East Africa, hunting drug runners in the Caribbean and delivering humanitarian assistance to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
"If you look currently at how the navy is operating the Type 45s they're working them really, really hard, which is fine when the ships are new but as they get older, they get worn out and less reliable. The availability of those ships will decrease, so at the moment with the new ships you're living off the fat."
Many experts question whether a billion-pound platform such as the Type 45 - which can shoot targets out of the sky 700 miles away and protect an entire fleet of ships - should be deployed against primitive threats like Somali pirates, who mostly use small fishing boats. These missions are essential for global maritime security but should it be the job of the Type 45?
Is the solution a larger fleet of smaller, less expensive vessels? Yes, says Ron Smith, a professor of applied economics at Birkbeck University in London. "I'm on the quantity side, particularly for the navy" says Smith. "If you have very few units you can't spread them around and so you have quite hard choices."
Another problem with high quality platforms is their vulnerability to accidents or loss. "Once you're dependent on very few units they become too valuable to lose and then you worry about actually using them because the vulnerability you would have if you were to lose it," explains Smith, who wrote the book Military Economics: The Interaction of Power and Money.
Smith cites the US Army's Sherman tank used in World War Two as an example of quantity winning out over quality. While the Sherman was less capable than its German counterparts it was produced in much greater numbers. Ultimately, that meant the US military could overwhelm the Nazis leading to their victory in Europe.
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A greater number of less capable ships, such as offshore patrol vessels, could provide enhanced security in areas like North Sea oil fields and fisheries. They could also be used for counter-piracy and counter-narcotics operations, at a fraction of the cost of using the Type 45. The French Navy is often praised for its use of lower-end capabilities, such as patrol boats, for these types of missions.
It's an approach that is summed up in a famous Soviet quote: "Quantity has a quality all its own".
Producing more of a cheaper platform, whether it's a ship, tank or fighter jet, has other advantages. They can be much more attractive to foreign customers, usually because they lack the huge list of advanced systems that can make platforms so expensive. The manufacturing process will also benefit from the economies of scale, meaning unit costs decrease as more are built and efficiencies increase.
This is an area where the UK has struggled. Due to lack of orders, Britain's remaining shipbuilder BAE Systems has had to consolidate and downscale its UK operations to reflect its dwindling order book. "Britain hasn't been very successful in exporting its warships, whereas other countries which have been producing smaller warships like corvettes have exported more," says Smith.
But other experts would disagree with the premise that larger fleets of cheaper ships are innately better. Stuart Young at Cranfield says the Royal Navy's past experience of buying smaller, more specialist ships has been "pretty poor". He points to the Type 14 Blackwood class frigates, which were built on the cheap in the 1950s to address the growing threat from Soviet subs.
Although the ships were good platforms for anti-submarine warfare, they lacked capabilities in any other roles. This lack of flexibility was also compounded by several faults which were found in the hull when operating in the harsh waters of the North Atlantic. Their small size also meant upgrades and refits were extremely limited, and the entire fleet was scrapped in the 1970s.
More ships also means more men and women to operate them all. With the Royal Navy at its smallest size in nearly 400 years, recruiting, training and paying the personnel required to run the extra boats would be a near impossible task.
US struggles with the Littoral Combat Ship
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US Navy has also struggled to find the correct balance of quantity and quality.
The US has experimented with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a relatively small ship which uses modular systems to carry out several missions. That experiment has, for the most part, been a failure. In January this year, it was revealed that the Pentagon would reduce its purchase of the LCS and out of the 52 LCS originally proposed, production would stop at 32.
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"Modular sounds great," says Young, describing the Littoral Combat Ship. "You take out one weapon system and put another weapon system in. But attempts to do that in the past have failed simply because it's really difficult to design the architecture and interfaces which enable you to do that successfully."
"A modular approach is not necessarily the way to go, especially in ships," he adds.
For Young, the best approach is to buy a suitable amount of large ships which offer flexibility. "A bigger, more expensive, more capable ship, on balance, is probably the way to go providing you've got sufficient numbers," he concludes.
For the UK Government that means making smarter procurement decisions from the very beginning, something which didn't happen on the Type 45 programme. In 2001, the UK adopted a "batch production strategy" for the Type 45, which meant several shipyards and companies across the UK would build blocks which would be assembled in Scotland. Ultimately that led to cost increases and reduction of units bought.
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Could the same delays occur with the next generation of Royal Navy ships such as the Type 26, which will replace the ageing Type 23 frigates?
BAE Systems' shipbuilding consolidation in Glasgow announced this year suggests they've learnt the lessons from the past. Ships will no longer be built in blocks around the country, but instead be built in a dedicated 'frigate factory' at Scotstoun. That will increase efficiency and reduce the risk of delays and possible cuts to the numbers of ships bought.
Does this mean the UK has finally cracked the quantity versus quality debate? Not quite. The cost of defence equipment keeps rising much faster than normal inflation and defence spending remains relatively stagnant across the western hemisphere. That means buying expensive equipment is becoming more difficult.
"It's almost a fact of life and I'm not sure there's any answer out there," says Young. "It's just a consequence of buying large, complex bits of equipment. Their very nature means the decision-making associated with it, the procurement, the support, the design, the technology, all conspire together to increase cost. I don't think there is any easy answer."