Offshore Support Vessel (OSV) acquisition is part of the Mine-Hunting Capability (MHC) programme
Using a commercial vessel will provide an available platform to support mine-hunting operations in UK waters and further afield, Naval News understands.
The vessel will be operated by the UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
The ship, reported to be an offshore support vessel (OSV), is likely to be similar in capability to OSVs operating in the North Sea, for example having a flight deck.
According to social media reports, the OSV will function as a mine counter-measures (MCM) ‘mothership’, and is planned to be available for operations from April 2023.
However, the UK’s focus on developing this mine warfare capability indicates that the OSV could be put to use as quickly as possible.
The UK’s Mine-Hunting Capability (MHC) programme, under which the acquisition is taking place, is intended to supply the UK with various MCM capabilities including next-generation deep-water mine detection capability. The use of a commercial OSV to deliver deep-water capability points to a focus on operating the vessel in regions like the North Atlantic, rather than supporting the existing and extensive UK MCM capability resident in the shallow littoral waters of the Gulf. The use of an available commercial vessel also points to the need to address the increased risk of improved deep-water mining capability in the North Atlantic.
The UK’s most recent Defence Command Paper (DCP), titled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ and published in March 2021, stated that “the Royal Navy (RN) will continue to invest in underwater capabilities as this remains pivotal to protect our critical national infrastructure, safeguard maritime trade and maintain our underwater advantage”. The DCP defined the MHC programme as “[The] RN’s new autonomous and remote system for hunting and destroying mines.”
Underlining the focus on pursuing next-generation capabilities in the MHC programme, the DCP noted that UK mine warfare capability will play a key role in persistent engagement and warfighting response, at home and further afield.
The UK moving to address the deep-water mine threat is an example of its response to the returning operational challenges generated by state-on-state rivalry at sea. The mine threat is something that the UK and its allies are also tackling in the context of seabed warfare. However, Naval News understands that the OSV acquisition to support deep-water AUV MCM operations is separate from the UK’s multi-role ocean surveillance ship (MROSS) programme, which is looking to acquire platforms and develop capabilities specifically to deal with seabed security challenges such as risks to cables and pipelines.
One role the OSV may play is to act as an at-sea operational experimentation testbed for deep-water AUV MCM capabilities. Here, it could trial concepts and capabilities originally developed onboard MV Patrick Blackett, the RN’s new dedicated research vessel for testing and trialing autonomous capabilities. The OSV could be used to prove such concepts and capabilities and prepare them for operational deployment across the fleet, Naval News understands. This demonstrates the RN’s emphasis on exploiting new technology to counter emerging threats, in this instance in deep water.