So why buy them?
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The British government wants the rest of Europe to believe one of its newest naval vessels, the HMS Medway, can stand up to Russia.
But Medway is no cruiser, destroyer or submarine. She’s not a missile boat, or really even a warship at all — but an under-construction River-class offshore patrol vessel designed to hunt down illegal fishing boats.
Nevertheless, if you believe the British government, tiny Medway will help defend the country from Russian warships. The United Kingdom began building her, the second of three new ships of the class, in Scotland in October 2014.
“In recent months you have seen a more aggressive Russia sailing submarines and ships close to our coast, moving aircraft into our airspace, so it’s very important that we continue to strengthen and modernize our defenses,” Defense Minister Michael Fallon said at Glovan’s shipyard in Glasgow.
“This ship today is very much part of that.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Medway is a poorly-armed 90-meter-long patrol vessel that’s good enough for coastal duties and taking on pirates, but would likely have a pretty short lifespan in an actual war.
Once finished, she will have a 30-millimeter cannon and several smaller-caliber machine guns. Medway will have no missiles. At most, she could defend herself from small boats attacking at close range.
She’ll serve an essential and important role, such as search and rescue missions, sea policing and some war-time duties. Perhaps she’ll even hunt submarines with a Merlin helicopter operating off her rear flight deck.
But Russia’s warships would send Medway to the bottom in a fight.
So why is the British government promoting Medway and her River-class sister ships as a means to counter Russia? In a nutshell, politics.
Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine — and the Kremlin’s heightened tempo of military exercises — has NATO on edge. At the same time, the U.K. is under increased political pressure to show it can help defend the rest of the alliance despite drastic military budget cutbacks that have winnowed the Royal Navy down to a shadow of its former self.
There’s another catch. The Royal Navy doesn’t need more ocean patrol boats and already has four vessels of the River class in service. Two years ago, the British government justified the new boats as a means to replace the existing River-class vessels, which were not even a decade old.
Instead, the new boats appears to be a way to keep the U.K.’s shipyards in Scotland in business through the decade following the completion of Britain’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, and before the construction of the future Type 26 frigate. The three new River-class ships should enter service in 2017 and 2018.
Scotland’s shipyards are major industries and politically extremely important. With the separatist Scottish National Party sweeping the nation’s House of Commons seats in the 2015 elections after a failed — but close — independence referendum, it’s more important than ever for London to maintain Scottish support for staying in the Union.
Making sure hundreds of Scottish workers keep their jobs is one way to do it.
“U.K. warships are only built in U.K. shipyards,” Fallon said in August 2014. “This multi-million pound contract shows our commitment to investing in new ships for the Royal Navy and maintaining in the U.K. the expertise needed to build the warships of the future. It will benefit the dedicated workers of the Clyde, their families and the local economy in Glasgow.”
The ships could still be useful. In 2012, the naval magazine Warships International Fleet Review noted that the Royal Navy could use the vessels to train officers for future jobs commanding destroyers and carriers. But that’s a perk, not a necessity.
In any case, it doesn’t have anything to do with sanding up to Russia. Medway and the River class simply … can’t.