Sunday, 19 April 2009
Return Of The Armed Merchantman?
KL Security Review has reported that the Malaysian Navy confirmed that the Royal Malaysian Navy and Malaysian International Shipping Corporation(MISC) is negotiating to cooperate in upgrading a merchant ship to become a naval auxiliary ship to replace the navy ships deployment in the Gulf of Aden Bay for escort missions. Off hand this piece of news brings to mind the gallant armed merchantmen that served as the cradle and crucible to forge the Malay navy men during World War II with heroic gallantry and which now lends their names to the Navy's own patrol vessels. That was a time when navy combat ships were in scarce supply thus these merchantmen had to be armed as naval auxiliary ships to conduct patrol and escort missions. It seems now that our own navy can no longer afford to spare a navy unit to undertake the convoy escort missions and thus has to request MISC to furnish them with a naval auxiliary to undertake such missions.
The report stated that a merchant ship have been identified for the conversion and the ship selected merchant must comply with several conditions, for example, must have space for a hangar and accommodation for naval staff on the ship. The article also stated that MISC already operates vessels with helipads in their Offshore Floating Facilities fleet, but what they may have not realised are that such ships are tethered production and storage vessels, and the helipad conversions they have installed may not be suitable for a vessel that is supposed to be sailing in speed and in climatically challenging environment as can be seen from these photos of the various vessels. In fact if we are to peruse MISC's fleet, it may not make much sense to convert their ships just to ply the Gulf for escort duties without any payload, especially for only one unit and it also does not make sense commercially to convert several units for such a role just because modern ship designs just do not lend itself easily for conversion to armed merchantmen. In addition, the current modus operandi for the convoys is for our merchant ships to muster at a friendly port like Djibouti before transiting the Gulf under armed naval escort. Thus the period when the escort ship returns to a port of muster to berth and wait for the next convoy to form up means idle time for a merchant ship, and I believe would be a sticking point between the Navy and MISC. Another factor would be the crewing of the ship, as navy sailors may not be able to or cannot crew such a merchant men, and I doubt if civilian crews would want to endure such a task like convoy duties in the Gulf that some of our navy men from Ops Fajar has stated is a harrowing task.
So what should be the better solution in the humble opinion of this blogger you say? Well in this case I would like to remind you that the RMN are actually no strangers to operating leased commercial vessels in their fleet like MV Fajar Samudera, MV Mahsuri and STS Puteri Mahsuri in addition to commercial hydrographic vessels. The first two ships are being used to train their sailors including reservists. As the sending of KD Tuah has set a precedent of sending trainee sailors to the Gulf area of operations, then I do not see any reason why we should not send any of these two training vessels instead. MV Fajar Samudera on the left is more like a cruise ship to be a good naval deterrent while MV Mahsuri on the right is a 92 metre long 4000 tonnes ex-research vessel with a cruising speed of 12.5 knots, perfect for such convoy escort work. In addition, the ship design already incorporates a large helicopter pad in the stern and since it is a training ship, accommodation should not be a problem for the navy Special Forces men assigned to her. She also has a stern ramp for easy deployment of the Special Forces men and also has medical facilities on board and has served as a hospital ship during the Navy's exercises. Thus the conversion required for MV Mahsuri can be no more than installing non deck penetration medium calibre guns and repainting the ship to naval grey to show it means business. It fact this ship approximates most closely the size and capability of KD Mahawangsa and KD Inderasakti that has done their tour of duty in the Gulf.
The only problem this idea would face is that MV Mahsuri is currently privately owned and crewed by civilians under the command of the Navy. But then this should not be too difficult to resolve as there is already a precedent for our oil industry players to supply equipment for the Navy's Paskal for use in their oil platform protection duties. So why not our shipping industry players led by MISC then not buy over the ship and present it to the navy for use in the escort missions, or at least lease the ship on the navy's behalf for the navy to operate. If the MV Mahsuri is not available, then I am sure in the current state of shipping industry that is in the doldrums, it would be easy to find another suitable or much better ship to undertake the task. Would RFA Argus or its Chinese equivalent Shicang class be too much too ask?