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The Royal Navy has in recent years expanded its fleet of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). Long associated with fishery protection duties in the UK, the new batch of River-class patrol vessels will be deployed further afield, to the Falkland Islands, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. The fleet has also been renamed, from the Fishery Protection Squadron to the Overseas Patrol Squadron.

Offshore Patrol Vessels

The River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) are used by the Royal Navy for fishery patrol and protection, border patrol, escorting foreign warships through UK waters, counter-piracy, counter-smuggling and humanitarian/disaster relief.

Expansion of the fleet

For years the Fishery Protection Squadron operated three River-class OPVs in the UK: HMS Mersey, Severn and Tyne. They entered service in 2003-04 originally under a lease arrangement with BAE Systems, before being bought outright by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 2012.

A fourth OPV, HMS Clyde, was leased from BAE Systems and, until being decommissioned in 2019, was permanently based in the South Atlantic as the Falkland Islands patrol vessel.

In 2013 the Government unexpectedly announced it was buying three new batch-2 River class OPVs. A further two were ordered in 2016, and in 2020 the Royal Navy took delivery of the fifth and final ship. The newer vessels are faster than the batch-1s (24 rather than 20 knots), carry a bigger gun (30 mm main gun rather than 20 mm gun), have a longer range (6,000 nautical miles) and can accommodate up to 50 Royal Marines. Significantly, the batch-2s also have a helicopter flight deck for Wildcat or Merlin helicopters.

Retaining the batch-1’s in service

Original plans (announced in two written question responses in December 2015 and January 2017) were to decommission the four batch-1 OPVs and replace them with the five new batch-2 vessels.

However, in November 2018 the Defence Secretary announced that three Offshore Patrol Vessels will be retained in service for at least two more years, “to bolster the UK’s ability to protect our fishing fleet” as the UK exits the EU. HMS Tyne, Mersey and Severn will be retained for at least two years. 

In February 2020 the Government said “the Royal Navy will be increasing its offshore vessels from four to eight over 2020”. The fifth and final OPV, HMS Spey, sailed into Portsmouth in October 2020 and is expected to be ready for operations by early summer 2021.

Fishery protection duties

The Royal Navy has long had a role in protecting the UK’s fishing waters and fleet. The Overseas Patrol Squadron was, until 2020, known as the Fishery Protection Squadron, and is described by the Royal Navy as the oldest front-line squadron.

The squadron patrols the UK’s Extended Fisheries Zone. It enforces fishery protection laws by patrolling the British fishery limits and conducting inspections of fishing vessels. The Ministry of Defence has a long-standing relationship with the Marine Management Organisation to support the MMO in monitoring fishing activity. The squadron is responsible for inspecting fishing vessels in the offshore waters of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Marine Scotland is responsible for patrolling the waters off the Scottish coast because fishery protection is a devolved matter

Patrolling the Exclusive Economic Zone after 1 January 2021

In September 2020 James Heapey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, indicated up to three batch-1 OPVs will perform fishery protection duties:

Up to three Batch 1 Offshore Patrol Vessels (HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey, HMS Severn) are currently programmed to perform fishery protection duties after the completion of the transition period, however this is subject to change and dependent on wider Defence and HMG priorities.

In December 2020, during negotiations between the UK and the EU about future fishing agreements, media reports suggested four River-class OPVs will be made available after 1 January 2021 to patrol the English Channel in the event of no agreement being reached.

Globally deployed: a “forward presence”

In recent years the Royal Navy has indicated a shift towards what has been called a forward presence or forward deployed. This means permanently, or at least for a lengthy period of time, stationing a vessel abroad, rather than returning home to the UK after each deployment. Crews are rotated from the UK.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin (the head of the Royal Navy), said in a speech in 2019 that forward presence is a priority. The Prime Minister also reflected this shift in his statement on the Integrated Review in November 2020:

We shall forward deploy more of our naval assets in the world’s most important regions, protecting the shipping lanes that supply our nation.

The expansion of the OPV fleet could open up further opportunities for forward basing, whether being forward based themselves or by fulfilling tasks previously undertaken by frigates, and therefore allowing more frigates to be forward based. The Navy is in the process of renewing its frigate fleet.

Two of the new batch-2 River class OPVs spent much of 2020 in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean: HMS Medway spent most of 2020 in the Caribbean, on Atlantic Patrol Tasking (North), while HMS Trent returned to the UK in December 2020 after spending much of the year in the Mediterranean with NATO.

The integrated security, defence and foreign policy review may provide more information on this, and on the long-term future of HMS Tyne, Mersey and Severn. The review is expected to be published early in 2021.

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