Saturday, May 1, 2010

Eyesore at sea

Singapore is the world's leading maker of jack-up and semi-submersible sea platforms, but you wouldn't have guessed it looking at a barge designed to give the Police eyes at sea.

The floating Command and Control (C2) centre is functional, yet fugly.

The C2 barge looks like something designed via committee - a blend of Police Coast Guard (PCG) specific operational requirements, translated into technical specifications, crunched down into a collection of design compromises to be built by the lowest bidder.

It looks like the progeny of awkward looking tin mining dredges once seen in Ipoh. Her inelegant yet functional block house harks back to Britain's HMP Weare floating prison - a design that only her architect could love.

At 80 metres in length and 30 metres wide, the 4,500-tonne floating platform gives new meaning to presence at sea. Mariners will have to notice her bulk because a collision at sea into the C2 barge will have dire consequences indeed. Her four-storey tall slab sides and sheer bulk will give her a radar echo rivalled only by super tankers or the biggest container vessels - this is no stealth platform.

When this monstrosity is moored off the Lion City's coastline, this littoral eyesore would give the PCG a floating base at sea. Two such platforms will be anchored off the coastline at locations that have not been disclosed.

If the artist's impression is to be believed, each C2 barge will have a four-storey accommodation/work block capped by what looks like a ship's mast festooned with communications aerials and quite possibly EO and radar(s).

And if it works as advertised, the C2 barge would give coast watchers a better feel of the goings-on at sea, day and night, whatever the weather. If something is amiss, the sea police will step off the floating platform and zip away towards trouble in one of their heavily-armed, high speed craft.

As the C2 barge will spend its time attracting barnacles in a strategic patch of sea, the PCG will cut down on their response time needed to reach that patch of sea. And the officers will have a place to stretch their sea legs during their rest periods - which is so essential for a force that provides maritime security 24/7.

One applauds the move to strengthen Singapore's maritime security.

The concept of having a mothership isn't new. Indeed, the United States Navy and US Army's armada of coastal vessels and modified landing craft that patrolled, defended and fought in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War as the Brown Water Navy employed a variety of motherships ranging from powered lighters to tank landing ships.

These provided the Brown Water Navy's patrol craft with a source of accommodation, repair space and a stable platform on which crews could relax and prepare for missions. Land lubbers often underestimate the enervating effects that the sea swell can have on the crews' physical and mental well-being, especially when they are deployed for protracted periods for operations on and from the sea.

One wonders if Singaporean rig builders such as SembCorp Marine and Keppel FELS were consulted. I am certain that better and perhaps more cost effective designs could have been tabled using offshoots of their better-selling commercial designs.

During the 1930s, a British designer called Guy Maunsell devised floating platforms to protect the Thames Estuary and Britain's eastern seaboard from air and maritime intruders. Many of these platforms resemble oil-drilling platforms, which Singapore excels in designing, fabricating, deploying and supporting on oilfields around the globe.

For a look at Maunsell's designs, click here.

From an operational security standpoint, the immovable dumb barge (dumb as in unpowered, not lacking in intellect) is a plump target that is out of place in the post-9/11 environment.

A semi-submersible or jack-up rig, on the other hand, would have better situational awareness as the C2 facilities have a better visual horizon - they being far higher above the sea surface.

PCG officers would be better protected and the structure could easily accommodate a helicopter platform for a Super Puma-type medum-lift helicopter. A rig is also more resistant to the vagarities of sea weather, these commercial designs having been designed to withstand terrific storms in open water miles from shore.

It may be too late to go back to the drawing board now. But one hopes that the Mark 2 incarnation of the floating C2 centre will have refinements that Guy Maunsell thought of decades ago.

At the very least, his 1930s era designs proved their worth during wartime service and looked way better that the PCG's C2 barge.

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