DefenceSynergia Commentary July 2019: The British Political Class May Be Distracted But Defence and Security Still Matter

National Defence & Strategy Research Group Exposing the incoherence and weakness in the United Kingdom’s Defence and Security Strategies

The British Political Class May Be Distracted But Defence and Security Still Matter

DefenceSynergia (DS) is alarmed that whilst The Government and Opposition parties play their introspective games in Parliament and at party level that the Defence and Security of the United Kingdom (UK) is being neglected. With the possible exception of those who work in Her Majesty’s (HM) Armed Forces and Intelligence Services the public could be forgiven if they have the impression that others, especially Ministers and their shadows, Members of Parliament (MPs) and HM Civil Service, are so distracted by UK leaving the European Union that a serious focus on, in particular, the maritime strategy for “Defence of the Realm” is not being properly and fully addressed at a time when threats and near hostilities in the Middle East are on the increase.

Fortunately there are still voices like DS that monitor world events and care about our Armed Forces and keep a sense of proportion. The redoubtable Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, The Right Honourable Dr Julian Lewis, and his committee continue to inquire and ask questions of those with responsibility for UK’s security and defence. Most recently he wrote to both the Conservative leadership candidates asking them for their views and intentions in respect of defence funding should they take the top job. We understand from recent media reports that both candidates have now replied. It would be helpful if the British Public could be brought up to date too.

Beyond the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster, the excellent Save the Royal Navy website has tirelessly informed the public of Royal Navy (RN) funding, activity and hardware. Their latest piece on the Arrowhead 140 – Babcock/Thales design offer for the RN Type 31e Frigate (FF) – reinforces the DS position in 2016 that a RN frigate (FF) hull based on the Danish Iver Huitsfeldt or Absalom class would offer the RN a multi-purpose frigate at about a third of the cost of a BAES Type 26.

The final decision is for the RN to make but if the Defence Budget remains stretched then, having increased capacity in numbers, even at the expense of some ‘gold plated’ alleged but ill defined capability must surely be an attractive option. So is the prospect of tax payer funded programmes achieving far better value for money.

The current procurement practise is for complex warships to be built in UK. However, this should not preclude foreign companies using their expertise to bid and build in UK ship yards. Strangely, this rather dated policy has not been foisted on the Royal Air Force (RAF) or the Army. Indeed, collaborative programmes are all the rage – Queen Elizabeth class carriers under the Aircraft Carrier Alliance including Thales UK a Subsidiary of a French company; F-35 as a tier 1 partner of Lockheed Martin a US company; A400M Atlas and A330-200 Voyager collaboration with Airbus a German/French company; Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft and E-7 Wedgetail Boeing a US company; AJAX Family of Infantry Armoured Fighting Vehicles General Dynamics UK (an American company) etc.

DS agreed, very strongly, with Sir John Parker’s suggested strategy for the Type 31e FF (General Purpose Frigate); he said this:

The new Type 31e should not set out to be a complex and sophisticated warship based on traditional design approaches. It should be a modern and innovative design on a standard platform which should provide a menu of choice to support exports and beat the competition.

It should be termed Type 31e. The ‘e’ means that export flexibility is inbuilt, not a variant.

The Type 31e should be prioritised, and act as a pathfinder project to pilot this new governance and Virtual Shipbuilding (VSb) industry approach.

It should be rapidly procured and placed into service as early as possible in the 2020s. If necessary, wider Government financial support should be provided to allow early build of the vessel. This will enable the new governance approach to be embedded in order to deliver medium to long-term savings in ship procurement.

Type 31e should be designed so that the price/capability point is an attractive export proposition and then it should be delivered to a hard target cost.

The MOD should determine the optimum economic service life for a naval ship and then replace ships with new vessels at that point, rather than operate longer and thus avoid expensive major refits.

As a pathfinder, Type 31e should also be procured as a RN asset that stimulates exports including via sales from the Fleet.

Sir John Parker’s report was delivered in November 2016. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has stalled, procrastinated, dithered and otherwise failed to move the T31e forward. What seemed like a straightforward invitation to tender for the design was released, then, withdrawn without satisfactory explanation and then re-issued! All the while the Type 23 FF’s – which the Type 31e and yet to be built Type 26 are planned to replace – sail on beyond there originally designed end of service dates.

The original class of 16 T23 ships had a planned lifespan of circa 19 years. The first of class, HMS Norfolk completed in 1989 and under the original plan should have gone out of service in circa 2009. Various reviews saw the early withdrawal of the Type 22s and the sale of 3 Type 23s to Chile.

However, as the design and procurement of the Type 26 dragged on and yielding nothing, it became obvious that the 13 remaining Type 23s would be in-service much longer than they were designed for. The out of service dates (OSDs) for T23 fitted with Type 2087 sonar are now: HMS Westminster 2028, HMS Northumberland 2029, HMS Richmond 2030, HMS Somerset 2031, HMS Sutherland 2032, HMS Kent 2033, HMS Portland 2034, and HMS St Albans 2035. And The General Purpose (GP) variant of the T23 OSD dates are: HMS Argyll 2023, HMS Lancaster 2024 HMS Iron Duke 2025, HMS Monmouth 2026 and HMS Montrose 2027. HMS Lancaster is due to re-join the fleet this year, and HMS Iron Duke is in long refit at Devonport.

Obviously, these ships have required a major life extending refit to allow them to remain in service. Basically this ‘LIFEX’ refit includes replacing Sea Wolf with Sea Ceptor, a missile system which can engage multiple targets and would be used for example to protect a carrier. A new radar [Artisan] replaces the current system, and all the ships will have a power generation machinery upgrade [PGMU] which involves replacement of the four main propulsion diesel generator sets. Each refit takes between 18 and 24 months, depending on the condition of individual ships. Despite MOD objections to the term, some of the T23s have been in unmaintained reserve and it is suggested that some ships may not get Sea Ceptor. For example, HMS Sutherland has been refitted, but does not have the system; another case of a covert capability degradation to save money perhaps?

In respect of new build ships, the procrastination continues as no Type 31es have been ordered whilst waiting for a final design to be selected. This does not help British ship building in the least, as there has to be certainty about orders and time scales (the drum beat) for it to be worth the consideration of yards which might be involved in construction, and is certainly not what Sir John Parker hoped for. For example: the MoD’s constant delays to construction time has led to HMS Audacious – a new Astute Class SSN – now being around two years overdue, at an increased cost now estimated at circa £1.65bn.

The problem is exacerbated by there being no clear published in-service date for the first of class of either T26 or 31e FF so, the consequences of delay are felt by the RN who have to continue to man and maintain ageing systems & equipment with inadequate manpower and skills. And industry is reluctant to invest if the ‘drum beat’ of orders and funding is uncertain and hiring decisions deferred for fear that further delays will make their business cases unviable.

It is important to understand the implications of these and the other prevarications (delayed SSN builds for example) on build and equipment programmes in operational capability terms. The headline “hype” about the Royal Navy is very much focussed on the imminent advent of “Carrier Strike”. Putting aside the debate as to how capable these two aircraft carriers are by comparison with their United States Navy (USN) “cousins”, these ships require highly capable, sufficient and up to date escorts, SSNs, aircraft, missile defences and sensors for adequate protection when deployed. Amongst a host of other less than optimum “kit”, the escorting frigates and destroyers will need to be of the highest quality once the aircraft carriers are asked to project power in contested waters. Presently, neither their numbers nor their operational effectiveness are being seriously addressed.

Why is all this largely unknown outside esoteric defence circles? Mainly because the British public are themselves prevented from knowing through the control of information whilst naval and military people are banned from talking about their work. senior officers are therefore constrained from speaking to the public; this is very unlike their peers in other departments of state such as the police, the National Health Service and Local Government.

Whatever the future holds the nation desperately needs a National Strategy to which all sections of Government can contribute so that the United Kingdom can flourish, prosper and contribute to World peace. The FF fleet size of the RN being a hostage to fortune without a clear National Grand Strategy to guide MoD.