DS has long been concerned at the ‘hollowing out’ effect of HMG policy across the British Armed Forces. The paper below is a personal view and chronology of the effect upon the Royal Navy of successive Strategic Defence and Security Reviews from 1998 to date. It has been written with professional commercial and service insight by a former RN Officer.
THE ROYAL NAVY: REGENERATION OR SAILING INTO THE SUNSET?
DEFENCE POLICY AS SET OUT IN STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW 2015
By Lt Cdr David Graham RN (Retd)
The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 states that, routinely, the Armed Forces will defend and contribute to the security and resilience of the UK and Overseas Territories. This includes deterring attacks; defending our airspace, territorial waters and cyber space; countering terrorism at home and abroad; supporting the UK civil authorities in strengthening resilience; and protecting our people overseas. However, this cornucopia of aspirations is far from being met by the Royal Navy (RN), which, arguably is already over stretched in personnel and vessel terms.
The author of this commentary notes that SDSR 2015 does not mention defence of merchant shipping nor the potential threat of terrorist mining important UK ports. This from the government of an island nation which depends on the sea for 95% of its commerce and fisheries within a UK Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).
By Lt Cdr David Graham RN (Retd)
HMS AMBUSH: from an original water colour. © DCG
To fully appreciate why the RN is in its present predicament, there has to be an understanding of the defence reviews since the end of the Cold War. These start with Strategic Defence Review 98 [SDR98], span several other mini reviews, and culminate in the SDSRs of 2010 and 2015 as commissioned by the Coalition Government and the present administration.
SDR98: After 14 months of consultation and preparation SDR98 was placed before the House of Commons in July 1998. It begins with an assessment of the strategic realities and security context of the post Cold War world. The Government recognised that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact meant that there was no longer a direct military threat to the UK at that time. However, it also acknowledged that the world is an increasingly unstable and unpredictable place where indirect threats to the UK still persist and can arise in many areas around the globe. Using this latter scenario a requirement for more mobile, responsive and flexible armed forces was called for. To this end the SDR signified a major shift towards expeditionary armed forces, involving the rapid deployment of sustainable military force often over long distances. The planned purchase of two new large aircraft carriers and the establishment of structures to support new Joint Rapid Reaction Forces [JRRF] represent the most potent symbols of this change. Thus “Jointery” – the requirement for all 3 services to work in close harmony – was reinforced, resulting in the establishment of RN/Royal Air Force (RAF) Joint Force Harrier (JFH), RAF/Army/RN Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and other Joint Organisations. But what did this mean for the RN?
THE ROYAL NAVY: A NEW STRUCTURE
The centre piece of the new strategy as it affected the RN was the planned acquisition of two large 40,000 ton aircraft carriers for force projection; each capable of embarking up to 50 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, with a proposed in-service date [ISD] for the first of class, of 2012. At the time MOD was also studying a ‘marinised’ version of the Eurofighter [Typhoon], an upgraded Harrier, or existing French and American carrier borne aircraft for the new carriers. These ships would replace the three existing Invincible class ships.
Modernisation of the UK Amphibious Squadron would continue by backing up the new Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) by building two Landing Platform Dock (LPDs), acquiring four Roll On Roll Off (RoRo) container ships [MOD already had Sea Crusader and sea Chieftain on charter] and ordering two replacements for the existing unmodernised Logistic Landing Ships [LSLs]. These in fact became the four LSD(A) [Auxiliary] vessels of the Bay class, serving as Royal Fleet Auxiliaries (RFAs), which in the event replaced all the older LSLs. It was also proposed that two fleet oilers [AOs] be acquired which later became the Wave class, along with a 200 bed hospital ship, with provision made for a second.
As the threat in the North Atlantic diminished, it was decided to pay off five Type 22 frigates [dedicated anti-submarine ships] and one Type 42 air defence destroyer, and for the RN to only acquire 44 Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Merlin helicopters. Three Type 23 frigates would enter service; however the frigate/destroyer force would in fact reduce to 32 hulls. The MOD at that time remained committed to the European “Project Horizon” project, air defence ship, and a future escort was planned to replace the Type 23 frigates.
Submarines: The Ship Submersible Nuclear (SSN) fleet was reduced from twelve to ten, all to be fitted with the Tomahawk land attack missile [TLAM]. Two further Astute class SSNs would be ordered after 2000, joining the three already ordered, entering service from 2005 onwards.
Mine Countermeasures: Like anti-submarine warfare, which was directly responsible for the reduction of ASW frigates by five, and SSNs by two, Mine Counter Measures (MCM) was seen as a declining threat in home waters, and the threat of deep moored mines in territorial waters considered as negligible. Thus the demise of the RN Reserve (RNR) River class minesweepers, and the reduction of ‘Hunt’ and ‘Sandown’ MCM Vessels (MCMV) to twenty two in number, rather than the originally planned twenty five. It was decided to retain the Fishery Protection Squadron – seven Island class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) – following the decision by the Scottish Fishery Protection Agency which no longer required a dedicated RN presence.
Given the above, it might be assessed that the RN, despite the “peace dividend” being taken elsewhere, came out of SDR 98 reasonably unscathed. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this proved to be far from the case. Project ‘Horizon’ became bogged down by partners’ differing requirements, and in 1999 the UK withdrew from the project to build an air defence destroyer. On 23rd November 1999, Marconi Electronic Systems was confirmed as prime contractor. A week later, this company was bought out by British Aerospace to form BAE Systems (BAES) and the new UK project morphed into the ‘Daring’ Class Type 45, of which it was proposed to order “up to 12”, which became eight and eventually six in 2008 – the number the RN has now. It is worth noting that on delivery of the final ship, the project was 29% over budget. At the same time SSN numbers were reduced to eight and then seven.
As is well known, SSN production ground to a halt shortly after construction commenced as a result of “technical difficulties”. The initial preferred contractor, GEC-Marconi, took over the VSEL Barrow shipyard in mid-1995 and signed a contract to design and build the first three Astute class in March 1997. By November 1999, the yard at Barrow, now owned by BAES, had lost many technical and engineering skills, and the workforce had fallen from 13,000 to circa 3,000, as skilled people moved elsewhere to earn a living. By then it became clear that the computer assisted design software adopted was inadequate for the task, as were many of the operatives using it and eventually after negotiations in 2002/03, a new contract was negotiated between the MOD and the contractor in December 2003. Additionally, MOD enlisted the help of General Dynamics Electric Boat Division under the auspices of a United States Navy (USN) contract. This helped to rescue the project, by rectifying design defects affecting Astute herself, and resolving software issues, introducing vertical outfitting and other American manufacturing techniques. This allowed Astute to be launched in mid-2007 and allowed the production of boats two and three to resume. It is perhaps worth noting that from first steel cut for boat three, ‘Artful’, took ten and a half years. As to the future frigate, this gestated into the Type 26 of which the eight ordered have yet to reach main gate at the time of writing, and the design is only 60% complete. Readers may wonder if this is perhaps the longest period of gestation for a frigate in history.
Nevertheless, the RN managed to accept into service two ‘Echo’ class survey ships in 2002, the two LPDs [Bulwark and Albion] in 2003/04, and four ‘River’ class OPVs between 2002 and 2006. Also accepted in 2002 by the RFA were the two ‘Wave’ class fast fleet tankers, making them the only modern twin hulled tankers in the fleet.
However, resulting from the 2003 Defence White Paper, the RN lost three Type 42 Destroyers, three Type 23 frigates and six MCMVs. These reductions were justified thus: “The requirements of modern naval warfare, the reduced conventional threat, the increased use of networked enabled capability and more multi-national operations have enabled the Navy to retire three of its older Type 42 destroyers, three Type 23 frigates and six minehunters”. Readers will probably find this comment as puzzling as the author. It is often forgotten that the Type 23s are a class of 16. Had these frigates – HM Ships, Norfolk, Grafton and Marlborough – which were sold to Chile been retained, as indeed they should have, the strain on current ships would have been much reduced, and allowed a less arduous programme of running, considering they are the only frigates in the fleet.
Aircraft carriers. As readers have seen, the decision to build the carries was taken during SDR98; however it was to be after a decade of design studies that the contract was finally signed on the 3rd of July 2008. This was between the Government and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance [ACA], a consortium comprising of the then BAE/BVT joint venture, Babcock Marine, Thales UK and the MOD.
Within the design period, the Platform Design Director [PDF] contemplated two further vessel sizes. These were discarded, one being too large, and the other, at about 40,000 tonnes – circa the size of USS America – as being too small. The present design commenced in 2005, to what was said at the time to be a tight budget. One of the first things to go was nuclear power. The PDF stated that: “this is a brand new ship, so getting through all the safety aspects of nuclear power would have been hideously expensive”. Instead, a power station type installation comprising two Rolls Royce MT30 gas turbine generators – on sponsons at deck level 04, therefore quite high above the waterline – and four diesel generators deeper inside the hull provide power for full and cruising speeds through electric motors driving two shafts. This also accounts for the two ‘islands’, which allow for exhaust trunking from different sources. Side armour was also deleted, but the PDF insisted that “this was a strategic rather than a budgetary issue” as frigates and air defence destroyers would be the first line of defence.
Cats and traps: Readers will be aware of the U turns made on the matter of Catapults and Arrestor Gear (cats and traps) throughout the build history of these ships. It would seem strange that given the RN’s successful history of strike carrier operations, it would choose, Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) particularly on a 65000 tonne hull. It should be borne in mind that no matter how successful the F-35B may turn out to be, the ship has a probable service life of 50 years, and that it is not possible to envisage another manned STOVL aircraft ever being built. To use an analogy, at the end of her life, if the F-35B is still in service, this would be equivalent to operating Sea Vixens or Scimitars from a carrier today. Below is an excerpt from the statement made at contract signing on 3rd July 2008.
“The design of the two vessels is, however, optimised for operation of the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing [STOVL] variant of the Joint Strike Fighter [JSF] [now of course known as the F-35B]. The first such development aircraft made its maiden flight in June 2008, and flight testing is going well. The carrier can also embark helicopters, and the adaptable design is future-proofed to operate unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs”]. It goes on to state, importantly as recent developments have shown, that: “CVF’s innovative design also means that, should a more conventional aircraft be chosen at a later stage, the deck can be reconfigured with catapults and arrester gear installations.”
In the spring of 2009 the House of Commons Defence Committee reported on Defence Equipment and had some pertinent questions on catapults during its deliberations. The then Chief Operating Officer at Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), Dr Andrew Tyler, said this: “Space underneath the flight deck had been left in order that, should you wish to do so in the future, one could fit catapults and traps which sit immediately under the flight deck. This would enable the MOD to change the carrier over to a conventional take-off capability”.
Thus it can be seen that by 2010, a General Election year in which a new administration came to power that May, SSN building was slowly progressing, the carrier contract had been signed, but there was no progress whatsoever towards replacing the Type 23 frigates. This was also to be the Year of SDSR2010, which was to have a dramatic effect upon the RN and the British Armed Forces more widely.
STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW 2010
SDSR 2010 was published by the Coalition Administration in October 2010, and caused controversy lasting to this day. The general consensus was that, far from being a serious attempt to re-define the strategic aims of UK armed forces, it was nothing more than a budget driven device to cut costs by introducing “capability holidays”, reducing personnel and disposing of assets. It is a matter of public record that the contention of Government at the time was that: “Britain faced no immediate threat to its security or national interests”. Confusion also reigned as a result of comments such as…”We require to maintain a national sovereign capability to build [for example, submarines] because we do not know who our allies might be”, to be immediately contrasted with…“We will never fight a war again without the help of our allies”. Surely if we are to rely upon them, we must know who our allies are?
From a naval perspective, the best that can be said about the outcome for the RN is that it could very easily have been worse. That said, it would be hard to disguise the inconsistency and incoherence of the policy of the hastily driven treasury inspired policy, some of which the RN will struggle with for years to come. As recently as January 2010, the then 1SL, had been in talks in the United States (US) with his USN opposite number regarding the regeneration of carrier strike and the exchange of British pilots to train in USN CVNs – conventional cat and trap equipped carriers. It had also been planned to regenerate carrier strike operations from HMS Ark Royal, to gain concurrency for JFH pilots in night and day operations from the ship. Suddenly this was not to be, and the Ark Royal was decommissioned along with JFH.
In addition, it was decided to reduce frigate numbers by four batch III Type 22s, cut the amphibious lift capability – RFA Largs Bay sold to Australia – and, crucial to the navy, abandon the Nimrod MRA 4 long range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA). In addition, over 5,000 naval personnel were to be made redundant, reducing the navy personnel to around 29,500 by 2015. The SDSR committed to continued construction of both carriers, but the future of the second, as a unit of the RN was far from certain. It was suspected that only the terms of the contract were preventing its cancellation. SSN numbers were to remain at seven; which was just as well, because to dip below this level would have probably left periods where only a single boat might be available. In addition to the loss of an LSD[A], afloat support lost a further tanker and, later, without any announcement, two of the six ‘Point’ class strategic lift RoRos were removed in 2011, although this was not made public until 2013. This further degraded the maritime ability to move heavy military equipment as required in an emergency. As readers will see, cuts and delays to build programmes, all of which added considerably to “end costs”, continued annually over the next five years to SDSR2015.
Between 2011 and 2015, annual planning rounds determined how much money would be available in any particular year – always lower than originally planned. This five year period embraced deliberate delays to both the carrier build programme, and the construction of the ‘Astute’ class SSNs. During this time the National Audit Office [NAO] produced Major Project Reports on an annual basis. Some of the NAO’s conclusions and remarks in 2012 referring to the previous year’s report are interesting especially on the RN requirement for Cooperative Engagement Capability [CEC]. This American system is planned to be fitted throughout the USN to enable complex information to be shared between allied navies, enabling greater co-ordination when engaged in hostilities – the force multiplier effect. The Government endorsed the system for the RN in SDR98 being cited by the NAO as one of the reasons justifying the RN disposing of three Type 23 frigates. However, the NAO report disclosed that Planning Round 2011 had decided that CEC will not be fitted to Type 23 frigates after all, but to the future Type 26 Global Combat Ship. Interestingly, there was no mention of it being fitted to Type 45 destroyers. Subsequently, MOD cancelled CEC altogether in 2012.
Submarine building. As a result of SDSR 2010 it was publicly admitted that the Government had decided to impose substantial delays upon the Astute SSN build programme. This was a direct result of a disagreement between the Coalition partners regarding the replacing of the Trident SSBN fleet. [SDSR 2010 delayed introducing the new SSBNs by four years, to 2028]. This would mean a gap of four years between the completion of Astute boat seven, and the commencement of constructing the ‘Successor’ SSBN. As this policy to delay the SSBN programme created problems in the whole submarine new build programme, the Government decided to extend the build time for Astute. The choice Government faced was either delay the Astute build, or order an eighth boat – the Government inexplicably opted for delay rather than enhanced capability.
The knock-on consequences were obvious. The remaining ‘T’ Class SSN boats would have to run on well beyond their planned decommissioning dates, necessitating extensive revalidation refits and some SSBNs would require an unforeseen and uncosted refuelling refit. The delay to Astute boats 1 – 4 added a further £200m to their completion costs, and in total, will add nearly £1bn to the forecast cost of completing all seven boats. These costs, when taking into account technical and capability changes incorporated since the building commenced amount to over £1.9bn. It should be noted that the original requirement was for eight boats, however the National Security council preferred to delay construction, despite the fact that an additional boat would made it much easier to achieve the classified availability requirement. It is worth noting that ‘Astute’ took circa 10 years to complete. Interestingly, the United States Navy Acquire two Virginia class SSNs every two years. For example, USS California was delivered eight and a half months ahead of schedule, after a 65 month build period.
Aircraft carriers: The Queen Elizabeth (QEC) and Prince of Wales (POW) were delayed, in total by 29 months, but the delay cannot be blamed on the ACA. The alliance has done a superb job of completing these complex warships at Rosyth, and ensuring that all the blocks, built at diverse locations throughout the UK, were delivered on time, and fitted together correctly. However, written answers to parliament in early 2013 confirmed that the contract cost for the two ships had risen to £6.2bn from £3.6bn. The assumption was that the delays would allow the ships to complete when the finalised version of the F-35B had achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in the United States. It is understood that the contract can reach a cost of £7.7bn before penalties can be activated by the MOD.
Type 26 Frigate Global Combat Ship (GCS). Little or no progress was made with the T26 GCS programme, until 2015, when long lead items began to be ordered. It was clear that the cutting of steel would be delayed when the MOD decided to order two Batch II ‘River’ class OPVs to keep the workforce employed at BAES on the Clyde bridging the gap between the completion of major blocks for POW, and the start of building the Type 26. This of course has been further delayed until the completion of Sir John Parker’s review of UK shipbuilding. The Government is on record as saying [it will] commit £8bn to this project, which will now build eight T26 frigates, specifically for the ASW role. It is interesting to remember that the Type 23s, when accepted into service, comprised of a class of 16 ships. Readers may possibly have watched live, or read the transcript of the Commons Defence Select Committee in early June 2016. Giving evidence, the former 1SL, Admiral Lord West, stated that the current and planned size of the RN escort fleet was “inadequate” and suggested a number nearer 30 was more appropriate. Lord West speaks as the former CO of HMS Ardent, lost during the Falklands war, and so has both combat experience, and understands the effects of attrition by an enemy. He further suggested that the RN is short of some £750m over the next two years, hence the delay in cutting steel for the Type 26 frigates. Although the government reiterated its commitment to spend £8bn on warships over the next 10 years, Lord West is an active politician and there is no reason to believe his figure is inaccurate.
Mine countermeasures: Often overlooked by politicians when discussing ‘big ticket’ items is the essential role played by RN mine countermeasures units. The RN is in the process of reintroducing mine sweeping using a remote system refitted to ‘Hunt’ class MCMVs. The last ‘Oropesa’ mine sweeps (using trailed floats) were conducted by RN ‘Hunts’ in 2005, when the gear was removed. Anglo-French cooperation and research continues into the development of remote systems to be operated by a mother or control ship, remote from the minefield itself.
STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW 2015
SDSR 2015 was published by the new Conservative administration on 23rd November 2015 and promulgated a vision for the future termed as “joint Force 2025”. This would be able to deploy rapidly at distance from the UK mainland. The principal contribution from the RN will be the ‘maritime task group’ centred on a QEC carrier and her embarked F-35B combat aircraft. This prompted the then 1SL, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, to state that the review had “substantially reset the defence and security agenda, with a significant investment, commitment and responsibility that now puts the Royal Navy absolutely at the heart of our nation’s security”. He added: “The government has reversed past trends and will grow the navy for the first time since the Second world War”.
The SDSR confirmed that both carriers will be “fully crewed” meaning one would be available at all times, and that 42 F-35B aircraft [24 to be available for carrier deployment] will be available from 2023, or possibly earlier. The POW will be modified to enable an LPH role, thus confirming the demise of HMS Ocean, which is planned to go out of service in 2018. [POW is unlikely to be able to fulfil the role before 2022 at the earliest].
SSBNs: It has been confirmed in SDSR 2015 that four successor boats will be built to replace the current ‘Vanguard’ class, and the review stresses that there will need to be organisational, commercial and managerial changes in the manner in which nuclear submarines are built if a sovereign submarine capability is to be maintained. A total of £31bn has been set aside for the programme, including an allowance for inflation and contingency (£10bn) over the period of construction. Although not strictly a naval matter, the provision of funds to purchase a new fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon MPA aircraft that can provide enhanced SSBN security will be welcomed by all. The SDSR confirmed a change in plan with regard to the Type 23 replacement. The original assumption that the Type 26 would replace thirteen Type 23s on a one-for-one basis has now altered in that only the eight ASW Type 23s will be so replaced. In addition, a study [yes, another study!] has been launched to design and develop a new class of lighter, more flexible general purpose frigate (GPF), of which five may be built. It is hoped that the GPF will be attractive to other navies, and therefore have export potential. It was further confirmed in SDSR 2015 that two more Batch II ‘Rivers’ would be built [since that date, it has been confirmed that the class will number only five].
However, MCM will see a further reduction by 2025, with the RN loosing 3 more ‘Sandown’ class single role mine hunters, thereby reducing the fleet to twelve. It must be hope that the results of Anglo/French cooperation in the field of unmanned MCM systems will bear fruit by then, allowing the concept of remote mine clearance vehicles controlled by a command vessel out with the minefield to become an operational reality.
Afloat Support: The RFA will acquire three circa 40,000 tonne dry stores, air stores and ammunition ships to replace Forts Rosalie and Austin, and the Auxiliary Oiler and Replenishment (AOR) ship, Fort Victoria. These new ships will be considerably more complex than fleet tankers, which may result in them being built nearer home. Perhaps by next 2017 the new AO, Tidespring, will enter service, although there is a deafening silence regarding why she did not arrive in the UK from South Korea last December. It is understood that work on her for sister ships is proceeding satisfactorily.
Finally, the Type 45 ‘Daring’ class destroyer machinery rectification programme has been approved for implementation. Following trials by HMS Daring in the Pacific with the USN, the MOD will institute studies to investigate the potential of the T45 destroyers to operate in the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence role.
United States CVN Carrier Air Wing Aircraft.
Before drawing conclusions about the results of the SDSR process and the impact upon the RN, this commentary believes it is worth examining the various elements that make up an air group on board a USN aircraft carrier. The USN now has vastly more experience on big deck carrier operations than any other maritime force. It would appear from some official comments in the UK that we cannot do this as it is simply “too complicated”. Another supporter of STOVL believes it “would break the Royal Navy” to operate a proper ‘strike carrier’. This is a sad indictment of the British who invented the concept of carrier strike – HMS Hermes in the 1920s was the first warship designed from the keel up as a carrier and the RN went on to introduced the armoured flight deck, what became known as the hurricane bow, and after WWII, the steam catapult, the angled flight deck and the mirror landing sight – all later adopted by the USN.
The typical make-up of a USN carrier air wing will consist of the following:
Strike fighters: Super Hornet F/A 18E and F/A 18F
Carrier Airborne Early Warning: Hawkeye E-2C
Fixed wing attack and electronic suppression: Growler EA-18G
Helicopter: Sea Combat: Sea Hawk MH-60S
Helicopter: Marine Strike: Sea Hawk MH-60R
Fleet Logistics Support: Greyhound C-2A [What is known in RN parlance as Carrier On-board Delivery (COD)]
NB: The Hawkeye is a twin turboprop all weather [day and night] tactical battle management airborne early warning and command and control aircraft. Airspeed 320kts. Weight: 42,000lbs. Crew: 5 Ceiling: 37,000+ feet. Propulsion. “ Rolls Royce T-56A-427 turbo prop engines. Range: Combat 1,500 nautical miles. Endurance 6 hours.
As an example of carrier utility, USN CVNs provided strike aircraft in support of ground forces in Afghanistan on a regular basis. Located in the Indian Ocean, they provided a mobile airfield, gave crews a safe environment on return from missions, and had all the necessary repair and maintenance facilities in a secure environment away from the forward edge of battle area. The suggestion that the RN could not accomplish this is nonsense. As an example, in June/July 1961, this is just what was provided during the Kuwait crisis, backed up by HMS Bulwark in her Commando carrier role.
This is not a technical paper, and there is no discussion of technical issues in any depth. Whether the rolling unarrested landings of F-35B aircraft will be a success is unknown, as indeed is the actual performance of ‘Crowsnest’ AEW in rotary wing aircraft. It is however worth pointing out that a helicopter will never match a fixed wing AEW platform in either endurance or ceiling. It is well known the F-35 family of aircraft have had a long and difficult period of gestation, and it is hoped that in the end, the version chosen by the RN will prove to be up to the task. Much will depend on how well the Autonomic Logistics Information System [ALIS] functions, because without it, it will be difficult to operate the aircraft at all. The Operational Test and Evaluation organisation (DOT&E) at the Pentagon has warned for months that the F-35 family will not be able to complete the final test phase as planned in 2016. This is as a result of a failure to prove the aircraft’s full combat ability with Block 3F software, essential for both the USMC, RN and RAF. This upgrade will not now occur until sometime in 2018. Finally on the subject of British F-35 squadrons, the commander of the UK lightning force has confirmed that 617 squadron [RFA] will “stand up” at MCAS Beaufort [USA] in January 2018. The second operational squadron [809 NAS] will, apparently, not “form up” until 2023, making the FAA very much the junior partner.
Depending on who you wish to believe, there might be a fixed wing air group of nine, twelve or twenty four F35B Lightning aircraft embarked in QEC in circa 4 years. However, it is clear that the concept of carrier operations envisaged by the UK is now quite different from that of established carrier operators, such as the US and France. It can be seen from the aircraft mix that USN CVNs are geared to deliver their missions in all the traditional roles expected of a strike carrier. As do the French, and indeed did the RN, up to the demise of Ark Royal IV. One view expressed recently to ‘Forces News’ was, I quote, “Jets meet their best concurrency”. This apparently means that the British Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) will, at least initially, focus on generating the aircraft to meet their various missions from land bases, using the carrier as a means of transportation. If this is official policy, then it is bizarre beyond belief. To build two 65000 tonne carriers at the cost of £6.5bn and use them as aircraft ferries is crazy in the extreme. However, it probably sits comfortably with “Tailored Air Groups” which suggests that, as the air group will be built around the mission, the RN will have to wait for a crisis to happen, and then react to it. Readers may think this rather defeats the concept of a strike carrier, with a fully trained and concurrent air wing on board, ready to react as necessary to any crisis, or, by their presence, to prevent one developing. As to QEC herself, she is expected to be completed later this year, and begin sea trials early in 2017. As to how well she will function, only the trials will show whether the design meets all its expectations. It is to be hoped that they are without the problems visited on other recent classes.
Amphibious warfare (AW): The two LPDs no longer remain in commission, with one being laid up and the other going into refit at approximately five to six year intervals. Whether this is a sensible policy is open to debate; no matter how well attended, ships deteriorate when not active, extended readiness or not. The AW lift heralded in SDSR 2010 has gradually been whittled away, with Largs Bay sold to the Australians, and two of six Point class RoRo ships being quietly disposed of as surplus to requirements. The RN’s only LPH, HMS Ocean, despite being extensively refitted, is to be withdrawn in 2018. In the period 2006/07, the RFA commissioned four ‘Bay’ Class LSD[A]s, thus completing the modernisation of AW capability, begun with HMS Ocean in 1995. As we have seen, this, like so many other capabilities, has been reduced over time on cost grounds. It is worth re-emphasising that SDSR 2010 articulated the need for expeditionary capability, but nonetheless, disposal of some of the essential enablers has continued since. The Response Force Task Group [RFTG] is the RNs high readiness expeditionary task force, and as such deploys each year. However, units join and leave, often in reality deploying elsewhere in any case, and it seldom has a full integrated escort of surface ships, or indeed a submarine.
Destroyers and Frigates: The problems associated with the propulsion units of the type 45s are well known, and apparently a fix is in the pipeline. It seems amazing that industry is not to blame. According to the new Minister of State, “the guarantee has run out”. To suggest that RN warships, particularly air defence platforms, would not serve in the Gulf seems a touch disingenuous. In the meantime, HMS Dauntless, has been reduced to a harbour training vessel in Portsmouth. The Type 23s soldier on, and will in due course be fitted with Sea Ceptor in lieu of Sea Wolf, new radar, improved electrical generation, and other add-ons to keep them running until the Type 26 arrives in service. One unit, HMS Lancaster, is laid up in extended readiness at Portsmouth. As the T26 replace the T23 the plan is to transfer much of the new weapons and radar fit on a one for one basis thereby reducing new build cost.
Submarines: Four SSN ‘T’ boats remain in service, with HMS Torbay due to retire next year. Trenchant has officially re-joined the fleet after her revalidation refit, however it is reliably stated that she is far from ready to deploy. As HMS Talent has yet to revalidate, it cannot be long before she goes into extended refit.
Astute SSNs: Artful was recently accepted into the fleet and continues trials, whilst Ambush is in Plymouth for repairs after a surfacing collision in the Mediterranean during a Perisher course. One can see just how strapped the submarine service is for platforms, and that there is, as is the case with the surface fleet, no slack to take into consideration attrition through accidents, or, during hostilities, battle damage or total loss.
Survey and Ice Patrol. RN survey and ice patrol capability is unchanged by SDSR., with one deep ocean survey ship, two smaller ‘Echo’ class, and HMS Protector, the UK’s Ice Patrol Vessel in the fleet. The squadron also possesses and inshore survey launch, HMS Gleaner.
Minor war vessels:. MCMVs continue to serve permanently in the Gulf – 2 ‘Hunts’ and 2 ‘Sandowns’ – often supported by a Bay class RFA. The balance serve either with NATO MCM squadrons or in support of submarines at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane.
OPVs. The three ‘Rivers’ normally on UK fisheries patrol tasks continue to be deployed out of area, both in the Atlantic North patrol, and more recently in assisting to deal with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. HMS Clyde remains as Falkland Islands guard ship. It has been confirmed that they will be replaced by the five Batch 2 ‘River’ class presently under construction. It is hoped that the Batch 1 ships will be transferred to Border Force, as it would be scandalous if these excellent VT designed and built vessels are simply sold on to foreign owners.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The RFA is now reduced to three vessels able to transfer liquids – 2 Wave class and AOR Fort Victoria – until the new Tide class fleet tankers are delivered from South Korea. There has been no official explanation as to why the first tanker, RFA Tidespring, remains in Korea, when she was supposed to arrive in Falmouth to have her military equipment fitted in December 2015. Solid support [victuals, air and dry stores and ammunition remain the preserve of the two original ‘Fort’ class, completed in 1978/79]. The three LSD[A] continue in service, one being permanently in the Gulf in support of minor war vessels. RFA Argus continues in service as a ‘Primary Casualty Receiving Ship’ with a secondary role in aviation training. RFA Diligence, recently refitted, has inexplicably been deleted from the fleet. As the only ‘Forward Repair Ship’, and capable of maintaining nuclear submarines, she will be sorely missed. No doubt we will be told that as the RN are building a new base in Bahrain [HMS Jufair, perhaps?] a forward repair ship can be gapped. Unfortunately, fixed bases, as opposed to ships, are not mobile.
Finally, trained strength as at 1st February 2016 was thus:
RN Officers Ratings
RM 770 6,170
Total 5,900 23,820
Therefore total RN strength is 29,720.
With this Treasury enforced ceiling on personnel, it is difficult to envisage how the RN can possibly grow, never mind fulfil its various tasks. There is growing evidence that morale is poor, unsurprising when the military salary has been capped for years, people are made redundant in the face of known shortages, there are few shore billets left as contractors undertake more and more of that type of work, thus disrupting family life, and a general feeling that governments take all three service’s personnel for granted. It can be no surprise when it is suggested that the “brightest and best” simply decide to leave to find better paid, more satisfying careers outside of the service. The author would also suggest that this leaves a pool of lesser competence, particularly when it comes to filling senior posts.
DAVID C GRAHAM
28 AUGUST 2016.