THE ROYAL NAVY TODAY: REALITY, ASPIRATION OR PRETENCE?

From an original water colour© DC Graham:  HMS AMBUSH HEADS FOR HOMEIN THE GARELOCH:

Extract taken from a larger document which can be read in its entirety HERE

This paper is produced against the background of an ever increasingly uncertain world, a far cry from the utopia dreamed of after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the ending of the Cold War. Western democracies, quick to take advantage of what was termed the “peace dividend” and reduce defence spending accordingly, are now faced over twenty years later with a Chinese People’s Liberation Army [Navy] intent on acquiring a blue water fleet of 500 vessels, thereby threatening stability in the Far East, a Russian president intent on projecting his country’s interest as he sees it and thereby establishing a dominant presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, whilst openly threatening NATO member states in the Baltic. This is coupled with the ever-present threat of terrorism in Europe and the United States, the instability in the Middle East and Gulf, and the increase of cyber warfare and the hacking of Western defence systems by highly competent and sophisticated enemies.

THE REALITY AS OPPOSED TO THE ASPIRATIONS AND PRETENCE

The Royal Navy, now at its smallest for decades, has suffered from drastic cuts in numbers because of monetary cuts, but has also been the victim of bizarre industrial policy which, with various government’s blessings over two decades, has resulted in the creation of a single, large corporation responsible for all naval surface ship and submarine construction. The company also enjoys “a terms of business arrangement” that ensures payment over its life, even if there is no work. As has been noted, the Parker Report has commented on the unsatisfactory nature of this situation, and it is clear that over the last two decades, ships and submarines have taken too long to design, too long to build [often because of political interference], and have been, and continue to be, vastly over-priced.

One only should look at the comparative cost of the Danish Iver Huitfeldt class frigate [138.7m loa: 6645 tonnes] and the Type 26 Global Combat Ship [149.9m loa: 8,000 tonnes] to discover that the Danish vessel is almost a quarter of the price of the British ship1. The 5,000 redundancies forced upon the service in SDSR2010 have hollowed out the service leaving the strength at circa 29,500 people, not enough to man the fleet, and lessening its strength and resilience. This in turn has led to many of the brightest and best leaving the service for pastures new, when the navy can least afford them to do so, and has resulted in ships deploying with billets gapped. Cuts in the supply and spares inventories has also seen ships putting to sea without important equipment, ammunition and spares. To cut the logistic tail, will, as has been seen throughout history, lead to disaster, as battles are often lost through want of stores of all kinds.

The undeniable – for governments the unpalatable – truth, is that despite having, allegedly, the fifth largest defence budget in the World, the UK needs to spend more on defence. Nineteen destroyers and frigates simply cannot undertake the routine tasks required of the RN, never mind engage in combat with sophisticated enemies, as may well be required. Potential adversaries are not misled by MOD spin or banal press releases; they see the reality and react as they see appropriate. It is agreed that a state must fight with what it possesses on day one. That has been the case since the 70s, and is not going to change. Both senior naval officers and the MOD have accepted that there can be no plans made to take care of attrition losses, and it is therefore obvious that the RN could not sustain a lengthy campaign in which it was expected to sustain ship losses. No matter how powerful, once a ship is sunk, it has gone. A carrier group will require two air defence destroyers and two anti-submarine frigates, plus a nuclear attack submarine. Such a group will need the support of at least one fast fleet tanker, and one solid support ship carrying ammunition, food, stores and air stores. Bear in mind that the tanker does not have unlimited supplies of fuel. A Wave class fast fleet tankers carry 16,900 tonnes of fuel on a displacement of 31,500 tonnes full load, hence the importance of support tankers to top-up the Tide and Wave class fleet tankers. With only three solid support ships, logistic solid support will be very tight, and their vulnerability will be exposed in any combat situation, as they simply could not afford to be lost. As the carriers will have no on-board aircraft to deliver spares,2 all spare F-35 engines must be carried on board. It will not be until the new Solid Support Ships are in service, circa mid-2020, that the RFAs new Heavy Replenishment at Sea [HRAS] rig will be available. These ships will be fitted with % tonne capable HRAS rigs, which can cope with the 4.3 tonne of engine and container. These are just examples; however, they illustrate how important the logistics train is to naval operations.

To put this into perspective, it is instructive to examine Operation Corporate, the campaign to re-take the Falkland Islands in 1982 when 10 RFA tankers, supported by numerous commercial tankers taken up from trade {STUFT] were involved. This number comprised of 4 fast fleet tankers, I small fleet tanker, and 5 support tankers, all of which were fitted with RAS gear, thus allowing the support oliers to top-up the fleet tankers if required. Solids, food and munitions were covered by two modern stores ships and two dedicated ammunition ships, a type no longer in service with the RFA. No less than 23 destroyers and frigates were involved, of which 2 frigates and 2 destroyers were lost to enemy action, and a further 2 destroyers and 2 frigates were so badly damaged that they withdrew from the conflict. Had there been no forward repair support [MV Stena Seaspread and MV Stena Inspector (later RFA Diligence which was purchased in 1983)], at least two other surface ships would likely have been lost. Sub-surface forces numbered 5 SSNs and one conventional SSK.

If it is agreed that current procurement along with government induced delays are largely responsible for the scandalous waste of money, then some continuing decisions taken by MOD must be included too. An example is £81m spent on refitting HMS Ocean and RFA Diligence – the latter accounted for £16m wasted. If Ocean had been retained until 2024, this would make sense; as it is, she is paying off for disposal in 2018. Diligence is, as already outlined, laid-up and for sale.

1 Cost in USD: Source: Wikipedia: $325m as compared to $1,250m.

2 The MOD stated recently that it had no interest in acquiring tilt rotor Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which could have been used by QE class carriers in the COD mode. Written Answer: Nov 2016].

NUMBERS AND FUNDING

The available funds therefore need to be spent with an immediate recognition that they must give value for money. There is no question that the ‘Parker Report’ is correct in identifying enormous waste resulting from current practices in both the MOD, and in the way ships and submarines are currently procured. It is also recognised that competition needs to be introduced, and that real effort is required from industry to produce surface ships with export potential. Sir John also draws attention to the fact that, in the case of support ships, new build is not always the best answer. As an example, the MOD could acquire 4 “handy size” commercial tankers for conversion to support tankers, as was the case with RFA Leaf class STAT 32s [1979/83]. These could either be purchased outright, or bare boat chartered, as was the case with 7 earlier Leaf class in the late 50s.

That coupled with a modest increase in funding could see a frigate force increased to 10 GP frigates, built on time to an unchangeable specification designed with export potential in mind (the Type 31e), and with a tight grip on costs to ensure these ships, which, as Sir John Parker states, are urgently needed within the fleet, might be delivered to the RN on time.

Much speculation has been recently engendered in the press on SSN availability. As usual, much of it is uninformed guess work, spurred on by the ridiculous paranoia about the whereabouts of submarines. The MOD must be aware that one can sail up the Gareloch, or Devonport waterfront beyond the Torpoint ferry and see submarines. RN boats have regularly been photographed at H M Naval Base [Clyde] and in and around Plymouth, as well as at Gibraltar and Souda Bay in Crete. Everyone also recognises that once they have sailed and submerge…well, they are gone!

What is undeniable is that SSN availability is hampered by the slow production rate of the Astute class, and this is the direct result of various governments intervening and delaying the Astute build programme. Because of this, the ‘T’ class boats have been run on well beyond their planned out of service dates, with the inevitable consequences of running elderly and complex vessels. HMS Torbay decommissions this year, when she will have been in service for thirty-one years, and HMS Talent is in her re-validation refit in Devonport, leaving HMS Triumph and HMS Trenchant – still to emerge from refit – operational. HMS Astute has recently completed refitting at Faslane, HMS Ambush is still undergoing repairs after her surfacing under a tanker while conducting the “Perisher” in the waters near Gibraltar, and HMS Artful, with the Chalfont dry deck shelter used for swimmer delivery vehicles embarked, was at Faslane in early February. Boat 4, HMS Audacious, is still at Barrow. It makes more sense, rather than spend more money on the ‘T’ boats, that the construction of the remaining ‘A’ class is accelerated, as current build time is circa nine years. If this was done, then it would be prudent to build another two boats before serious work commences on the Dreadnought SSBNs.

Finally, a word about personnel. Recruiting posters and booklets used to describe RN people as “the greatest single factor”. SDSR 2010 undermined this boast by creating hundreds of redundancies, which must now be reversed. Which would mean recruiting about 4,500 more people. In some quarters there has been speculation about the quality of RN personnel; this author believes that those of us not currently serving can, or has the right to, comment on this. However, if serving people do not feel valued, and do not trust their superiors and political masters to support them, the brightest and best will become disillusioned and leave. All good employers know and recognise this fact.

Lt Cdr DAVID C GRAHAM RN (RETD)

20 FEBRUARY 2017