DS Comment: Restoring the Fleet

DS has now had time to digest the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report ‘Restoring the Fleet’ and the immediate Ministry of Defence (MOD) response. Frankly the very idea postulated by the MOD that their procurement programme for the Royal Navy was ‘growing’ the fleet was greeted with incredulity. To then add insult to injury by, yet again, confusing the billions of pounds spent as a guage of how effective the RN is or will be, left us almost speechless. But not quite! Here is the DS response:



The House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) has said in its report – ‘Restoring the Fleet’ – that the Royal Navy (RN) has too few ships and is in danger of reducing their numbers even further should the Ministry Of Defence (MoD) fail to ensure that the proposed new Type 26 and General Purpose Type 31 Frigates (FF), yet to be committed and built, meet the out of service dates of the 13 ageing Type 23 FF they are due to replace from 2023 onwards.

During an interview on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, Rear Admiral Chris Parry, was heard to say that there was no national Defence Strategy, politicians were not addressing the long term needs of ‘life after Brexit’, the Armed Forces were unbalanced and that the RN was in danger of being unable and unwilling to fight. Here is yet another report in which the reality of the Royal Navy’s incoherence is being stated. Whether the Government or the MoD will pay the slightest heed to it is, of course, another matter.

It has been said elsewhere that the RN is now a ‘Shop Window’ navy.

The MoD response has been pathetic. The Royal Navy is supposed to “grow” sometime around 2035. That’s in 18 years time. Let’s look at some of the the facts. Of the billions mentioned, almost 1.5bn has been added to the cost of the carrier construction programme by delays enforced by Government in order to make short term savings. These ships should have been completed years ago; even the revised dates of 2016 and 2018 will obviously not be met. Attack Submarine (SSN), Astute, took over a decade to build. By the time boat 7 of the class is completed, it will have taken almost quarter of a century to build these seven submarines. The slow down of construction of the class cost well over £1bn, enough to build an eighth boat.

The designing, re-designing, re-thinking, etc. etc. of frigate sized ships to replace the Batch 3 Type 22s and the Type 23s has been going on since 1998. Now we are told that real progress [as opposed to imaginary progress] in constructing 8 Type 26s will not happen until 2019. Why? And why, also, do frigates dedicated to anti-submarine warfare require to be able to operate special forces? Surely a different, more adaptable and general service class of ships could be bought off the shelf for such purposes. Ironically, the build of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV)s are lauded in press releases. OPVs are just that: OFFSHORE PATROL VESSELS. Fine for what they have been designed for but, as things stand, those for the RN come at a price for which other countries could build a respectable frigate.

The much vaunted numbers, quite simply, do not add up – 19 midi size ships comprised of 6 Type 45s and 13 Type 23s. From that number we presently remove one Type 45 for harbour training and one Type 23 as laid up. Of the remainder, it can be assumed that one destroyer and two frigates are likely to be in refit at any one time. So, just how many are actually “combat ready?” Additionally, there will be ships recently returned from deployment, ships in dockyard maintenance as opposed to refit, and ships working up. Perhaps we might hazard a guess at there being six frigates and two destroyers deployed or available for deployment. Of the larger assets, one Landing Platform Dock (LPD) is always at extended readiness [effectively laid up] and the sole Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) [HMS Ocean] is due to be retired without replacement in 2018. “Never fear”, cry the MoD, the Queen Elizabeth (QE) will take up the slack, with Prince of Wales (PoW) being modified in build to act as an LPH when required, downgrading this expensive potential Strike Carrier to be even more of a jack of lesser trades, and master of none.

The present flotilla of 7 SSNs is totally inadequate. Next year sees Torbay decommissioned, thus leaving 3 superannuated T boats and 3 Astute class. Because these submarines are increasingly expensive, in both time and cost, to run and maintain, submarine availability is of grave concern. The long term operational situation can only be described as pitiful; not surprisingly when we can only manage a construction rate running at about eight years per boat.

The situation is such that with an ever increasing lack of capabilities in both weapons and machinery, coupled to inadequate numbers of appropriately trained men and women, the relevance of the Royal Navy in its present state must be called into question when assessing the UK’s ability to meet the defence and security demands of her responsibilities and alliances.


DefenceSynergia would take the RN shop window analogy a stage further and claim that the whole of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces (HMAF) are now in serious danger of becoming Shop Window dressing for an MOD more interested in protecting the ‘message’ than producing results. When asked to respond to the HCDC report an MOD spokesman offered the usual PR approach; “We are investing in a growing Royal Navy by building two aircraft carriers, the new Type 26 Global Combat Ship, Dreadnought and Astute class submarines, and offshore patrols vessels. We are also developing a new class of Lighter General Purpose Frigate so that by the 2030s we can grow the size of the fleet. This major programme of investment will ensure that the Royal Navy remains one of the world’s most modern and powerful navies with a genuine global reach.

This is the MOD equivalent of a confectionery manufacturer claiming that their ‘new large chocolate bar’ is a good deal when actually it is smaller and more expensive than the one they sold last week. The difference is that the British public, who buy and eat the chocolate bars, are well aware that they are being scammed, whereas MOD, who do not allow uncontrolled public discourse, revel in their ability to control the message they wish to convey to the British public. So exactly what definition of ‘growing’ are MOD using in this context? And, if investment continues to be squandered, as it is being, what benefit does the nation and national defence actually accrue? So deceived are the British public that even media commentators rarely know what questions to ask and have to fall back on what appears at times to be satire. During the Radio 4 interview mentioned earlier the BBC Today presenter was heard to postulate that the RN should be for UK to patrol the channel and that any suggestion of the UK patrolling the Far East was, wait for it…’not our job any more, UK had no global role’. What about the need to protect UK overseas territories and 90% of UK import trade? If a ‘flagship’ programme presenter at the BBC, backed up by a research department, cannot understand British naval or national defence strategy, or the difference between ‘channel patrolling’ policing and honouring UK’s obligations to the Five Power Defence Arrangement, what hope is there for Mr and Mrs Average of 3 Railway Cuttings, Dorchester who trust in the Defence of the Realm?

But MOD sophistry extends beyond the RN. Senior ministers and MOD officials pay lip service to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Article 5 – an attack on one is an attack on all – when they offer land forces which, now being based in UK, are unable to go anywhere in a hurry. These same officials task the Royal Air Force (RAF) knowing that the ability of the RAF to operate in more than penny packets is limited by reduced trained and skilled manpower, a lack of combat ready aircrew and aircraft and a sclerotic sustainment and maintenance base. Across HMAF what MOD proudly refers to as ‘Just In Time’ logistics is cynically referred to by the troops as ‘Just Too Late’!

Confidence in senior MOD management is low among both officers and the rank and file but you would not know it from the MOD PR output. To the MOD hierarchy poor morale is referred to as ‘a challenge’; a buzz word to cover up the fact that redundancy, low manning in pinch trades, reduced promotion opportunities, harmony disruption, substandard accommodation and derisory pay increases cannot be addressed because no one in authority will take responsibility and admit that HMAF, across the board, are under staffed, under equipped and being taken for granted. The answer, from Politicians and senior MOD officials is to quote ‘The Armed Forces Covenant’ but these are mere words calculated to disguise a total lack of action to putting these aspects right. To be blunt, HMAF and the British public are being treated with thinly disguised contempt. The forces are being starved of cash and that percentage of a highly dubious 2% of Gross Domestic Product that is actually being spent on defence is being largely squandered on too few, over complex and often unreliable weapons platforms.

Having very expensive ships and aircraft (T45 and F35B) that struggle to operate in hot and humid conditions; warships with only a single gun to defend against enemy surface combatants; heavy armour, artillery and personnel carriers based in UK that require more logistics to move than has been provided for; weapons stockpiles that are calculated on cost per round rather than on any scientific rate of effort; a spares resupply system that can only function efficiently when all the variables – military and commercial – are working and in-place and, the crowning glory, an MOD/Political system that seems to spend more time defending itself than the nation, all point to built in, systemic failure.

It is time for the UK to face up to reality, stop window shopping, admit that HM Armed Forces are too small, recruit, train and get buying much more wisely.