No Strategy, No Public Discourse – Royal Navy Escorts 2021       

DefenceSynergia (DS) is most grateful to Christopher Samuel, a former Royal Navy officer and founder member of DS, for providing the following short commentary on the state of the United Kingdom’s (UK) maritime defences. The issues covered become more pertinent in view of Her Majesty’s Government decision to launch a new review of UK security and defence through a process now entitled the Integrated Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Review  (IDSFPR). Not only is DS concerned that the new review is being conducted in haste and in serious danger of ignoring the lessons of past defence and security reviews but the opaque procedure being employed will yet again prevent all but a few of the ‘inner circle’ the ability to analyse the inputs and/or contribute. Here is what Christopher says:

No Strategy, No Public Discourse – Royal Navy Escorts 2021       

The SUN Newspaper Headline 16 Feb 2016 by Tom Newton Dunn – “FRIGGING DISGRACE Royal Navy to be smaller than Italy’s after Defence Chiefs admit that our new warships are delayed”

The fact that the UK may have fewer escorts than Italy or any other country is only relevant if the tasks that the UK is seeking to fulfil requires more. There is no cross party agreed National Security Strategy that states what the UK expect to be able to do with its Armed Forces. In the 2010 SDSR there were a number of Defence Planning Assumptions (DPAs) that indicated preferred capabilities. By the 2015 SDSR such information was classified ensuring that there is no public yardstick or visibility to have confidence in our defence preparations. Thus, the Armed Forces have been deciding what they think that they should be doing rather than working to implement a National Security Strategy. The resources that they are being given are not enough to satisfy these aspirations and the MOD funding system sets up competition with sister services for their share, hardly the most coherent way of achieving defence coherence and efficiency.

It is lamentable and dangerous that today an often poorly informed public & media assess defence & maritime operational capability in terms of – numbers of  warships, sailors and GDP percentages – inputs rather than sustainable outcomes. Thus readiness, regeneration, reliability, reserves and fighting capacity are rarely audited as Government have decided that risks can be taken often stating that add backs will be made later – conditions often discarded.

Warship Procurement The Sun story highlights the maritime area of defence procurement in which the fleet have been beset for several years by an acquisition programme for escorts that has seen delays in numbers and capabilities. The T45 destroyer is a case in point.

Planned as a class of 12, the final contract was for 6 T45 destroyers with initial delivery starting in 2010 for an ‘electric ship – a new concept for the RN. Sadly, there are now known deficiencies and a number of T45 can be seen alongside in Portsmouth Dockyard. This potentially very capable warship has been beset with design faults, insufficient skilled crews and partly due to a rectification programme not proceeding, non-availability to the Royal Navy in operations.

Non availability has great impact on other ships programmes, having to be diverted from their own tasks, their ships companies suffering overstretch and their active lifespan being shortened.

Understanding of Defence Rebuttal articles to the Sun exposé claim that there is an expectation of improvement and hope that things will improve. Alas there is little reason to expect any change because the same processes, procedures, relationships and contracts are in place that have produced the Status Quo. Indeed it is instructive that No10 is apparently examining the relationship that exists between the major warship builders and the MOD with a view to getting better value for the defence budget and perhaps, more pertinent to the Royal Navy, warships that are capable, reliable, can be manned and operated safely when their crew are tired, wet and cold in a rough sea.

The unfortunate state of the Armed Forces is not generally known. However the Secretary of State for Defence last year listed his priorities for the Armed Forces as being recruit/ retain the complimented numbers of people, ensure that training is available in a timely fashion and that the platforms that are currently in the inventory are operational and available before asking for more resources. A formidable challenge for any organisation especially one that is prevented from communication with the media or public and therefore unable to make its case nor be held accountable for it’s actions except by civil servants & politicians who have rarely experienced the ‘cold wet and tired’ conditions under which our Armed Forces fight and die.

Italy An afterthought with reference to Italy. The Italians are a smaller economy than UK yet have a thriving civil and military shipbuilding industry. Like UK departments of state, Italy has maritime assets that all seem to work well together to accomplish their tasking, albeit limited largely to the Mediterranean Sea. By Italian standards, the UK, with global ambitions and Carrier ‘Strike’ have far too few escorts especially with respect to the difference in size and capability of our respective aircraft carriers. In the last war the Italians were the leaders in the asymmetric and very effective ‘chariot’ warfare in which 2 divers rode a torpedo into harbours to damage RN warships. Perhaps the UK can devise a carrier protection scheme as innovative as that?

Conclusion. The Armed Forces are prevented by Defence Council Instruction from airing or debating their unclassified difficulties many of which, ironically, cannot be hidden. Other Professionals – Teachers, Health Service, Police, Emergency services and Local Government are not under such restraints and have audit mechanisms to ensure high professional standards.

Ultimately the number of escorts required will depend on the outcome of the Integrated Defence and Security Review that should set out the defence and security roles that the UK wishes to fill in the world. However, if the UK is not to protect its interests and withdraw from the Middle East and Far East then the current projected and hoped for numbers may be enough.

The perception in the Royal Navy is that ‘the public doesn’t really understand what they are for but accept that they do a good job’. The fact is that the RN does a good job under increasingly adverse circumstances that have been mounting – little past public interest and accountability and only limited scrutiny in Parliament not helping.

It is time that the citizens who are serving the nation unheard were given more public understanding and acclaim for what they do. Delivery of enough escorts on time would lighten their burden and make the vital defence of the realm more credible while bolstering the hard-earned reputation for competence that the UK Armed Forces enjoy.

CSS 24 Feb 2020