Yes, Tobias Ellwood, we probably do need a larger Royal Navy than we have or are planning to have just as we also need a larger Royal Air Force and Army. But if what the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) is calling for is ever to see the light of day, the need has to first be agreed by those charged with responsibility at Defence Headquarters and then agreed by the Treasury and Cabinet Office. The prospect of all those moves occurring appears very unlikely.
Defence is a political choice and sadly, neither the exit from Afghanistan or the botched procurement of Ajax has done Defence Headquarters any favours. The bottom line is that in this nation of ours, whether a Conservative or Labour administration, until the enemy is seen to be at the gate, defence is unlikely to be prioritised in a manner that it needs to be in the face of an increasingly unstable international security environment and must always be seen as being affordable. That we have the industrial capability to provide the Government with an even larger Royal Navy can hardly be in doubt but do we really have the intention let alone the will? Sadly I doubt that we do and that this otherwise all but excellent HCDC report is heading for the Library.
Somewhat unusually, I will take issue with a number of points raised in what otherwise is an interesting report from HCDC published this morning. Before so doing, it is pleasing to see that one of the principle advisors on this HCDC inquiry was a former senior Royal Navy Officer Alex Burton. Previously Commander UK Maritime Forces before his resignation in the face of planned cuts Navy capability and that at the time envisaged potential scrapping of the two Albion class amphibious warfare ships. I know Alex well and it is pleasing to see that HCDC is now attempting to have specialist advisors in place that fully befit a particular aspect of inquiry and discipline being undertaken.
The report suggests in its summary that ‘budget cuts have delayed crucial procurement programmes’ and it mentions specifically that Type 23 frigates and Trafalgar class submarines should have been replaced years ago and that it is becoming increasingly challenging and expensive to maintain aging vessels. While I can hardly argue that budget cuts (together with budget black holes) have pushed planned procurement back, delays have often been caused by our failing to maintain sufficient levels of skills during large gaps in procurement. Submarines are to be regarded as a classic case of this during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
In any event, Type 23’s will all be replaced by the currently in-build Type 26 at BAE Systems Glasgow shipyard and Type 31 frigates at Babcock International facilities in Rosyth. Apart for two new aircraft carriers the Royal Navy has a fleet of Offshore Patrol Vessels and to amphibious capability ships – Albion and Bulwark. Arguably it is short in respect of ship support vessels and as the Cttee itself makes plain, the planned decommissioning of RFA Argus, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary primary casualty receiving ship that has a 100 bed medical complex on board has the ability to act as a floating medical vessel without replacement is yet another crass decision to have emerged from the Integrated Review process. Argus may well be 41 years old but until replaced with like for like capability she must be retained as a fully commissioned vessel.
The two remaining Trafalgar class submarines continue to serve the Royal Navy very well and no evidence was provided by the Committee that suggested otherwise. Thus, the above comment in respect of Trafalgar class vessels was unnecessary and demotivating for ships company. Although there has been a need to extend the service life of HMS Talent and HMS Triumph by 18 months this is not an issue. Both vessels will be replaced by the two remaining Astute class submarines currently under construction at BAE Systems Barrow in Furness submarine facility.
To suggest that Type 23 ‘Duke’ class frigates and which are still regarded as the workhorse of the Royal Navy fleet with 12 of the original 13 still in commission, should have been replaced earlier is wrong.
A total of 16 Type 23’s were built for the Royal Navy – three of these ships were subsequently sold to the Chilean Navy following previous cuts to Royal Navy capability. Whilst I could hardly disagree that Type 23’s have been without issue, particularly in relation to the thickness of the Hull, but it is only fair to add that, taking refits into account, these vessels should each be able to provide the Royal Navy with 35 years of service. The youngest of the remaining Type 23’s – HMS St Albans is a mere 21 years old.
What the Committee appears to have ignored in its quest to claim, quite rightly, that the Navy needs more ships is that failed MOD strategy and policy that allowed 3 excellent Type 22 frigates to be withdrawn and scrapped years before they were due and the halving of numbers of Type 45 Destroyers from an originally planned 12 to just six. Premature withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious well ahead of the rebuilding of Carrier Strike and completion of the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers added to the woes. Failure to order sufficient numbers of support ships is another issue just as has also been the Royal Navy’s own failure to retain sufficient numbers of ship support and weapons engineers and which has only recently been fully addressed. It isn’t all about ships, submarines and procurement, a modern Navy is only ever as good as the specialist trained personnel on board.
The Committee talks about the need for the Royal Navy to introduce a Naval Strike Network in order to allow information to be shared across the fleet. I agree as I also do when the Committee challenges the MOD’s track record of delivery. I also agree with comments made in connection with Royal Navy ships apparently lacking sufficient weaponry to take to the fight to the enemy, citing in particular the crass decision to retire Harpoon anti-ship missiles without planned replacement.
In respect of Type 45 Destroyers and which BAE Systems is currently or will over the next few years complete the upgrading what can only be described as a complicated propulsion system chosen by the MOD to be incorporated on each ship I will, having written a paper for the Cttee when I was an advisor add little more. Type 45 is hugely important to the UK and given the availability of the Royal Navy to release vessels for upgrade I know full well that BAE Systems will work hard and fast to get them back into service.
Neither will I here and now rise to the challenge of what the HCDC report calls the replacement for what was formally known as Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia and is now referred to as the National Flagship apart from saying that my understanding was that build costs would be through the MOD budget but operating costs would probably be placed on the Foreign Office budget.
There is some very good stuff in the HCDC Report today in respect of Royal Navy Missions and Deployments which I won’t go into here save to say that I am in general agreement.
I have to say that I particularly liked former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones comment in respect of operating in the Indo-Pacific “We first need to get our head around the geography involved in [the Indo-Pacific], how you do logistic support, how you build alliances and partnerships and how you reflect on the fact that there is no real NATO out there to standardise tactics, techniques and procedures among allies. How do you most effectively integrate and build on the partnerships that we already have?”
The then First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin and who subsequent to the inquiry has become Chief of the Defence Staff told the HCDC Inquiry that “the Royal Navy would double the number of sailing days for frigates and destroyers in order to fulfil all the missions prescribed for it in the IR”.
However, the Cttee were apparently unconvinced by his plans to achieve this by purchasing only five additional Type 32 frigates and relying on an increase in the availability of the escort fleet from 60% to 80%. Relying on higher availability as the main solution to deliver more vessels has significant limitations. Vessels often break down unexpectedly. Surges in the number of available vessels require planning and a decrease in availability at other times to compensate; this means it may not be possible to surge vessels to respond to unexpected crises or without abandoning other missions. In addition, recent improvements in vessel availability have largely come from improvements to significantly less capable patrol vessels. This has obscured very low availability levels in frigates and destroyers, the classes of vessel that need to increase availability significantly to deliver the Navy’s plan.
Admiral Radakin went on to indicate that “improving availability for higher end vessels like destroyers is significantly more challenging as the crewing models that have improved the availability of other classes of ships are not feasible for them. Expanding the fleet in this way will require increased spending on shipbuilding for the long term and Rear Admiral Burton went further and questioning whether the Royal Navy budget was sufficient to deliver the vessels and the technological innovation required.
It isn’t all bad news though. Admiral Sir Philip Jones told the Cttee that the Royal Navy is, along with the US and France, one of the few navies that is “globally deployable and effective at all the tasks they are given”. Notwithstanding the important role of allies in CSG21 (Carrier Strike Group), he said that “Very few nations are capable of deploying a genuinely credible carrier strike group, not just to that region but anywhere.” The fact that the Royal Navy was able to deliver CSG21 while simultaneously exercising a second aircraft carrier and deploying the Littoral Response Group (North) task force for the first time is additionally impressive.
CHW (London 14th December 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785