Taking the above title from WH Auden’s brilliant poem ‘The Night Mail’ leads me to an article published in the Sun Newspaper this morning suggesting that “the number of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers in service will fall to just 15 by the mid-2020s”. This, the article claims, would break the Government’s long-standing promise never to go below 19 [capital] ships.
Not surprisingly, one former First Sea Lord, Lord West of Spithead was quoted in the article having branded the admission [see below] as “a national embarrassment and disgrace” and warned that this would “relegate Britain to the second division of the world’s navies”. The Sun article is apparently based on a letter reported in the article to have been sent to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last month by Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Stephen Lovegrove. He is reported to have told the committee in the letter that five new Type 31 frigates won’t now come into service until May 2027 – four years later than planned. However, what the report does not mention is that whilst the in-service date is suggested as being 2027 the Public Accounts Committee was also told that the first Type 31 would be in the water in 2027.
Even so, whilst the plan to reduce the number of Type 23 frigates from 2023 (originally designed to be on a one for one replacement of Type 26 and Type 31 vessels coming into service remains formally in place I would be very surprised that deep down in the upcoming Integrated Security Defence and Foreign Policy Review which we anticipate being published before the end of this year we find that two oldest Type 23 frigates will be decommissioned before their replacements are ready. Thus, rather than the figure that has been reported falling as low as 15 frigates and destroyers I would suggest that we are talking here of a net reduction of two ships. Thus, whilst in that eventuality it would be true to say that the promise made by a previous government not to go below 19 frigates and destroyers would be broken, rather than the 15 that the newspaper article is suggesting the reality is that we would be talking about a total number of active frigates and destroyers falling to 17 ships rather than the reported number of 15 by the mid 2020’s. Interesting that article goes on to remind that by comparison France has 22 frigates and destroyers and Italy 17 although it makes no comparison of actual capability.
Whether the above numbers are correct or not we should not kid ourselves that in respect of combatant surface ships the Royal Navy is growing in strength. Yes, all five River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s) will soon be operational. Worth noting that some of the earlier Batch 1 River class OPV’s are already undertaking work previously done by Type 23 frigates. We need to remember too that by the mid 2020’s both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will have been fully operational for some time.
Nevertheless, although it was announced in late 2018 that three Batch One River class OPV’s, HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn are to be retained for at least another two years one presupposes that by 2023 these too will also have been decommissioned. Sticking my neck out even further I venture to suggest that the future of the Royal Navy’s two Albion class amphibious assault ships (HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark) will also be the subject of much discussion in the upcoming Integrated Security Defence and Foreign Policy Review (ISDFPR) process and that a negative outcome appears to be the most likely one!
So, while I have no idea whether what has been published in the Sun today is correct or not, I venture to suggest that whilst the net numbers quoted may be questionable the article is not far from being the truth. True, whilst the actual number of surface ship hulls – including OPV’s may possibly by 2023 have increased the bottom line is that even with the excellence of planned Type 26 ASW frigate capability beginning to come on stream and by the mid 2020’s, the Type 31 General Purpose Frigates as well , the Royal Navy is likely to struggle to achieve all that is asked of it. So much for Michael Fallon’s claims two and three years ago that we are growing the Navy, words that he would use at any given opportunity if allowed!
Separately, in an excellent article published in The Times this morning former Secretary of State for Defence Lord Robertson of Port Ellen recalls how he undertook he went about conducting the 1997 Strategic Defence Review for the first New Labour government of Tony Blair. “The review” he writes “was to be different [from those that has occurred previously]. “First, it would be foreign policy-led and not just a salami slicing of the existing budget. Second, it would start with a clean sheet, on which we would build the kind of defence the foreign policy of the country dictated. Third, it would be inclusive and the subject of deep consultation within in the Ministry of Defence and in the country. As a result, it lasted for an amazing 11 years. Boris Johnson’s government” he writes “has promised a deep strategic review of not only defence but foreign policy, intelligence, security and development. This is as ambitious as we were in 1997, if not more so, but it is necessary. However, it cannot be done on the back of a Dominic Cummings notepad or in a ten-minute Cobra seminar”.To all that I say that ‘I couldn’t agree more’.
Finally, much ado in the press, media and social media about the lack of effort made by the UK to attend the Munich security forum. Yes, I agree that one of either the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary should have appeared in person and that at the very least, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace should also have been there but apparently dropped out just before the Cabinet reshuffle! Pleasingly, Tobias Ellwood, the new chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee did attend, something that I venture to suggest his predecessor would not have done! Andrew Murrison, a junior minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did attend along with his replacement in the junior Ministry of Defence team, James Cleverly as well.
Nevertheless, the Munich conference which was attended by many senior European political leaders was graced by Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Sir Mark Sedwill, and who along with everything else he does as the UK’s most senior civil servant continues to act as national security adviser. Sir Mark was the only one of those who formally attended from the UK to speak at the conference. In doing so he predicted that the UK would continue to co-operate [with the EU] on defence. Pressed on whether the UK would back the Franco-German proposal for a European security council in which the UK participates, Mr. Sedwill said the institutional structure was less important than the substance of the defence co-operation.
Apart from apparently suggesting during the event that Britain and the EU are going to rip each other apart in talks over a future trade deal, French foreign minister and former defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did at least hold out the hope that UK defence co-operation with Europe would continue. Sounding very much like an appeal for continued UK co-operation on security and defence issues post Brexit, he said that France and the UK would be meeting soon to discuss the future of the Lancaster House framework – the Anglo-French defence format that was agreed by both nations in 2010.
The debate over whether a senior member of the Cabinet should have attended will no doubt rumble on but my view is that in having the most senior UK civil servant and the one who is rather ironically still responsible for advising government on national security and defence issues as well at the Munich security conference was far better than having a junior minister who is not necessarily on top of his or her brief speak at a conference or, as occurs most usually, merely reading a speech that has been written for them that they do not necessarily fully understand and that adds very little value to those attending. Junior ministers, particularly those fresh in post, often know very little about the subject that they are charged with during the first few weeks and months of appointment. They have much to learn very quickly and some that I can think of in recent years in defence, never really do get it before they are sacked. The same can often apply to secretaries of state and prime ministers as well but I am making no inferences of any kind here. Mind you, I would have very much liked to hear Tobias Ellwood speak – that would in itself have added significant value to the debate.
CHW (London – 17th February 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785