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Royal Navy Capacity Debate and Brilliant RFA Mounts Bay By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

With the mainstream press high on negative articles in respect of Royal Navy capacity over the past few days and various former ISL’s questioning the navy’s ability to conduct the many roles asked of it by the nation, I would in mitigation like to remind the speed of which Royal Navy and other allied ships tasked with the humanitarian role in the Caribbean, following the huge damage caused by recent Category 5 Hurricane Irma, and of what the Royal Navy has been able to do with RFA Mounts Bay, a sizable and well-equipped vessel that was already deployed in the region and that is part designed and equipped to support dreadful humanitarian scenarios such as this and also of how this has received scant attention in the press.

Articles alleging that the Royal Navy is suffering acute shortage of capital ships, manpower and supplies and talk of the UK military as a whole being little more than ‘Third World’ in terms of what they are able to offer are in my view absolute nonsense.

Yes, of course I would like to see more surface ships in the fleet and yes, further increases in Royal Navy manpower particularly of skilled engineers and those required to support both surface and sub-surface vessels. Yes, I agree that we need to spend a lot more on defence if we are to maintain our full ambitions.

But whatever I might want and believe and whatever those that failed to raise voices of concern or resign when they were in-office, I am afraid the reality is that the nation just cannot afford it. That defence and national security should be the nations’ number one priority has no place in the world of those who now believe the priority of Government is health, welfare and education. The choice for an elected Government is I am afraid, as simple as it is stark.

We well know that the Royal Navy faces challenges aplenty just as do the Royal Air Force and Army as well but the important point to make is that while we may no longer be able to offer our NATO allies the all-embracing capability support that we used to be able to do or to potentially deploy our armed forces to more than one international conflict zone at any one time, our armed forces, including the Royal Navy continue to do and to be able to do all that is asked of them.

In a Sunday Times article over the weekend the immediate past First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas and who had ‘retired’ from the military in April 2016 spoke of the Royal Navy having been hollowed out over the years; of the Royal Navy having reached the bottom of what it can do in respect of raising efficiency and the lowering of costs. He suggested in the interview that the Royal Navy’s 19 combat surface frigates and destroyers and its seven planned ‘Astute’ class hunter killer submarines were just not enough.

Presumably freed of his MOD shackles and now able to speak freely and having, as far as I am aware, no formal involvement with any of the large defence companies, Admiral Zambellas chose to stick the knife in during the run up period to completion of the NSCR review process.

Now I would be the last person in the world to claim that we have enough military ship, submarine, fast jet and ISTAR capability, that the Army has sufficient fighting and support vehicles or that the words ‘hollowed out’ in respect of our armed forces today compared to what we had twenty years ago when the 1997 defence review was published, are not absolutely true. Yes, the Royal Navy has been significantly weakened and ‘hollowed out’ in recent years and the claim by Ministers of the Crown that ‘we are growing the Navy’ is, apart from maybe in tonnage terms, distinctly lacks credibility.

Of course, I am bound to ask the question that if Admiral Zambellas feels as he does now in respect of his view of our having a ‘third-world military’ and ‘hollowed out’ navy and armed forces, why did he not believe this a couple of years ago and if so, why did he fail to venture similar views two years ago when SDSR 2015 was published. Indeed, if the issue is of that much importance to him, why on earth didn’t he resign back then?

Interestingly, in the Sunday Times article a MOD source is quoted as saying “many of the challenges the Royal Navy faces today can be traced back to decisions of the First Sea Lord” and that “his criticisms come from someone who lives in a glasshouse”. Ouch!

So be it, but where I take particular exception is to his remarks and criticism of our having to rely on a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, Mounts Bay being in position in the Caribbean when Hurricane Irma struck, a reference I assume to his belief that it should have been a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer that should have been on station in the Caribbean instead.

RFA Mounts Bay is a Bay class Landing Ship Auxiliary Dock. It has a displacement of 16,160 tonnes, a crew of 69, 1 x Wildcat Helicopter (it can also support a CH-47) 2 x Rigid Hull inflatable boats, 2 x Inflatable Raiding Craft, 1 x MEXEFLOTE ship to shore raft, 1 x Combat Support Boat, HADR detachment including 20 heavy and light vehicles and operators, a very high stores capacity and personnel capacity for 356 troops.

Other ships sent by allied nations to the devastated area include a Halifax Class guided missile frigate which has a displacement of 4,770 tonnes, a crew of 225 and just one ageing Sea King Helicopter and very limited troop and stores capacity, two French Floreal Class Coastal Surveillance Frigates with a displacement of just 2,600 tonnes, a crew of 88, 2 x Rigid Hull inflatable boats, 1 x Panther Helicopter (unconfirmed whether this is currently on-board) and very limited troop and stores capability. Finally, the Royal Netherlands Navy has a Pelikaan Class Logistics Vessel in the area – the vessel has a displacement of just 1,150 tonnes, a crew of 15, 2 x Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, Medium stores capability.

My point is that even ahead of the arrival of HMS Ocean from Gibraltar, RFA Mounts Bay is significantly larger than any other allied vessel that has yet been sent to the area. With a ships company of 163 personnel, the Wildcat Helicopter, medical facilities, stores, 14 tonnes of DfID shelter kits on board and the vessel already on-site in readiness for Hurricane and other humanitarian requirements what is there to criticise?

In fact the opposite is true and in this case the Royal Navy and the MOD is to be congratulated for ensuring that it has in place a ship that is well suited to the task. I have been fortunate enough to sail on a Type 23 frigate and to conduct training exercises in relation to humanitarian events. Type 23’s carry a vast range of kit but they don’t carry the level of additional equipment requirement carried by Mounts Bay.

HMS ocean will soon be on site and with a crew of 650, 2 x CH-47 Chinook, 3 x EH101 Merlin Mk 3, 1 x Merlin Mk 1 and 3 x Wildcat helicopters on board together with high stores capacity (she reloaded in Gibraltar) including medical facilities, HADR stores, 60 tonnes of DfID stores plus capacity for carrying 830 troops and 40 vehicles, when she arrives on 22nd/23rd September RFA Mounts Bay will, I understand, redeploy to the British Virgin Islands.

In total, the UK has or very soon will have a total of 1,300 military and 124 civilian personnel in the various UK overseas territories that have been devastated by Hurricane Irma or that may be impacted by Hurricane Maria. Compared to some of our allies, with a ship the size of RAF Mounts Bay and that is in part designed for such tasks, the UK and the Royal Navy appear to have been very well prepared when Irma struck. To suggest otherwise or to criticise that HMS Ocean has taken far too long to reach the Caribbean and that lacks sufficient speed are as regrettable as they are unnecessary.

As I have said many times before, defence is a political choice and sadly we it seems have decided that it should no longer be as higher priority as it once was. I regret that too and believe it to be a huge mistake and one that we will live to regret. But there here and now is not about to change whatever I or others might think. Having been allowed to fall far too low, numbers of Royal Navy personnel are now rising but that does not excuse the fact that the Royal Navy has, according to IISS, seen its numbers shrink form 80,000 personnel in 1982 to just 29,500 today. Neither does it excuse the fact that the number of destroyers has dropped from 17 in 1982 to just 6 today, that the number of frigates has declined from 38 in 2017 to just 13 today or that the number of submarines has dropped for a figure of 26 then to just 10 today.

Of course, over that time requirement has quite definitely shrunk and Britain is less alone than it once was in regard of commitment to NATO and the sharing of capability requirement from other European NATO allies.

WE do of course need to strengthen the Royal Navy just as we do the Royal Air Force. We perhaps need to regenerate the Army too but that requires some more radical thinking in respect of size, scope, system and process change. For me personally, to have strength in air and maritime arena’s is absolutely essential and I do not argue that we have allowed our defence capability and thus also, our ability to play out defence diplomacy and presence as we might otherwise need to do. We kid ourselves sometimes that we can do more than we can and I am quite sure that former CGS, Lord Richards is quite right to suggest that Britain does not have the capacity to engage in a conflict with North Korea should that arise although I note that only three weeks ago he also suggested that Britain should increase the number of troops it has in Afghanistan – a point that I completely agree.

Former military chiefs are of course a nightmare to those that serve today and George Zambellas is joining a list of those choosing to speak out in an independent capacity. Neither he nor Lord Richards has shown party political allegiance and that in my view provides them with credibility that others do not have. But, none of them voiced objection to what they had been asked to do out of SDSR 2010. Just as Admiral Zambellas and his predecessor, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope had done during their time as ISL’s, so too did Lord Richards, then General Sir David Richards, oversee the removal of 20,000 Army personnel during his time as CGS. He didn’t voice that much objection either.

As a former First Sea Lord during the period 2002 to 2006 and a former member of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government as Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism between 2007 and 2010 the Lord West of Spithead has been the public voice of discontent over cuts in defence and his view that the Royal Navy has been hollowed out and left on its knees, the shortage of capital ships and his view that the Royal Navy can barely protect the UK.

That despite the plan to replace Type 23 Frigates on a one for one basis with a mix of eight Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates and five ‘General Purpose’ Type 31(e) Frigates and the standing up of ‘Carrier Strike’ capability in the early 2020’s with the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, I agree that we have gone far too far down a ladder of cuts but what I do not believe is that the Navy could not adequately defend the UK and its dependent territories right now or that it does not have sufficient capability to conduct its many other NATO and international roles.

That said, the Government must accept that if it wants to be credible in defence and seen by its allies as having sufficient air, maritime and land capability to engage and properly deploy in international conflict zones the present structure of defence is insufficient to do this. It must also accept that harping on about the fact that we are raising the defence budget by £500 million in each year between now and 2021 is, given the increased threats that we face, just not enough. For 2% of GDP being spent on defence we need to be talking about a minimum of 3% without any other non-defence aspects being added in.

That is a hard choice to make – one that I believe we should make and make very soon even if I have to always remind that defence is a political choice. Whatever, we have to stop pretending – it is a time to be honest about defence and what we need to do.

As Messrs Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote a very long time ago in a song about an Ostrich….

“Peek-a-boo, I can’t see you;

Everything must be grand.

Book-ka-Pee, you can’t see me,

As long as I’ve got my head in the sand”.

CHW (London – 18th September 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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