Did SDSR 2015 sufficiently well address the acute nature of manpower and skills shortages now being faced by our armed forces? Has it been designed to ensure that there will in future be enough trained engineers, technicians and other key support personnel ready and in place to support existing and planned capability enhancements that are due after 2019? Great though SDSR 2015 was in terms of the longer term view and future capability enhancement when it comes to manpower levels the emerging view is that it has not sufficiently dealt with skills shortage and training issues well enough.
While most agree that SDSR 2015 was the first real strategy that we have had since 1997 and that if implemented in full it will by the time the ‘Future Force 2025’ is complete leave our armed forces in a very much stronger position than they are today many also believe that in terms of personnel numbers SDSR 2015 has fallen some way short in terms of requirement of what the armed forces will need. While this is an issue that in some way or other impacts on all three of our armed services I will in this account limit my views to the impact of personnel shortages on the Royal Navy and stay away from the separate issue of reserves.
While the Royal Navy just gets in with the job as best as it can make no mistake that skills shortages within the service are acute. For the past year or more such is the extent of the problem of skilled engineering shortages that the Royal Navy has been forced to ‘borrow’ some 36 US Coast Guard engineers to work out of the Roya Navy base at Portsmouth in order to keep sufficient numbers of ships available and at sea.
The arrangement with the US Coast Guard is perceived as a partnership with the Royal Navy and it is one that has certainly gone some way to alleviating the more serious immediate problem – that of an intense shortage of skilled Royal Navy engineering personnel. As far as I am aware the arrangement with the US Coast Guard is not designed to be on a permanent basis. Indeed, my understanding is that the engineers over here are only available until the workload back home increases. Even so, we are extremely grateful to the US Coast Guard for making these highly skilled people available and for the excellent work they are doing.
What is increasingly clear is that the increased personnel numbers planned for the Royal Navy in SDSR 2015 are just not enough. Indeed, if the planned level of surface capability is to be operated and maintained we are going to need to have a very serious rethink on personnel requirement across the board. The view of most specialist observers in regard of Royal Navy personnel numbers is that rather than the additional 400 promised in SDSR 2015 the increase should have been at least 4,000 personnel.
One of the most important issues to remember is that it takes a considerable amount of time to train the important skills that we need across all sections of our armed forces and none more so than engineers. Not only do we need to increase the numbers of Royal Navy personnel to being well over and above what SDSR 2015 has planned in my view we also need to substantially increase the amount of funding we put into training and also, into addressing the even more serious issues of retention and keeping hold of those that we already have. That may mean revisiting the whole ‘offer’ that the nation makes to its armed forces.
Nowhere was the engineering and skills issue being faced by the Royal Navy better expressed than that by the current Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton who in December 2013 said that that “the Royal Navy is perilously close to critical mass in terms of manpower”.
To put some context on the issue we need to remind ourselves of what happened in SDSR 2010 and the requirement that was forced on the Royal Navy to reduce total personnel numbers from 36,000 to something short of 31,000. I am not in possession of current personnel numbers but after three large waives of cuts I believe that Royal Navy personnel numbers are today standing somewhere probably just south of 30,000.
Through the process of change over the past five years many senior Royal Navy officers and the positions that they served in have rightly gone and one may reasonably argue that back in 2010 the Royal Navy may have been a little top-heavy. This has allowed the number of ratings to be upwardly adjusted but even so it cannot be ignored that many highly skilled professionals including engineers and technicians, those that the Royal Navy really depends on to maintain its capability, have also chosen to leave.
I am not suggesting in any way that the Royal Navy is not partly to blame for the problems that it is facing today but there can be little doubt that the pressure on it to reduce cost has also caused damage. The past five years for all three of our armed services has been a period when motivation has also been in short supply and, given changes to the overall offer, there has been precious little in the way of incentivisation for personnel to stay. Thankfully, professionalism and dedication of those that have stayed has ensured that the Royal Navy has continued to deliver what the nation calls on it to do. Thankfully we have also through SDSR 2015 seen a change of attitude and approach and a far better understanding by the Government of some of the issues being faced by the armed forces in regard of retention and training.
True, the Royal Navy did get an increase of 400 personnel announced in SDSR 2015 but being already seriously undermanned this very small increase is in effect a drop in the ocean. The reality is that with two new aircraft carriers coming into service over the next five years and with the number of destroyers and frigates being maintained at 19 together with an increased number of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s) that are also planned the Royal Navy needs substantially more personnel than currently planned.
Attracting more people to join the service is not as easy as many might think. Whilst the Officer training scheme and those at Britannia Navy college Dartmouth do an absolutely brilliant job in terms of training and maintaining the flow of young officers through the system I am afraid that when it comes to finding sufficient numbers of those wishing to go into the specialist engineering and technical areas is when the problem faced is really exposed.
There is today no shortage of competition from other established sectors for trained people with engineering skills and we have known for many years now that as a nation we are extremely short of trained engineers and technicians. We know to that the heart of the problem is that apart from pay it is persuading sufficient numbers of those leaving school to choose engineering if they are going on to University and others to consider engineering and technical careers rather than those that appear to be more glamorous on the outside at least.
The Royal Navy has other disadvantages that cannot be changed. For example, it hardly to be considered a nine to five operation and those that join could well find themselves being away from home for periods stretching up to nine months. Engineers are the most likely of all branches within the service to resign not least because of the intense competition and likely higher pay offered by the private sector.
I am not sure what the current number of vacancies that the Royal Navy has but I fear that it is probably in excess of 600 personnel. The Royal Navy has worked hard over the past five years to make itself more efficient and cost effective. In the process it has rightly chosen to increase the number of ratings at the cost of decreasing the number of officers. But with two new carriers to man even knowing that personnel currently on HMS Ocean will presumably be available to move over to HMS Prince of Wales in 2018 when the former is either decommissioned or held in reserve will not be enough. That through efficiencies designed and built into the new carriers fewer personnel will be required than on previous generations of carriers is good particularly as the cost of salaries, pensions, benefits and indeed, of recruitment and training are a very large part of the overhead.
But if we are to make even better use of the Royal Navy and which included the Royal Marines and show the increased level of presence that the Prime Minister wishes to see we will in my humble opinion need to ensure that the senior service has sufficient levels of manpower through all is various branches and disciplines.
The Royal Navy today already has a superb fleet of surface and sub-surface vessels and we should be grateful for that. Very soon it will have the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers that are currently in the phases of construction by the Carrier Alliance at Rosyth. Eventually a fleet of 13 new Type 26 and Type 31 frigates together with a fleet of 6 River class OPV’s will be in service, these being planned to eventually replace the existing feet of 13 Type 23 vessels. In addition the Royal Navy will maintain 4 SSBN Trident Nuclear submarines together with 7 SSN Hunter Killer submarines plus and one of either HMS Albion or HMS Bulwark amphibious transport vessels (one of these is planned to be in service at any one time), 12 Mine Hunter vessels, 3 survey ships, one ice patrol vessel plus a reasonably modern fleet of Royal Fleet Auxiliary support vessels. In addition to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ STOVL variant that will fly off the new aircraft carriers there will be a modernised fleet of rotary power including Merlin Mk 2 helicopters fitted with Crowsnest long range air, maritime and land detection capability and Wildcat helicopters.
I live in hope that before it really is too late that the problem of skills shortages and particularly in respect of engineers and technicians is properly addressed. We must make the offer more attractive and accept the need to invest more in training.
CHW (London – 2nd March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS