How sad it is that day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year we – our Government – persists using the worn-out veneer that we have sufficient capability for our defence needs. Even worse is the pretence that we also have reserves.
I was reminded of the above phrase when I learned yesterday that the MOD now plans to decommission and dispose of not one, but both remaining and currently stored Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker fleet vessels – RFA Wave Ruler and RFA Wave Knight in the tanker fleet. For the record, RFA Wave Ruler was laid up and stored at Seaforth Dock in April 2018 and RFA Wave Knight was laid up and stored at Portsmouth in March 2022. The reason cited is crew shortages in the Royal Navy!
Interestingly, in answer to a question from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee which had asked what was the current sea going status of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels James Cartlidge, Minister of State and the recently appointed Defence Procurement Minster Defence provided some worrying detail:
Of the 4 RFA Tide Class Tankers – 1 is not available, 3 are available
Of the 2 RFA Wave Class Tankers – Neither are available
Of the 3 RFA Landing Ship Docks – all 3 are available
Of the single RFA Amphibious Support Ship – 1 available
Of the single RFA Fort Class Multi-Purpose Auxiliary – 1 available
I am in little doubt that the script for this strangely timed and shall we say, slipped out informal announcement, was written a long time ago and that this is another case of looking for a good day to slip out further bad news. Without tankers at sea, Royal Navy support frigates and destroyers will stop in their tracks. The RFA does a brilliant job with ever reducing capacity and the sale or scrapping of the Two Wave class tankers leaves the UK with absolutely nothing in reserve.
I was also somewhat surprised to read that RFA Fort Victoria, a superb Multi-Purpose ship and the only vessel that we have capable of providing solid stores (including tinkering) to what is termed as the Carrier Strike Group has not only been laid up since late 2021 with a mix of mechanical and crewing issues and is currently languishing in Portland – a former Royal Navy dockyard but one that now, if used to store ships, the Royal Navy has to pay.
The brilliant Navy Lookout which posts independently written Royal Navy news and analysis informs me that having spent four months at Cammell Laird undergoing a refit which had begun in May 2022 RFA Victoria, which was launched in 1990, still has a number of defects including with her compressors, is apparently now in Leith being manned by a very small crew and that she is available to support Carrier Strike Group if required. The plan is that she will regenerate and that when the second Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is back in action, RFA Fort Victoria will deploy to the Asia Pacific Region in 2025. To that, apart from adding that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will, through the Fleet Solid Support ships, contract, have three new ships that will replace older vessels by 2032.
My fear is that this still being nine years away, the MOD will prematurely get rid of Victoria as soon as it can. Nevertheless, for confirmation we must await words in the Defence Command Paper later this month.
Classified as civil servants, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary employs around 1,500 personnel. It is hard to imagine now that when RFA Fort Victoria was launched in 1990 the Royal Navy could count on available support from13 RFA tanker vessels and four store/logistics ships. Today that number is just five.
True, we have further paired numbers of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers to the bone and we are barely capable in respect of surface ships of defending UK shores or our interests and right to travel freely on the High Seas. What a mess and yet, given so many years of the blind leading the lame in respect of UK defence capability weakness, our Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace just keeps on smiling under a pretence that we are short of nothing. Below is also well worth reading
All this news bad news in regard of support ships comes at a time when the Royal Air Force will, later this week, bid farewell to the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules fleet and which the MOD can’t wait to get rid of because it clearly has international buyers ready to take them off its hands. My last words on this subject are to say our nation is being cheated by fools who do not understand that the first and overriding responsibility of any government is supposed to be defence.
CHW (London – 12th June 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785