On the eve of the first entry into Portsmouth by QUEEN ELIZABETH, it is good to take stock of how far the Royal Navy has come in recent years, how much has been gained (and lost) and what sort of state the Naval Service is in today.
An article reposted on Twitter this afternoon by Kings College Defence Studies Department (link is here HERE) rebroadcast an article that was written back in February of this year. It took a critical (and it has to be said error strewn) view of the state of the RN, which Humphrey would not necessarily agree with in its entirety. In response to a suggestion by one of the PSL twitter followers, this is an attempt to take a critical response to the article, and provide a strictly personal view of whether 2017 is ‘the year of the Royal Navy’.
What is the good news?
In simple terms 2017 has proven to be a remarkably good year for ‘ships in the water’ and in new capability entering into the public eye. The arrival of QUEEN ELIZABETH is naturally remarkably good news, as is the fact that PRINCE OF WALES will be named in September. That clear progress is being made on the carrier front is beyond any doubt.
The launch of the 4th ASTUTE class SSN is also good news – essentially a ‘Batch 2’, HMS AUDACIOUS entered the water quietly, in a manner befitting the ‘Silent Service’ during the purdah period. Likely to sail soon for Faslane, her ongoing acceptance marks the continued regeneration of the SSN flotilla, which is undergoing a real renaissance, and with A boat production now well established and ongoing. At the same time work is underway on DREADNOUGHT, the next generation SSBN and the Royal Navy continues to play a vital role in leading the way for the introduction to service of the Common Missile Compartment, taking the Anglo/US deterrent to sea ahead of the USN – the US nuclear capability is quite literally reliant on the UK proving the concept.
In the shipyards of Korea, two Tide class tankers have now either arrived in the UK or are en-route – these enormous vessels (almost as long as, and almost twice as heavy as an INVINCIBLE class carrier) bring a step change in capability compared to the myriad of LEAFS and ROVERS that they replace. Two more enter service shortly to complement the existing WAVE class. It is worth considering that the RN may have fewer tankers, but each is the same size as the old ‘OL’ class fleet tankers, and vastly more capable – a real asset on national and coalition operations.
|The world class Type 45 Destroyer|
The Batch 2 river class are beginning to slowly enter service, and these are not small OPVs – their displacement and dimensions are close to the old Type 12 and Type 14 frigates and arguably they are well equipped to fill a similar maritime constabulary role.
The first batch of Type 26 has been ordered and construction is now (finally) underway – this commitment to the first three hulls means the RN is well placed to support export prospects of the design to both Australia and Canada, potentially forging a truly global frigate class for the first time since the Type 12s came into service.
In very rough terms this year will see the Royal Navy have roughly three quarters of a million tonnes worth of shipping actively under construction (albeit at varying stages) with potentially up to another quarter of a million tonnes planned and due to be ordered in the next couple of years. Simply put, the Royal Navy of 2017 has nearly a million tonnes of new ships being designed, planned or constructed right now - this is arguably one of the largest maritime regeneration programmes in British history, and a clear sign of just how much investment is going into the Naval Service.
Operationally the fleet remains globally deployed and committed. The emotionally and politically significant recommissioning of HMS JUFAIR in Bahrain marks the first permanent and ‘official’ UK commitment East of Suez on an enduring basis in nearly 50 years – this is not just about the practicalities of a very valuable base and its first class facilities. It represents a wider policy commitment to place the UK visibly in the region on an enduring national interest basis, not in support of a discrete military operation. This news sits well with Gulf rulers who are keen to see the UK commit to the Middle East at a time when other allies interest seems to be waning.
The Type 45 fleet is proving its worth on operations, and routinely proving the naysayers wrong about its propulsion challenges. You only have to look at HMS DARINGs 9 month deployment which was enormously successful to realise the value of the Type 45 fleet. The Type 23 fleet continues to be robust workhorses, with deployments by HMS PORTLAND and ARGYLL underway to both the Gulf and more widely to the Falklands. This is in addition to other deployments to the West Indies and Med by many other parts of the Fleet.
There is good news on the equipment front too, with new anti ship missiles replacing the venerable sea skua finally entering service, and the new SeaCeptor going to sea as well. The loss of Harpoon is significantly overblown, due to the enormous constraints on its employment in anything other than blue water open ocean environments - in the likely space where the RN will be fighting, a missile like Harpoon is not the solution to the problem.
So on one level 2017 has proven to be a remarkably good year for the RN – it is the year that it all came together in terms of putting assets in the water, and seeing the first visible signs of the construction programme coming good. The fleet is finally showing the fruit of years of invisible investment in order to turn the powerpoint slides of fantasy designs into actual reality.
|HMS OCEAN - due to leave service in 2018|
So whats the bad news?
The RN does still face challenges – the lack of manpower continues to be an issue and will be some time before it is properly fixed. Sensible moves, such as reducing manpower on lower readiness ships (the erroneously reported ‘reserve fleet’) about to go into Refit is one sensible move to reduce pressure. But it is still hard to generate the right people at the right level of training in the right rank – getting thousands of people through the door isn’t going to help if your shortage is in deeply specialised Senior NCO posts – that won’t be fixed till 15-20 years down the line.
Similarly the ongoing silence over the Strategic Defence Review that dare not speak its name is of concern. Speak to RN personnel over a beer and they will be brutally honest about the financial challenge facing the MOD as a whole – what is not clear is whether this review will be led by money, or by defence outputs.
There is a real concern that despite the Governments commitment to maintain defence expenditure, no real picture is emerging as to how it intends to meet the ‘black hole’ in the financial plans brought about by the Brexit referendum causing a collapse in Stirling’s value. The simple truth is that it appears a cost driven SDSR is underway in the Cabinet Office, and that the RN faces desperately difficult decisions ahead if it is to stay in budget.
The challenge is going to be not in 2017 but 2018 – this is the point of maximum danger for the RN. The review is likely to emerge inflicting real pain – potentially equipment or vessel deletion, or alternatively reducing activities and reprofiling readiness (e.g. putting ships alongside). Less ships at sea helps solve some of the manpower strain, but paradoxically reduces retention as bored sailors put their notice in – who wants to be upper deck sentry on a wet cold Sunday afternoon in Portsmouth?
2018 also sees the paying off of HMS OCEAN, which while the capability will transfer to the QEC class, represents a tangible loss to the Royal Navy. Although she is an old lady now, it will still hurt to see her go, and this does present difficult presentational issues – there is no corresponding good news for next year in terms of entry to service of new ships or capability. At the same time we will see the likely paying off of the Batch 1 River class, which are barely 15 years old. The discarding of three highly capable OPVs may make sense from a resale value, but will be a hard sell to tabloids scared of threats in the channel.
The RN is in the worst of both worlds here – it doesn’t have the money or crew to run the ships on at present, and the only way it can do this is if something else stops being done. Is it possible that this will cause an older frigate to pay off to provide the bodies (and save money/manpower).
It is likely that 2017 will see new ships entering service, but 2018 will see old ships and not that old ships leaving service earlier than planned and without necessarily like for like replacement.
The worry is that following the good news of 2017, next year will see a vast array of stealth cuts from a defence review being conducted in secret with no commitment to present to the public or Parliament. It is likely that a range of deeply painful measures will have to be adopted to make the books balance unless significant extra funding is found to keep things as they stand. Some of the things to look out for will include reduced numbers of deploying ships, reduced readiness patterns, smaller purchases of aircraft types such as JSF, deferring projects from being ordered or reducing the total amount on order. In other words a return to the dark days of the 00s when outside of OP HERRICK Defence found itself going through brutal planning round after planning round to try and make the books balance.
|A Type 14 Frigate - smaller than a Batch 2 River Class OPV!|
Also look for measures such as early paying off of vessels like RFA ARGUS (rumours of her early demise abound on Twitter) and potentially disposing of other assets – will HMS BULWARK ever go to sea again under the White Ensign, and given the reduction in requirement for amphibious shipping, and the desperate state of RFA manning, will another BAY be paid off to try and solve these problems?
Looking longer ahead, the continued lack of ordering the MARS solid support ships is worrying – the older Forts are now almost 40 years old and cannot go on forever. Similarly other elements of the RFA fleet is aging, whilst no work seems to be done on the LPD Replacements or other items that need to be put into long term plans soon.
Getting the next batch of Type 26 will also prove difficult – by reducing the order to 5, its very easy to change it to ‘about 5’ or ‘up to 5’ in forthcoming defence reviews (next one due in 2020). This, coupled with the likelihood that the Type 31 order will be delayed means the RN has three new frigates on order, and 10 nearly 30 year old frigates soldiering on without funded replacements.
The risk for the RN is that it is moving to a model of ‘boom and bust’ – it spends years sweating assets like the Type 23 and pushing them far beyond their limits. It then receives new kit in a glut, putting pressure on the wider budget and reducing the overall numbers ordered. It then repeats the experience for another bulge of new ships entering service after many delays decades later – but again in smaller numbers.
Overall it is a mixed picture – right now the RN of 2017 is in a great place with many new ships and capabilities entering service – we should be thankful for this and embrace the huge potential opportunities they offer the RN. However, we do need to be realistic and recognise that 2018 and beyond could very well be incredibly difficult for the Royal Navy and see many emotional and hard changes brought in. One has to hope that the reasons for these changes are honestly communicated and not hidden beneath a veneer of comparisons to London buses and superlatives about ‘the ever increasing capability of Platform X means we no longer need Platform A,B,C,D,E,F and G’.