Sunday, 9 July 2017

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The excellent website ‘Save the Royal Navy’, which has done a superb job over many years of raising issues with the RN today, recently put out some analysis looking at fleet escort availability (ARTICLE HERE).  The article was picked up on twitter, and got quite a few comments by people who seemed to not understand why only 6 RN escorts were available for sea right now from a force of 19 hulls.  To Humphrey, there are a number of issues coming out of this article and the twitter response which are worth further comment.

Firstly, the traditional metric of how a Navy can deploy is that it requires a roughly 3:1 ratio to sustain a vessel on a task indefinitely – in very rough terms this means that when a ship is deployed on OP KIPION, her successor is nominated and working up through to being on passage to join her (e.g. HMS DARING saw HMS MONMOUTH sail sometime before being relieved). At least one more ship is going to be somewhere in the refit system requiring essential maintenance, upkeep and life extension work too. This 3:1 ratio is something which can be broken, and availability can vary over time – but as a general rule if you want to keep a ship on task for the long haul, you’ll need three ships to do this.

In the case of the current RN, the force of 19 hulls is actually 17, with two in long term ‘harbour training ship’ (NOT reserve which has a specific and different meaning) roles to save on manpower levels. This means the RN is sweating its assets incredibly hard to keep ships on task for the long haul – particularly at a point when the T23 fleet is starting to show its age, and also go through a complex Mid Life Update process – at its simplest, ships designed for 18 years of life will be nearly 40 before they leave service, and its showing.

But, the risk is that in looking at the headline figure of ‘only’ 6 escorts, we lose the ability to explain that this is actually pretty good by any navies standards. If you look at the worlds navies right now, there are very few which are able to deploy and sustain more than one or two ships at distance from home – the USN, occasionally the French and Russians and that’s about it. Others can do some quite impressive training deployments, more for showing the flag than delivering effect. Other navies may deploy escorts, but to do so occupies a big chunk of their naval training and output for the year to deliver this, at the hidden cost of keeping other ships alongside.

Don’t make the lethal mistake of assuming that because the RN ‘only’ has 6 ships out there that every other navy is laughing at it. In fact the RNs ability to sweat its force so hard remains a real point of awe for other nations, who are amazed at how much the RN can do at one time.

The challenge is communicating this to an increasingly seablind nation that thinks the Navy only has six ships out there. Trying to explain the escort force is but one of many aspects of the RN, that many other ships are deployed too, and that keeping 6 ships on task (one third of the escort force) on a sustained 24/7 basis is a genuinely impressive ability most countries cannot do. That by the way is before you look at the SSBN deployments, the OPVs, the Survey Ships etc. What the RN is perhaps not able to communicate in a way that the public will get is that every single day of the year, the UK has more ships outside its home waters doing operational stuff than just about any other country on the planet other than the US.

This leads to well intentioned but ultimately misguided calls for more ships and to grow the Navy to do more. The problem though isn’t one of ships, but of people. To keep the fleet deployed and doing the job it has to do, the RN has to ask a great deal of its people. The challenge is keeping the right mixture of people in the right posts at the right time to be usable – this is not as easy as it sounds. 

There is a clear recognition that the current manpower total of roughly 30,000 is too small – and the RN is slowly growing, but it takes time to get people into the right level of trained posts to be of value.

Even if HMS RALEIGH took 10,000 people tomorrow, it would still be 10-20 years depending on role before these keen recruits could generate experienced senior rates with the right mix of training and expertise in the numbers required. You could skip training or accelerate promotion,  but this does pose a risk too.

Its often forgotten that the RN of today is still living daily with the effects of the manning ‘black hole’ caused by the recruiting taps being turned off in the early 1990s and an entire generation was never recruited. To add more ships would only make the problem worse right now. Instead what is needed is a two-step approach – firstly a lot of hands on management and moving people around to keep ships on task and at sea (and this in turn causes retention issues when a Friday pierhead jump occurs). Secondly, more people are needed to fill extant gaps and help the RN keep going for the long term – but this will take some years to deliver.

Interestingly during the election, the commitment to service manpower was a headline figure of not cutting total manpower, not an explicit commitment to keep the Army at 82000 (arguably still a lot more than is actually required if you listen to many commentators). So, its possible that over time you will see service manpower adjustments, with the Army being reduced in order to increase the RAF and RN by the same amount.

The other challenge is to ensure that people understand just how small the RN is, and how tiny some of its branches are. There are numerous ‘pinch points’ out there for personnel who cannot easily be filled – for instance, the surface fleet may have roughly 15000 sailors in theory, but this is not a block of people who can do each others jobs. What it actually has is several smaller branches of people in roles from warfare to engineering to logistics, and which take many years to learn to do well.

So, when you see suggestions that the RN could solve its manning problems by not manning a carrier or moving people round, remember that the manning gap doesn’t mean there is an exact total of two or three ships companies out there in the right ranks/rates ready to go to sea. It means there are a lot of people in different roles, with different experience but you can’t easily pull them together to form a ships company.  Over the next few years the challenge is going to be managing the manpower pool and keeping the right talent in the right places at the right time to keep the RN going, without breaking them in the process. This is not going to be easy.

So, Humphrey would say that yes, there is absolutely a case for a larger RN – and the Government itself recognises this with the Type 31 frigate and suggestion it will grow the escort fleet. But this will take time to build the ships, time to recruit and build the right manpower pools to man them. Patience is what is needed here, because there is no magic manpower tree you can shake to produce SQEP at no notice to do difficult jobs well.

Humphrey predicts a couple of things will happen over the summer – firstly people will see ships alongside for summer leave and there will be outrage at the RN not working, or not deploying. Secondly people will not understand that the RN has more than 6 ships at sea, that it’s a very busy navy and that its doing a damn sight better than its friends and others. If only we could focus on the positives, focus on the sense that the need to grow is accepted and recognised, and focus on the medium term, not doing ourselves down in the short term.

There are absolutely big challenges ahead, but Humphrey is utterly fed up of reading rubbish on twitter about how the RN is some kind of failure or national embarrassment for ‘only’ having X ships at sea. The UK is lucky enough to possess a phenomenal navy that is well funded, well equipped and highly capable at doing its job. Perhaps if we started recognising this rather than feeling like we’re a nation of failures more people would join and help solve some of the manpower challenges that it has right now?


  1. Excellent and upbeat post Humphrey. Refreshing to hear what an exceptional navy we really have. So glad you returned!

  2. What a great post. The RN certainly over achieve for such a small amount of personnel. It always used to amaze me how they almost always had an uncanny nack of being in the right place at the right time when crises blew up. That we can still manage to do that to some extent with a much smaller Navy is impressive. Despite all the criticism the RN has managed to maintain the hard core of the only other globally deployable full spectrum Navy in the world. Now is the time for the rest of us to get on with making a success of UK plc so we can give them the means to expand.

  3. Royal Navy Manpower (as opposed to Naval Manpower) is only about 23,000. The balance of the 30,000 quote Navy Manpower figure is some 7,000 Royal Marines.

  4. I am so glad to see Sir Humphrey back but I have to say this post was less illuminating than most.
    First and foremost is the fact that it defines the problem too narrowly, focusing only on what it would take to regenerate capabilities from scratch (a long time) versus retaining them, which seems to be the bigger challenge. It may be true that if 10,000 sailors joined HMS Raleigh tomorrow you still would struggle to man a fleet with them, but the biggest and best source of manpower for the navy is retaining the men and women already enlisted. It’s clear that the commanders are thinking about this but I’m surprised there is not more attention to this (and would welcome Sir Humphrey’s thoughts on how this can be done). The simple truth is that the static number of 23,000 sailors (not 30,000) is made up of people leaving and staying and obviously the leavers are the trained ones so focusing on keeping more of them seems the most economical solution.
    Likewise, the easiest way to generate more capability for the Royal Navy would be for the harbour training ship escorts to be manned and put to sea. This would increase the fighting strength of the escort fleet from 16 to 19, or over 15% if the Save the Royal Navy article is correct. Next on the wishlist would be manning to keep the amphibious ships active and keep HMS Ocean operational. It might not be fixable tomorrow, but neither does it require new ships to be built or decades of waiting, as the post suggests.
    Nor is there cause to be completely optimistic about the surface fleet’s problems being fixed. If there is such recognition that the size of the navy is too low in both personnel and ships, the SDSR that came out just 20 short months ago seems to only hint at acknowledging it. The tiny personnel increase authorized and the possibility of the type 31 does not solve the problem (indeed, the Type 31 may or may not be productive), it merely hints that sometime later, maybe, we would think about solving the problem. There is a big difference between this and say, committing to construct more than 19 escorts over time and raising the manpower cap so that the silly juggling games the navy has to play with personnel numbers can stop.
    Finally, as a broader point, I think the whinging about the media or folks on Twitter not being accurate can be overdone. On the one hand, we lament that the armed forces don’t get enough attention from politicians and that the nation is “sea blind” while on the other we nitpick every article that comes out discussing this and say that we are “doing ourselves down” whenever some member of the press notes that the Royal Navy is not able to put as many ships as we’d like at sea. While some of the stories and tweets are unpleasant and inaccurate, and don’t do justice to the sacrifices of our sailors or the tough choices faced by the leadership, where do you think the public impetus to improve the situation will come from if there is no media attention? I think we should welcome broader attention to this subject, even if it’s not as well informed as Sir Humphrey is (and as I said at the top, I appreciate Sir Humphrey clarifying so many things through his blog). But realistically we can’t have our cake and eat it – either the very tight resources available are illuminated (somewhat inaccurately) and fixed, or the problems fester in neglect. Going back to my first point, I think the retention problem will be solved by resources, not by publicity. A more serious commit by the government to at least man the modern ships we have (by paying up to keep people and expanding the personnel numbers a bit) will do more for morale than not seeing a few snarky articles about ships alongside.

  5. Thanks Charles - quick reply as am travelling! The biggest problem about solving the manpower challenge is getting right people in right rates in right branch structure at the right time.

    Simply put the training pipeline isnt there to grow quickly, and to rerain people we need them to balance shore verus sea time. If we try to keep more ships at sea in already stretched areas, particularly engineers, then it merely exacerbates the problem. There is no easy or good fix short of stopping sending ships to sea to balancd out peoples lives - the RN is a very busy navy and while that is great as a young single AB, its less appealing as a marrisd SNCO with children when you are given a crash draft to fill a gap. If we can fix this, then things get much easier.

  6. Another sensible article, (having found the welcome return of Sir H I'm finding the other articles)

    I hadn't been aware in the change in commitment from maintaining the Army service numbers to maintaining overall service numbers as you say that at least allows the possibility of growing the RAF and RN any shrinking the Army, some may not like it but that probably is the direction of travel we should be aiming for, the country has not seen Afghanistan and Iraq as glorious success and are not looking to repeat either any time soon, the NATO support to the Poles and Baltics we are in the strange position of providing 'enough' to show a political commitment but no one is looking to rebuild BAOR further east.

    In terms of comparison with the rest of the world there are two obvious growing powers not mentioned, China and India. China was at the point of sending a training flotilla to show the flag occasionally in the 90's is has now moved beyond that, the deployment off Yemen and Somalia is an ongoing commitment of at least a couple of Escorts plus support and that has now been ongoing for a decade. Deployments to European waters, Baltic, Black Sea, Med are no longer uncommon. India sees all of Indian Ocean as home space so but deploys much more rarely further afield, but is more than occasionally going beyond Singapore.

    Realistically I don't think there is anyone else other than the mentioned US, Russia, France, UK.