Friday, 15 September 2017

No - the Royal Navy is not a global laughing stock

It seems to have become a traditional British media pastime to run at least one annual story decrying the death of the Royal Navy and making out that the RN is no longer able to defend our shores. Previous versions of this story have run in a variety of papers, usually focusing on the perception that because ships are in harbour, something is ‘wrong’ and that the UK no longer has a Navy.

The Daily Telegraph on 15 September splashed an exclusive article and editorial claiming that the RN was a ‘global laughing stock’ according to ‘senior unnamed military sources’, and that it was all going horribly wrong. The article is lurking behind a paywall, but it could be condensed into putting across a few core arguments, namely;

·         Only a third of the escort fleet is at sea
·         The RN can’t afford to send ships to sea over fuel costs
·         There aren’t enough people to man the ships that we do have
·         HMS OCEAN broke down, and the UK failed in the West Indies
·         The RN is therefore a global laughing stock unable to defend the UK.
·         Things were better in 1945 when we had 900 ships…

The problem is that the article relies on a lot of convenient memories, stitching together of half truths and different bits of the puzzle and forgetting various bits of recent RN history to make it stick. Humphrey wants to take a deeper look at it, deconstruct it and find out what might have an element of truth in it.

To Sail at Sea
A charge made against the RN is that it is a pitifully small force compared to the 1945 version of the fleet. Frankly, that’s not really surprising. In 1945 the UK had just finished a 6 year long global war which was an existential struggle for survival. The economy had mobilised to a total war footing, doing deep and lasting damage to our national economic prospects in order to secure the manpower and resources to fight for our very existence as a nation. It is entirely correct to say that the RN had hundreds of warships and hundreds of thousands of people in 1945 – if we didn’t, then the war would have been lost.

The two world class navies at sea together

What the paper then forgets to mention is the arguably nadir of the Royal Navy in the immediate post war period. Hundreds of old ships, worn out from wartime service needed to be scrapped. Other ships, built for hostilities use only were already past the point of economic salvage. Underpinning this was a desperate need to get people back into the national economy to rebuild a shattered nation. If you study defence policy from 1945 – 1960, what is clear is the difficult balance that had to be struck keeping thousands of national servicemen on to support ships, when they possessed technical skills in very short supply to help rebuild the economy.

The immediate post war history of Britain is one of trying to maintain a large manpower intensive navy, and running out of people. By 1948-49 the RN was reduced to a handful of ships at sea simply because it had no manpower to go to sea. If memory serves correctly, the Home Fleet of the late 1940s had less ships able to go to sea for their summer cruise than the RN has active in home waters today because of a lack of people and resources. Yet this was supposedly in ‘the good old days’ when the RN was flush with ships.

The RN, and every other seagoing Navy out there operates its ships on a rotational basis. This simple concept can best be described as ‘the rule of three’. Namely, for every ship that is on the front line at sea right now on live operations (e.g. fully stored, fuelled and munitioned and operating under a specific operation), you require a further two ships in the pipeline. The first is the one that’s just come home and gone into refit or lower level readiness. This is because the crew need to take leave, parts need replacing and the ship needs maintenance. The second is the ship that will replace the ship deployed, and this vessel will usually be in some point of the force generation cycle, which involves final bits of maintenance, trials, basic sea training and more advanced sea training and any other targeted work to get her ready to sail. This is a complex process that takes many months to fully prepare a ship to sail.

Over a couple of years life, a ship is programmed by the RN planners (a special breed of people possessed of wisdom, foresight and very little hair left at the end of their tour) to come out of a refit, work up, complete all trials and training, deploy for 9 months, return home and then wind down before going in for the next cycle of refit and repair. This cycle is either repeated, or broken up by the occasional deep multi-year refit to extend her life or fit major new equipment.

In simple terms this means that to keep 5-6 ships deployed, you need a force of roughly 17-18 escorts at any one time. Possessing 19 escort ships does not mean that 19 ships can go to sea on operations. It means you have got the ability to keep 5-6 ships deployed on station indefinitely.

This may sound a technicality, but is actually really important to understand. What distinguishes the RN from a lot of coastal navies is that sustaining this sort of deployment is routine business – the RN accepts that it goes to sea across the globe and plans this as a routine activity. For many navies, an ‘out of area’ deployment is a major investment of time and support and training, and is something that may occur once every 4-5 years, not every day of the year.

Type 45 Destroyer at sea

The paper spreads across two pages showing what ships are where. Other than the glaring error listing HMS PORTLAND as being deployed, which may come as news to the crew of PORTLAND who returned a few months ago, it fails to take into account the time of year. The RN works on getting its ships alongside in harbour during the summer and Christmas leave periods to give crews the chance to take leave – right now, the fleet is at the end of the leave period, and ships are preparing to kick off operations and training again. Its similar to last year when the picture of the Type 45s alongside in Portsmouth failed to note that they were there mainly because it was summer leave and the crew was taking a well earned break.

The paper also failed to take into account that ships in home waters are often doing useful tasks - for instance HMS ARGYLL in London supporting DSEI and doing defence engagement duties at home. The ever excellent 'Save the Royal Navy' webpage has a very good breakdown for what the escort fleet is up to at the moment, that is worth looking at, to see how busy these ships are. This can be found at the LINK.

Maintaining our Ships
The paper majors on the concept that HMS OCEAN ‘broke down’ and  there was no other ship to send in her place. Humphrey has no idea if this is true or not about the breakdown (EDIT - The 2nd Sea Lord has confirmed that OCEAN did NOT experience mechanical problems), but it is clear that ships can, and do, have mechanical issues. They are very complicated beasts, requiring a lot of time and maintenance to get right. When worked hard, the opportunity to do deeper maintenance is reduced – its worth noting that OCEAN returned from a major 6 month deployment early in 2017, and has already sailed again for another 4-6 month deployment.

That bits break is a fact of life – every navy in the world has the same issue. The difference is how this is responded to. The RN excels in part because of its heavy investment in a global logistics chain, which makes good use of local support facilities, NATO access and the RAF air transport fleet to ensure that if something breaks, it can be fixed very quickly. All ships of every navy in the world carry defects that need maintenance – the RN is one of the very few that has the means to fix them at distance from home.

The fact the OCEAN was able to pull into Gibraltar highlights the flexibility of the RNs global reach and presence. Being able to access a friendly naval base thousands of miles from home with access to stores and a runway you control (so no diplomatic clearance or challenges with local customs officials) is not something many navies can do. Rather than focus on the mildly negative fact that she allegedly broke, lets focus on the positive that the UK was well placed to fix her.

Keeping our People
The one area where the RN faces real challenge is that of keeping its people in the system in the right rank/rate, with the right experience and in sufficient numbers so as to balance time at sea with time on shore. The RN has struggled to get this right since 1945, so manpower shortages are nothing new.

It is hard to think of a time since WW2 when the RN hasn’t been in the depths of a manpower crisis in some area or another. There are always problems out there, mainly because a busy Service that works hard globally needs to work people hard to keep up. People will always get frustrated and leave when the Service can’t give them what they want.  In practical terms the fixes open to the RN on its current manning system are very limited, it can do less stuff at sea a long way from home, it can pay ships off to increase the pool of manpower available, or it can recruit more people.

Sending ships to sea less means you reduce the amount of separation time people have – a lot of the people leaving at key pinch points are often slightly older, with families and partners that they wish to spend time with. As you grow older the desire to do another 9 month deployment fades quickly, and the pressure to spend time with your family grows. Keeping ships alongside, or in local waters reduces the pressure of both deployments and the build up to them (people often don’t realise that the amount of work required to get ready to deploy is almost as time consuming and draining as the actual deployment itself).


Paradoxically keeping ships at sea less reduces the pressure on people, but can be retention negative. If people feel they aren’t getting to sea or seeing the world, then the appeal of another few months on UK coastal visits, or tied up alongside quickly pales. There is a healthy balance to be struck between keeping ships busy or keeping them alongside. This is perhaps best seen in the way that some of the longer haul deployments, such as to the Asia Pacific region have tailed off in recent years, and there is an increase in home waters deployments or visits. Its a very fine balancing act to manage.

You can pay ships off to increase the pool of manpower available to do work with – this is one reason why there are only 17 escorts active out of 19 – there simply aren’t enough people in the system to keep them all manned and ready for use. Paying off makes sense if you want to keep ships fully manned, but is politically unpalatable – the Govt has taken a lot of stick for putting two ships into low readiness, even though if they remained in full commission they would never go to sea anyway due to the lack of people on them

Finally you can recruit more people, but due to the continued maintenance of the ‘only one point of entry’ in to the system it is hard to sideways recruit talent into SNCO or higher posts. While limited moves are being made to accelerate promotion or look at innovative ways of solving these problems, for as long as the RN insists on broadly recruiting at the lowest entry point, it will struggle to generate the right levels of manpower – it is recruiting today for people who it needs to be senior rates in the early 2040s – what other industry recruits in such a closed manner?

Show Me the Money...
Suggestions have been made that part of the problem stems from a lack of funding for the RN in general. It is true that budgets have been cut in real terms for many years by all the main political parties, but it is equally true that the UK retains an enormous defence budget. For all the bluster about not spending enough on defence, do not forget that there is still growth in the equipment budget, and budget holders in the single services have considerable delegated authority to re-prioritise and reallocate funding as they see fit.

Defence, and its advocates will always want more money, but so does every other department and their advocates. The harsh truth is that the MOD enjoyed an exceptionally good funding settlement in the last Comprehensive Spending Review, and that it has one of the best deals going, particularly compared to a lot of unprotected departments. There is little sympathy for 'special pleading' because Defence has not only the funding, but the flexibility to reallocate this funding to solve its problems.

Is the RN a global laughing stock?
The article relies on a lot of emotional phrasing by ‘senior defence sources’ that imply that somehow the UK has failed in the West Indies and more widely. To be honest, the moment Humphrey sees this sort of moaning, its an immediate switch off. It usually implies someone with an agenda is trying to influence thinking about how money gets spent – and not always in the way people think.

For example right now it is open knowledge that the MOD is in incredible financial problems (again) due to the collapse in the value of the pound. A lot of very difficult choices are going to have to be taken in order to balance the books. This ‘oh the RN is a laughing stock as it only has one of these ships to respond to the West Indies’ could be read as special pleading to protect assets like amphibious shipping and the Royal Marines (which if they were to lose their amphibious over the beach role would free up a vast amount of money,  ships and people to do other jobs). Alternatively it could be mischief making by other services to try and persuade Ministers and politicians that given the purported embarrassment that the UK has had, why not walk away from these capabilities altogether and spend the money elsewhere (or the  ‘well you wouldn’t get this problem if you had a fully funded Armoured Division minister’ briefing).

HMS MONTROSE demonstrating the RN role is to fight and win

The reality is though that the RN is anything but a global laughing stock. It is operating right now across the globe from Antarctica to the north Atlantic. It has in the last week demonstrated, along with the rest of the UK armed forces, a world beating capability to commence, at barely 24hrs notice a major international rescue operation in five different island chains on the other side of the planet, deploying aviation, specialists and equipment well ahead of any other nations to save lives, and which will be sustained for months to come. It is sustaining day in, day out, difficult deployments across the globe which rely on a global support chain of people, equipment and capability to deliver.

All this is going on against the backdrop of enormous amounts of new construction coming into service, with regeneration of the entire fleet planned in one way or another. The future RN won’t look like the RN of the past – it will see different types of ships, such as autonomous capability and land based means of delivering effect, but it will continue to harness the cutting edge technology to have a qualitative edge over its potential foes.

The RN right now is the Navy most other nations look to as their ‘gold standard’. Its ability to use its combination of people, equipment and capability, delivered under challenging financial and other circumstances, to sustain a global network of operations 24/7/365 is a source of immense interest and jealousy.

Most navies out there leave their ships alongside harbour walls year in year out, or maybe day run to go and do basic manouveres. Few navies try to go a long way from home, and even fewer sail a long way from home ready, willing and able to inflict violence on a potential enemy. The RN of today is better equipped than ever to get to sea, to stay at sea, to bring help, succour and comfort from the sea to those who need it, and if required, to fight at sea to protect this country from its foes.

It is not ‘a global laughing stock’, it is the global standard that other navies aspire to be. It may have challenges, but all navies do. It is a shame that the Telegraph is so unwilling to take pride in the Service and instead seeks to undermine it at any cost. 


  1. "It is a shame that the Telegraph is so unwilling to take pride in the Service and instead seeks to undermine it at any cost. "

    Um, the telegraph IS proud of the navy. it wants it to be better. It might be wrong about the RN's weaknesses and strengths, but to say that it is trying to 'undermine' it seems a little bit extreme.

    That said, you are right and you have basically proven Sir John Parker, the RUSI and a host of other people completely wrong about everything.

    There no useful public domain sources out that that provide any accurate information. I am utterly ashamed to have believed anything I was told but them. I have nothing useful to contribute, and I am sorry for ever thinking the RN had problems to worry about. I have only proven myself to be utterly arrogant about this.

    Please understand that I am really, really sorry about this. I probably have nothing to contribute in any other walk of life either, but this one has hit rather hard. I almost submitted an article saying there were problems with defence procurement. What a worthless act of arrogance.

    So basically, there is no point talking about the RN. No point commenting about any perceived problems. If one can only learn and not contribute, then there is no point learning. You win

  2. Geoffrey S H
    I presume your post is intended to be ironic. That said, I think you are missing the points that Humphrey has made, and ascribed to him points he has not. The DT article is unbalanced, and comes to a conclusion unjustified by any content, specifically apart from un-named UK sources, who is laughing at the Royal Navy? I am a member of the RUSI, I don't see how Humphrey has 'proven ...[them] completely wrong about everything', or even attempted to. Of course the RN has problems, Humphrey sets them out well, but the interests of the RN and the country are not served by an unbalanced article such as the DT has come out with.

    1. Before I read the rest of your comment, I must state very clearly that I was not being ironic. I was trying to honestly admit to my failings after almost a life time of trying to research things and constantly being wrong. I saw this article and I finally snapped. People like me are the reason Humph has to blog, and I am sorry for that.

      Please believe me when i say I am not being ironic. I absolutely regret what I have done.

    2. "The one area where the RN faces real challenge is that of keeping its people in the system in the right rank/rate, with the right experience and in sufficient numbers so as to balance time at sea with time on shore."

      I took that to mean that the other problem- the procurement crisis- was being rejected, and thus that the fears of Sir John Parker and the RUSI were therefore also rejected. I overthought his comments and am therefore wrong [as usual]. I apologise for dragging your name through the mud.

      And yes, I concede that the telegraph is actively trying to undermine the navy.... I don't yet understand how, but I will try. I just thought that wanting more ships meant they wanted the navy to be better- and were therefore proud of what it could be.

      And please, please understand that I am sincere in my apologies. It is incredibly tiring to be asserting one's sincerity after being honest about oneself and not being believed. I am a moron and I have caused a lot of trouble for people in the past. I regret that. I can't stop thinking and asking questions, even though the questions are usually the wrong ones.

    3. I'm not doubting your sincerity for a second, and no apolgy is appropriate or required. However, the biggest problem the RN faces is people. When I joined at the front of the classroom was a pisture of a matelot in No1s captioned 'the greatest single factor'. S/he still is, far more than ships, fuel etc.

    4. I understand it is a huge problem, I just worry that costs from mistakes during procurement nonetheless add up. I would not want to belittle the manning crisis. If procurement could improve, then that's one less crisis to worry about, and more time to focus on manning.

      Indeed, manning problems are probably worse now than even during the 18th century- desertions from ships of the line generally averaged at 3% per year according to N Roger and and stopping coalers and other ships to impress men could temporarily plug gaps. France's manning problems were much worse and by Quiberon bay almost crippled their naval power. Having read the worries from serving men on Save the Royal Navy it does seem that the problem is now more acute, though I am prepared to be wrong on that- maybe it is just as acute as ever...

    5. The biggest French defeat was the 'Glorious First of June' A British tactical victory, French strategic victory (the grain convoy got through) but a French logistical disaster. They lost over 6000 prime seamen as prisoners. With a limited merchant marine to draw on, they couldn't man their navy with men of any professional quality, and it showed then and even after the peace of Amiens. Then as now, while it is possible to train an infantryman in twelve weeks, to get a useful sailor takes years. Hence the mess the RN is in. Great ships, but no SQEP (suitably quslified and expereineced personnel)

    6. If you think you can train an infanteer to a useful standard in 12 weeks you are on drugs. Hyperbole like that demeans this article

  3. Why do you use 1945 as a comparison? In 2022 when all the new kit is delivered?? the RN may be in good shape but before then? Will funds be found to fix the T45 engine problems? People join to release the T23 & T45 from harbour. The money needs to be spent more wisely.

    1. Compare to 2010 when this lot took over: services down by 30-40%.

    2. And the previous lot were so good, weren't they? Escort ship numbers cut from 35 to 23 and attack submarines down from 12 to 7, Sea Harrier FA2s prematurely scrapped, Invincible decommissioned 7 years early, MARS support ship project shelved, minor war vessel and RFA numbers cut. In total, ~30 units gone 1998-2010, i.e. 2.5 per year!

    3. 1945 is mentioned because that was a comparison in the original Telegraph article, if the article had been about changes since 1997 or 2010 it would have had more credibility. But the average Telegraph hard copy reader is in their 70's and likes to pretend the world of 1945 was is coming back some day.

      Equally an regiment we have problems is one think, an argument ONLY the RN aha sproblems and everyone is laughing at us is just wrong.

  4. Just to highlight one thing: the pound has strengthened noticeably against the dollar & the trend is up. While, on 07/10/2016 it was $1.1711 to £1.00, today (15/09/2017) it was around $1.3587. Global investment & financial service group MUFG now forecasts the £ to be around $1.3870 during the first quarter of next year, $1.4420 during the second quarter, and $1.4651 during the third quarter. The rate, when the Brexit referendum polls closed, was $1.50. Exchange rates are incredibly volatile and projecting them into the future is risky even for experts, so these projections could be wrong, but, equally, the "budget hole" apparently created by the drop in the £ may simply not exist. Keith Campbell

    1. Exchange rate is ONE of the reasons for the black hole but not the entire reason.

  5. Good post. I am heartily sick of the grinding negativity in the media with regard to the UK armed forces in general and the RN in particular. Unfortunately, many will believe the misguided, ill-informed outpourings of the likes of Con Coughlin. I cancelled my DT subscription in 2015 as the standard of journalism (and indeed debate) was not worth £100 per year. A good decision I think.

  6. I'd say you've got rose tints on although the Telegraph headline is misleading.

    "it is recruiting today for people who it needs to be senior rates in the early 2040s"
    Was this a typo. Even with a lead time from interviews, assessments and entry. 24 years from now most people joining shortly will have left. I'd suggest it should be achievable/desirable for your people to reach PO in half that time.

  7. Perhaps someone with a deeper insight into the subject can throw some light onto how the rule of three fits with the submarine service, in particular Hunter killer boats?

    One would presume two for a single carrier group, leaving optimistically two to cover the rest of our commitments.
    That doesn't seem like enough to cover the GIUK gap let alone other UK areas of interest.
    This reduced fleet also would seem to put extra pressure on submariners and their time at home despite an already poor retention rate.
    Coupled with the impending lock, stock move from the sunny south west to Scotland, for short term political gain but long term service pain, it doesn't seem to be a good time to be getting ones dolphins.
    I agree, things are not as rosy as some suggest, we are leaning too much on the service's professionalism and can do attitude.

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  10. The Telegraph being the Telegraph is partly driven by we are trying to sell to pensioners and they will lap up everything is rubbish and it was better when we were younger and partly if there have to be cuts let's scrap the Navy to protect the Army and all the separate cap badges which they have been on since the end of Cold War and Northern Ireland operations.

    There is a debate to be had about if we should spend more on the forces and if not what is the balance between the services this was just attack the RN and vaguely suggest everyone else is better.

    The USN is in a league of their own so park that.
    France does have worldwide ex colonial commitments and is still a global force but like us smaller than the 1990's.
    Netherlands has commitments in the Caribbean.
    No one else in Europe commits to permanent out of area commitments though lots will commit a single ship to Op Atalanta for months.
    Russia is still mainly dependant on a fleet from pre 1991 is regaining operational experience off Syria, but can probably put to sea 10% of what they could in the 1980's and what is left is OLD.
    China and India are the new kids on the block, and comparison of shrinkage of U.K. And France since 1990 compared to growth in China India would be interesting, but would blow the mind of the average Telegraph reader who still thinks of the Raj and RN patrolling up the Yangtze

    1. I've heard a rumour (which could be wrong) that the Indian navy is very keen to work more closely with the RN. Even when they overtake us in size we could get on quite well.

      Eventually we will have to stop shrinking the navy as you can only cut so much before you completely lose core capabilities. So long as ship numbers increase (slightly), things might actually be looking up.....

  11. 'if there have to be cuts let's scrap the Navy to protect the Army and all the separate cap badges which they have been on since the end of Cold War and Northern Ireland operations.'

    Max Hastings is a prime suspect here as he is basically obsessed with the army as an institution and disregards the overall defence needs of the UK. We need to prioritise naval and air power (particularly the former) as the money is not there to do everything and we are not going to be involved in large-scale land operations for as far ahead as it is possible to see.

    1. I think it's more that a naval officer was "rude" to him (or rather didn't realise how important he thinks he is) on Corporate.

  12. Excellent article response Sir H

    But I would add a word of caution on "save the RN" website, their biased rhetoric when it comes to the other services often suppose their otherwise well read informative articles, shame really.

  13. Good article. Whilst very inaccurate, the Telegraph article is well timed and could be useful - especially as we bolster ourselves for another potential round of cuts!

  14. In total agreement here Sir H

    When this article came into my contact circle I was quick to educate them that the 'rules of three' is pretty much universal for all navies and if ignored it does come with long term consequences like the USN having the Gulf carrier gap.

  15. Both the Telegraph and this article are wrong. 1945 is a bad example due to demobilisation.

    A better example would be 1956 Suez Crisis.

    I seriously doubt the modern British military would be able to pull of a caper like the Suez intervention in 1956!

    Sure they did it with the French but the British contribution was massive - 5 aircraft carriers with 15 fighter bomber squadrons (plus , 4 cruisers, 30+ frigate/destroyers and at least 5 submarines.

    Even with the 2 new carriers, it would be unable to accomplish this as number of planned F-35s and escorts is too limited to be able accomplish all goals and there's key deficiencies in what is around (e.g. maritime patrol, antiship etc).

    Today the RN is incapable of independent ops of this scale and is basically now just a bolt-on for the USN or required to operate alongside other dwindling NATO navies.

    Number of hulls goes a long way. It means you can cover more area, have more flexibility, have greater ability to sustain losses (including mechanical ones etc etc).

    The Army and RAF aren't much better. The Army's 2020-2025 plans turn back the clock and make the Army a colonial enforcement force designed to send small groups (reinforced battalion or less) to colonial style wars with little emphasis on large scale deployments or conventional capability (look at the 1st division with its 7 "brigades" each of which varies in size and are pure infantry and often mounted in colonial equipment ala IMVs).