“The year of the Royal Navy” – a review of 2017

On 1st January 2017 the MoD published a press release that proclaimed it would be “the year of the Royal Navy”. Ministers may have come to regret such a bold statement but it certainly helped shine a spotlight on the service during turbulent times. Here we review some of the highlights and some of the difficulties the RN has experienced this year. 

January

It was revealed in a leak to the press that there had been a failed Trident missile test launch during the Demonstration and Shakedown Operation (DASO) conducted by HMS Vengeance in June 2016. Despite the Trident II D5 being consistently the most reliable ICBM on the planet, the ill-advised cover-up helped create a false impression the system has serious problems. The haemorrhage of people leaving the RN has been stemmed somewhat but the personnel shortage continues, figures released in January showed the service to be 2.4% under liability, i.e. 720 short of the meagre 30,170 the RN is supposed to have. In the first revelation of the MoD’s budget problems that were about to explode into view this year, it was stated that the navy now faces a shortfall in its annual budget of at least £500 million. It became clear that the March date originally set for HMS Queen Elizabeth to begin sea trails had slipped slightly and June was now the likely target date for her to sail. First of the new MARS tankers, RFA Tidespring was quietly accepted from her builders, DSME in South Korea, nearly a year behind schedule, but on budget at least.

February

The Sun newspaper published a story claiming all seven of the RN’s attack submarines (SSNs) were alongside either in refit or experiencing material defects. This was certainly the case for a short period at the start of the year and represented a very serious weakening of UK defence, symptomatic of ageing Trafalgar class boats and problems with the new Astute boats. The Daily Express went a step further claiming HMS Trenchant would never sail again and the Trafalgar class boats had terminal defects that would end their careers. Fortunately, this was proved to be total nonsense and HMS Trenchant has been at sea for much of this year. The Sea Venom light anti-ship missile successfully completed its next round of trials on the way to being in RN service by 2020.

March

First, of the batch II river class OPVs, HMS Forth was formally named at a ceremony in Scotstoun, Glasgow. The Lynx Mk 8 Helicopter and the Sea Suka missile went out of service, leaving the RN with no light anti-shipping missile for two years. The RN conducted their first Exercise “Information Warrior” (alongside the regular Ex Joint Warrior) and tested naval cyber and AI capabilities.

April

The RN announced it was reducing the Royal Marines by 200 men in order to free up funding for more sailors while 42 Commando was being downgraded in size and capability. This was the first indication that amphibious forces were the only place left to go for the RN to make cuts as it was being squeezed in the funding crisis. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee finally confirmed the ugly rumours that there exists at least a £10 billion ‘black hole’ in funding for the MoDs equipment programme. On appeal, Royal Marine Sergeant, Alexander Blackman was cleared of committing murder during deployment in Afghanistan during 2011 and was finally freed, after serving 3 years in prison.

The 4th Astute class submarine, HMS Audacious was rolled out of the build hall and into the water at Barrow, 10 months behind schedule and £200M over-budget. (Image: BAE Systems)

The MoD had stated in January that the keel for the 7th Astute class (HMS Ajax?) would be laid in 2017 but this has not happened. Although some steel has been cut, it would appear the delays to boats 4-6 means there is not space or manpower available to lay the keel of boat 7.

May

HMS Daring returned after a successful 9-month deployment in the heat of the Persian Gulf confounding the critics who claim Type 45 always break down in in hot weather. On return Daring went into long-term lay up as a harbour training ship, replacing HMS Dauntless which has been in a similar state for the last 2 years.

June

Defence was largely given low priority by politicians and media in the General Election campaign. The Tories just hung on to remain in government but in a chaotic and much-weakened state. However, the same ministerial team remained in place at the MoD and continuity in defence policy seemed likely. The new government began its “National Security Capability Review” which was supposed to be a low key assessment of UK security across government departments, rather than a full defence scale review. HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Rosyth to begin sea trials. A landmark moment for the RN and the progress of this great ship which, for better or worse, would dominate media coverage of the navy for the rest of the year.

July

The US Navy kindly lent the USS George H W Bush to the RN for 2 weeks to conduct Exercise Saxon Warrior to help regenerate carrier battle group command skills. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s sea trials were interrupted by a propeller shaft issue which was corrected during 2 weeks alongside in Invergordon, amid much media speculation. After a gestation period for the new frigate programme of more than 20 years, steel was finally cut for HMS Glasgow, the first type 26 Frigate. It was subsequently announced the 3rd ship in the initial batch of 3 will be named HMS Belfast. HMS Torbay was decommissioned after 32 years of outstanding service, reducing the SSN force to just 6 boats until HMS Audacious commissions.

August

The iconic image of the Royal Nay in 2017. On a truly memorable day, procedure Alpha for HMS Queen Elizabeth as she made her first entry into Portsmouth with universal media coverage. The Prime Minister also visited the ship on the same day and made a speech on board.

HMS Forth sailed from Glasgow to begin contractors sea trials. 3rd of the 4 Tide class tankers, RFA Tidesurge was officially named in South Korea. HMS Ocean sailed for her final deployment to lead a NATO group in the Mediterranean.

September

When Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, RFA Mounts Bay was already in the region and prepared to assist. The scale of the damage demanded a major response from UK armed forces in the form of Operation Ruman. HMS Ocean was hurriedly re-tasked to sail from the Eastern Mediterranean to store in Gibraltar and cross the Atlantic to assist. The humanitarian aid effort across the Caribbean led by the RN was a demonstration of the flexibility and utility of naval forces and did a great deal to alleviate suffering in the British dependencies. The outline specification for the Type 31e frigate was issued by the RN with a very low budget set at £250M per ship. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales was formally named at a ceremony in Rosyth. It was revealed that minehunters HMS Atherstone and Quorn would not complete the refits that they had begun and would be decommissioned early as a cost and manpower saving measure. The RN sensibly decided to defer the previously planned retirement of its semi-obsolete Harpoon anti-ship missiles until 2020, pending a replacement. The 2nd MARS Tanker built in South Korea, RFA Tidesurge arrived in Falmouth for fitting out with military equipment. Rear Admiral Alex Burton, Commander UK Maritime Forces handed in his resignation, ostensibly in protest at the possible plan to axe HMS Albion, Bulwark and large numbers of Royal Marines. Leaked proposals to scale back UK amphibious capability generated enormous controversy and have cast a long shadow of the “year of the Royal Navy”.

October

HMS Queen Elizabeth departed Portsmouth for part 2 sea trials off the Cornish coast which were conducted successfully over a 3 week period in very benign weather. 2nd OPV HMS Medway was formally named at a ceremony in Glasgow. At Barrow a ceremony was held for the Defence Secretary to start the first steel cutting for the new Trident successor submarine, which it was announced will be named HMS Dreadnought.

HMS Ocean

HMS Ocean off Crete, leading Standing NATO Maritime Task Group 2 after returning to the Med from her aid mission to the Caribbean. She visited Haifa, Israel and Lisbon, Portugal before coming home to Devonport from her final overseas deployment in December. She will conduct a tour of UK ports before decommissioning without replacement on 31st March 2018.

November

Michael Fallon resigned suddenly amidst a scandal about his personal conduct and was replaced by the former chief whip, Gavin Williamson. The NAO published a report which revealed the growing extent of cannibalisation of stores and spare parts across the RN. In a relatively low key ceremony, the Prince of Wales opened the new Naval Support Facility (NSF) HMS Juffair in Bahrain which will greatly improve alongside support for RN vessels deployed in the Gulf region. After covering for HMS Ocean doing NATO duty in the Mediterranean, HMS Diamond was forced to return home from her planned Gulf deployment with a serious propellor shaft problem. The lack of alternative vessels to cover this kind of contingency left the RN with no major warship East of Suez for the first time in living memory. RFA Tidespring was dedicated into the fleet at a ceremony in Portsmouth. The 4 new tankers will be fantastic additions to the RFA and are designed specifically to refuel the aircraft carriers. RN sailors provided the guard at Royal residences in London for the first time in 400 years.

December

HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in the presence of Her Majesty – another landmark moment and a demonstration of the RN’s enduring ability to excel in the organisation and presentation of ceremonial events. Just a week later, more negativity and disinformation about the carrier project was generated by the Sun newspaper grossly exaggerating the significance of a minor leak on a stern seal of HMS Queen Elizabeth. HMS Prince of Wales was floated out of the basin in Rosyth to begin fitting out with sea trails scheduled for mid-2019.

The adventures of Gavin
In the two months Gavin Williamson has been defence secretary there has never been a dull moment. The new man had no previous track record of interest in defence matters and many perceive him as a clever and ambitious schemer using the post as a stepping stone to the Tory leadership. However, rather than continuing the bland and conformist approach of Michael Fallon, he has given the impression that he will fight for the department. Of the commitment to 2% GDP spending on defence, he said : “I’ve always seen 2% as base, not a ceiling”. It was reported he has demanded significantly more money from the Treasury and even had a physical altercation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Westminster. He also barred Philip Hammond from using RAF transport aircraft until the Treasury paid money owed. On British Jahdis who had gone to fight for ISIS he said they “should be shot, bombed or banned from coming home”. He blocked the Army’s plan to ditch their strapline “Be the Best” because their hired consultants had deemed it “too elitist”. Speaking on Russian warships and submarines operating close to UK territorial waters he said: “I will not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression”. One could interpret his statements as a carefully stage-managed attempt to get attention and appeal to a section of disenchanted Tory voters. A less cynical view is that he has listened to the procession of experts warning about the sorry and dangerous state of UK defence and he is determined to actually do something about it. The appointment of the new defence secretary has been used as a reason to extend the ongoing “defence review” into 2018. There is greater public opposition and awareness about further defence cuts than there was in 2010 and at least 20 Tory MPs are likely to rebel against the government if new funding is not forthcoming.

Still doing the business?

There is no doubt that the RN is in a poor state in many ways but there remains much to be positive about. As the summary above shows, this year has been one of contrasts. New equipment has reached important milestones on its way to join the fleet but at the same time manpower shortages, not enough ships and further possible cuts continue to blight the service.

A little lost amongst the focus on equipment is the day to day business of the RN. The service is just about able to manage the tasks mandated by government and has achieved a great deal in protecting the nation’s interests in 2017. As an example, on 22nd November 2017 the RN had 32 ships and submarines either overseas or on operations (including RFAs but not including P2000 boats) and around 8,000 people actively deployed. (Reflecting the growing concern about Russia, the majority of these vessels were deployed in European or northern waters.) At Christmas, the numbers deployed were approximately half that of November, mainly because for the sake of morale, the RN is determined to give leave to as many of its people as possible over the holiday period.

Decisions that will be taken in Westminster in the early part of 2018 will determine if the RN will have a more stable future or must endure yet further reduction and over-stretch.

 

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