2013 was another busy year for the Royal Navy diligently serving UK interests around the world with its usual can-do attitude, despite its over-stretched resources. Notable maritime security successes include a dramatic reduction in Piracy around Somalia and significant drug-busts involving HMS Lancaster in the Caribbean. The annual deployment of the “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) on the exercise “Cougar 13” again proved its worth, not only as a great training exercise but by having RN assets deployed and able to respond to events. The RFTG was on standby for action in Syria, had David Cameron got his way and pursued a military option for intervention in this vile civil war. Fortunately sense prevailed and the UK has not become embroiled. In the end the RN’s main contribution was HMS Dragon returning early from her Gulf deployment to bolster the air defences of Cyprus in case of Syrian attacks. An RN warship will be escorting cargo ships carrying decomissioned Syrian chemical weapons that will be destroyed at UK facilities next year. The Cougar group continued as planned into the Persian Gulf making the largest RN presence there for sometime. The Gulf look set to become increasingly a ‘centre of gravity’ for UK forces in future.
The tensions with Spain over Gibraltar have been further ratcheted up this year with more frequent and serious incursions into Gibraltar’s waters. The two boats of the RN Gibraltar squadron have been at full stretch, walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope at times. This lingering issue looks likely to fester and there are increasing calls for a more heavyweight and long-term RN presence around Gib.
The design of the Type 26 frigate is reaching maturity and orders for some long-lead items were placed this year. The Trident submarine replacement programme is well on track with further contacts placed. Every contract will make it harder to cancel this vital project, should the political winds change. The last Type 42 destroyer, HMS Edinburgh decommissioned this year, marking the end of an era. A heavy burden now falls on the 6 Type 45s that replaced them and the final ship, HMS Duncan, commissioned this year. Lets hope the Type 45s prove to be mechanically reliable and able to maintain the high operational tempo that will be required.
As predicted, the Government casually allowed BAE Systems to shut their Portsmouth ship building yard. This is both a political fudge and strategic folly which the Royal Navy will suffer from and the nation may well regret. There does seem hope the yard may survive in another form and we will be observing and commenting on this next year. Part of the closure is tied up with the looming spectre of Scottish Independence referendum (in Sept 2014). Should Scotland decide to break away from the UK, the Royal Navy will probably be the single British institution to suffer the most. Independence is a grave threat to the RN and security for the whole UK and we hope it is avoided at all costs.
‘Operation Patwin’ saw the Royal Navy respond rapidly to the crisis in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. HMS Daring happened to be in the Far East on a rare RN deployment to the area and was quickly on the scene to help. HMS Illustrious made a 10-day dash from the Horn of Africa and her helicopters proved very useful in the aid effort. Both ships will be amongst the 20 naval vessels away from the UK over the holiday season, 6 of which will be at sea on Christmas Day. Our best wishes go to the approximately 3,400 sailors and marines on duty somewhere in the world this Christmas.
2014 and hopes for SSDR 2015
The decommissioning of HMS Illustrious in 2014 will mark the beginning of a particularly dark period for the RN in terms of frontline strength, with no new warships due to join the fleet until HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. There also follow several years of trails and work up before she is fully operational. The RFA fleet will also shrink even further before the first of the new ‘MARS’ tankers arrive in 2016. While it is lean times for now, the defence review (SSDR) due in 2015 may offer some hope that things may get a little better. With a small improvement in the economic situation, the MoD budget “under control” and the costs of the Afghanistan operations fading, there will be no excuses for further cuts and a strong case for addressing some of the many serious gaps in UK defence. A realistic and affordable wish list for the Royal Navy could look something like this
- The retention of both aircraft carriers – Reversing the ludicrous decision to sell or mothball HMS Prince of Wales must be top of the list. This will only cost around £70M per year and would make the carrier project far more credible and flexible. As the French have discovered, having a single carrier leaves you gambling it will be available when needed.
- RN manpower will need to be increased, at least by a small amount, if both Carriers are retained. Furthermore the carriers planned complement is an extremely lean 679. It is likely that experience will show the ships company will need to be increased to operate effectively and safely for extended periods. Of course having made 5,000 RN people redundant in 2010, it is slightly embarrassing for this government to have to now address the problems that has caused.
- The leasing or purchase of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft preferably the Boeing P8 Poseidon. History, if not logic, will probably dictate they will be operated by the RAF but the important thing is the UK restores this capability as a matter of urgency.
- The ‘Crowsnet’ project to provide Airborne Earing Warning radar coverage for the needs to be brought forward so the carriers go to sea with this key capability from day one. We will probably have to accept that this will be based on the Merlin helicopter (ideally adapted Mk1 airframes currently in storage) as the affordable option. A solution based on the V-22 Osprey would be more capable but far more expensive and Hawkeye is of course not possible.
- Fitting of Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) to the Type 45s and increasing both submarine and ship-launched stocks of this missile. Tomahawk should have been fitted to the Type 45s from the start but retrofitting it is a matter of urgency for this most critical of all UK weapons. Only RN submarines can fire TLAM at present and the commitment to keep one East of Suez puts huge pressure on the tiny submarine force. In time we expect to see the Type 45 and the Type 26 carrying TLAM and providing great flexibility and a very useful deterrent capability.
- Fitting of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to the Type 45s, Type 26s and the carriers. This electronic sharing of data between ships would help mitigate for the RN’s lack of hulls, increase effectiveness of naval task groups and make operations with our key ally, the US Navy much easier.
- Start work on MHPC project to replace minehunters and survey ships and commit to funding and in service dates. This project, if imaginative and properly managed (famous last words) could be very affordable by using modular systems and reliant on long range UUVs for mine hunting and disposal.
- Aviation training ship with an excellent medical facility, RFA Argus needs replacing – this could be done cheaply, possibly with another merchant ship conversion. We would also like a dedicated hospital ship paid for from the Overseas Development budget mainly for humanitarian missions but available to support military operations.
- The order for 3 new OPVs to be built in Glasgow seems mainly to be a political decision to keep the Scottish yards in work between the carriers and the Type 26. Obviously any new ships are good news but they will have little impact on RN strength if they are just replacements for the existing 3 River class OPVs used for UK territorial waters patrols. The relatively new River class should be retained and the 3 new OPVs could then provide a valuable addition to the RN surface fleet and could be deployed overseas.
- A ‘big ticket’ item which we assume is already at least in the MoD’s long-term plan is the Type 26 frigate. We demand a cast-iron commitment to build at least 13 Frigates. Ordering them in just 1 or 2 batches would help keep costs down, allow the RN and industry to plan and give the project credibility which may encourage export orders.
- Finally on the list would be development of a long-term coherent foreign policy and defence strategy, ideally with cross-party support and stating what our forces will be expected to do and most importantly, what they will not be expected to do. From that could be developed a coherent industrial strategy … but maybe to desire such common sense from our politicians is to depart from what is realistic to the realms of fantasy…
Prevarication leaves another crucial ‘capability gap’
Key assets for the Royal Navy are it’s Airborne Early Warning helicopters, i.e. search radar-equipped helicopters that can give the fleet much greater coverage than ship-based radar limited by the curvature of the earth. During the Falklands war this lack of coverage left the fleet in fear of Exocet missile and aircraft attack, with just seconds to react and it cost ships and lives. In a classic piece of British ingenuity the problem was solved by fitting a radar to a Sea King helicopter in just a few weeks. The much-loved, but now knackered Sea King helicopters will have to be retired by 2016. Despite being fully aware of this, the MoD project “Crowsnest” to develop a replacement has only just begun assessment phase. Almost certainly the solution will be to take some of the precious few (30) anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s currently in RN service and add radar in a very similar way to the current solution. Crowsnest is not expected to deliver until 2022, thus leaving the RN carrier(s) at sea without vital radar coverage for at last 4 years. Since 1982 the AEW helicopter has seen its role expanded and they have proved useful in Afghanistan and other non-maritime environments where their tracking and surveillance capability provides vital intelligence on the ground. It is the complacency & penny-pinching of successive governments that have, yet again, created a situation where the RN will have a another very significant ‘capability gap‘. Crowsnest’s lack of urgency is typical of so many MoD-managed programs and it is unclear why something that was solved in a few weeks in 1982 will take up to 10 years in the 21st century!
RAF plans to royally screw up the aircraft carrier project remain on track
Having succeeded in “advising” government to ditch catapults & traps for the aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be much diminished, the RAF recently proposed the RN’s new 65,000 ton carriers should only “routinely embark 6 aircraft”. Whoever made that proposal is either an idiot or deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. The defence secretary later announced that he expects 12 aircraft to be routinely embarked, still a very silly number for a large carrier designed to operate at least 36 aircraft. As we have continually highlighted, the RAF now see the F35B as a replacement for their Tornado aircraft when in fact the F35B is really the successor the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9. The F35B has “60% RAF ownership” and will probably be based at RAF Marham. It is not hard to imagine the RN will continually struggle to be allowed to operate the aircraft carriers main armament if the RAF have other plans. It is a crazy situation to build carriers then cripple them with bizarre aircraft operating arrangements. The F35B should be allocated to the Fleet Air Arm who fully understand what is involved in carrier aviation. If the RAF must maintain their questionable ‘deep strike’ role then they should lobby government to buy the F35A. A recommended read is the excellent article in the December issue of Warship International Fleet Review magazine by Commodore Steve Jermy who brilliantly explains the complexities of naval aviation and why in every carrier-equipped nation in the world (except the UK), the Navy owns and operates its aircraft.
Astute class subs – serious problems but still world-beaters?
Recently The Guardian gleefully reported on the many problems of the Astute submarine project. Late and over-budget, the Astute program can indeed find a place in the MoD’s Top 10 All-Time Greatest Procurement Fiascos. That said, there are now 2 boats in the water and the Astute class is beginning to deliver on the huge potential it always promised. These boats will be a great asset to the nation and the Royal Navy and ultimately are worth the cost and unfavorable media coverage. Nuclear submarine construction is one of the most demanding engineering challenges known to man and it is unsurprising that the first of class has encountered problems. We can be confident that the problems are slowly being solved and Astute is amongst the quietest subs ever built, offers many new capabilities and has already impressed when tested against the latest US Virginia-class boat. The main concern is possibly with propulsion and a mis-match between her very powerful reactor and the drive train. However this kind of detail must remain highly classified and it’s impossible to speculate in an informed way.
The looming threat of Scottish independence
With referendum on Scottish Independence looming in 2014, the horrible possibility exists that the RN’s key submarine base at Faslane and primary warship builder in Glasgow will suddenly be in a ‘foreign country’. Although opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Scots will see sense and reject the idea, it would seem wise for the MoD to start making contingency plans. Apparently the ‘do nothing and hope it goes away’ approach is being applied by the MoD. (although one would hope the RN is at least looking at its options behind closed doors) In fact, the plan to transfer the remaining Trafalgar class subs from Devonport to Faslane is still going ahead. In the calamitous event of Scottish Independence, the nuclear deterrent would be in serious problems, although basing the entire submarine fleet in Devonport is a realistic possibility, the vast cost of replicating the weapons handling facility at Coulport would be a major obstacle and could even spell the end of the UK nuclear deterrent. There are lots of other nightmare issues to consider such as which defence assets and personnel would Scotland demand? Would the RN still build is warships in Scotland and are there any affordable alternatives? Franky independence would be an exercise in silly local pride, there is enough division and splintering in this world and we are better off and stronger together. Let’s pray the Scots vote no to what would be an disaster for them, the Royal Navy and everyone in the UK.
Portsmouth shipbuilding yard saga lurches towards disaster
We have been warning and campaigning against the closure of BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth for several months. All indications are that BAE seem set to announce the yard will close very soon. Due to a total lack of coherent industrial strategy on the part of this government and its predecessor, when the aircraft carrier work is complete the yard will have no work (at least for several years until the leisurely-paced Type 26 frigate programme starts). The yard is ideally suited to building small, relatively cheap Offshore Patrol Vessels which the RN really needs. Instead of placing an order for a couple of OPVs to fill the gap in work, government complacency and dogma dictates they will let the yard close. Ministers talk of there being “no business case” to keep the yard open – of course there is no business case if their main customer won’t even place a small order! Besides, the importance of an island nation’s ability to build warships goes beyond short-term business arguments. This pathetic laissez-faire approach to vital national strategic assets is indefensible and hard to understand, given the relatively small mount of money needed to keep it afloat. The financial argument does not even add up as it will actually cost more to close the yard than the cost of a couple of small ships!
Economic problems – more defence cuts on the way?
With the UK economy showing no signs of recovery and public borrowing not significantly reduced, apparently the armed forces may face another round of cuts. Defence has been cut, cut & cut again even in “good times” under Blair & Brown and there is absolutely nothing left to cut without really endangering UK security. Most politicians pay lip service to the fact that the first duty of Government is to afford protection to its citizens but the reality is that defence is a low priority for them as they have a short-term focus on re-election. Most politicians simply assume there are no votes in defence (apart from dishing out employment-related equipment contracts). It is shabby political cowardice & dereliction of duty on the part of government not to ‘ring fence’ the already inadequate defence budget, like it has with more politically-sensitive budgets such as overseas development, education and health.
Remember Timmy MacColl
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl failed to return to his ship HMS Westminster after a night out when the ship was docked in Dubai in May this year. Despite exhaustive searches, nothing has been seen or heard of him since. Our thoughts go to his family and children as they face their first Christmas without him. www.bringtimmyhome.co.uk
Some Christmas cheer
Despite all the problems there are many reasons for the RN to remember 2012 with some satisfaction. The failure of G4S to provide sufficient security guards for the Olympics meant the armed forces stepped in and did a brilliant job, the unintended side-effect was a big PR boost for the forces fed by the feel good factor around a highly successful Olympic games. The RN also did a fine job in providing the security cordon around the Olympic sailing events off Dorset. HMS Daring made her debut as the first Type 45 deployed to the Gulf and operated successfully with the US fleet. Despite the ridiculous hysteria about her deployment from Argentina, HMS Dauntless completed a lengthy Atlantic tour although she was only in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands for a few weeks.
The major RN exercise of the year was Exercise Cougar 12 which saw the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) deploy to the Mediterranean. The most notable feature was jointly working with the French Navy. (Our new best friends in a shot-gun wedding of convenience brought on by austerity?) The RFTG concept was proven although rumors the ships could be deployed to the Syrian coast for an evacuation or humanitarian operation proved unfounded. Notable was the absence of any RFA tankers or stores support ships. The RFA is so busy covering important jobs that are really the work of now non-existent warships, that there was not a single one available for this major exercise. On a positive note, 4 new RFA tankers were ordered from South Korea although this rather good news was lost in the hysteria surrounding their construction abroad. The Type 26 Frigate programme reached another encouraging milestone as the latest design was revealed it also seems possible that some foreign orders or collaboration maybe possible which could help keep costs down, however it will be at least 2020 before the first ship is delivered to the RN and the numbers have yet to be decided.
The Royal Marines continue to serve in Afghanistan with 40 Commando currently in theatre. Keep safe and best wishes for 2013 to all RN and RM personnel, particularly those serving overseas and away from family this Christmas.
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War
- 10 good reasons UK should NOT take military action in Syria