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.
Failure by successive governments to place sufficient and regular orders for warships has caused the Royal Navy to decline but has also resulted in the gradual closure of British shipyards. There are now only the yards in Glasgow, Rosyth and Portsmouth left in the United Kingdom that can build complex surface warships for the RN (the Barrow yard is now dedicated to nuclear submarine construction, having launched its last surface ship HMS Bulwark in 2001). Both Portsmouth and the Scottish yards are currently employed building the 2 new aircraft carriers but when that work is complete there will be insufficient work before construction of the Type 26 Frigate is planned to begin. LEK, a private consultancy firm (we really need more of those!) has advised that the Portsmouth shipyard is “vulnerable to closure”. With depressing lack of concern for the long-term interests of the Royal Navy, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond is apparently blasé about the Portsmouth yard and is content to let the owner, BAE Systems, just shut the facility.
(Please note, it is the Portsmouth shipbuilding facility that is threatened with closure, NOT the naval base itself, which has led to some confusion in the media and mischief by Labour politicians)
Why closure would be disasterous
- In the nightmare scenario of Scotland choosing independence (which we all hope and pray won’t happen), the RN could find its most important supplier in a ‘foreign’ country.
- Should a future government wake up to the collapse of RN surface warship numbers and want to start a substantial rebuilding programme, the already limited capacity to expand warship construction would have gone completely or require huge investment. For all but the least ambitious rebuilding programme, new warships would have to built abroad. The potential for a bigger, export-led, British naval shipbuilding industry would die, with no way back. Once a capability is lost it is either very expensive or impossible to regenerate.
- The Portsmouth shipbuilding yard directly employs 1,300 people with up to 4,000 jobs in the area dependent on the yard. Not only would people suffer losing their jobs, but valuable skills & experience would be thrown away and there would be a devastating impact on the local Portsmouth and South Hampshire economy.
- Like most current MoD ‘planning’, closure would leave no alternative option available to cope with contingencies, unforeseen emergencies, enemy action or ‘sods law’ which could close a yard for a time. It’s bad enough the RN is already reliant on one company for all its vessels, but complete reliance on the Scottish facilities would be a gross strategic error.
Government can take action that will solve the problem & won’t blow the budget
Although the Naval Staff are understandably nervous about requesting corvettes or offshore/ocean patrol vessels (OPVs) it is obvious that the RN could really do with some simple, cheap ships to operate in policing and anti-piracy roles which we have recently had to withdraw from. This could take some pressure off the over-worked frigate and destroyer force. The Naval Staff’s legitimate fear is that the MoD will use OPVs in a future round of budget decisions to justify cutting the fully capable warships which are the Navy’s first priority. Provided there are cast iron guarantees this will not affect frigate numbers, a simple solution to the gap in orders between the carriers and Type 26 is to order at least 2 OPVs to be built in the Portsmouth yard. (We should not accept the MoD’s flawed suggestion of stretching out the construction of the second carrier, Prince of Wales.) This would provide ships the RN badly needs and work in the interim period before Type 26 construction starts. An OPV, HMS Clyde used for patrolling the Falkland Islands was built in Portsmouth in less than 2 years (2005-07) and similar ships could probably be built for around £50 million each. Another alternative would be to order a long-term replacement for HMS Endurance / HMS Protector, the RN’s Antarctic patrol ship. The design and construction experience for OPVs is already in place and it would put minimal strain on Mr Hammond’s ‘oh so carefully balanced’ defence budget, while providing huge benefits. This suggestion has been already put forward in the House of Commons by Penny Mordaunt MP, one of the RN’s few committed political defenders. In fact due to bizarre Terms of Business agreement set by the previous government, the MoD could be liable for £600 Million compensation that would have to be paid to BAE in the event they close the yard. In other words it would far cheaper for the taxpayer to build new ships than close the yard! It’s a crazy suggestion that the RN might actually gain in capability for a change, but it might just work! (To give a sense of financial scale, £100m pays just one-third of the annual finance charges on the PFI programme to provide 9 refuelling tankers to the RAF for £10bn over 27 years.)
Critical to the future of the RN is the Type 26 Frigate. After being further slashed in 2010, the RN’s frigate force now comprises just 13 Type 23s. This number is far from adequate but the public needs to encourage their MPs to draw a ‘line in the sand’ on hull numbers and for the ships to be replaced on a one-for-one basis. ‘Main gate’ approval for programme is due in 2013 and the sooner government provides funding and commits to an order of at least 13 ships, the less uncertainty there will be for shipbuilders. With 13 vessels the construction could be split between Portsmouth and Glasgow and ensure continuity of work while the RN receives at least 1 or 2 ships per year from 2020.
The naval base conundrum continues
BAE is probably already pushing hard to tie the Type 26 Frigate construction deal to a long-term support contact for the ships based in Portsmouth where they already undertake maintenance work on Type 45s and other vessels. A further political ‘sweetener’ might be that job losses in the construction yard could be partially offset by retaining staff for a lucrative Type 26 support contact. Unfortunately this would almost certainly be the death knell for Devonport Dockyard, the logical base for the Type 26. Devonport has historically been the RN’s frigate base, is the largest naval base in Western Europe, includes a purpose-built covered Frigate Refit Complex and is ready, willing and able to be home to the Type 26. Just like the Portsmouth yard, the resources and skills at Devonport must be maintained for strategic reasons, the long-term benefit to the RN and the city of Plymouth.
BAE’s dismal record of warship exports exacerbates the problem
BAE Systems warships export record
Click here for full size PDF version.
The previous Labour government casually allowed BAE to swallow the shipbuilding arm of VT Group in 2009, (its last competitor) thus allowing them to have a monopoly on UK warship construction. The belief was that a bigger builder would have the critical mass to survive on an ever-thinner diet of orders for the RN and allow it to win in the international export market. VT had a successful heritage of designing and exporting warships overseas (although then based in Southampton). For a company of such huge resources BAE Systems Surface Ships has a feeble track record in warship exports. Since they got into shipbuilding in 1995, they have not won a single new construction order, beyond those already on the books of the companies they took over. These export failures have become a major factor in the threat of closure that now hangs over the Portsmouth yard and government needs to apply real pressure on BAE to actually go out and sell ships to other nations. Their results are on a par with the England football team, vastly out-played by their Spanish, French and German counterparts who have thriving warship export businesses. Besides keeping skills and industry going, an important benefit is that export orders help reduce the unit cost of warships for the RN. Turkey has already rejected offers to be part of the Type 26 programme although other foreign participation remains a possibility. While there are some good people doing their best in BAE’s surface ship division, fundamentally BAE is an aerospace company at heart (the clue’s in the name!). The biggest profits come from the US or building over-priced aircraft for the RAF. Its shipyards are perhaps regarded as merely disposable ‘steel bashers’ of far less importance to the bottom line.
- Workers ‘in limbo’ as fears grow for Portsmouth dockyard’s future (Portsmouth News)
- BAE Systems Mulls Portsmouth closure (Telegraph)
- Minister warns BAE job cuts ‘inevitable’ (Portsmouth News)
- Scottish independence: Country would lose warship contracts (The Scotsman)
- UK fixed-wing naval aviation in the 2020s – F35B in focus (PART 1)
- Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Examining the options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy
- Royal Navy 2012 News Round-up
- Making the case for the Trident replacement
- The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet