With HMS Ocean and HMS Bulwark acting as command ships and bases for security surrounding the Olympic events in the UK this summer, the Royal Navy’s role defending UK territorial waters and providing ‘local’ defence within the UK has emerged for a rare appearance in the public consciousness. The seas and ports around our coast are vital to our economy and require policing for our safety and to ensure international law, treaties and agreements are upheld. With 17,820 Km of coastline and the world’s 5th largest Exclusive Economic Zone, one of the UK’s greatest natural resources and environmental responsibilities, is the sea. While high-profile controversies about aircraft carriers are important, the RN’s less glamorous but key role in UK maritime protection should not be forgotten.
The terror threat from the sea
The UK is heavily reliant on imported energy. There are just a handful of ports that can handle large oil and gas tankers and their volatile cargoes are potentially vulnerable to a devastating attack by terrorists using mines or suicide craft. Any disruption to the flow of oil would case serious problems. (Even the potential interruption of our petrol supply can cause panic). More than 50% of the gas that we rely on for heating and cooking now arrives by sea after a lengthy journey from the Gulf in Liquid Natural Gas carriers which are potentially giant floating bombs. Without these regular shipments of fuel, the economy would grind to a halt in days, food distribution would quickly collapse, rationing would be introduced and we would have to rely on meagre locally grown supplies. The majority of consumer goods imported into the UK arrive at a few large ports in ever-bigger containers ships and an attack at one of these mega-hubs would quickly result in shortages in the shops because little is kept in reserve in the delicately balanced supply chain. Even the threat of mines in the water could be enough to close one of these ports. Britain’s nuclear power stations are mainly situated on the coast and are vulnerable to sea-borne threats. The 2008 Mumbai surprise attacks which were launched by terrorists arriving suddenly, landing on beaches from small boats demonstrated the vulnerability of installations close to the shore.
Protecting economic resources
The Exclusive Economic zone (EEZ) which extends up to 200 miles from the coast is the internationally agreed area in which a country can use resources from the sea bed. As the world’s population grows and resources become more valuable, there is increasing pressure to make use of the seas. There are approximately 290 offshore oil and gas installations in the UK EEZ and added to this are an increasing number of offshore wind farms proving electricity. There are 600 turbines offshore today, with a 10-fold increase in capacity forecast for 2020. It is also important to watch for illegal dumping of waste and toxic substances at sea that threatens both the environment and our health. Fish are an important part of our diet and the fishing industry is a mainstay of many small ports around UK. Protecting fish stocks from over-fishing, preventing plunder by foreign vessels and enforcing fish quotas and regulations is actually the oldest task performed by the RN. The RN fishery protection squadron (FPS) and Marine Scotland Compliance polices the fishing areas with just 6 ships (3 RN, 3 Marine Compliance) supplemented by satellite tracking of fishing vessels and 2 privately operated light aircraft. Although FPS might be seen as something slightly removed from its primary role as it is mainly funded and tasked by the Marine Management Organisation (part of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – DEFRA), it should be remembered that the Navy is the only service directly protecting the nation’s resources 365 days a year.
Policing and life-saving
The RN is just a part of a matrix of agencies involved in protecting the coastline. Supporting the Coastguard, UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Police in the fight against terrorism, crime, drug smuggling and illegal immigration are occasional additional roles for RN vessels on our doorstep. In addition to vessels, the Navy contributes M Squadron, SBS (Special Boat Service), are the RN’s special forces responsible for maritime anti-terrorism and ship boarding operations. The Fleet Diving Squadron comprises specialists in diving and bomb disposal. They are relatively high-profile as the media loves stories about disposal of unexploded ordnance that washes up on beaches or found in fishing nets. These experts are mostly based in the UK although deploy to support the RN overseas. The UKBA operates 5 ‘cutters’ which patrol territorial waters searching vessels to detect prohibited and restricted goods, prevent tax fraud and illegal immigration and people-trafficking. Reflecting the sea-blindness of government, 8 Coastguard Stations are being closed (thankfully fewer than the hatchet-job initially proposed) This will undoubtedly put lives and shipping at risk, whatever ‘efficiency’ benefits the government may claim. Currently the Royal Navy and RAF provide search and rescue helicopters that cover most of the UK coastline and occasional perform rescues far out to sea. The Sea King helicopters currently used will have to be retired by 2016 and government plans to privatise the service. We would question whether a corporation aiming for a profit would be as instinctively flexible as the services in providing helicopters for emergency non-SAR tasks, and in their freedom to take operational risks to save lives. Another key player is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RLNI) which does excellent work rescuing mariners and saves an average of 450 lives in a typical year. What is more astounding is this service is entirely funded by £150 million per year of public donations and staffed by 40,000 volunteers. In addition the Maritime Volunteer Service (MVS) train for emergencies at sea, supplement the work of the RLNI and are a valuable advocate for maritime affairs. Finally, HM Coastguard’s parent, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is also responsible for pollution response and the emergency towing of vessels, a role also carried out by the navies of other countries. The Navy’s survey ships also provide a first line of defence by charting shifting underwater hazards to maintain safe routes for vessels.
The RN fights on… but can’t make 1+1=3
As mentioned above, the 3 FPS ships and the single designated Fleet Ready Escort (The FRE, a destroyer or frigate can be tasked to go anywhere in the world in response to events) are the only armed ships specifically tasked to patrol UK waters. At any given time there will be RN vessels training or exercising around the UK and they can play their part. (During the 2011 Libya campaign the RN was unable to provide even the single FRE due to desperate shortage of ships) Recently Russian warships were seen dumping waste overboard close to UK waters off Scotland and the FRE had to be sent from Portsmouth, a clear demonstration of the need for ship numbers. The RN’s minehunting force has dwindled to just 15 vessels – their secondary role is as general patrol vessels but with 3 permanently deployed in the Persian Gulf and other regular deployments overseas they make a limited contribution in UK home waters. Mines or even underwater IEDs are cheap and would be difficult to lay. With more than 600 ports and harbours in the UK, the RN’s mine warfare resources are spread thin. Until the late 1990s the RN has a fleet of 12 River Class minesweepers. They were cheap to build and were operated by Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) units around the UK. Although their Cold War minesweeping role became obsolete, they could operate in all weathers, were excellent home waters patrol vessels and provided valuable experience to RNR personnel at minimal cost. They were all snapped up by overseas navies for valuable patrol roles without replacement here, all for a tiny saving on the defence budget. It is this kind of penny-pinching that has left the RN lacking the necessary hulls to do its job. There are also a “fleet” of 16 P2000 Archer class harbour / inshore patrol boats mainly operated for the University Royal Navy Units (URNU) which give students and junior officers useful sea experience. They are only very small boats but could mount a couple of light machine guns. However they are usually are unarmed (apart from 2 which are dedicated to security at Faslane). These 50-ton boats are often counted in lists of RN surface ships and have ‘HMS’ names thereby conveniently giving an inflated idea of warship strength.
The flawed decision in the 2010 Defence review to axe the Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and its replacement from the RAF has removed the UK’s main asset for surveillance of its seas. These aircraft could remain airborne for long periods, equipped with radar and advanced cameras could search large areas of ocean and perform anti-submarine and search & rescue missions. (Strangely operated by the RAF and not the RN, the result of a historical anomaly arising from the traditional RAF attitude that “if it flies we should own it”). There have been rumours that the RN is very keen to purchase some MPAs but finding the funds & avoiding RAF interference present difficulties. The lack of MPAs leaves a big hole in UK homeland security, puts greater pressure on the already threadbare RN surface fleet (and also potentially endangers the ballistic missiles submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent). If we must do without MPAs then the case for increasing the number of RN patrol ships and equipping them with unmanned air surveillance drones (UAVs) becomes even more pressing. Even with MPAs, satellite tracking or other airborne surveillance, maritime security implies boarding vessels for inspection and this requires a minimum number of suitable ships.
The Royal Navy is the primary defender of our seas and our seafarers, starting with the home ‘perimeter’ and then beyond to the oceans of the world. Like most of its other tasks, the RN lacks sufficient resources, and above all, ship numbers to do this job as well as it could. Patrol and surveillance can be dull, endless and the results may seem hard to quantify, until something goes wrong. Some have mocked the heavy military presence there will be in London for the Olympics claiming there is no terror threat other than suicide bombers on foot and the military are just showing off (although posturing is actually meant to deter). Unfortunately the threat is still very real and several major terror plots in the UK have been foiled since the July 2005 bombings. It would be negligent of government not to ignore 17,000km of open coastline and secure this perimeter at all times (not just for the Olympics). As the nation’s primary (and only armed) maritime agency, the Navy could play an even more useful role by providing coordination and leadership as part of “joined-up government” to maximise the effectiveness of the UK’s ever more limited maritime resources. Helping the public to grasp the breadth of the Navy’s and other maritime agencies diverse contributions with a strong and clear message is essential to help counter our national sea-blindness.
- Military provide security for Olympics (Daily Telegraph)
- The carrier debacle is clouding real maritime security issues (Defence Management)
- FPS ships’ Solent exercise (Portsmouth News)
- This was a great result for my ship (Portsmouth News)
Yesterday came the announcement of a very badly kept secret that the new RN carriers would not now be fitted with catapults and would fly F35B STVOL aircraft. It was a complex issue and we disagree with this decision. However the Royal Navy will do what it has always done; make the best of what it has, and maintain a positive ‘can-do’ attitude in the face of setbacks and go on to success. Like the failed battle to save the Harrier, we must accept what has happened and get right on with focussing on ‘plan B’. The Defence Secretary’s statement to Parliament (full video here) yesterday raised some interesting questions about the way forward for the carriers. This is a quick overview of some of those issues.
There is now no excuse not to commission both carriers
Under plans made in the 2010 SDR that still stand, the second carrier HMS Prince of Wales will mothballed and or even sold. It was hinted that this could be changed in the 2015 Review so that both carriers become operational. Hammond even stated that it has been costed at just £60 Million per year in additional running costs for the second carrier. (This is a surprisingly low figure, and this probably does not include maintenance and refit costs). To have a carrier continuously available requires at least 2 (ideally 3) ships otherwise one could be in refit or unready just when needed. For the carriers to be a credible deterrent and a reliable instrument for foreign policy requires 2 ships. Part-time carrier capability leaves us hoping we will get lucky with the timing of events. Hopefully the carriers will never fire a shot in anger but realistically that is wishful thinking and they are likely to be in big demand. RN carriers or amphibious ships have been used on some sort of active operation on average every 2 years since WWII. Hammond showed the total lack of understanding amongst politicians of the need for 2 carriers by admitting the second carrier would have been axed straight away in 2010, had BAE Systems not been canny enough to lock the MoD into an unbreakable contract. Having been denied the better option of catapault-fitted carrier(s) on supposed cost grounds then way is clear for government to ditch the half-baked single carrier option and plan to keep both.
How many F35Bs will the RN get?
The last quoted cost for an F35B from US Department of Defense is a whopping $150 million each. (approx £94million, depending on exchange rate). This cost will probably rise further but as Mr Hammond talked of flying up to 36 F35Bs from the carriers then we must assume the MoD is going to place an order for around 50. Has this £7.5 Billion been budgeted for? (remember this does not include aircrew training and the heavy maintenance costs of a complex STVOL stealth aircraft) Has a significant contingency been set aside to allow for the fact that unit costs may rise even higher? Despite assurances from the US Defense Secretary that all is well with F35B there still remains a chance that the US national debt problems could result in cancellation of F35B. Is there a contingency plan to deal with such a disaster? (EMALS anyone?)
Rebuilding the Fleet Air Arm starts here
Mr Hammond stated the F35s would be “jointly owned by the RAF and Royal Navy”. In the context of the F35B this is ominous. There is every reason for the RN to own and operate the F35Bs as Fleet Air Arm assets. The RAF will have their F35As. When the RN was forced to ditch the Sea Harrier and form the “Joint Force Harrier” with GR9s on an RAF base, they discovered the Harriers got precious little time at sea as RAF took control. The RN must run its own aviation as it understands the unique requirements of carrier operation and fleet air defence. It must not have to rely on the RAF being in the right mood or have to negotiate every time it needs to operate aircraft from the carriers. There is nothing wrong with RAF pilots operating within the FAA and learning naval aviation skills but the aircraft must be under RN control to maximize their potential. Will the planes be based at an RAF station or HMS Heron at Yeovilton?
A balanced airgroup
Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft are almost as vital as the fighters in protecting the fleet as they hugely extend the radar horizon to warn and assess threats before they can get too close. Without catapults the carriers now no longer have the ideal option of launching a long endurance, all weather, fixed-wing aircraft such as the Hawkeye and will need an aircraft that can land vertically. Currently the RN operates the Sea King ASaC7 helicopter in this role but they are aging and will need replacing. There are 2 realistic options. Either a modified Merlin helicopter or an adaption of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor which offers greater endurance, speed and range than a helicopter. US carriers operate fixed-wing CoD (carrier onboard delivery) transport aircraft. There is a very good case for the RN being equipped with a handful of the highly versatile Chinook helicopters that could be permanently embarked and would be extremely useful in transporting stores, troops and personnel, as well as medevac and RAS roles.
Train them up…
With Harrier pilots and swathes of experienced aircraft maintainers and handlers made redundant when the Harrier was axed, the RN now faces a challenge to re-build and re-learn its hard-won STVOL aircraft operating experience. There are a few RN pilots in the US flying F-18s but this now becomes of little relevance. The RN will need help from the US Marine Corps to build up its STVOL skills and in bringing the F35B into service. The RN has stated that if both carriers are to be commissioned it will need more manpower. As it is currently in the process of cutting it’s manpower by 5000 through voluntary or compulsory redundancy it would help if government committed to the second carrier as soon as possible. The additional skilled manpower cannot be whistled up overnight and some long-term thinking on this needs to start now.
So we now look forward to the carrier(s) coming into service. If we were to be as optimistic a Phillip Hammond, HMS Queen Elizabeth flying F-35Bs will be fully operational by 2020. The Royal Navy must now successfully negotiate the 2015 Defence Review unscathed, (hopefully a review that will not be as rushed and botched as 2010) and we hope, against a background of a more stable economy and reduced deficit. Mr Hammond we applaud your determination to make the MoD fit for purpose and bring competence, accountability and discipline to defence procurement. A big test of the ‘new’ MoD will be if it can oversee the completion of the highly complex carrier programme and deliver at least 13 capable Type 26 Frigates, on budget on time and up to scratch.
- F-35: The verdict is in (DefenceIQ)
- Cameron’s F-35 U-Turn (Lewis Page)
- Comment on the JSF variant decision (The Navy Campaign)
- Impact of the F-35B Decision: Time Now to Have 2 Ships, Not 1 (RUSI)
- Why was costly plane U-turn made? (BBC)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- 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