The harsh reality of the government’s “strategic defence review”. Amongst the most depressing sights in the UK today, HMS Campbeltown, Chatham, Cornwall and Cumberland lie at Devonport in various stages of dismemberment being stripped of secret formula radar-absorbent paint, weapons and other useful or sensitive equipment ready for scrapping. With at least 5-10 years good service left in them (HMS Campbeltown had multi-million£ refit as recently as 2009!), they were suddenly axed by a government with a dogmatic fixation on short-term cost savings and no understanding of maritime power. Although these ships date from the 1980s and were designed incorporating lessons from the Falklands War, they were still very capable warships and until recently were serving around the world protecting Britain’s interests. Devonport naval base, the largest in Western Europe, lies half-deserted with few ships to support or refit. Its skilled workforce shrinks and another valuable national asset built up over centuries is left to wither. While many countries are investing in their navies and recognise the importance of maritime power, Britain which once dominated the globe through sea-power is self-destructing, slashing its Navy and throwing away assets and trained people that it may never be able to replace.
The demise of these 4 frigates would be fairly unremarkable if there were replacements ready to come forward but there are no frigates under construction in the UK only the vague promise of the Type 26 Frigates which are supposed to start arriving in around 9 years from now! BAe Systems, the corporate giant that has the sole monopoly on UK warship construction, was awarded the contract to begin design of the Type 26 Frigate in March 2010. There are plans for ‘up to 18′ of these ships including an ani-submarine version and a more general purpose version. Given BAe System’s track record and an MoD that has consistently over-complicated and moved the goals posts during big procurement projects, it will not be surprising if costs spiral, delays occur and the Royal Navy receives less than the 18 promised.
This is a complex and controversial subject but here is a very quick overview of some of the possible culprits for the decline of the RN:
1. Every Government since WWII
Just about the only thing successive governments seem to agree on is that the Royal Navy should be smaller and weaker than it was under the last administration. Most politicians regard savings made from the defence budget as an easy way to balance the books and are failing in their fundamental first duty to protect the security of the nation. Recent involvement in wars with no exit strategy and a confused foreign policy disconnected from defence policy is another major undermining factor.
2. The Ministry of Defence
Bureaucracy, mis-management, petty empire-building, over staffing and gross incompetence have been rife within the MoD and as a result the RN has often received vessels and equipment that is either defective, over-priced, late or all 3. Civil Servants do not seem to be held accountable for the things that have gone wrong and there seems to be little incentive for the system to change. This chronic waste of taxpayers money is is a national scandal and must be stopped.
3. Inter-service rivalry, in particular the RAF
By underfunding defence, the government (intentionally or not) pits the services against each other for scarce resources. This creates bitterness and internal wars where each service fights to keep their equipment whether it is in the national interest of not. The RAF which is increasingly finding it hard to justify its existence, fights dirty and usually wins in these inter-service conflicts, It has successfully clung to colossal expensive white elephants such as the Typhoon at the expense of equipment that is actually useful to the nation such as the RN’s Harriers.
4. Vested local interests and the UK defence industry
Most MP’s regard defence assets or industries merely as a job-creation scheme for their constituents so what is best for the RN usually comes second to political concerns. Often expensive second-rate British equipment is bought in spite of better & cheaper foreign alternatives. Highly profitable corporate giant BAe Systems now has a monopoly on all ship and submarine building for the RN. Not always entirely their fault, but some major programmes involving BAe including the RN’s Astute submarines and Type 45 destroyers are massively over-budget, years late and have significant technical problems.
5. A “Sea blind” nation and a public disconnected from its armed forces
In an age of easy air travel and instant communication, it’s not surprising that the public has slightly lost its understanding of how dependent we are on the sea. Our economy which so relies on imported goods and fuel is utterly dependent on the sea and the large vulnerable ships that deliver global trade. In times past, most people served or had family in the forces. This is no longer true and the general public are increasingly disconnected from the forces and have little idea about what the RN is for and what is does. This is not helped by the RN’s rather lacklustre public relations and that it’s best work happens out of sight over the horizon. This has allowed governments to quietly destroy the RN by cutting off funding to spend on more ‘voter-friendly’ services.
- £1.1bn Royal Navy warship finally armed, sort of (go.theregister.com)
- RAF chief urges increased budget (bbc.co.uk)
- The Royal Navy Wants Its Carriers Back (defensetech.org)
- 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
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder