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…
Respected naval author Iain Ballantyne recently published Hunter Killers telling the incredible, true story of the Royal Navy ‘s submarines confronting the Soviet Union. The exploits of RN submarines in the Cold War is a story that needs to be told, not just to honour the men involved but to support the case for investment in submarines today. The RN submarine force is now in a parlous state, and one senses frustration amongst serving submariners that, by the very nature of their work, they can’t talk about much of what they do. Intentionally out of sight and often forgotten, there is a lack of public and political appreciation of what great national assets our submarines are.
Hunter Killers – reviewed
The story starts in the aftermath of WWII when the RN was applying lessons from captured German submarine technology, pushing to give diesel submarines (SSKs) greater underwater speed and endurance. Meanwhile the, then backward, Soviet navy was embarking on a race to become a naval giant which would see it fielding a vast and fearsome array of submarines by the mid-1980s. The author neatly paints in the political and historical backdrop to operations without hampering the flow of the submarine stories which will keep you gripped. While the world was often focused on the superpower space race, a more exciting, secret and ultimately more consequential duel was being fought in inner space. As submarine-launched nuclear weapons proliferated during the 1960s, NATO forces aimed to track and record as many Soviet submarines as possible. The Soviets built ever-increasing numbers and varieties of ballistic missile (SSBN) and attack subs (SSNs). The RN and even the US could not hope to match the sheer quantity but were far ahead in technology and in particular, the quality of the crews. The technological edge was largely maintained until undermined by the 1980s through the work of naval spy rings in the UK and the US. Also weaved into the narrative is the development of the RN’s submarines. From the first nuclear powered HMS Dreadnought, followed by the Valiants, Churchills and the world-beating Swiftsures. Also the very efficient Polaris programme to get the UK nuclear deterrent to sea and a glimpse of the wide-ranging operations of the diesel Oberon class are covered.
Although the books They Come Unseen and the US equivalent, Blind Man’s Buff gave fascinating glimpses into this world of undersea duelling, being published more than a decade earlier, they lack the level of detail Hunter Killers reveals. The book is mainly based on the tales of a few key RN submarine commanders who talk candidly about their experiences for the first time. What is clear is that for most of the Cold War period RN submariners were effectively operating on a war footing, on occasions taking extreme risks in getting close to other submarines, operating in the Barents Sea and penetrating Soviet waters. The book details many amazing operations some of which were supreme triumphs as well as some near disasters. The collision of HMS Warspite with a Soviet submarine (1968) rolled her over to 65° and traumatised many of the crew. HMS Sceptre sustained severe damage in another collision (1981) which ripped off her forward casing and part of the fin. For all the publicity around RN submarines operations in the Falklands War, most submariners regard their exploits in Northern waters as more daring, demanding and rewarding.
Make no mistake, the constant pressure on the Soviet navy from the RN and USN not only acted as an ongoing deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons but helped win the Cold War. The intelligence gathered was invaluable in keeping NATO ready to strike back in the event of Soviet aggression. The Soviet response to Western superiority was to try to out-spend them, ultimately bankrupting and hastening the collapse of the Communist bloc. The book concludes fittingly with specialist intelligence-gathering Frigate HMS London, commanded by a submariner entering Murmansk for a friendship visit with the old foe at the end of the Cold War. The author was aboard and witnessed the ship having to take avoiding action to dodge a ‘friendly’ practice torpedo fired at the ship by a Russian sub! This book is a ‘must-read’ for naval enthusiasts and historians, it will probably become required reading even for serving personnel. There is no better book on the submarine aspects of the Cold War.
Precious few hunter killers in the 21st Century
As has historically has so often been the case, victory was the reward for the Royal Navy’s dedication and sacrifice in the Cold War. With scant gratitude or foresight, politicians in the early 1990s, foolishly thinking that the era of conflict was over, started slashing defence spending. This foolishness has continued pretty much until the present day and the RN submarine force has declined proportionally, losing all its SSKs and now down to around just 7 SSNs. (See previous post for more on this sorry tale). Today the RN’s attack submarine force has its hands full with a wide variety of tasks. Its primary job of escorting and protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent carried aboard the SSBNs ensuring they are not trailed by other subs remains. On top of that, the advent of the submarine-launched Tomahawk missile means the UK tries to keep at least one boat East of Suez ready to launch Tomahawks and this commitment is a big stretch. There are many other very useful tasks that RN subs undertake on a daily basis – gathering intelligence on potential foes (and probably allies too), listening to communications, photographing coastal installations and providing information back to the UK on criminal, terrorist, and military activity. While they may not have to take quite the risks they did against Soviet submarines, tracking and recording the unique acoustic signatures of other submarines and warships helps maintain a data library vital to a submarine operations. In the event of a future naval conflict it is likely submarines will pose by far the greatest threat to the vulnerable merchant ships that the UK is so dependent upon. The Cold War may appear to be over but Putin is determined to restore superpower status to Russia and is building new generations of SSNs and SSBNs. At a time when many nations across the world are investing in greater numbers of new submarines, particularly quiet SSKs, the case for building more than the 7 Astute class submarines planned, or even some conventional submarines, is stronger than ever. Meanwhile the RN does what it has always done and make the best of its very limited resources. A sign of the RN’s professionalism is that despite constant dangers, calculated risks and daring operations, the RN has not lost a submarine at sea since HMS Affray in 1951. Furthermore it is an incredible achievement that no Royal Navy SSBN has ever been detected since patrols began in 1968.
As a footnote to the amazing story of the RN’s Cold War efforts, every single one of its retired nuclear submarines remain intact today. Currently there are 7 decaying hulks in Rosyth and a further 8 in Devonport with more decommissioned T class subs coming soon. The MoD has been dismally slow to dispose of these vessels, which have been hanging around far too long and pose a small risk of radiation leaks. A plan to dismantle them in both locations looks to be inching slowly forward. On top of a string of reports of minor failures on nuclear safety in recent years, an electrical failure at Devonport in 2012 created a serious risk of a nuclear incident with reactors deprived of coolant supplies. This kind of incompetence and negligence puts lives at risk and gives CND, the Greens etc a field day to undermine our nations defence. This must be a top priority for the MoD and its contractors. There can be no shortcuts, no economies and no excuses on nuclear safety of RN submarines and their supporting infrastructure.
Related online resources
- Iain Ballantyne website
- Cold War cat and mouse games put us on red alert says submarine commander
- HMS Conqueror’s biggest secret: a raid on Russia
- Decision to test the dismantling of nuclear submarines in Rosyth ‘right’
- Second Russian nuclear submarine spotted off US coast in three months
- 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