The value of having RN ships deployed across the globe has been vividly demonstrated by the announcement that HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious will be sent to the Philippines for ‘Operation Patwin’ to provide what assistance they can in the wake of the Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines on the 8th of November, one of the most intense tropical storms to ever make landfall anywhere in the world. 300 miles wide, the Typhoon ripped through the South East of the country killing, injuring and thousands of people who now need urgent help. A disaster on this scale will require a global response and the Royal Navy’s contribution, while excellent, will of course only be scratching the surface. However there is a moral imperative that we do whatever we can and the RN presence demonstrates the UK may be far away but still has a global reach that can be used to show compassion to the suffering.
HMS Daring was coming toward the end of a Pacific and Far East tour which included participation in the Royal Australian Navy’s Centenary celebrations and diplomacy visits to various Asian countries. Nowadays it is rare that RN warships are seen in the Far East and it was fortunate Daring was relatively close at the time of the typhoon. She has just completed visit to Singapore and was beginning multi-national naval exercise Bersama Lima when she received orders to sail the approximately 800 miles to the disaster zone.
Like all operational RN warships, HMS Daring’s ship’s company are trained for disaster relief operations when they pass through the exacting Operational Sea Training courses run by FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training). Although the ship cannot carry large amounts of food or repair materials, the crew have a wide range of skills and some specialist capabilities to offer and the Philippine government and its people. Obviously this includes trained engineers and medics well as being able to provide general manpower to do whatever is needed. As a The ship itself carrys 700 ration packs, 550 litres of bottled water and can make 20,000 litres of drinking water every 24 hours. She also has portable generators, fire-fighting equipment, thermal imaging cameras, floodlighting and rescue equipment. However these materials have been supplemented with additional stores embarked in Cebu.
Although Daring deployed with only a single Lynx (she can carry 2 or a larger Merlin), the helicopter will be invaluable and a second flight crew has joined the ship as the helicopter will be worked hard, initially doing aerial surveys to asses damage. Once engaged in relief activities, the Lynx can be used for light transport, lifting and ferrying personnel. Some of the weapon systems and avionics have been removed to save weight and increase carrying capacity.
Fortuitously the ship embarked a detachment of Royal Marines in Australia intended mainly for ceremonial duties but they will now prove to be useful extra manpower. In addition there are 3 dental staff aboard in addition to the ships doctor and medically trained personnel. Although the Type 45 is very lean-manned their relatively large size provides useful extra space and proper accommodation for at least 45 extra people in addition to the standard 190 complement. Personnel flown out from the UK have been embarked including 14 medics and extra flight crew.
It was fortunate that HMS Illustrious was in Muscat, Oman, making a rare trip into Gulf region and thus much nearer to the Philippines than usual. However the timing is more unfortunate for her ship’s company, coming to the end of a planned 5-month Cougar13 deployment and looking forward to getting back home to Portsmouth in December. She will now almost certainly be away at Christmas which is hard on the crew and even harder on their families, although all concerned are doubtless proud of the ship and the job she will be doing.
HMS Illustrious is an ageing ship and will decommission next year. Although completing a major refit in 2011, she suffered a serious fire in an electrical breaker on August 13th, just days after she had left for the Cougar13 deployment. (Rather reminiscent, although not as serious, as the gearbox fire she suffered 27 years before at the start of the Global ’86 deployment) The excellent training provided by FOST was vindicated once again, the crew reacted well, controlling the fire and managing to avoid using water which would have hugely increased the extent of the damage. 90% fighting efficiency was restored to the ship within hours and she was able to continue with the planned exercises. In the nick of time a replacement breaker and switchboard was saved from the hulk of her sister ship HMS Ark Royal which is currently being ripped to pieces at a scrapyard in Turkey. The replacement has been sent back to the UK and will be fitted when Illustrious returns home. Hopefully this electrical issue and other mechanical problems will not hamper the disaster relief operation.
The commitment of Illustrious to the operation will be a major help to the logistical problems of distributing aid and where roads and communications are damaged. Illustrious is carrying 7 helicopters – a mix of Merlins and Sea Kings which have much greater lifting capability than Daring’s single Lynx. Illustrious also has more manpower to contribute and would be well suited as a command and control centre.
The RAF has managed to send a single C17 cargo plane. This tiny contribution is a reflection of its on-going commitment to support the draw-down of UK forces in Afghanistan but also the pathetically inadequate airlift capability possessed by the UK. As usual lack of funds are partly to blame but perhaps the RAF has failed to sufficiently prioritise the procurement of such an important and genuinely useful capability.
Although able to carry the fraction of material carried by ships, cargo aircraft have the advantage that they can quickly get to the scene but it is already being reported that aid materials are mounting up on airport runways because it is very difficult to distribute it. The Philippines are an archipelago nation, even in normal times are very reliant on transport by sea and not all the islands have airfields suitable for cargo aircraft. With internal roads also blocked or damaged the logical conclusion is that most aid we probably best be delivered directly from the sea. What state the local ports and harbours are in is unknown but in the short-term the initial aid could be delivered by amphibious vessels over the beach.
In some ways it is a shame HMS Bulwark, RFA Mounts Bay or RFA Lyme Bay could not join the operation as their ability to land significant amounts of materials onto beaches using their floodable docks and amphibious landing craft would be extremely useful. RFA Largs Bay was sent to Haiti to help after the earthquake in 2010 and was able to land supplies when the main port facilities were unusable. Sadly this very new, capable and realtively cheap to run ship was sold to Australia as part of the ill-advised 2010 Defence cuts. However there are limits to what the UK can afford to send and the already vastly over-stretched RN would be left unable to respond to other emergencies and has commitments in the Arabian Gulf. It would appear that the help on offer from HMS Daring and Illustrious will be of greatest benefit to the smaller islands and remote communities that have received no help or contact at all since the disaster. Of course the long-term recovery will be reliant on far greater volumes of food and materials which will mostly have to come by sea but it maybe months or even years before damaged ships, ports and road infrastructure can be restored to the required levels.
Calling ‘International Rescue’
As many ‘sea blind’ governments have so often had to re-learn, naval forces provide a very flexible tool for delivery of both hard power and in this case, soft power. The humanitarian aid mission is often forgotten in political discussions around the size and shape of the navy. Maybe more imaginative ways can be found to fund additional warships with contributions from other government departments besides defence. There have also been calls for an “International Rescue Force” ready to respond to large-scale natural disasters that seem to happen on an almost annual basis. Perhaps under UN control and with a mix of military capabilities, participating countries would allocate and declare specific assets available to the force for set periods. The naval component of the International Rescue group could follow the pattern of NATO standing naval groups or the multi-national force working on anti-piracy duties in Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa.
Recent history would suggest the average RN warship is more likely to be involved in a humanitarian operation than firing weapons in anger during its working life. Royal Navy vessels have been involved in disaster relief work going back decades, the number of operations too numerous to cover in detail. Some more recent example include HMS Southampton helping evacuate the population of Monseratt when the volcano erupted in 1995. HMS Chatham assisted coastal communities of Sri Lanka after the devastating Tsunami of December 2004 and this was captured in the BBC documentary ‘Shipmates’. An extremely moving moment in that documentary was when a group of nuns who ran an orphanage which had been devastated by the Tsunami describe how they were desperately praying for help when a Royal Navy warship appeared on the horizon. HMS Manchester was on hand to provide aid when St Lucia was hit by a hurricane in 2010 also recorded in a BBC documentary ‘Royal Navy Caribbean Patrol’.
Ultimately this is a story of human suffering on an overwhelming scale and our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines and we wish the RN personnel all the best in their work.
You can make financial donations to help the relief effort on the British Red Cross website.
All images courtesy of the Royal Navy Via Flickr
Follow online coverage of the Royal Navy’s relief work as the story develops collated here on Storify
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.
- 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
- Gibraltar and the Royal Navy
- F35B in Focus (PART 3) Ownership and operation
- F35B in focus (PART 2) The multi-role marvel