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…
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. 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 besides 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. Indeed the huge American aircraft carrier USS George Washington is already on the scene and using her 23 helicopters to make a big difference. 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 sent a single C17 cargo plane. This limited contribution is not entirely their fault, due to the on-going commitment to support the draw-down of UK forces in Afghanistan. It also highlights the 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 cargo aircraft – 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 in this case most aid will 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 relatively cheap-to-run ship was sold to Australia as part of the ill-advised 2010 Defence cuts. 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
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