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…
A recent rise in tension between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is a cause for concern, although the dispute is very unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. Spain and the UK are both part of the EU and NATO and anyone with a grain of common sense can see that it is in both countries interest to remain firm allies. There are many shared interests, not least the approx 800,000 British ex-pats living in Spain. (More than 25 times the population of Gibraltar). There is plenty of online hysteria on both sides but Foreign Secretary William Hague appears to be keeping the dispute in perspective while putting the British case. There is a careful balance to be struck between the use of forces to make a point and their presence actually escalating a dispute. The UK must stand firmly behind the wishes of its citizens in overseas territories but avoid rash actions which will simply harden opinion. As a general principle, diplomatic efforts backed by strength are most effective. It is good to remember that a lack of British political conviction and inadequate forces led to the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. Both Gibraltar and Falkland Islands also represent test-cases for the international community’s support for the rule of law & self-determination (which has a strong precedent). US support for the wishes of the Falkland Islanders is luke-warm at present and it will be instructive to see how much international recognition Gibraltar’s plight receives.
Escalting Spanish harassment
While the UK economy is hardly in the best of health, the Spanish government is reeling under the weight of corruption scandals and a disastrous economic situation caused partly by an insane property boom. With around 26% unemployment and mounting domestic problems, like Argentina in 1982, whipping up nationalist fervour and focussing on grievances with a foreign power provide a convenient distraction. Some even suggest that the Spanish politicians don’t really want Gibraltar, just use the issue as a vote-winner. Spanish vessels have routinely been flouting the law by fishing in British Gibraltar territorial waters (A tiny area extending just 3 miles off the coast) for the past 2 years or more, often aided by Spanish Guardia Civil police boats and even Spanish Navy vessels. This behaviour is completely unreasonable, given the hundreds of square miles of Spanish territorial waters close by. Most seriously, Spanish police fired rubber bullets at a jet skier in Gibraltar waters. Hundreds of Spanish and Gibraltarian workers cross the border in both directions for work each day – an arrangement that has economic benefits for both sides. Spain has been deliberately causing delays at the border and threatening to make charges for crossing (illegal under EU border agreements) and close its airspace to Gibraltar-bound flights.
Looking at a map one might think it is quite logical for Spain to claim Gibraltar, a tiny speck of land just 2.6 sq miles at the southernmost end of the country. The rights and wrongs of how the colony came to be owned by Britain are distant history but Spain permanently ceded the territory in the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Like the Falkland Islands, the most important factor today regarding ownership of the territory are the wishes of the residents. Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly by a 98% vote in 2003 to remain part of the UK and remain proud of their British citizenship and welcome the Royal Navy with open arms. Any Spanish claims to Gibraltar based on geography are totally undermined by their ownership of two very similar territories in North Africa; Ceuta and Melilla which have ethnically Spanish populations but are adjacent to Morocco. Spain has also not improved relations with the UK by selling 20 Mirage F1 fighter bombers to Argentina, elderly aircraft but an increased threat to the security of the Falkland Islands.
A strategic gateway
Of course Gibraltar represents more than just a couple of square miles of land, it has a strategic position as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. In times past it was a key Royal Navy base, bustling with warships on their way to duties policing an empire covering half the globe. It was also the lynchpin of the allied victories in the Mediterranean during Word War II. Until 1983 there was a Royal Dockyard capable of major warship refits but as the RN has declined, so has its footprint in Gibraltar. However it still remains a natural stopping off point for warships on the way to the main RN operating areas of the Med, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Refuelling, victualling and some maintenance can be undertaken while sailors for generations have appreciated a great run ashore on ‘the rock’ – ‘a British town in the sun’. The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the great “choke points” of the world’s oceans that international shipping must navigate. Any disruption to the free flow of shipping here would have a devastating impact on the UK economy.
The pocket-size ‘Gibraltar Squadron’
Although RN warships, submarines and RFAs frequently visit Gibraltar (recently averaging around 25 vessels per year) there are no major vessels based there. The RN’s permanent presence amounts to 21 personnel, two 24-ton fast patrol boats HMS Scimitar and Sabre and 3 Pacific 24 RHIBs. This small force (together with the Royal Gibraltar Police boat Sir William Jackson) is being kept very busy doing a difficult job by constant Spanish incursions. This little fleet is ideal for patrolling the territorial waters and dealing with fishing boats, as well as providing force protection to visiting warships. However this is not a significant naval force and many are calling for an RN Frigate to be based there. The sorry state of the RN surface fleet, down to just 13 Frigates makes this highly improbable. Although it would be a potent statement, it would not be intelligent use of slender resources especially when a serious shooting war with Spain is not going to happen. It would also be questionable to deploy a vessel designed to operate in the open ocean for defence of waters around a harbour. The weakened state of the RN cannot have been lost on Spain which ironically still retains fixed-wing naval aviation with British-designed Harriers while the RN’s sole carrier will arrive with nothing but helicopters.
Penny Mourdant, MP for Portsmouth is actively lobbying government to build two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) partly to keep the BAE Portsmouth shipyard in work but also to boost RN hull numbers. Although outside the very tight MoD core budget, if the Government were to agree to this common sense proposal, then basing one of the OPVs in Gibraltar should be given serious consideration. Not only would it provide a more substantial symbol of UK commitment to the territory, but the OPV could conduct useful maritime security patrols in the Western Mediterranean and work with NATO vessels in the region. With a similar arrangement to HMS Clyde in the Falklands, the costs would be manageable with crews rotated every six months or so and repairs carried out locally so the ship does not have to return to the UK. Unfortunately even if the OPVs are ordered it would be at least 3 years before they could be in service. The folly of continual cuts to the RN is now clearly exposed as government has left itself so few options. In the short-term maybe one of the RNs 15 minehunters could be sent but these specialist vessels are already at full stretch with 3 permanently forward-deployed in the increasingly-important Gulf region. Another stop-gap alternative could be an ex-merchant ship conversion.
At the time of writing the 3rd annual Cougar exercise involving the grandly-named UK’s “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) is about to arrive in the Med with 3 vessels to visit Gibraltar. This is a long-planned, routine visit and the arrival of the ships is not a direct response to Spanish provocations. Although it’s ‘business as usual’ and no cause for Spanish excitement, the arrival of RN ships is always a boost to the morale of Gibraltarians who feel somewhat under siege. While these visits are welcome, these ships will of course sail after a few days. As part of Cougar13, HMS Illustrious is scheduled to visit NATO naval base at Rota in Spain and it will be interesting to see what welcome she receives.
Gibraltar will remain an important base for the Royal Navy and a useful staging post for global deployments. More importantly the interests of the people of Gibraltar would best be supported by strong diplomatic efforts and a more visible naval presence.
- Online coverage of Exercise Cougar 13 collated here (Storify)
- Gibraltar: Earth, Air, Water and Spanish Fire. (Conservative Companion)
- Gibraltar will be ‘delighted’ to welcome Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
- Royal Navy warships to visit Gibraltar amid diplomatic row (Daily Telegraph)
- Navy ‘can’t do a lot’ about Gibraltar (Portsmouth News)
- 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