The sorry state of the current Royal Navy – Who’s to blame?

May 30, 2011   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  8 Comments

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.


  • ref comment 3…think you mean Army…

  • Re: The Defense Industry. I see this argument a lot about buying off the shelf foreign equipment. Well I am sorry but if we are prepared to equip are armed services with foreign equipment and fire all the highly skilled hard working engineers who build our ships, fighting vehicles and planes (and used to make our socks for that matter) then what exactly are we fighting for! Securing jobs for foreign workers? You are looking at it completly the wrong way round. With ship building for example the government should be working with industry to guarantee ongoing work for many many years into the future. (Instead of stop/start all the time, we should always have been building aircraft carriers then the one off prices would not be anything like they are). With this stability the deal should be that they then use the same facilities to build commercial shipping, reviving our ship building industry and in the long term bringing down the cost of our warships. Its a lack of vision, foresight, planning ahead and above all negativity that is the problem. Have a little faith in your own countrymen is what I say, deep down we all know the right thing we just need to all start steering this island nation in the right direction again.

  • a) Admirals
    b) Maritime academics
    c) Government Cabinets
    d) Trident
    e) All the above

    It is disingenuous to point the finger at the other Services, especially when it is retired Admirals doing the pointing. Their watch was their responsibility.

    Sadly, arguments put forward to promote the Navy’s case are routinely hampered by weak logic and poor operational understanding. RN has not been best served by academia or those who try to fight it’s corner. Letter to PM on Harriers a classic case.

    • Thanks for comments Paul. Partially agree:

      ADMIRALS – some may have pushed for vessels that were over-complex in the past but generally they were trying to equip RN as best they could. They can’t be blamed for continual cuts to their budgets and moving goalposts of defence policy.

      MARITIME ACADEMICS – There are precious few of these! (massively outnumbered by airpower academics and students). They are largely ignored by government anyway and can carry little blame. What Harriers letter do you mean? The demise of the Harrier entirely down to an RAF plot.

      GOVT & CABINETS – fully agree they must take the largest share of responsibility.

      TRIDENT – Not RN’s fault that govt does not fund the deterrent separately. Submarine-based weapons are only credible deterrent so RN must operate the subs. Robbing the naval budget to pay for Trident is indeed a factor in the decline of RN.

      • Admirals: yes, but Navy Board still set priorities for spending of Naval budget and decided what sort of emphasis was placed on FAA, Submarines, Grey ladies etc.

        Academics: to a point you get what you invest in and who you foster. I don’t think there a many more AP academics but a lot more AP commentators – two different things. However, I would say that UK AP thinking has a better link to larger US AP community, but a similar maritime relationship/influence hasn’t existed. My own view is that too many British AP zealots miss the important specifics which distinguish US thinking/practice from our own. The letter was sent abt a year ago, blowing the Harrier trumpet and criticising the Tornado with ill-judged, inaccurate and blatantly biased arguments = weak effect.

        Trident: yes, agreed. A separate funding stream would help but it was a fact of life constraint on fiscal options. Back to the Admirals. Personally, I think the RN has made a similar mistake with CVF. It has been far too slow and secretive to discuss the liability these ships will bring to the Fleet and the true cost (£) of their arrival (e.g. oilers etc).

  • John Skelding is 100% correct. The political masters have done to the RN with the assistance of misguided Lordships what the USSR could not accomplish,while the USA will be very pleased again when they sell us all the american hardware after we destroy our own planes, ships etc.

    The giving over of HMS Caledonia to the Army for me is the last straw. Are we being run by 5th columnists from the USA ?

  • All undoubtedly true as far as it goes, but with one glaring omission – the navy itself. Successive generations of senior officers, most of whom have been mediocre career-obsessed technocrats, have been just as guilty as the RAF of playing inter-service politics. They’ve also been relentless in demanding only the most overblown and expensive pieces of kit, eg Type 45s, Astute subs and above all the ludicrous QE carriers. Add a complacent and incompetent PR ‘machine’, to which in fairness you do allude, which utterly fails to stress the importance of the RN to the country (contrast the way in which the RAF cleverely sustains the Battle of Britain myth), and you end up with the situation we’ve reached.

    • John, there is a lot of truth in what you say. The RN top brass, in their obsession with returning to the big carrier league, somehow persuaded a government that didn’t know any better to build the QE class – the wrong ship at the wrong time. They totally misjudged the context of the SDSR and as a result the RN came out as the biggest loser. On two occassions on national TV/radio in the run-up to SDSR I witnessed senior officers trying to put the RN’s case for resources, and their performance was nothing short of lamentable. They have presided over the decimation of the fleet and created, literally, a rudderless service.

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