Cutting more frigates? The Royal Navy facing a ‘perfect storm’

Last weekend Sunday Times carried an article highlighting the mounting pressures faced by the Royal Navy. The story quoted rather vague ‘defence sources’ but suggested the future of HMS Albion and Bulwark had been secured with two Type 23s frigates sacrificed instead. Here we examine this speculation and the growing range of issues confronting the naval service.

Squeezed on all sides

An expanding portfolio – The growing threat from Russia is widely recognised. Greater naval, and especially submarine, activity in the North Atlantic makes increasing demands on the RN. The Skrypal poisoning case has not only further damaged UK relations with Russia but demonstrates their contempt for international norms. At the same time, a new found enthusiasm for engagement in the Asia-Pacific will see the presence of three RN warships in the region this year. HMS Albion recently conducted an entirely lawful transit of the South China Sea, sailing close to the Paracel Islands while the Chinese have called this a “provocation” and lodged a strong complaint. While commitments to uphold international law and support our allies in the face of the Chinese superpower are laudable, sustaining even this very modest presence is another major demand on the RN. President Trump’s fraught relations with Iran and the ongoing war in Yemen has seen tensions rising in the Gulf region, another of the RN’s key areas of interest. In addition to the 4 minehunters and an RFA, a frigate is soon to be permanently based in Bahrain. There is simply no let up in the demands for an RN presence in several theatres across the globe, even if the RN was two or three times its present size, it would still have plenty use for every vessel. A very sober assessment of where our under-sized navy should be concentrated for best effect is perhaps needed.

Rapid technological change places further pressure on the defence budget and on Britain’s limited pool of scientific and engineering resources. Hypersonic missiles are being developed by several nations – while not yet demonstrated to be mature and viable weapons, it is probably only a matter of time before we are faced with another step-change in the threat to surface ships. (The Anglo-French (FC/ASW) program to create our own anti-ship missile may produce a hypersonic weapon but not before 2030). The Chinese Navy is already experimenting with rail guns at sea while in the US, development has re-started after stalling for some years (there is no UK or European programme to match). Asymmetric naval threats from cheap unmanned systems, boat swarms and smart mines all require research, development and funding. The UK is making tentative steps in the fields of unmanned systems and directed energy weapons but needs more resources and a greater sense of urgency across the board.

Manpower – As we have consistently reported since 2014 the RN simply does not have enough people, roughly 4% short of the modest numbers it is supposed to have. The reasons are diverse and could not all be mitigated, even with an injection of new funding. The lack of manpower leaves the RN unable to crew even the ships it does have, two escorts have been permanently laid up alongside since 2016 because there are not enough sailors. Even bringing the new OPVs into service has required a complicated balancing act of crews rotating from minehunters to OPVs. (Project Jicara) The RN is doing well in maximising the resources available by evolving new manning patterns with crew rotations, 3-watch systems and more ships permanently forward-deployed.

Aircraft carrier demands – While short of money and people the RN is bringing into service two large ships that need a ship’s company of at least 700. Captain Kyd has stated that HMS Queen Elizabeth now has a ship’s company of about 800 and this may rise further by the time Full Operating Capability is achieved in 2023. Additional sailors for the carriers can only come from the existing establishment, with no dramatic rise in overall numbers likely any time soon. The carriers will bring a transformation in the power and reach of UK expeditionary capability but are also going to impact the operating patterns of the whole surface fleet. Currently, single ships usually regenerate and train for a targeted deployment and typically reach peak capability while on the operation. With the arrival of the carriers, ships will need to operate more frequently as an integrated task group. The maintenance and training cycle will have to become more task-force driven so all participants are at a high state of readiness when it first deploys. Despite plans to call on allied navies, providing sufficient worked-up escorts for a carrier group while managing other tasks simultaneously is clearly going to be impracticable at times and hard choices will have to be made. Any plans to reduce escort numbers are only going to exacerbate this problem.

Political instability – The ‘Modernising Defence Program 2018’ review remains ongoing and the date when it will report on its decisions is unknown. There is a strong suspicion that delaying painful choices is simply being put off. The Secretary of State made a vague statement on the 19th July about progress on the MDP, but with no firm commitments. “Our Armed Forces need to be ready and able to match the pace at which our adversaries now move”. It is a shame the government is not moving to address defence issues with the same urgency it recognises in our potential enemies. The political instability and chaos caused by preparations for Brexit are further sapping energy and focus away from other important decisions such as the future shape of our armed forces. The House of Commons Defence Committee has called for defence expenditure to rise to 3% of GDP but neither the Prime Minister or Chancellor have the courage or vision to provide this large-scale additional funding. An extra £800M per year has been added to the MoD annual budget, somewhat short of the £2Bn that is said to be needed just to sustain the existing planned equipment programme.

Axing frigates

If the LPDs are to be saved then there are few places left for the RN to go when forced to make substantial cuts. Should the Sunday Times speculation that two frigates may be axed prove to be true, the immediate impact may be limited. This is assuming that the two escorts laid up (currently HMS Daring and HMS Iron Duke) are reactivated to replace the ships being decommissioned. The problem with this scenario is that the savings will be minimal and the manpower released would be small because the laid up vessels have low running costs and skeleton crews. Axing two frigates while still keeping two escorts laid up is a really concerning scenario as numbers fall from 17 to 15.

Following the patterns from the past, once a frigate is gone (even if had been inactive for some time) then a precedent is set. It becomes much harder to argue for replacements and the new orders are likely to be reduced to match. Should Type 23 frigate numbers be allowed decline to 11 then it is a distinct possibility that only 6 Type 26 frigates will be built instead of the planned 8. (Plus 5 x Type 31e). What may be signed off as a “temporary expedient in the face of current pressures” may quickly become a permanent maximum allowed number.

Funding is in place for the 13 Type 23 frigates to undergo a life-extension package. So far five ships have completed this upgrade with 3 more in Devonport undergoing the work. The two oldest ships will not receive new engines – the Power Generation Machinery Update (PGMU), but HMS Argyll has completed her LIFEX and HMS Lancaster is mid-refit. The most likely victims of the axe would be HMS Iron Duke and HMS Monmouth, being the next oldest and not yet modernised.

Some of the consistent political pressure to retain the LPDs and amphibious capability has come from Plymouth MPs. Should frigates be cut instead, this would similarly impact Devonport and further reduce the available refit and maintenance work for a base that looks vulnerable to closure. Any cuts to the surface fleet would be entirely indefensible, given the global security situation. In contrast to recent history, the current Defence Secretary and a substantial number of MPs do, at least, seem to recognise this and an almighty political fight for the future of the Royal Navy is in prospect.