Defence Secretary delivers radical vision for Royal Navy posture but raises more questions than answers
Speaking today at the Royal United Services Institute, the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made a series of announcements about his vision for the future of UK defence. The role of the RN was front and centre of a positive and bold piece that focussed on innovations and increased global deployment.
The MDP statement of December 2018 promised to look at how UK armed forces could improve readiness and availability, rapidly modernise and embrace new technologies. It is clear that Williamson is driving this forward with some enthusiasm and open-mindedness. He recently even invited mid-ranking Army officers to submit 1,000-word essays directly to him on how to boost Britain’s influence after Brexit. For the Navy the stand-out announcement today was the increased emphasis on amphibious capability and a determination to operate in the Pacific region. The Secretary of State said: “Two new Littoral Strike Groups are to be created. Complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters, one would be based to the East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based to the West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic.”
To hear the Secretary of State talking about “bringing the fight from the sea to the land” marks a remarkable turnaround from a year ago when the entire UK amphibious capability was under threat. Julian Lewis MP, chair of the Defence Committee noted: “It is a profoundly welcome development, and shows what can be done when Treasury-led attempts to hollow-out the armed forces are successfully resisted.” Expeditionary capability centred on aircraft carriers and amphibious vessels is central to UK strategic thinking again. This marks a big step in the rehabilitation for the RN which suffered from the Continental Strategy of the Cold War and the COIN operations of the early 21st Century. If the RN is properly funded and deployed with strategic sense, the aircraft carriers that have been so maligned by so many may quickly prove their immense value.
The Future Littoral Strike Ship
Outlining a new Future Littoral Strike Ship (FLSS) concept, Williamson promised they would be delivered quickly, have a multi-role capability from disaster relief (HADR) to combat operations. They would carry the ‘Future Commando Force’ – Royal Marines and be maintained at high readiness. The FLSS concept imagery posted by the First Sea Lord today (main image above) looks very much like the MV Ocean Trader, a merchant ship conversion adapted for use a low-profile base for US special forces. The SD Victoria performs a similar role for UK special forces and the FLSS appears to be intended to have a much wider utility for logistics and amphibious support than the Ocean Trader. There are other concepts from the US that could be considered. The ‘Expeditionary Mobile Base’ is a logistics, aviation and MCMV support vessel. Although built from scratch, the hull is based on a commercial oil tanker with the tanks replaced by a mission deck, flight deck, hangars and stores. The FLSS procurement might also dovetail nicely with the plan for an aid ship, funded by DFID that recently gained support from the International Development Minister, Penny Mordaunt
The FLSS is intended to have an enduring presence, low running costs and flexibility. It is perhaps something of a misnomer to name them as ‘strike’ ships, they certainly are not intended to spearhead an amphibious assault but be a logistic and support hub. As a base for special forces operations, they could perhaps mount small independent ‘strikes’ but are otherwise auxiliaries. The FLSS could potentially relive Bay class RFAs from their support and disaster relief duties so they could return to their primary amphibious role as part of the littoral strike groups.
The MoD is at pains to point out the FLSS is very much in the concept development phase. There have been no firm decisions about the specifications for the ship and how they will be manned. They could be a completely new design and build, an adapted existing design (such as the Point class Ro-Ro ships) or merchant ship conversions. They could be manned by the RN, RFA or even as a commercial charter ship, manned by merchant sailors. Assuming the FLSS are based on merchant ship design, they could be operated by a very small civilian crew but also carry a naval party for running military operations. For example, the Point class ro-ro ships are manned by just 22 merchant sailors, although they are sponsored naval reservists. As part of the plan to have an enduring overseas presence to provide visible reassurance to allies and promote trade and diplomacy, there may be some merit in designating them Royal Navy ships. A ship flying the White Ensign makes a bigger statement than one flying the blue or red ensign.
There is concern that FLSS might just be low-cost replacements for the LPDs (HMS Albion and Bulwark) but the SoS was quite clear he intends then to complement the existing ships. Williamson talked very optimistically about how “If we ever need them to, our two LSS, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force.” This would indeed be a powerful battle group, but manning and equipping the two QEC aircraft carriers to operate simultaneously is a new aspiration and it should be remembered that currently one of the LPDs has to be kept in mothballs, due to lack of cash and manpower. Reliance on foreign allies providing at least some of the escorts for such a group, is a virtual certainty given the RN’s limited frigate and destroyer numbers.
Aspiration meets reality
It is encouraging to hear a secretary of state who has the vision to grow and expand capability and is fighting in Whitehall for more funding. This is in marked contrast to many such speeches of the past that were merely thinly veiled attempts to be positive about the managed decline of UK forces. Unfortunately, Williamson’s bold statements seem rather disconnected from the realities of the present. There are big obstacles that make the dreams of sustaining significantly higher naval force levels in at least two theatres simultaneously
The RN lacks the manpower it needs just to operate the ships it currently has and is stretched to find the ships companies for both aircraft carriers. It is possible that better recruitment and retention strategies, together with slightly lower manner requirements for the future frigates, could improve the situation within a decade but this is far from certain. Adding new ships, or at least enduring overseas commitments will only be possible if the manpower situation has stabilised and does not place additional pressures on those serving.
Unless the MoD is about to get a major injection of funds in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, it will have enough problems balancing its existing budget without further pressures. The Defence Secretary implied that new capabilities and concepts announced today, not just for the Navy, but also the Army and RAF would be paid for from the ‘Transformation Fund’. This consists of £160M for 2018-19 ring-fenced for innovative new military capabilities with an aspiration for a further £340 million available as part of the Spending Review. £7M has already been earmarked for the development of various concepts including the FLSS and drone swarms for the RAF. The Commons Public Accounts Committee says there is a £14.8bn shortfall in the MoD 2018-28 equipment plan, The efficiencies that the MoD still hopes to achieve across the board are unlikely to make much of dent and hopes for two semi-permanently deployed littoral/carrier battle groups look wildly optimistic.
Gavin Williamson will undoubtedly have moved on when someone else has to make the really tough choices about what gets cut and if any of these ambitions can be realised. It is imperative that the military chiefs do not enter into a conspiracy of optimism and sign off on plans that they know to be unaffordable, which was partly the case in the 2015 SDSR.