Five priorities for the Modernising Defence Programme 2018

The MoD is now running a public consultation for its on-going defence review, now named the “Modernising Defence Programme” (MDP). The MDP will consist of four ‘work streams’. This is our submission for consideration, primarily focused on the naval aspects of the most critical Defence policy, outputs and military capability work stream (Although some principles may also be applicable to the Army and RAF).  

1. Grip the manpower crisis

Without sufficient qualified and experienced personnel, almost every defence endeavour and procurement is hampered or even worthless. Any plans to genuinely grow the RN fleet are unworkable in the current situation as there is insufficient SQEP just to man the existing ships and submarines. Currently, 2 escorts (HMS Daring and HMS Iron Duke) are laid up for lack of crew, even at a time when the Type 23 frigate Life Extension Programme sees a greater than usual number of virtually unmanned ships in major refit. Lack of available personnel leaves ships going to sea with ‘gaps’, puts pressure on everyone and leaves little contingency or flexibility for the unexpected. It was announced on 20th March that £12.7M had been found from the EU Exit Preparedness Fund to maintain the three Batch 1 River Class OPVs alongside after they are decommissioned against the possibility they could be re-activated at some point in the future. The RN has no spare or reserve manpower available and that any plan to reactivate these small vessels could only be done with civilian crews.

In October 2017 the RN had a trained strength of 29,280 (including 6,530 Royal Marines and 350 Full-Time Reservists) and was about 1,070 people short of its 30,350 allowed ‘liability’. In the long-term, manpower strength probably needs to be raised by at least 3,000 to provide greater reserve and flexibility.

Although the RN has implemented a range of measures to improve recruitment and retention over the last 5 years, it has met with mixed success. Recruitment is fairly buoyant and retention has improved slightly but the RN needs to grow its manpower quickly and retain its engineers and technically qualified ratings in particular. The simplest immediate cure would be a new series of generous financial retention incentives. A package of ‘golden handshake’ and ‘golden handcuff’ bonuses could be paid to everyone on 3 – 5 yearly intervals, after time served and on signing up for further service. The level of bonuses would be in proportion to the personnel ‘pinch points’ and shortages in different branches. Such a system does already exist in part, but it could be extended and the size of bonuses raised considerably.

2. Deepen stocks of ammunition and spares and don’t skimp on maintenance

Last year a report by the NAO on cannibalisation of spare parts in the Royal Navy revealed the practice has increased by 49% in the past 5 years. Constant pressure to save money has seen a reduction in stocks of spares and vital equipment. The effects are not always immediately visible but contribute to a continuing erosion of resilience and flexibility across the UK armed forces. Statements by senior officers have also hinted that there are insufficient stocks of munitions that would be required to support a sustained conflict. The quantities of complex weapons such as Sea Viper, Sea Ceptor, Spearfish or Stingray in storage is understandably classified, conveniently protecting government from accountability on this issue. Re-stocking our logistic hubs, warehouses and Defence Munition stores must be addressed quickly.

HMS Northumberland appears immaculate as she leaves Devonport for the first time after a major life extension refit.

“HMS Northumberland is on sea trials after completion of a multimillion-pound refit. Headline upgrades to weapons systems use the bulk of the constrained budget so serious engineering defects have been largely ignored. The 4 main diesel engines and the switchboards used for main power distribution have major issues remaining. Due to a lack of funding there is no repair plan in place for these problems. There are also on-going issues with the chilled water plants used for air conditioning and to cool the weapons control systems. These engineering issues in Northumberland are typical of what I experienced with frigates throughout my career in the Navy” (Former RN engineer quoted by Susan Elan Jones, MP in Parliament, 11th January 2018)

3. Determine to take a lead in new weapons technology

Rear Admiral Chris Parry wrote recenty “We are approaching a ‘Dreadnought’ moment with regard to maritime technology, one that will divide the world into countries that can prevail and sea and those that frankly, need not bother”. Unless Britain gets serious about the development of these new naval weapons, our surface fleet, including the valuable capabilities offered by the aircraft carriers, will become obsolete and a liability when pitted against several potential adversaries. The RN needs to be at the forefront of developing and adopting these specific technologies;

  • Hypersonic missiles
  • Laser Directed Energy Weapons and Railguns
  • Unmanned platforms (UAVs, USVs & UUVs)
  • Cyber (both defensive measures and offensive weapons)
  • Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (especially applied to command and control)

There has already been modest efforts to develop some of these technologies for the UK. The Anglo-French FCASW project may (or may not) deliver a hypersonic missile in the early 2030s. The RN’s Unmanned Warrior exercise and formation of 700X Naval Air Squadron are examples of small steps in the right direction to develop unmanned platforms. However, across the board, there is a lack of urgency, scale and resources. These projects must not be allowed the status of ‘hobbies’ or token efforts to provide evidence of our ‘forward thinking’. Instead, funding needs to be increased dramatically in what should be treated as a struggle for survival to match our adversaries. This will involve scientific and operational research closely co-ordinated with industry on tight timetables.

The Dragonfire Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) Capability Demonstrator Programme (CDP) is intended to provide a short-range air defence, counter-UAV and close-in protection for naval vessels. The image is a mock-up of a LDEW co-mounted with the Phalanx system on board a Type 45 destroyer. Dragonfire is an excellent project but we need many more similar initiatives.

Major investment now would not only ensure our security but has potential economic benefits, stimulating British industry and academia and giving us the advantage of being able to export cutting-edge technologies to our allies in the future. In some instances, the size of the technical challenge may require the formation of new partnerships with the US or the French with an offer of British funding and industrial help to build on the expertise they already possess.

4. Renew the focus on undersea warfare

As navies around the world invest heavily in submarines that are increasingly stealthy and capable, the battle for control of the undersea domain will probably be the decisive factor in any future naval conflict. The Royal Navy was once a great anti-submarine navy, respected by the Soviets who recognised the fearsome reputation of our submariners and the hunting expertise of the substantial surface fleet. Since the end of the cold war, this capability has been allowed to decline too quickly and too far. Although the RN retains a core of expertise and some good platforms, numbers are wholly inadequate. UK ASW capability and our submarine fleet need to be expanded and revived.

Building more SSNs, Type 26 frigates and purchasing more Merlin helicopters would be the ideal solution but we recognise this to be a very long-term aspiration. Immediate steps would make every effort to maximise the operational availability of the Astute class submarines, possibly using a 2 crew system, as soon as manning levels allow. An urgent feasibility to study into the costs, and options involved in quickly obtaining a small fleet of conventional submarines, possibly off the shelf from Germany or Sweden should be undertaken. This would relieve the pressure on the SSNs and by providing additional boats for the defence of UK waters, SSBN protection and training duties.

Additional funds should be provided to ensure the Type 31 a credible anti-submarine platform by fitting towed array sonar and investing in UUVs and USVs to support the ASW mission. The Type 26 frigate should be given more submarine killing power, specifically by purchasing a stock of RUM-139 ASROC missiles for its Mk 41 VLS.

5. Fully fund the existing equipment programme and scrap unrealistic efficiency targets

Head of the MoD, Stephen Lovegrove has euphemistically described the efficiency targets set for his department in SDSR 2015 as “challenging”. As the NAO has highlighted, the reality is that the supposed savings and the equipment plan are completely unattainable without further hollowing out and cuts to frontline strength. There is no doubt that defence procurement and the MoD could be run more efficiently in many areas and there are some modest savings to be made in the rationalisation of the defence estate. The Treasury must have greater confidence that new money provided to the MoD will not be wasted, as has been the case so often in the past. However, the excuse that “the MoD has a track record of inefficiency so we cannot increase defence spending” is an irrelevance when we need to address very real immediate and future threats.

Completely unrealistic savings targets which are factored into future spending plans should be torn up and reviewed again. Admiral George Zambellas, the former First Sea Lord said recently “I’ve been helping deliver efficiencies for my 37 years in the navy. We have reached the bottom of the efficiency barrel”. A halt to the endless cycle of cuts, closures and capability gaps would help improve morale and retention in the services and stop further hollowing out of defence.

Footing the bill

The Defence Secretary has recognised the MoD budget is wholly inadequate for the challenges we face but there seems to be only grudging acceptance or outright denial of this unfortunate reality amongst much of the Cabinet. There are those in Westminster who seem to think we have a simple choice between either funding measures to protect us from emerging threats, particularly cyber and terrorist attacks, or funding conventional defence. There is no choice to be made, our adversaries are strengthening their conventional, nuclear and asymmetric capabilities and we must respond to all three.

An ‘additional’ £800M was recently provided for start-up costs of the Dreadnought submarine project and to help head off an immediate crisis at the MoD. This money was provided from Treasury contingency reserves and by bringing forward spending planned for future financial years. Although positive, such measures are just tinkering around the edges and will not resolve chronic underfunding. There is widespread recognition that the 2% of GDP supposedly spent on defence is inadequate, Michael Fallon said recently we should spend at least 2.5%. Most defence analysts say at least 3% is what is needed for Britain to remain secure and support its stated ambitions. Finding an additional £10 – £20 Billion per year for the MoD will require a realisation that there are hard political choices for the Government and Treasury.

Almost two-thirds of voters now recognise that the NHS and social care cannot be funded to the required levels and would be willing to accept a specific tax rise to pay for it. Although it will not be electorally as popular, a parallel specific measure to fund defence is now needed. 30 years of decline must be addressed, it would be irresponsible to be funding a revival of the NHS while risking our national security at a time when there is cross-party agreement that “strategic challenges have intensified”.