Further cuts to the fleet in “the year of the Royal Navy” ?

Recent headlines about possible further body-blows to the Royal Navy are an indication that the terrible state of Ministry of Defence finances is starting to bite. Here we look at what could be cut, what could be the impact on RN capability and the potential political fall out.

The defence review that is not a defence review

The Cabinet Office led by Mark Sedwill, National Security Adviser, is currently conducting a “Strategic Defence and Security Review Implementation” it is supposed to be looking at how the decisions made in 2015 fit with the current global security environment. In reality, it is an exercise in desperately trying to find ways to reduce a £20 Billion gap between the funding the MoD will receive and the money it is committed to spending over the next 10 years.

The Defence Secretary has demanded each of the three armed services offer up “efficiencies”, ie. capabilities that could be cut in order to make savings. The RN is in a slightly different position to the other two services because the majority of its programmes are large and politically untouchable. Of its three core elements, the Continuous At Sea Deterrent, (CASD), Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and Amphibious Capability, the Royal Marines and amphibious ships have always been most vulnerable to the axe. Trident renewal is thankfully non-negotiable and there is too much political, industrial and economic capital tied up in the carrier programme, (including F-35 and the new frigates).

Take your pick from our menu of cuts

To maintain its operations and existing equipment plan, the RN is now short of between £350 – 500 Million a year. It has already agreed on the early retirement of 2 minehunters, HMS Atherstone and Quorn, but there are very few other options available for cutting. There are plenty of rumours and speculation about what may be cut next. Thankfully it has been confirmed that a Daily Mail report HMS Scott was to be axed is false. She has serious engine problems but there is a plan in place for her to be upgraded and retained. HMS Scott does not just conduct hydrographic surveys, but also generates oceanographic information which is key to the operation of the nuclear deterrent and anti-submarine warfare.

Further cuts of some kind are almost certainly coming, although no definite decisions have been made. A reduction of 200 Royal Marines to release funds for more sailors has already been agreed and Marine training has already been considerably scaled down. The Times reports that 1,000 Royal Marines could go and both LPDs HMS Albion and Bulwark could also be axed, almost removing the RN’s amphibious capability entirely. The RN has already been operating with just a single LPD, one in mothballs or refit while the other is active. HMS Bulwark worked very hard during her last period in service but it now in mothballs, while Albion has just emerged from a two-year £90 million refit. These ships have proved to be very versatile platforms that have conducted all sorts of operations beyond just training for amphibious warfare. It should also be remembered that the loss of HMS Ocean combined with the loss of HMS Albion and Bulwark would call into question the future of Devonport naval base and could create a political storm in Plymouth and the South West.

The exact nature of how we may conduct amphibious warfare in future is open to discussion as many consider assaulting the beach in small boats from an LPD in a vulnerable position, close to shore is now just too dangerous. Some argue we should conduct assault by aircraft alone, preferably expensive V-22 Ospreys flying in fast from the ship well out to sea. Unfortunately, there is still a need to get heavy equipment ashore that cannot go by air. Provision of logistic support for troops by air alone for a sustained period is not realistic. Even the recent relief effort, Operation Ruman in the Caribbean has proved again the need for afloat ship-shore capability. This debate over what is called “assured access” is complex but not an excuse to get rid of HMS Albion and Bulwark. Once a ship is gone it is also very difficult for the RN to argue for a replacement (See also the case for keeping HMS Ocean in reserve).

Blame it on the carriers – simplistic scapegoating

Many critics try to blame budget problems on the RN leadership for choosing to build aircraft carriers. This is a completely backwards way to view such a cornerstone conventional capability and which was part of a prudent strategy started in 1998 to build a balanced fleet. The cost of the CEPP is considerable but in fact, it is not the biggest item on the MoD books, the Army will have the largest share of the 2016-26 equipment budget. The RN recognises that without carriers it is a second division navy, its ships and those it maybe protecting are inherently vulnerable without organic air cover. As we have discussed frequently, the strike carrier also has vast utility beyond protecting amphibious operations. Cuts to either the carriers or amphibious capability would be strategic nonsense. Carriers are needed to protect and participate in landing operations and we need both as they compliment each other. Will Taylor has written an excellent piece on the utility and value for money that amphibious capability delivers.

Wildcat Helicopter

Axing 28 brand new Wildcat helicopters would be an extraordinary step and a sign of desperation.

The Times also reports that the RN’s Wildcat helicopters are being considered for sale. Such a move would leave the RN’s escorts ships short of a key weapon. The Wildcat carries the new Sea Venom and Martlet missiles, the only anti-ship missile that will be fielded by the RN between 2020-30. The torpedoes dropped by Wildcat may also be the only means to prosecute submarines. The 30 Merlins HM2 helicopters are already grossly over-worked and have too many tasks.

The Trident solution?

We applaud government commitment to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, the cornerstone upon which UK security rests but how it is funded remains contentious. In 2010 the chancellor George Osborne managed to move the full cost of Trident into the core MoD budget and this began to create a wave of problems. At the time this bombshell decision was overlooked, lost in the carnage of the 2010 SDSR, but as the costs of the Dreadnought submarine programme ramp up in the next decade, this big underlying pressure is driving cuts. A radical solution would be to return the costs of CASD to Treasury reserve where it used to be. This could be implemented over a period of years so the Treasury could adjust. This would be a fair and sensible solution as Trident is a political and national security overhead that quite reasonably should be treated as being outside the conventional defence budget. Defence campaigners might have more success arguing for this large single and easily-understood measure than uncoordinated one-off campaigns to save specific units, ships or establishments.

Admiral, it’s entirely up to you which of your arms you must cut off

The devolved budget system has the enormous political advantage that cuts can be portrayed by ministers as choices made by the service itself. This allows the underfunding to downplayed, merely the service making sensible choices to “live within its means”. The First Sea Lord is accused by some of “not defending his service”. This is disingenuous as no one wants to cut capability and officers do not have the luxury of publicly criticising Ministers or demanding new money. Instead, he should be commended for trying to maintain morale and momentum while being failed by his political masters.

Fundamentally the problems come down to a lack of money for defence. Although the defence budget is rising by 0.5% above inflation this is not nearly enough to compensate for the long-term underfunding or the rising costs of virtually everything. There may have been colossal waste and mistakes in the past but that does not solve the problems of today. The Defence Secretary recently showed a little backbone for the first time and admitted that the target of 2% of GDP on defence may not be enough and “we should do better”. Whether he has the guile or ability to actually obtain more money in a divided cabinet and a weak government remains to be seen. While there is certainly a case for overseas development aid, an obvious solution would be to divert funding from DFID’s generous budget to the MoD, which is often involved with aid operations anyway.

At a time when the world is more dangerous than ever, Trump expects Europe to pay its way and Brexit Britain must look outward, cuts to strength are the opposite of what we should be doing.

Paying the political price

Having nailed his colours to the mast by calling 2017 “the Year of the Royal Navy”, Michael Fallon would be in an awkward position if the year ends with him disposing of high profile ships or a big swathe of naval strength. This is not just a numbers game or pieces on a chess board but the future security of a nation. David Cameron has admitted that one of his biggest regrets from his time as Prime Minister was his decision to cut the aircraft carriers in 2010. Mrs May and Mr Fallon should be mindful that axing the Royal Navy’s amphibious capability could be a mistake of a similar magnitude they could come to sorely regret. If new money is not found for defence quickly, then the 2017 “review” could be seen as undoing the positive aspects of the 2015 SDSR and a failure comparable to the 2010 debacle.