Has the Royal Navy solved its manpower problems?

In bullish mood last week, the First Sea Lord told the Portsmouth News “we are through with relegating frigates and destroyers to training vessels due to a shortage of sailors”. This is an encouraging sign and here we examine the context and true extent of the improvement in RN personnel numbers.

The total combined strength of the Naval Service (including the Royal Marines, Reservists, the RFA and untrained personnel) now stands at 38,550 compared to 38,140 in 2016. In contrast to the RAF, and the Army in particular, the RN has managed to reverse the decline and grow its headcount in the last two years. The management of human resources is complex and not just about total numbers and these headline figures demand closer examination. The RN has done well to arrest the crisis that was precipitated by the disastrous government decision in the 2010 SDSR to make 5,000 sailors redundant. This deliberate reduction had the unintended, if entirely predictable, effect of damaging morale hastening more people to leave voluntarily. In 2016 the number of new recruits joining finally began to match or even slightly exceed outflow. (Outflow consists of Voluntary Outflow (VO) people resigning – on average about 60% of the total, plus people reaching the end of their service and those medically discharged).

There has been a reduction of about 60% since 2014 of RN personnel employed on tasks that breach the agreed harmony guidelines. This is partly due to the end of commitments in Afghanistan but also the result of a determined effort to put the needs of people first where ever possible. The few officially recorded as having breached harmony guidelines are the tip of a rather larger iceberg, as many personnel are still under great pressure despite technically having served in compliance with the guidelines. Improving morale and especially by ensuring sailors have adequate leave, is the primary solution to reducing the high levels of VO. There has been a small improvement in the VO rate in the last 5 years, from around 5.7% down to 5% of trained personnel each year.

Made in the Royal Navy…

The RN has become dramatically better at recruiting and attracting new applicants. In March 2014 around 930 applications were being received each month but by September 2017 this number had risen to around 1,290 per month. RN recruitment advertising has been a real success. The memorable and inspiring series based on the strapline “I was born in… but I was made in the Royal Navy” has achieved a kind of viral status, with young people using it online as a kind of catchphrase (that may sometimes be subversively altered) but other times repeated verbatim. It is an advertiser’s dream to achieve this level of cultural penetration which has succeeded in raising awareness of RN career opportunities amongst the target audience. The delivery of the aircraft carrier, the first of the F-35s and the new Tide class tankers may also have a small recruiting benefit. Not only has HMS Queen Elizabeth raised the public profile the RN in general, but some applicants are attracted by the opportunity to work with new technology.

To match to growth in applications, the RN has expanded new entry training. In 2013 around 220 people per month were completing basic training but by 2018 this number had risen to about 260 per month. Admiral Jones alluded to this, noting the “conspicuous success in hiring more people” but admitted, “It’s a constant challenge to get the right number of joiners through training at the right tempo and available for service in the fleet as quickly as we can.”

A younger navy

Despite the small growth in the total size of the Naval Service, the number of trained regular personnel is still declining slightly. At the start of this year, the Full-time Trained Strength (FTTS) of the RN stood at 29,100, a reduction of 700 people since January 2016. The RN’s stated workforce requirement for 2020 is 30,450 FTTS but it is unlikely to grow by the 1,350 this year needed to met that target. There has been a rise in the strength of the RN and RM Reserves from 2,600 in 2013 to 3,700 today. This, together with an increase in people undergoing Phase 1 and Phase 2 training, explains how the Service is growing while the core trained full-time personnel numbers are falling. It is important to note the overall the ratio of experienced personnel is reducing in relation to the number of younger, less seasoned sailors. There are some definite advantages to having a workforce with a younger average age but there is also a danger in having to promote people too quickly. Most noticeable when under pressure or in a crisis, it is the old hands and senior rates in particular who usually form the solid backbone of the ship’s company.


There are currently five frigates undergoing major life extension refit (HMS Richmond, Portland, Lancaster, Iron Duke and Somerset). While in deep refit these ships do not need much manpower but are not classified as ‘laid up’. Major refits are not unusual but the Type 23 LIFEX programme has seen an unusually large number of frigates unmanned and out of routine. This may have freed up people to be drafted to the aircraft carriers but there will be a bulge in demand for sailors when the frigates regenerate as they emerge from refit. HMS Daring had been one of the ships laid up but she is now being prepared for towing to Birkenhead have major ’surgery’ involving the installation of new diesel engines. It is unclear how long the Power Improvement Package (PIP) on each ship will take, but the work is planned to be carried out within the normal Type 45 refit cycle. HMS Dauntless should emerge from major refit later this year, at which point there should be a tangible increase in Type 45 availability.

The QEC aircraft carriers original core ships company was supposed to be just 690, but by the time HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed on Westlant 2018, numbers had grown to 800. The final crew requirement for the carriers is likely to move upwards in the light of experience. When the full Tailored Air Group is finally embarked it will only add to the burdens on crew workload. The small uptick in numbers will only benefit the escorts and is not enough to allow HMS Bulwark to be brought out of ‘low readiness’ and operate simultaneously with HMS Albion. Three RFA vessels also remain laid up on Merseyside. Total RFA personnel numbers have declined only very slightly in the last 5 years, (down by about 50 to about 1,540) but there is a particular shortage of marine engineers.

With HMS Queen Elizabeth due to go on operational deployment in 2021, the demand for escorts has never been greater. The announcement that the practice of having two ships laid up a ‘harbour training ships’ for lack of crews can be ended is timely and welcome. Precisely when this will be achieved may be hard to pinpoint due to the complex cycle of refits. In the longer term, both the Type 31e and Type 26 frigates will need a smaller ships company than the Type 23s they replace, helping reduce manning pressures.

Many already lean-manned ships still deploy with some billets ‘gapped’ and there are also significant ‘pinch points’, ie. shortages of particular trades or skills that are a critical requirement for a ship or submarine to operate. Keeping hold of its trained and experienced people for longer remains the biggest challenge the RN must overcome before manning is no longer a concern. It is certainly good news that overall numbers are going in the right direction and there are signs of recovery but there is still a very long way to go before the RN can be content it has enough sailors.