It’s time for an honest conversation about the future of the Royal Navy

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has repeatedly stated that we have a “growing Royal Navy”. The facts do not support this claim and it is simply untrue. Worse still, there are now strong indications of another round of cuts to RN strength.

Since the much-vaunted SDSR 2015, the growing Royal Navy is still suffering cuts. RFA Diligence was quietly withdrawn with no official announcement and is now awaiting sale or scrap in Portsmouth. HMS Ocean is due to decommission March 2018 and will probably be sold to Brazil. A reduction of 2 mine hunters was included in the 2015 SDSR, they will leave the fleet sometime before 2023.

On 24th September The Mail on Sunday reported ocean survey vessel HMS Scott is to be sold or scrapped. She is the probably first victim of the low profile ‘mini defence review’ now being conducted to in the face of catastrophic MoD financial problems. HMS Portland is also in Devonport without a crew and awaiting refit at some point in future. HMS Daring and HMS Dauntless are inactive Portsmouth, although Dauntless is due to start a major refit soon. Other cuts on the menu include losing 1,000 Royal Marines and reducing the F-35 purchase. (The purchase of 138 F-35s over the next 20 years promised in 2015 is now seen as completely unrealistic, most analysts expect the UK to buy less than half that number). The exact details of what will be axed are still subject to speculation and internal horse-trading, but cuts are coming.

Black holes and revelations

The drastic round of defence cuts in 2010 were excused by the Con-Dem government of the day because it was claimed the previous Labour administration had left a £34Bn ‘black hole’ in the defence budget. By May 2012, Philip Hammond was claiming his prudent management had eliminated the problem and he even had £8Bn ‘headroom’. Today it is widely accepted another ‘black hole’ of £20 – 30 Billion has opened up again. Fallon says he “does not recognise those figures” but “efficiencies will have to be made”. Clearly the promises of the 2015 SDSR were never properly funded but there are other factors. A conspiracy of optimism around the cost of big defence projects – everything is more costly than original estimates. Ongoing mismanagement of procurement continues, although this has supposedly improved a little. The only issue on which government may be partially excused from blame are the post-Brexit foreign exchange issues which have reduced our ability to buy equipment from abroad, particularly the US. Ironically the defence budget is now actually growing slightly but not by nearly enough to cover the annual shortfalls or an unaffordable equipment plan.

Painful truths will always serve us better than comforting lies.

Honestly and a national debate

It is time our political leaders were honest with the British people. Admitting that the public finances cannot support the existing defence equipment plan and we are therefore scaling back our capabilities would be a first step. Pretending that everything is rosy is not only dishonest but hinders analysis, reduces credibility with our allies and does not fool our adversaries. Having the political integrity to present the real situation would take courage and draw criticism, but in the long run would build respect and restore trust.

There could be a real debate about defence priorities and whether Britain is willing to raise tax or make other cuts in order to prepare us for a world that is increasingly dangerous. We must stop talking in terms of “the threat we can afford” and take a sober look at the real threats we face, not least on the high seas upon which our trade and lifeblood depends.

Dressing it up

Government and senior officials will predictably respond to complaints about cuts to the RN by pointing to all the new equipment that is being delivered. The vessels that will commission in the next decade are mostly like-for-like replacements for old vessels that have either already gone or have come to the end of their lives anyway. The two Queen Elizabeth class carriers are replacements for 3 Invincible class carriers. The arrival of Type 26 and Type 31s (at least 5 years away) will allow the decommissioning of ageing Type 23 frigates. The 7 Astute class replace the 7 Trafalgar and 6 Swiftsure class submarines. The 5 OPVs will replace 4 similar OPVs. The 4 Dreadnought class ballistic submarines are a replacement for the 4 Vanguard class. The 4 Tide class RFA Tankers replace the 4 Rover and 4 Leaf class tankers that are already long gone.

The next excuse will be that “our new equipment is so much more capable than what it replaces”. While certainly true, particularly in the case of the aircraft carriers, at the same time the capability of our adversaries has increased, in many cases significantly. New equipment is simply keeping up with global technological change, and does not inherently amount to a great increase in our naval power. The quality of vessels may be better but their numbers continue to fall. The Fleet Air Arm is a graphic demonstration of this. In 2009 the Navy had 194 helicopters, after a major modernisation programme by 2019 it will have 83.

Talking up the navy

The First Sea Lord is right to be outwardly positive about his service and lead with optimism. As the relief work of Operation Ruman in the Caribbean demonstrates, the RN is still doing great work on a daily basis. After the Daily Telegraph printed a misleading cover story and falsely stated that HMS Ocean had broken down, he was right to forcefully rebut the article.

However, he also claimed the RN had “more than 30 ships and submarines deployed on operations this week”. This is something of a deception. Of that 30, only about 10-12 could be described as major combat vessels. To reach the figure of 30 must also require counting several P2000 patrol boats. These are very small unarmed boats that provide useful training opportunities and experience for potential recruits and junior officers. In military terms, at best they have a good weather-only short-range surveillance capability and are certainly not “ships”. Including P2000s in the RN’s ORBAT shows a drift into the realms of spin and hyperbole which we might expect from politicians, but not defence chiefs.

There are those that say the chiefs should resign in protest at cuts. This is unlikely to make much impact. It could even be counter-productive as the leaders of other public sector organisations are expected to live within their means and, sad to say, there is not broad enough public understanding about the seriousness of our weakening defences. The courageous resignation of the French Chief of Defence, Pierre de Villiers, in protest at cuts caused a few days of embarrassment for President Macron but has not seen any change in policy. It would likely be the same story here. Ultimately it is the political masters who must take responsibility, not the servants they employ.

Facing facts

Almost as frightening as the state of UK defence is the national debt at nearly £2 Trillion and currently increasing by £52Bn a year (£1,648 a second). Clearly ‘austerity’ measures have failed to get a grip on public finances. There are increasingly tough choices for those in power and in every government department, with no easy answers. Who is willing to say we must raise taxes or cut public services because 2% GDP spending on defence is inadequate in the face of new treats?

Despite a populist view that all politicians are corrupt and in it for themselves, one suspects Michael Fallon, Harriet Baldwin and many others of all political shades entered politics with good intentions, aiming to make Britain a better place. If they really had the budget, these ministers would be in favour of a genuinely bigger Royal Navy. Unfortunately, once in power, they have become addicted to a lethal cocktail of media spin and political short-termism. As every addict knows, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So Mr Fallon, in the year of the Royal Navy you have the opportunity to be a statesman, not just another in a long line of liars in suits. Be honest with us about the true state of the Royal Navy today and what we can afford in the future.