Minister tells head of the Royal Navy to make increasing warship availability a priority

Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace made his first appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on Wednesday 23rd October. In a generally impressive and honest performance, he answered a wide range of questions, mainly about naval matters.

While discussing the size of the navy, and the minister made a valid point that it is hard to go to the Treasury and argue for more new warships when the RN is unable to make full use of the vessels already in service. “If I had more of our current fleet working, then I would have much more freedom to deploy to meet some of our ambitions and tasks. I’ve made it very clear to the First Sea Lord one of my priorities is to get what we’ve got working” he said.

Unfortunately the Minister then rather confused the issue by stating that the RN has ‘only’ 57 of its 76 surface ships available. This statement is technically true but it needs a great deal of context. It is only possible to reach the 76 figure by counting absolutely everything in commission that floats including the MCMVs, OPVs, Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, the hydrographic ships and the two small boats of the Gibraltar Squadron. 16 small unarmed P2000 patrol/training boats and inshore survey boat HMS Magpie are also included in this total. These vessels all have important roles to play but major surface combat vessels number just 23, even if both aircraft carriers and both LPDs are counted. Of that 23, about 10 are active at the time of writing. (HMS Queen Elizabeth (not yet fully operational) Albion, Defender, Dragon, Montrose, Kent, Argyll, Sutherland, Northumberland and Westminster)

In fact, 57 vessels ‘available’ from a fleet of 76 would be very impressive. Any navy that has 75% of its ships ready for operations would be doing exceptionally well. But it rather depends on your definition of ‘available’ as ships are in constant cycle at differing levels of readiness. A more normal approximate ‘rule of thirds’ would apply for most serious navies; a third on operations, a third preparing for operations, in transit, training or maintenance and a third at very low readiness in deep refit. This cycle is simply unavoidable, warships are highly complex pieces of engineering that are exposed to the harsh marine environment and must be maintained.

What Ben Wallace was really talking about is improving the readiness of the frigates and destroyers. As we have reported before, delays to the frigate LIFEX refits are contributing to lower than usual numbers of ships available. Currently, more than half of the frigate fleet are all either awaiting refit or undergoing refit at Devonport.

Devonport, 19th October 2019. (Top) HMS Monmouth out of routine and awaiting refit. (Middle) The depressing sight of the decommissioned nuclear submarine ‘flotilla’ awaiting disposal, comprising more boats than are currently active. In the basin are (top) HMS Richmond, first of the frigates to receive new engines and (bottom) HMS St. Albans. HMS Portland, Somerset and Iron Duke are inside the covered refit complex to the right. (Left) alongside at No.1 Wharf is HMS Lancaster. (Photo: Andy Amor)

HMS Dauntless was supposed to have been towed from Portsmouth to Cammell Laird in October as the first Type 45 destroyer to have new engines inserted. CL have been sub-contracted by BAE Systems to cut open the hull and perform the heavy engineering tasks. Speaking to CL at DSEI in September, they said they are very much ready to start work but are waiting on BAES. HMS Dauntless has not been to sea since 2015 and her refit has already been going on for two years while HMS Daring remains laid up for lack of manpower.

For the First Sea Lord tasked to increase availability there are limited options. The RN is heavily reliant on its industrial partners improving their performance. Babcock needs to do better with the frigate LIFEX project and BAE Systems need to ensure the project to refit and re-engine the Type 45 destroyers is run efficiently. Permanently forward-basing more warships overseas will help improve the time ships are on operations. Many measures are already in place to improve the recruitment and retention of sailors. The manpower situation has improved very slightly over the last five years but it is not possible to generate whole new ships companies overnight.

A crowded corner of number 3 Basin in Portsmouth on 19th October 2019. (Top) HMS Westminster preparing to sail. (Left) HMS Duncan on the wall having recently returned from Mediterranean and Gulf deployment. (Centre) HMS Dauntless still in refit and due to leave for Merseyside at some point. The two decommissioned minehunters are ex HMS Atherstone and HMS Quorn. (Bottom) HMS Diamond in dry dock. (Photo: Andy Amor)

It is clear the RN is already trying its hardest to maximise the use of the limited assets it already has. For example, in September in addition to its standing commitments, there were 2 frigates and a destroyer in the Gulf, ships on the Westlant 19 deployment, HMS Enterprise in the Pacific and significant participation in exercise Joint Warrior / Griffin Strike.

Mr Wallace is an ex-Army officer and it has been some time since a defence minister with experience of full-time service in the forces has had the job. In front of the committee, he appeared very relaxed, understanding the issues and more than on top of his brief. He appears to have had many years to consider how things within defence maybe done better and offered a very honest assessment of some fundamental mismanagement decisions of the past. Many of the problems encountered by the industry that supports the RN have been caused by the feast and famine approach to procurement and a steady overall reduction in defence spending by past administrations.

In closing, Wallace said “if you hollow out, don’t spend money on your skill base and invest in boring infrastructure that doesn’t get the headlines, you pay for it in the long run – you extend platforms, you don’t get what you need. On a number of these programmes we are all at fault, there is blame to be shared across the political, military and construction classes”. It would appear to be to everyone’s benefit, if political circumstances will allow, that the tenure of this Minister is measured in years, not months.

You can watch the Defence Select Committee session on our YouTube Channel here.