Ongoing manpower issues revealed by status of Royal Navy surface escorts

Although recent news for the Navy has been mostly positive, with HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea and orders placed for the Type 26 frigates, a quick look at the status of the escort fleet reveals the stresses that lack of manpower continues to exert.

HMS Dauntless has been laid up in Portsmouth since early 2016 as a harbour training ship, primarily because there was insufficient manpower to keep her operational. HMS Lancaster was also laid up but is now undergoing a major refit in Devonport. It has recently come to light that HMS Daring, which completed a very successful 9-month deployment in May 2017, has joined Dauntless in number 3 Basin in Portsmouth and will take over the harbour training ship role for up to 2 years. Dauntless is due to begin a major refit starting Autumn 2017 but effectively only three of the six Type 45s are available, with some activity also reduced during the summer leave period. HMS Defender will thankfully emerge from major refit later this year. In another unannounced move, HMS Portland, last at sea in March 2017 has also quietly been laid up in Devonport to save on manpower.

RN surface escort status, 7th July 2017

* Have completed Life Extension (LIFEX) refit and received Sea Ceptor missile system • Have Type 2087 towed array sonar ‘tail’

A quick analysis shows that 6 of the RN’s 19 escorts are at sea or fully operational. A further 6 are either on trials, training or in short maintenance periods. Activity may be slightly curtailed generally in the summer leave period, as the RN does its best to prioritise the needs of personnel and their families. 4 are in major refit and 3 are non-operational, pending refit or due to lack of personnel. The confining of HMS Daring to harbour is especially disappointing as the Type 45s are badly needed and it had been hoped this expediency applied to HMS Dauntless would be just a temporary measure.

The overall situation has not significantly worsened recently but neither has it improved. As HMS Queen Elizabeth begins the journey towards becoming operational, the need for escorts will add more pressure to an already threadbare force.

HMS Queen Elizabeth with a third of the RN’s available surface escorts

Any new frigates are at least 5 years away

It is positive to observe the Type 23 life extension refits proceeding at regular intervals with 3 ships already having the Sea Ceptor system and a major programme of the hull and machinery repairs completed. Unfortunately, these ships and this repair work are going to have to last a very long time. When the orders for the first batch of 3 Type 26 frigate was announced, the MoD would not commit to a delivery date only “sometime in the early 2020s”. The oldest Type 23, HMS Argyll, although in sparkling post-refit condition at present, will probably have to stagger on past her 32nd birthday until the first Type 26 arrives. (That is assuming the build and commissioning of the new frigate goes without problems within an approximate 5-year timeframe). Negotiations for the planned 5 remaining Type 26 will not even start until the mid-2020s. The National Shipbuilding Strategy has still not been published and the timetable for selecting the design and then constructing the cheaper Type 31 frigates is also still unknown.

The pressures of manning the aircraft carriers, while the RN is unable to significantly improve retention and recruitment levels are showing. HMS Ocean decommissions in March 2018 (Well before HMS Queen Elizabeth is even operational) and the personnel this will release are required to build up the ship’s company of HMS Prince of Wales. In March 2017, total RN manpower stood at 29,480. The RN was 710 people short of its ‘liability’ (the total number it is allowed). Those 710 would be more than enough to provide crews for HMS Daring and HMS Portland. The recent restructuring of the Royal Marines to release an additional 200 people will only go a small way to alleviating the problem. During 2016-17 the RN recruited 1,640 new sailors and marines but in the same period, 2,390 left the service. This year’s Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey makes for grim reading. The long-term 1% cap on pay rises does not help matters and only 33% of RN ratings report their personal morale is high. Clearly, while additional recruitment would be desirable, the far more pressing challenge is to retain people who are already trained and qualified.