Positive signs for Royal Navy Submarine manpower

This week the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee was examining the Submarine Nuclear Enterprise. The session primarily dealt with finance and planning for the Dreadnought programme but the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Tony Radakin also gave evidence about submarine manning issues. Lack of suitably experienced and qualified personnel for the submarine service has been a problem for almost a decade but there are some signs of improvement.

The Submarine Service currently comprises 830 officers and 3,150 ratings but the PAC report states that in May 2018 the RN is still 337 submariners below requirement – more than 8% understrength. This reflects a service still in recovery from the peak of the manning crisis which occurred between 2012-15. Although a slow process, the RN has taken big steps in the last 3 years to improve the situation. Some measures were aimed at addressing morale issues while other efforts were directed at boosting recruitment.

In recovery

A dedicated submarine recruitment team has been set up and schemes to attract more graduates and apprenticeships have been established to develop more nuclear marine engineers. Around 100 technical personnel were recruited last year with a similar number expected to join this year. The complexity of nuclear boats demands that almost half of RN submariners are assigned to engineering branches – 430 Officers and 2,100 ratings. Much of the future success of the service depends on recruiting and retaining is these technically qualified people. Efforts have also been made to move people through the training pipeline faster, for example, typically a submarine watch-leader engineer Petty Officer (PO) used to take up to 12 yrs to fully qualify but this has now been reduced to 5 years.

Personnel in the surface fleet have been offered incentives or service extensions if they agree to transfer and greater use of reserves have been made in trades where there were particular shortages. Financial incentives have been expanded beyond just nuclear specialists which has aided retention. Over 50% of senior rates are now signing on for further service beyond their pension points, many attracted by the financial packages on offer. Admiral Radakin also feels that the submarine community as a whole is in a better place, results from the Armed forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) show that 60% would now say they are proud to serve and 50% would recommend it to others as a career.

Ultimately the RN plans to have a complete spare crew available to provide greater resilience and reduce the pressure on personnel. This is a sensible aspiration although probably some way off, given the current shortages.

For the next few decades, there is little prospect of the RN being able to expand the number of its attack boats beyond 6 or 7. Maximising the use of existing assets is therefore particularly important, even a modest surplus of additional people would add greater flexibility and increase the time boats can be deployed.

It would be disingenuous not to accept there have been some problems for which submariners themselves must take responsibility. An affair between the CO of HMS Vigilant and a junior female officer together with the expulsion of 9 personnel found to have taken recreational drugs in October 2017 was not the navy’s finest hour. The mis-steps of a tiny minority grabbed the headlines but are the exception and should not overshadow the very high standards of the majority.

Making Faslane home

The decision to consolidate all submarine basing and training on the Clyde was not universally popular but there are signs that this has been accepted. 84% of submariners are now based in Scotland and it is becoming less of a cause for complaint. From 2020 all RN submarines will be based in Faslane, with much of the maintenance taking place alongside or in the shiplift. Boats will only go to Devonport for Long Overhaul Period and Refuel (LOP(R)), which for the most part only requires small numbers of naval personnel.

Of all the RN’s shore establishments, Faslane has benefited from the longest and most sustained period of investment. There is little that can be done about the weather but the Single Living Accommodation has recently been further upgraded and other facilities are continually being improved. Family concerns have been given greater priority and there has been an effort to better integrate with the local Helensburgh community.

Russians keep people interested

The operational tempo is officially and obliquely described as “busy”, primarily due to increased Russian submarine activity. Although creating greater pressure on the RN as whole, for those on the frontline it does at least make for much more challenging and professionally rewarding patrols than was the case a few years ago. An improving level of morale amongst submariners is demonstrated by the service now having the lowest level of outflow (resignations) in the RN with just 2% of officers and 4% of ratings leaving each year.

There is still work to be done and some way to go before the submarine manning situation can again be described as “normal” but there are many positive signs that good progress is being made.

The Second Sea Lord giving evidence about submarine manpower to the Public Accounts Committee, July 3 2018.