Post-SDSR optimism disappearing over the horizon

The November 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review appeared to be a broadly positive result for the RN. Although much of what was promised would not materialise until far into the future, there was an end to the perpetual cycle of cuts and some cautious optimism. 9 months on the feel-good factor is evaporating and there is a rising tide of anger amongst those who understand what is happening to the navy. It is increasingly difficult to have confidence that government promises for the long-term will deliver tangible results when they are failing to deliver in the short-term.

Recent attempts by mainstream media to highlight deficiencies with the Navy have mostly focused on the wrong issues. Much has been made about the Type 45 propulsion problems and there was a massive over-reaction to all six being alongside in Portsmouth for summer leave. The situation is certainly far from ideal but 5 of the 6 ships are in the normal operating cycle and at the time of writing, HMS Daring is about to leave for 9 months in the of the Arabian Gulf. According to many reports, the weakening of the Pound against the US Dollar caused by Brexit will massively inflate the cost of the F-35, P-8 and other defence purchases from the US. In fact the truth is more complicated. Although there is some worry over budget impacts, the Treasury keeps some reserves in Dollars, builds in contingencies for currency fluctuations into its planning and the Pound may have rallied by the time payments have to be made. Instead let us focus on greater immediate causes for concern.

5 reasons to write an angry letter to your MP

1. Failure to start Type 26 frigate construction

Despite decades in planning, millions of pounds already spent on multiple concepts and designs, the construction of these urgently needed frigates has still not started and no future date has been set. There was already disappointment when the SDSR made it clear that only 8 Type 26 would be built instead of the 13 that had long been expected. (At least 5 cheaper/simpler Type 31s will be built to make up the shortfall). It is apparent that the cost of Type 26 has somehow spiralled up to at least £750 million per ship, despite being a fairly low risk, conventional design that partially uses existing equipment.

On 20th July the House of Commons Defence Select Committee treated us to a session that attempted to examine the procurement of the Type 26. We were truly ‘through the looking glass’ into a surreal world where each individual is apparently able to make logical and sensible statements but, taken collectively, the situation amounts to nonsense. The MoD’s chief negotiator says the delays are to ensure the taxpayer gets best value for money and we must “learn the lesson from the past not to rush into things”. In the same committee it is said we must “learn the lesson from the past that delays always increase costs”. The First Sea Lord insists he is “comfortable” with the number of ships he has got and we can no longer afford to factor combat losses into naval planning. The defence minister (in the job for 2 days) insists there is no shortage of money and government is “committed to shipbuilding on the Clyde”. The Defence Select Committee continues to ask searching questions and express concern about a wide variety of issues but nothing changes. Most importantly, no one is accountable, nobody’s career, pay or prospects are imperilled by failures and none of the people will still be in these jobs when the crunch comes in future.

In a world that is becoming more dangerous and unstable, the Navy’s frigates are getting older. The first Type 23, HMS Argyll is scheduled to decommission in 2023. There is just 7 years left for the first Type 26 (or Type 31) to be built, conduct trials and work up to be fully operational. This is a very taught schedule, every delay increases the chance the RN will dip below 19 escorts or have to spend more money keeping obsolete and clapped-out Type 23s going beyond what is prudent.

2. Tide class tankers now 8 months overdue without explanation

RFA Tidespring

RFA Tidespring on sea trials off South Korea

Four tide class tankers are being built by DSME in South Korea for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. They are urgently needed to replace an ageing fleet of old vessels, some of which have already decommissioned. Building them abroad has been highly controversial but appeared to be a sensible solution, given the lack of capacity in UK yards and cost benefits. Large scale fraud uncovered at DSME and the company’s temporary bankruptcy, together with the delays have badly damaged the case for building future RFA vessels abroad. The first vessel RFA Tidespring was originally due to arrive in Falmouth for final fitting out in January 2016. Sources say Tidespring performed well on sea trials but the MoD has been entirely silent about the cause of the delay, whether it is technical or manpower-related. However the MoD optimistically insists all four ships will be in service by 2018 and the taxpayer will not have to bear the costs associated with the delay.

3. Scan Eagle UAVs lease not renewed

Scan Eagle UAV

Scan Eagle UAV deployed aboard RFA Cardigan Bay in the Arabian Gulf, 2014

The RN has made commendable efforts in the last few years to build up expertise and encourage industry support in operating UAVs. 700X Squadron was specifically formed to operate Scan Eagle and experiment with other unmanned systems. Despite trialing the Scan Eagle as far back as 2005, the RN only secured funding to lease some of these simple aircraft from Boeing in 2013. It is a relatively cheap system and cost just £60M for the 3 years it has been in RN service, successfully deployed in the Indian Ocean and Gulf where it vastly extends the area a ship can keep under surveillance (and is much cheaper to fly than the embarked helicopter). It was announced in July 2016 that the RN did not have any money in its budget to renew the Scan Eagle lease. It is absurd that as exercise Unmanned Warrior takes place in October 2016, the RN is being forced to give up its only operational UAV. An MoD spokesman managed to spin Unmanned Warrior as “an opportunity to inform Scan Eagle replacement decisions”.

4. RFA Diligence put up for sale without replacement


RFA Diligence working with US forces in the Arabian Gulf

The RN’s only Operational Maintenance and Repair (OMAR) ship is being sold with no official announcement made and no replacement planned or funded. When your fleet is already too small it is foolish to dispense with the capability provided by RFA Diligence, acting as is a force multiplier. Full details in our earlier post here.

5. Four modern River class OPVs to be decommissioned


HMS Severn on patrol in UK territorial waters

The SDSR 2015 made it clear that the ‘Batch 1’ River class HMS Tyne, Severn and Mersey would be decommissioned to be replaced by very similar new Batch 2 River Class OPVs currently being built in Glasgow. The Batch 1s were all commissioned in 2003 and will have only served in the RN for around 15 years. It is a dismal waste to decommission these relatively modern vessels when they have plenty of life left in them and we are so short of hulls. With a crew of just 30 and an annual running cost of around £20M, it is pitiful that we cannot afford to retain them in some role. (More detailed discussion here). Furthermore it is now clear Falklands patrol vessel HMS Clyde, only commissioned in 2007 will also be retired and replaced by a new vessel. The SDSR promise of ‘up to 6 patrol vessels’ actually means 5, although of a slightly improved design, this is a net gain of just 1 ship.

If the RN is not allowed to keep these ships, perhaps they could somehow be retained in UK service by donating them to the UK Border Force and funding their operating costs from the Home Office budget. This could be a politically useful option for a Government increasingly accused of failing to protect our borders. Of course these ships will make very attractive second-hand purchases for overseas navies and the temptation to flog them off will probably be too much for the Treasury.