Royal Navy parts cannibalisation – a concern or a crisis?

Taking spare parts and equipment from one Royal Navy vessel for use on another has always been standard practice on a modest scale. The National Audit Office recently published a report showing this ‘cannibalisation’ has increased in the past 5 years by 49%, an unsustainable growth rate that could further threaten the strength of the RN.

Parts ‘borrowed’ from other vessels, known as stores robbery (STOROB) only amount to around 1% of all the parts actually issued to RN vessels. Between 2016-17 there were 795 instances out of the approximately 80,000 parts the fleet received in that time. Recent media headlines have suggested “the RN is eating itself” which is clearly an exaggeration, by the standards of most navies the RN still has a good logistic support chain, but it is being significantly weakened.

Concerns that cannibalisation was getting out of hand were raised as long ago as 2005, at the time the MoD admitted: “this trend is likely to continue and we expect to rely heavily on this practice in the future”. It was reported that, even while HMS Bulwark was completing her construction in 2004, she was being robbed of parts to equip her older sister HMS Albion. The practice has continued and during the completion of the final Type 45 HMS Duncan, the ME department produced a T-shirt with a long list of the equipment robbed from them for use on sister ships. Between 2004-05 there was a dramatic increase in STOROB across the RN, going from around 10 per month to 30 per month. Now in 2017, with a fleet 30% smaller, the average is around 66 cases per month.

STOROB may be the sensible or only possible solution in some circumstances. For the sake of speed, it can make sense to borrow parts from a nearby vessel rather than delay sailing or accept a critical defect. Delayed sailings can have knock-on consequences down the line as another ship cannot be relived on time. Today, as the RN is striving to keep promises to its people about leave and more predictable programmes, borrowing a spare part maybe a better solution than disrupting schedules. For older vessels, some parts may no longer be available or the manufacturer no longer exists, although this excuse is less plausible for the newer Astute class submarines and Type 45 destroyers.

A vicious circle

Borrowing parts from one vessel to fix another may be a pragmatic solution in the very short term but in the long run can cause other problems and is symptomatic of a fleet being hollowed out by both large and small cuts to its budget. SDSR 2015 was seen as signalling a positive future but pressure on the RN budget has remained overwhelming. Since 2015 the Navy has cut about 34% (£92 million) from its maritime support in-year budgets, a decision of desperation as this was sure to lead to problems down the road. These budget cuts have inevitably led to a reduction in stocks of spares and, in some cases, full technical documentation for complex items have not been purchased from the manufacturers.

Every time a part is robbed from another vessel there are impacts. 71% of the items are valued at less than £5,000 but cost of cannibalisation can be more than the price of the part. Removing a part that is in-situ may cause damage to the donor vessel as other parts have to be removed to gain access and important cables or pipes disconnected. Around 11% of cannibalised parts are damaged during removal or transit, potentially doubling the defect problem. Removing some parts may also void manufacturers warranties which adds to the costs if problems develop in future. The confined spaces of submarines can make access difficult and the job time-consuming, diverting resources from scheduled maintenance. Besides the time used to access and remove components, the donor vessel must then conduct testing to assess the impact of the missing item. Most seriously the ability of the fleet to send additional ships to sea in an emergency is undermined. If vessels alongside have donated spares to their sisters to get them to sea, either they cannot sail or must deploy with defects if required at short notice.

The deterrent effect and power of a navy is not just the ships at sea on the frontline at a given time, but the availability of other ships ready to join or replace them. Manpower and spares shortages mean that the ‘paper’ strength of the RN is increasingly divorced from actual strength.

There is plenty of evidence that STOROB undermines the morale of engineers, particularly those serving on donor vessels who may be working hard to keep their vessel in peak condition, only to be told to remove working components. With an already serious shortage of engineering personnel, the last thing the RN needs are additional demoralising pressures.

Astute submarines

The cannibalisation of the Astute class submarines is perhaps the issue of greatest immediate concern highlighted by the NAO report. Costing well over £1Bn each, it is surprising that the active boats (the oldest of which has been in service for just 7 years) have had an annual average of 59 instances of cannibalisation. This is the equivalent of a part being removed or installed once every two days. In the past five years, the 3 boats recorded 506 defects, with 28% of them fixed through cannibalisation in 2016-17. The collision damage to HMS Ambush in 2016 has not helped the situation but it is clear that the problem existed long before this. Failure to purchase sufficient spares is another compounding factor in the troubled programme, boats under construction are being raided for spares need by those in service. Further cost-inducing delays undermine the availability of the critical SSN fleet which, during at least one week in 2017, was unable to put a single boat to sea.

The cannibalisation merry go round in the submarine fleet 2012-17. Clearly, an unhealthy situation that has contributed to the low availability of attack submarines. (NAO Analysis of MoD Data)

Civil Service cuts have consequences

The report highlights the complexity of warships and support required to keep them going. The logistic and maintenance requirement for warships is consistently underestimated and often leads to questions about the amount of time ships have to spend alongside. Many people are dismissive of the Civil Service support provided to the forces. These “pen pushers”, doing important jobs behind the frontline, have suffered major reductions in manpower since 2010 but without a matching reduction in workload. The MoD Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) agency which is responsible for the logistic support of all three services, maintains an inventory of parts valued at £2.7 billion for the RN alone. DE&S has serious staff shortfalls and is 21% below strength at present. In 2014 The RN even seconded 30 personnel to DE&S to improve the situation, although staff numbers are slowly recovering. While it is popular to talk of cutting support jobs to “focus on the frontline”, the navy cannot function without competent and dedicated people managing the equipment supply chain.

HMS Diamond loads Sea Viper missiles at the Upper Harbour Ammunitioning Facility in Portsmouth. Just how many of these expensive high-performance missiles the MoD has stockpiled are classified. It is widely understood that, like the stocks of spare parts, missile stocks are inadequate for a sustained conflict.

Strength in depth

If resolving the manpower shortage is the RN’s most serious problem, the next priority must be increasing stocks of spare parts, portable equipment, ammunition and missiles. This is another symptom of a ‘peacetime mindset’ that would quickly be exposed if the RN had to fight in a real conflict. We need a new emphasis on contingency planning, strength in depth and resilience both in manpower and logistics, even if it comes at the expense of new kit. Unfortunately with more cuts and “efficiencies” on the way it seems unlikely that the hollowing out of the RN will be reversed anytime soon. Expenditure on mundane behind-the-scenes activity may not get the headlines but is the difference between a showpiece navy and a credible fighting fleet.