SDSR 2015 Rumour Mill

This is an open post to that will be kept updated in the run up to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – the results of which are due to be announced by the Prime Minister on 23rd November. Here we will track and comment on the multiple rumours and media speculation about how the RN in particular maybe shaped by the defence review. Some of this will prove to be unfounded press stories, some are leaks from within different service factions indulging in ‘kite-flying’ to test reactions and some may prove to be true.

Last minute media predictions

The Guardian suggests (among other things) that there will be an initial order for just 16 F35B aircraft although more could be ordered at a later date. Although obviously more aircraft would be preferable, this provides a minimum baseline until HMS Queen Elizabeth is fully operational. The RN/RAF can build up experience with the aircraft and set up a training pipeline with experienced instructors. The cautious approach would allow the evaluation of the aircraft before we are too financially committed. It would enable a bold decision as some point in future to abandon F35s at sea, retrofit carriers with CATOBAR and invest in alternatives such as UCLASS-type UAVs or the Advanced Super Hornet.

The Sunday Times then completely contradicted the Guardian, reporting the UK will buy a whopping 138 F35s, with 42 purchased by 2023. If true, this represents a major vote of confidence in the carrier project and a vindication for the RN in staking so much of its future on them.


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Aviation Week and (many other commentators) suggest the Maritime Patrol Aircraft issue will be be addressed by a formal industrial competition/tender process between the various aircraft available. This would obviously cause further delay in recovering this crucial capability but defers costs to MoD into the future. It is interesting to note that compared with the infamous 2010 SDSR, there have been far fewer leeks from within the MoD or as much detailed speculation in the media about the outcome.

Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Of all the shocking gaps in UK defence capability, the lack of Maritime Patrol Aircraft has received the most political and media attention. For the last few months it was confidently assumed that the purchase of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon (costing around £2Bn) was a done deal. Then on 31st October the Sunday Times defence correspondent tweeted:

This is either; pure fabrication or rumour, a clever plan to drive the price down on Boeing, a pointer that the alternative Japanese P-1 solution is under consideration or a horrendous mistake by Govt that does not bode well for the SDSR.

Manpower

It was quietly announced in June 2015 that it had been decided, even before the election, that RN manpower strength would fall from the 30,000 agreed in 2010 to 29,900. Reports of further cuts to manpower strength are circulating.

Nearly 2,000 military roles to go in cuts (including 400 RN) (Daily Express)

On 14th August The Defence correspondent of the Sun newspaper claimed that the RN will request and get a manpower increase of 2,500. Excellent news if this is the case, although what the RN may have to give up in order to get achieve this is the catch. Politically it will be embarrassing for Government to replace half of the people it made redundant in 2010!


The on 14th October the Defence correspondent for the Times contradicted this, reporting the RN will gain just 600 ratings and lose 300 officers. A tiny gain of just 300 and very far short of the 4,000 the RN really needs.

With just 2 days to go until the official announcements, the Telegraph is now reporting that the RN will get a manpower increase of 450.

Type 26 Frigates

‘Defence sources’ say the Ministry of Defence is exploring the possibility of slashing the number of planned Type 26 frigates from 13 down to six. (Plymouth Herald)

A contemptible and disastrous prospect that would make a laughing-stock of government claims to be investing in the future of the Navy. Failure to maintain even the inadequate 19 surface escorts we have at present would emasculate the surface fleet at a stroke. This would also have to entail a reduction in commitments for the RN with unavoidable political repercussions. There would also be an industrial impact; the unit price for each ship would rise, BAE’s building plans would be thrown into chaos and it would probably kill any faint hopes of exports.

Royal Marines

Royal Marines to be put under command of Army (Plymouth Herald)
£80M per year running cost of 2nd aircraft carrier to be funded by cuts to Marines (Daily Star)
Royal Marines to be merged with the Parachute regiment (Daily Telegraph)

There have been consistent rumours of cuts or mergers to the Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade as well its integrated supporting Army engineer and artillery units. The Royal Marines have been in action in almost every conflict involving Britain since WWII and 3Cdo Bgde are arguably the most flexible and effective formation in the British armed forces. Many in the Army would love to get rid of the Royal Marines or at least have them under their command. This is simply petty empire-building on the part of the Army as the Marines are integrated into the RN with amphibious operations as their primary skill. While reorganising their basing arrangements maybe tolerable, any cuts to their fighting strength is indefensible. If we really must make infantry cuts (and we should not) they should fall on less capable Army regiments. There may also be a political convenience in merging the Marines into the Army that could help disguise cuts to overall infantry numbers. The Marines have a fierce rivalry with the Paras and the institutional and cultural problems of a merger are hard to contemplate, never mind the damage to the UK’s two best fighting units.

Shore Establishments

HMS Raleigh to be closed and training moved to RM Lympstone (Daily Star)

Closure of HMS Raleigh is a rumour that has circulated for many years. Logically it would seem unlikely as it is the RN’s primary training base and has had significant investment in recent years including new replenishment at sea and boarding training facilities. Relocating it to another site would be expensive and not produce great savings in the long run

RM Stonehouse, Plymouth to close and sold off (Plymouth Herald)
RM Condor, Arbroath to be closed and 45 Commando moved to RM Chivenor, Barnstable (Daily Star)

Choosing from an unpleasant menu of cuts

If you are Admiral Zambellas contemplating the governments’ mad axe men and being forced to make cuts to meet arbitrary budget targets, what could he consider offering up? All cuts are unappealing but what will cause least damage while saving most money?

  • Decommission 1 or 2 of the older Type 23 frigates – saves approx £30M per ship per year running cost and would at least temporarily help ease the manpower crisis. Would put more pressure on the already over-worked escort fleet but would be politically attractive in the long run as a smaller existing frigate force can be used to justify smaller Type 26 frigate numbers.
  • Decommission up to 3 mine warfare vessels – small cuts the low-profile mine warfare capability can be made without attracting too many embarrassing headlines and it’s been happening for years anyway. The RN’s minehunters which can deal with the ‘IEDs of the sea’ are world-renowned and we are investing in port facilities in Bahrain to support such vessels.
  • HMS Albion refit halted and HMS Bulwark put in reserve. Would make significant savings but would emasculate the UK amphibious capability. Axing the RN’s flagship without replacement could be politically embarrassing.
  • Put RFA Mounts Bay into permanent reserve – she has already been alongside for sometime lacking sufficient engineers to put to sea. If we are giving up on serious amphibious capability anyway…
  • Decommission RFA Orangeleaf, Black Rover & Gold Rover immediately – these 3 vessels are due to go out of service soon anyway. Some small savings maybe made by ending the Rovers careers right away and not sending Orangeleaf back to sea. (Update: Orangeleaf was decommissioned on 30th Sept, Black Rover is now laid up with Fort Austin & Dilligence in the “Birkenhead ghost fleet” and Gold Rover is on final South Atlantic deployment).
  • Close HMS Sultan – Narrowly avoided at the last SDSR. Potentially Sultan’s marine engineering training roles could be moved to another MoD site although relocation costs would be considerable, the land might make a few quid if sold for housing. (Future of Sultan looks reasonably secure after it was decided the Defence School of Marine Engineering and the RN Air Engineering and Survival Equipment School would stay on the site and not move to MoD Lyneham as had been proposed.)
  • Close Britannia Royal Naval College – Another persistent rumour. Putting all the armed forces officer training on one homogenous site might save some money but would badly undermine centuries of naval tradition, ethos and success which Dartmouth fosters. The iconic naval college would make a lovely hotel or health spa…