SDSR implications for the RN – The manpower situation

It is no secret the RN has been struggling with a serious manpower shortage, particularly with technically qualified personnel. The modest increase of 400 people for the RN announced in the SDSR was greeted with disappointment in some quarters and criticism that shiny new kit was being prioritised ahead of the people needed to operate it. Although the RN would undoubtedly benefit from having more people, the true state of its manpower resources is more complex than may appear.

Many pre-SDSR commentators suggested the RN needs an additional 4,000 people in order to man the fleet that is planned for the 2020s. Undoubtedly that number would be very welcome and could provide a prudent level of resilience. The actual minimum number of additional personnel the RN believes it needs to operate effectively is much lower. This encompasses a fully manned fleet, including both aircraft carriers. It must be remembered that it is unlikely both carriers will be operated simultaneously and the non-operational ship will have periods with much-reduced manning. Personnel numbers will continue to be tight, but 400 additional people, together with the measures discussed below should allow the RN to man its future fleet.

The cost of recruitment, training, salaries, benefits and pensions are a very large overhead. Few organisations can afford more people than they actually need, especially when faced with tough budget choices. In an ideal world our forces would be able to call on a far greater depth in logistic support, reserves and available people, but even with the small upswing in funds available, a large growth in manpower was out of reach.

The decision to decommission HMS Ocean in 2018 had been made a long time before the SDSR and was widely known. However it was greeted with hysteria by some in the media looking for cheap post-SDSR headlines typically “Government axes RN flagship in stealth cut” – both unfair and inaccurate. As was the case with HMS Illustrious, the RN itself had already chosen to take HMS Ocean out of service a few years prematurely, mainly in order to meet the manning requirements of the aircraft carriers. The loss of HMS Ocean without replacement is very regrettable, but prioritising two brand-new 65,000 tonne strike carriers ahead of an ageing 22,000 tonne assault ship is the sensible choice when hampered by limited resources.

HMS Ocean is a prime candidate to be put into reserve in 2018, a relatively simple ship with a few years service potentially left in her. Although fitting the spacious QE class aircraft carriers for a dual-role as assault ships is quite feasible, their employment on amphibious operations is tactically unsound. HMS Ocean was built cheaply in the 1990s (£150M) to mercantile standards and perhaps the RN should argue for a similar low-budget replacement and the additional crew in SDSR 2020 or 2025.

The action taken to improve morale and stem the haemorrhaging of personnel in the last few years will take time to have an effect but there is already some evidence of improvement. The 9-month ship deployment plan was initially controversial, but the upside was a guarantee of 16 months serving around the UK before going overseas and a two-week mid-deployment break. Allowing families to make concrete plans is a major benefit of this system, particularly appreciated by the older members of ships companies. Three ships have now completed a 9-month deployment and the feedback has been mostly very positive. The RN remains determined to keep its promises to personnel and whenever possible, put people before programmes.

Alongside numerous initiatives to improve morale and retention there is some re-deployment of existing personnel into new roles. Certain branches have an excess of people and they are being encouraged to move branches where there are ‘pinch points’. This has the potential to meet some of the ‘gapping’ problems although obviously this is only an option for some people and some trades. The decision to release 300 officers in exchange for 600 new ratings was made in advance of the SDSR, another intelligent measure that will add to strength but does not demand additional funds.

Another often overlooked factor in the manpower discussion is that the RN has been able to avoid declining to the 29,500 strength specified in the 2010 SDSR. The official number of people the RN is permitted to employ, decided in the annual planning round called its ‘liability’, should ‘bottom out’ in 2015 at 30,270. This figure should climb slightly in coming years.

Unfortunately official figures show the RN will not be able to meet its liability this year and currently has over 500 vacancies. The manpower crisis peaked last year but the service is still suffering the hangover and fighting to retain enough of its best people. VO (Voluntary Outflow) for ratings reached around 7% in early 2014 but had reduced slightly to 6% by October this year. There is optimism that the new retention measures will see VO continue to fall. Officer VO is fairly steady but at a more sustainable 4.5%.

After a pretty satisfactory SDSR outcome, the RN leadership was able to deliver a very positive message to its people. Although still lacking in some aspects, the RN can still offer a pretty exciting and diverse career that will appeal to many. By the late 2020s the fleet will mostly be very modern vessels with advanced technology and accommodation standards undreamed of not long ago.

It is naive to expect that the promise of working with high tech kit will be enough on its own to retain people, but the RN is working hard to make life in a blue suit as attractive as possible.

You do not have to look far for bad news about the RN and there has been a landslide of justifiable negative news stories, particularly since 2010. Naturally this has not helped in efforts to raise morale and retain good people. There is a fine balance between highlighting the serious deficiencies in our maritime defences while promoting the bright future and excellent work of the RN. Retention is now one of the biggest concerns for the RN in the short to medium term. This problem must be overcome quickly to remain a credible fighting force and for the grand vision outlined in the SDSR to be properly delivered.