Sustaining Royal Navy manpower – the greatest challenge

Despite his usual upbeat tone, the First Sea Lord recently admitted the RN still faces manpower challenges. Here we look at some of the serious on-going manpower issues and how they might be addressed. (In this context “manpower” is shorthand for a diverse mix of men and women).


The period 2010 – 2016 has been especially problematic for the RN because it has lost too many people and is unable to replace them fast enough. Various manpower crises have arisen throughout RN history but the 5,000 redundancies forced on the service in 2010 were the catalyst for the recent crisis. Until around 2014 the RN tried to conduct ‘business as usual’ but this exacerbated the problem by putting further pressure on already under-manned, under-sized fleet. There has now been an acknowledgment that things must change and restoring morale and manning levels is a stated priority. There have been many initiatives and attempts to put people before programmes, some well received, others not so. As an example, the number of ships alongside over the summer period in the last few years is a witness to the drive to give planned summer leave to as many as possible.

In 2017 the situation has stabilised a little since the peak of the crisis (2012-14), with people joining approximately matching the numbers leaving. However new recruits will need to significantly outnumber leavers in the near future if the RN is to get to the 30,450 ‘liability’ it is supposed to have in 2020. Today the service is 820 people short of its current liability (30,320), 2.7% understrength. Almost half of the shortfall is amongst vitally important engineering personnel. The RN is 100 engineer officers and 300 engineering ratings short of what it is supposed to have. (This raises an interesting question about what would happen to RN finances if manpower was up to full strength. The money saved by running understrength is clearly significant and helping keep a very stretched budget in balance.) The issue is not just about numbers but about the loss of experience and skilled people that take years to accumulate and which no amount of new recruits are a substitute for.

“Slowly but surely people are being sent to the ships but we have a lot of very ‘new to the navy’ ratings being pushed through and getting promoted to fill gaps in ranks. It’s all very well having plenty of AB’s, however, we need the killicks and the PO’s to lead them. This creates a big dilemma, do these young ABs going into leadership roles have enough experience? They’re becoming leading hands and promoted to senior rate but in reality, some have very little experience of the job.”

The ship’s company of HMS Queen Elizabeth was originally specified as a rather miraculous 690 but, even before sea trials had begun, it had risen to 730. It is very likely that operational experience will demand further increases. The RN has prioritised the manning of both carriers above the rest of the surface fleet and, for now at least, both ships have all the people they need. Even if the RN’s modest target strength of 30,450 could be met, the manpower needs of the carriers will continue to put considerable pressure on the rest of the fleet for at least the next 4-5 years. That 2 of the RN’s 19 surface escorts are permanently confined to harbour (currently HMS Daring and HMS Portland) because of lack of manpower is a testament to how serious the problem has become. 2 more minehunters are also going to be cut from the fleet sometime before 2025 to save money and release manpower.

In 2016 the RN conducted a super-lean manning trial with a Type 45 destroyer, cutting numbers right down to just the people needed to keep the ship fighting and operational. The ship was taken through a specially-adapted Operational Sea Training period which the ship passed successfully. It was hard on the crew, being run ragged, everyone performing 4 or 5 different roles. This setup proved the ship could conduct routine operations for short spells in UK waters configured this way, although completely unworkable for overseas deployments or demanding operations. This kind of initiative is sensible in the circumstances but a palliative that will not cure the problem or strengthen the fleet.

Assuming no one is impertinent enough to demand a bigger RN than is planned now, there could be some relief on the distant horizon. By the mid-late 2020s the new Type 26 and Type 31 frigates will have a considerably lower manpower requirement than the today’s Type 23s. In the long term, the trend toward greater automation, more unmanned systems, or even unmanned ships, points to a reducing manpower demand.

For now it is pretty much a given that before even discussing any real expansion of the fleet, a significant growth in personnel numbers would have to come first.

Recruitment and retention

For the average 16-18 years old the Navy is still offers an attractive and exciting prospect and applications to join are reasonably buoyant. 13,888 applications were received between June 2016 -June 2017. In the same period 2,884 people were accepted and began training with the RN. Even if more money were thrown at recruitment, a large new intake would present problems. The waiting list from application to beginning initial training at HMS Raleigh currently varies between 12 – 18 months. There is not the spare capacity in the training pipeline. New facilities at Raleigh would be needed and experienced people would have to be withdrawn from the fleet in order to train greater numbers. There would also be an issue around how a big surge of raw trainees could be absorbed into the fleet.

The RN operates a single point of entry where everyone must enter at the most junior level and work their way up over time. This practice has obvious great advantages but is enormously restrictive when you are short of more mature or qualified people. In most other industries people are free to move sidewise in and out of different organisations at different levels of seniority. The RN has made some attempts to offer sideways entry to some trades such as engineers but could it be time to radically overhaul the entire entry system? Parachuting in 25-35-year-olds straight from civilian life to be POs or CPOs would certainly be a challenge for all!

There is perhaps a slightly misplaced faith among senior officers that the new generation of ships and exciting new equipment will help with recruitment and retention. The arrive of HMS Queen Elizabeth has certainly helped raise the RN’s profile and the opportunity to work with the latest technology may prove an initial draw and is a source of job satisfaction for some. However it is the amount of time away from family and friends, the balance between long dull days and exciting foreign trips, together with pay and general conditions that are much more likely the decisive factors on when deciding to join or leave.

Anecdotally we have also heard plenty of examples of experienced people who were let go too easily. For the sake of small compromises, the RN has lost valuable people who will cost thousands of pounds and many years to replace. (especially the technically qualified ‘gold dust’ senior rates) There are also former personnel willing to rejoin who are refused on apparently minor or unexplained grounds. Individual cases are hard to verify but perhaps in desperate times, there needs to be more flexibility and application of a less rigid rulebook. The first sign of thinking along these lines is the “Street to Fleet” initiative by which the RN hopes to attract up to 1000 former naval personnel back into uniform.

Accepting cultural changes

Old salts who complain that the delicate young ’snowflakes’ of today are ‘too soft and should just toughen up’ are not helping and should recognise there is still a significant core of fine young people serving today with dedication. It may be fair to say that a bigger proportion of younger people have higher material expectations and are less used to physical or psychological hardship than before but naval training can overcome this in many cases. Because of World War II and conscription, previous generations were more likely to have a link to the forces, probably there was an older relative in the family who had served. Together with a general sea-blindness, this link to the Navy is dying out and patriotism and sacrificial service to your country is seen as an anachronism or not even considered by a large section of young people.

Older people may find it hard to understand what a big deal internet connectivity is for young people who have grown up in an era of Snapchat and WhatsApp. Although some may scoff, it is not unusual for young people to report serious anxiety when separated from their phone. The average 18 year old joining the RN has have never known life without instant connectivity. If you are used to conducting much of your social interaction in almost real-time online, then it is a big shock to discover you are suddenly cut off from this and may even be a factor in the rejection of a service career. Although OPSEC must always come first, it is a complex and difficult issue that the RN is making some attempt to address. There has been email access at sea for many years but this is quite different from the on-demand access to everything using the phone in your pocket. Some ships have on-board wi-fi providing some limited availability. (Submariners will still have to accept long periods with virtually zero connectivity). There was a recent case of an RN warship operating in sensitive waters and was overflown by a foreign military aircraft. A young sailor onboard photographed the aircraft and put the photo on Facebook. An obvious and stupid breach of OPSEC that was quickly picked up by RN monitoring teams. This sort of incident demonstrates the pitfalls of providing internet access to personnel at sea.

The RN devotes enormous, possibly excessive, effort to present its credentials as an equal opportunities employer with a diversity agenda. Of course, everyone deserves a fair chance, but by its nature, appealing to minority groups is not expanding the recruitment pool by much. The majority of effort needs to be focused on the mainstream, particularly reaching and engaging with schools and further education colleges and with young people interested in technology and engineering.

When there are so many comfortable and attractive and potentially better-paid alternatives ashore, it is no longer good enough to say “tough luck, that’s life in a blue suit”. Many have, and will vote with their feet and leave. The RN has always had to adapt to the expectations of each generation and this can be seen in the vastly improved accommodation on modern warships. This may help a little but it is the terms of service and daily experience of sailors that really counts.

Terms and conditions apply

The 1% cap on pay rises has caused income for everyone in the public sector to fall in real terms by about 3% in the past 10 years. The government is under growing pressure to lift this cap, some public sector workers will shout more loudly than others but the forces must remain silent and have no union or collective voice beyond Whitehall. The long-suffering forces clearly deserve to be somewhere near the front of any pay rise queue. Even a small rise beyond the annual 1% would have a big impact on MoD finances at a time when there are already huge funding gaps. Without specific additional funds from the Treasury, pay rises might have to be accompanied by equipment and capability cuts. Some argue that there has been too much emphasis by the service chiefs on new equipment at the expense of operations, training and overall morale, and perhaps priorities should change anyway.

Pay levels are not the primary reason for the RN’s retention problems but it is an ever-growing factor. Just 33% of personnel now say they are satisfied with pay and benefits and this figure is going down every year. Pensions have historically been cited in the top five reasons for people staying. The reduced value of pensions has removed this incentive for people to extend their service, making it less likely the valuable experienced people will extend their engagement to a long career.

Despite the efforts to put people before programmes, the proportion of Royal Navy personnel spending more than four months away in a year has increased from 49% in 2016 to 56% in 2017. There has also been an increase in ratings not able to take their leave due to workload and undermanning. This is significant because by far the biggest reason given for leaving is “impact of service life on family and personal life”. More than a quarter of RN personnel (27%) say they intend to leave before the end of their current engagement or commission. The 2017 UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey makes for mostly grim reading and does not point to a dramatic improvement in overall morale or retention rates in the near future.

It’s  a conundrum that even Nelson would have recognised, the challenge is to improve sailors morale while at the same time delivering a disciplined and effective navy.

A view from the lower deck

It is not our place to dictate to the RN exactly how to manage its people. The RN has already made considerable efforts to put its people first. However, there is very strong anecdotal and primary evidence of dissatisfaction with management practices that could easily be addressed. Some of the complaints may be as old as time itself and the familiar tensions between all bosses and workers in the workplace, but there are some reasonable grievances. Should senior leaders be telling officers that keeping sailors happy and creating the conditions that lead them to stay in the service must be treated as far greater priority? Is this possible while delivering an effective navy that meets “the command aim”? It is often quite small issues, information, appreciation, flexibility – that would not cost vast sums or impact on ship’s programmes that may make a big difference. Maybe there are unpopular but traditional routines, practices or duties that could be dispensed without letting fighting efficiency slip?

“We are often unsure of what was happening on a weekly basis, dockies, senior rates and even officers spin us dits that lead us to believe that things are going to happen or not happen. This takes its toll on everyone. You can’t make real plans to go home on the weekends because there could be delays, surprise duties and weekend working, and so on. You could have been given a weekend off right until Thursday then be told “sorry mate” and those travel plans or and family visit is just wasted. Officers promise to let you know ‘as soon as they find out something’… but we see them leaving to collect their hire cars and going on leave hours before we know if we can get away.

Officers come down to ask the lads how things are going and tell us to be honest about problems. But yet we get told beforehand not to complain about anything when we do it is utterly frowned upon. If something’s wrong, you can’t complain”

“Another, major issue that damages morale is lack of funds for the small things. Everyone accepts we need to save money but the whole system just lacks common sense! Letting the lads off for an occasional day just for a bit of R&R or to go to the gym or travel to other places would help. Nowadays, every tiny bit of leave needs to be accounted for on JPA, every half a mile traveled has to be accounted for. Daft things like if you travel from base to base, you’re entitled to a food allowance but if you’re traveling to play sport representing the ship it’s out of your own pocket. It’s a battle to get everything, from basics like pillows and curtains to proper cleaning gear, to  bigger items the ship needs like weapon kits”

“those that do dip in.. and the ones who get to do the things the navy should do, live the best life ever. The runs ashore, the dits, the work, utterly incredible. I know lots of lads who adore the navy, and will stay in. The good times far out way the bad times. More thought could be given to making sure everyone gets good experiences and exciting overseas deployments. Life in the navy can be so so good, but there needs to be more consideration.”

‘Jack’, a rating currently serving in the surface fleet