The big picture for the Royal Navy leading up to the 2015 SDSR

This guest post by the DefenceSynergia (DS) RN Editorial Team looks at the history of cuts, compromise and decline experienced by the RN in recent times and hopes for better strategy and policy to inform the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The way forward

DefenceSynergia (DS) believes that to target a specific level of defence spend (% GDP) is unhelpful, it is preferable to ensure that all 3 services are best integrated to form a seamless defence package that meets the operational requirement in the context of a Grand Strategy that drives realistically achievable Defence Planning Assumptions.

Our analyses have led us to one major conclusion concerning national security planning. In an absence of a clearly defined policy, we seem wedded to an expeditionary warfare doctrine which of itself suggests a maritime and air strategy. Sadly, the assets needed to meet this challenge have been ignored or under-resourced, none more so than those operated by the RN.

In the last two decades the size of the RN fleet has largely been decided, not by strategic, defence or foreign policy considerations but by treasury allocation of funds overseen by chancellors who appear to have little understanding of, or interest in, the maritime defence of the United Kingdom. It can be argued that the present incumbent has no empathy with any of the three services and it is probable that, like a number of other present cabinet ministers, mistakenly sees ‘soft power’ as a much more attractive proposition to spending on ‘hard power’.

Dubious decisions dating from the mid-nineties have led to the reduction of SSNs to seven, the long and costly delay in the carrier programme, the delay in construction of the Type 45 destroyers and their subsequent reduction in numbers from twelve to six, and the reduction of RFA Bay class Landing Ship from five to four, later reduced to three by the sale of RFA Largs Bay to Australia. In addition, the slowing of the building of the Astute class has led to additional costs of over £1bn, money which should have built an eighth boat.

Failing to learn the lessons of earlier cuts…

To examine how and why such a position has been reached, one has to turn back the clock to the mid-seventies. Around 1976, the major single item in the through life cost of a warship became, for the first time, the cost of the crew. One result of this was to be the demise of steam propulsion in the surface fleet as alternative and less manpower intensive methods of driving surface ships became viable. Coupled to this was an aspirational drive towards lean manning without affecting the ability of the ship to fight and, if necessary, survive in a hostile environment. Despite the final removal of a strike capability with the disposal of Ark Royal IV at the end of 1978, the RN maintained a well-deserved reputation for surface and sub-surface anti-submarine operations, the skills of which were honed in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The year 1982 saw further reductions posited for the surface fleet and it is no exaggeration to suggest that the Falklands war saved the Navy from the worst excesses of the ‘Nott Review’. What the conflict did illustrate was the paucity of assets; the short-sightedness of the cancellation of CVA-01 carriers; just how the lack of appropriate modern equipment, support shipping and a proper integrated air group could hamper a task force. In 1982 a disaster was only averted by the professional skills of those who overcame the shortcomings in not having true “Carrier Strike” to support the amphibious forces and their escorts.

The lack of airborne early warning (AEW) in the carrier inventory had two main consequences: the battle group had to be stationed well to the east of the islands, thus restricting the range outwards to the west [threat source] of its aircraft, and little warning other than a minimum provided by Type 42s with their obsolete type 965 radar stationed up threat of the carriers. The results are of course well known. Two Type 42s sunk, one damaged by an unexploded bomb, HMS Broadsword holed in the hull and flight deck, and the loss of helicopters and vital equipment caused by the destruction of Atlantic Conveyor. A further 2 Type 21 frigates were sunk in San Carlos water with RFA Sir Galahad elsewhere. The RFA deployed most of its fleet, but the fact remains that strategic lift, forward repair, and specialised transport all had to be supplied by ships taken up from trade (STUFT). The UK’s ability to do this will be much more difficult to achieve in 2014.

The lessons which should have been learned have not been fully applied when one examines the configuration of the Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) and, no one seems to have paid much attention to the events 1982, nor to the application of air power from the sea by our closest ally the USN.

Post-Cold War decline

The demise of the Soviet Union led inevitably to the ‘peace dividend’, closely followed by the reduction of RN personnel, and the decimation of the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR). Minesweeping, including EDATS and DATS (deep armed team sweeping) expertise which was provided by the RNR was consigned to the dustbin, as moored mines were suddenly no longer considered a threat. Where the large stocks of former USSR mines had disappeared to is still to this day the focus of much conjecture, but officially they have gone. Following on from this was an inevitable and justifiable defence review, SDR98. It was to lead to the replacement of the Type 42s, originally by Project Horizon; the modernisation of the UK’s amphibious warfare (AW) forces; a carrier programme for two strike carriers; the construction of 10 SSNs; the continuation of the Type 23 build, to complete at 16 hulls. The RFA re-equipment programme envisaged 6 new fleet tankers; 3 joint sea-based logistics vessels; two fleet solid support ships (dry stores, ammunition and victuals). No actual mention was made of air stores but it is assumed they would be included in the solid support inventory. The proposed primary casualty reception ship did not really feature and simply became a casualty herself. The manpower problem originating in a 3 year moratorium on recruitment last century has affected the ability to complement ships fully according to their complements all the times. Suprisingly when ships were sold and scrapped their skilled crews were also released instead of building up ‘skill’ reservoirs and resilience in numbers allowing for better ‘Harmony’ conditions and morale.

As could be expected, the inevitable happened: SSNs became 7, via 8. Type 45s reduced from 12, through 8 to a final six. The rather pathetic official reason offered by MOD was that they “had under-estimated the capability of the ships”. Three Type 23s were sold to Chile (hence the like for like replacement figure of 13 frigates for the Type 26 programme), all as a necessary reduction to afford the QEC funding. Despite this, main gate and the commencement of construction continued to be delayed with inevitable cost increases to the taxpayer. The Amphibious Warfare project was luckier: both Albion and Bulwark were completed, as was Ocean, although she was actually in advance of SDR98. However, only 4 Bay class LSD(A)s were built, rather than the five projected. The MCMV fleet was reduced but is now most highly ‘prized’ by our Allies in the Middle East.

Further turbulence in the wake of the 2010 SDSR

The ill thought-out and financially driven SDSR 2010 has had predictable results. The early paying-off of Ark Royal V; the reduction of frigates from 17 to 13 (disposal of 4 batch 3 Type 22s); the laying-up of one LPD; the sale of one LSD(A)to the Australian government; the immediate withdrawal of the Harrier force despite efforts to re-generate some limited form of Carrier strike; the delay in the RFA programme now standing at four 37,000 tonne tankers (under construction) and 3 future solid support ships of circa 40,000 tonnes “by the end of the decade”. What is perhaps most worrying is the reduction in the manpower ceiling to around 30,000 RN personnel (7,500 of whom are Royal Marines) which will undoubtedly mean the operation of only one LPD at any one time, and probably lead to the non-replacement of HMS Ocean, the RN’s only dedicated Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH).

An example of the result of these reductions in both funds, people and equipment was illustrated late in 2013. A cornerstone of current naval policy is the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), the actual ineffectiveness of which, in a real emergency, was exposed during the devastation caused by a typhoon in the Philippines. This group was already on annual deployment, and in the Indian Ocean. One of its stated purposes is to give assistance in just such an emergency, however, the RFTG had neither the equipment, people nor the rotary wing assets to deploy as a group to provide humanitarian aid. Indeed, only HMS Illustrious was able to sail to the emergency, as most of the group had already been tasked to cover other commitments east of Suez. In 2014 the RFTG Cougar deployment is even weaker, short of helicopters, has no RN surface escorts permanently allocated to it, relying on a single German navy destroyer.

Furthermore, for some time now, operational frigates have been tasked “back to back” when not in refit or working-up. Normally this means being circa six/seven months in the Gulf/Horn of Africa, the South Atlantic or the Caribbean. What is now proposed is a nine-month deployment in a three year cycle, with mid-deployment leave. What is totally unclear is what a particular ship will be doing over the balance of 27 months or how harmony balance for individuals changing from one ship to another because of the requirement to fill manpower gaps (shades of trickle drafting?) will work? Morale is suffering and recruiting/ retention more difficult. One can only assume that the prediction of too many tasks and too few ships is now reality.

From October 2014 a slightly desperate measure sees several US Coast Guard enlisted personnel joining Type 23 frigates for 36 month accompanied tours to help relieve manpower shortages.

Engineering shortages are acute. Voluntary outflow from engineering branch is soaring. The percentages for GS engineering rates are as follows: 2011/12: 4.9%; 2012/13: 7.3%; for the twelve months to March 2014: 10.9%. The RFA are in a similar position with RFA Fort Rosalie which has just completed an extensive refit and RFA Mounts Bay, unable to go to sea for a lack of engineer officers. It has to be asked if the right terms and conditions are now on offer to attract the right people and if the uncertainties of careers in both the RN and RFA make these jobs much less attractive than they were in the past.

Compromised future concepts and capabilities

Admiral Zambellas said the following after the naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth early in July:..“I think the mistake is to see QE as a ship, because she’s not. She’s a moving military base, a symbol of British intent. I think that is going to have to be the cultural shift to get our heads around in the next couple of years as we bring her into service.” Is there any evidence of a cultural shift?

The CO designate Commodore Jerry Kyd said in part of his speech on the same occasion…“For me, as the ship’s captain, I think the challenges will revolve around the core ship’s company, which at about 700 people, is uniquely small for a ship of this size. This will drive an innovative and different way of working on board which the Royal Navy has not been used to. How we man the ship at action stations, how we fight fires, and how we conduct engineering rounds, will all, I think, be challenges which will lean on technology more than previously done.” This is one of the most innovative actions taken by the RN and harnesses technology, but needs sufficient people with skills. In the current strength, the RN does not seem to have manning for complement billets, let alone any resilience or ‘battle damage’ replacements.

Commodore Kyd goes on to state that the raison d’etre is fast jet carrier strike but that the concept of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) will mean that both QEC vessels’ have wider roles. This is part of SDSR 2010’s exploitation of the wider utility of carriers as agile and rapidly reconfigurable joint operating platforms. Commodore Kyd went on to say that he envisages that the carriers will carry 24 F-35Bs plus 9 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Merlins (there is no mention of Crowsnest AEW) in the strike role, albeit that the ship could take 36 aircraft to sea if required.

It is interesting to note that CEPP also requires the carriers to be re-tasked in the LPH role, a fact confirmed by Rear Admiral Russ Harding, ACNS (Aviation and Carriers), and Rear Admiral Fleet Air Arm. The apparent priority is thus: to reinstate carrier strike capability [a dubious intent with only an F35B/Merlin-Crowsnest air group] but also to convert the ships for other roles. CEPP reflects this intent. It will realise a capability to embark a high end carrier-strike air-wing; it will be able to transition through a hybrid mode where the number of rotary wing aircraft is increased, and the number of jets reduced, going right through to an all rotary wing capability. Will we also see davits?

The die seems well and truly cast for the carriers; catapults and arrestor gear (CATOBAR) on either ship would appear to be incompatible with the CEPP concept. This leaves the fleet with a very much reduced strike and long range air defence capability than the CATOBAR-fitted carriers of the US Navy. One hopes the requirement to change air roles can take place close to the bases of the various airframe types; quite how it could be achieved many miles from home waters is, to the writers, a mystery. The plan also assumes the F-35B is made operationally acceptable and that the Automated Logistic Information System (ALIS) is finally made to work and allocated to each carrier.

Current planning does not allow for HMS Ocean to be replaced, and her complement of circa 300 will, along with that of Illustrious, be integrated into the crews of the new carriers It is also clear that the LPDs will continue to operate on a “one at sea and one at extended readiness” for the foreseeable future. One carrier, one LPD is there a theme here?


Maritime operational strategy is weak. While the political lead on defence policy is shambolic, the RN could also do better. Lessons from history should be learned – be “Henry Leach clear” on the fundamental operational requirements for a balanced RN that is designed to achieve: Strategic Strike (Trident), Carrier Strike, Submarine Strike, Amphibious Strike, specialist shipping and logistics, logistics, logistics. A maritime strategy demands that the nation is able to make a full contribution to her alliances whilst at the same time defending the security of her own territories.

Soft and smart power are all very well for politicians in their interminable conferences; when it comes to bullies, of which there are plenty, only military muscle is persuasive. We urge politicians and planners responsible for the 2015 SDSR to recognise this and resource the RN to properly support this clearly defined maritime strategy.