The hidden crisis – Royal Navy manpower

The 2010 defence review required the Royal Navy to reduce its personnel numbers from 36,000 down to around 31,000. The salaries, benefits and pensions for serving and former RN personnel amount to a significant cost, making naval budget manpower cuts an attractive naval option for the Treasury. After 3 waves of redundancies, the RN was down to 30,310 trained personnel by April this year. An indication of the low morale within the service was that the majority of redundancies were voluntary, less than 1,000 lost their job against their wishes. More than 4,000 willingly volunteered to leave the service at a time of deep economic recession and rising unemployment. While the RN was being forced to decommission warships it might seem that a reducing sailors numbers was logical. Unfortunately the manpower cut was out of proportion to the reduction in ships and even before 2010 the RN was under-manned. While the axing of HMS Ark Royal and the Type 22 frigates made the headlines, it was the loss of people that’s left the most problematic legacy the RN is now having to confront.

 “The Royal navy is perilously close to its critical mass in terms of manpower”
General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff, December 2013

As an interesting yardstick, the RN, a globally deployed force charged with the defence of the nation employs less than 10% of the 310,000 who work for Tesco supermarkets in the UK. 30,000 sailors and marines is simply not enough for the Navy to meet its commitments without over-stressing personnel or leaving billets unfilled. This can be illustrated by figures for the escorts; the minimum trained crew requirement for the Type 23 Frigates is 2,060, with 180 vacant positions. The Type 45 destroyers require at least 1,010 but are 80 people short. On average these ships are putting to sea missing about 8% of their required crew, putting additional stress on their ships companies and undermining their resilience. By design, modern warships are ‘lean-manned’, mainly through automation. It does makes sense to keep the cost of manning as low as possible and put the minimum number of people in harms way. However in combat or when things go wrong, casualties and the lack of available hands for damage control may prove critical. A small crew may run the ship adequately under predictable peacetime conditions but, in prolonged operations, lack of reliefs can result in severe tiredness affecting performance.

Supposedly reserves can be called up to fill gaps or, ideally provide extra hands in an emergency situation but the RN is already having to call on an increasing number of reserves just to meet its normal obligations. 540 Full Time Reserve Service personnel (FTRS) were active in April 2014. Having a pool of trained reserve personnel is a very sound concept. Flawed government plans to expand the reserves to provide manpower on the cheap, called up frequently to cover a lack of professionals reduces flexibility and the ability to cope with crises.

The RN’s own official ‘harmony guidelines’ state that personnel should expect to spend 60% of their time deployed and 40% alongside in their home port, with around 660 days away during a three-year period. These guidelines are routinely broken and excessive time way from family and friends is probably the biggest single driver of ‘Voluntary Outflow’ (VO) – people resigning. It is not uncommon for submarines to undertake 10 month deployments without little or no rest time, lengthy periods away from home port are also normal in the surface fleet. There are many factors that affect morale but it is understood in general crews are content when ships are on operations if the officers lead well and links to family at home can be maintained. However too much time away, poor leadership or the pressure of covering gaps can cause frustrations which will quickly make life in civvy street seem more appealing, especially at a time when the job market is rapidly improving.

Between April 2013 and March 2014 there was a dramatic rise in VO with 1,700 leaving the service, a loss of more than 5% of the entire navy. This figure is unsustainable and extremely damaging to the service both now and in the future. The loss of senior rates is particularly worrying. Although officers set the tone and direction, it is often said it is the POs and CPOs that are the backbone of fleet. Tough, experienced people who have seen and done it all, know the navy and their job inside out, cajole, inspire and lead the junior rates who get the work done. With plenty of better paid 9-5 equivalent civilian jobs available, the manpower shortages are particularly acute amongst engineers and worst of all for nuclear submarine engineers. Engineers are also most likely to resign, 10.9% of general service engineering ratings resigned last year and 5.7% of engineering officers left. In some cases the RN has only kept hold of engineers by payment of expensive retention bonuses. Undermanning creates a vicious circle familiar in many pubic sector organisations with overworked staff leaving, thus putting more pressure on remaining staff. Already stretched resources then have to be ploughed into retention, recruitment and training. The RN spent £5 Million in recruitment advertising alone last year, more than double that of the RAF or Army.

The loss of trained and experienced people causes lasting damage to the service that is hard to remedy. As the core of long-service sailors is reduced, the reputation, spirit and ethos of the service is eroded because there are simply fewer people to pass it on to the next generation.

Inevitably younger, less-experienced juniors have to be promoted quicker than is ideal and this may affect the core competence of the service. In times past the RN has shown that well-trained and motivated crews can defeat numerically superior opponents with far better ships and equipment. You can have the finest ship but if it its crew is inadequate, it can be a liability.

The RN is attempting to address these issues with various initiatives to improve conditions but fundamentally the pace of operations demanded by government will continue to exert undue and unfair pressure on sailors. Only a reduction in commitments or even drastic measures such a putting ships into temporary reserve could relieve some of the pressure in the short-term. There are plans to increase recruitment in 2015 but even if the RN is allowed to expand its trained strength, it would take several years for the benefits to be felt.

* all figures include the Royal Marines.