The state of the Royal Navy today
The UK defence budget is still the 5th largest in the world and the Royal Navy remains in the front rank of the world’s navies. Government is committed to a multi-billion pound programme to provide new vessels and equipment. The RN is one of the few navies able to mount effective amphibious operations and has a broad range of capabilities. It is considered the best navy in the world in some areas of capability, particularly the high standards of its personnel and training. It is a world leader, notably in anti-submarine and mine warfare operations. It retains a fearsome reputation built on centuries of success in battle and remains the single most successful fighting force in history.
At first glance it may appear there are many good reasons for optimism about the Navy but closer study quickly reveals serious deficiencies that undermine its credibility as both a deterrent and a fighting force.
The UK defence budget has declined from over 4% of GDP in 1990 down to around the “NATO minimum” of 2% today. (The 2% figure is disingenuous because recent accounting changes have added spending on forces pensions and the security services to what is included.) While the public are more sympathetic and supportive to servicemen than ever, and this government claims to be focused on security, there is actually a lack of public and political will to properly fund the armed forces. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the navy’s budget was the most squeezed. Now it has largest equipment budget of the three services, the RN, and the carriers in particular, are unfairly accused of “sucking up too much of defence funding”.
At times the Navy has lacked the guile to fight its corner and play the political games in Whitehall against vested interests, often losing out to the other services. Past RN public relations efforts have been underwhelming, although there has been a very marked improvement in communications, particularly in the last five years. Nevertheless much of the general public remains largely unaware what the Navy does for them. Further compounding the RN’s problems is the failure by British politicians to define strategic foreign policy goals and develop a properly funded and directed defence policy to match.
Although equipped with mostly modern and effective vessels, this does not mitigate for severely reduced numbers. However good a naval unit may be, it cannot be in two places at once, a particular problem for a navy with global ambition.
The 2015 “Strategic Defence and Security Review” (SDSR) delivered broadly good news for the RN, focusing on investment for the future, in marked contrast to the cuts and carnage of the previous review. Some of the damage done in 2010 will be repaired but a lot of the equipment will not be delivered for many years. Britain must fervently hope the RN can avoid being called into serious action until the mid-2020s when it may be better equipped.
The 2015 defence review was mostly positive for the RN but very much about ‘jam tomorrow’. Unfortunatley the optimism of 2015 has quickly evaporated as it has become clear the programme was never properly funded.
The fighting strength of the RN in 2017 is at a low point, still recovering from a swathe of ships, aircraft and people lost as a result of the 2010 defence review. There is a sense of expectation as the RN awaits the arrival of two new aircraft carriers and the F-35 (Lightning II) Joint Strike Fighter. There has been a minor delay to the expected delivery of HMS Queen Elizabeth but she is due to arrive in Portsmouth in 2017. The seven Astute class submarines are first rate boats but the programme has been exceptionally delayed and dogged with problems. This has left the RN reliant on ageing and maintenance-intensive Trafalgar class submarines. For at least one week in early 2017, the RN was unable to put a single attack submarine to sea. Even when up to full strength, the critically-important attack submarine force of 7 boats is simply not enough.
Now down to just 19 surface escorts, this number is totally inadequate even for the RN’s routine tasks and allows no contingency to replace combat losses, breakdowns or the unexpected. 5 new lightly-armed OPVs will be delivered by 2021 but they will simply replace 4 relatively modern OPVs currently in service, a net gain of just 1 vessel. The RN is not really interested in building corvettes or vessels without full range of fighting capability as part of its escort fleet. When the aircraft carriers come into service they will need escort vessels to make an effective carrier task group and these can only be provided by withdrawing ships from standing commitments.
The 2015 SDSR confirmed 8 Type 26 frigates will be built, instead of the 13 expected. Orders for long-lead items for the first 3 ships have been placed and construction on the Type 26 Frigate programme is finally due to begin in 2017. This delay and prevarication has created a real risk that Type 23 frigates will be going out of service in the early 2020s, without new ships ready to replace them. A surprise announcement in 2015 was the decision to build additional frigates of a cheaper and simpler design, possibly concurrently with the Type 26. The plan is to construct at least 5 of these alternative GPFF/Type 31 frigates to keep the escort fleet level at 19 vessels, with ‘an aspiration for more’. Quite what form these ships will take, and where they will be built remains subject to much speculation.
While the huge Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier project is very good news for the navy, some of their potential has been lost through political and inter-service interference. It is officially claimed that the decision to convert from a conventional carrier back to a VSTOL carrier ‘saved’ the project on cost grounds. There may have been short-term savings but capability and aircraft options were significantly reduced, their value now hinges almost entirely on the success of the F-35B aircraft. The very ambitious development of the F-35 has been controversial, colossally expensive and considerably delayed. Unfortunately, every problem encountered (quite normal in complex aircraft development) has been magnified by media and internet hysteria, but the F-35 will almost certainly eventually prove to be a very good aircraft. Despite some concerns about the carrier project, they have great potential for improvements and upgrades and are very valuable platforms that can provide great service for the nation for decades to come. SDSR 2015 confirmed that at least 42 F-35Bs will be in service by 2023, with the MoD planning to buy up to 140 eventually, ending the constant silly jibes about “aircraft carriers with no aircraft”.
The overall financial situation for the MoD and the navy looks bleak. The weak pound will inflate the cost of planned foreign equipment purchases, particularly from the US and defence inflation continues to make major programmes even more expensive. Without further help from the Treasury, the MoD will have to find at least £1Bn savings each year for the next 10 years and it is rumoured the RN is already £500M short of what it needs for this year. Although barely begun, it is predicted that the ambitious Trident submarine replacement programme will consume all the £41Bn allocated, with costs likely to over-run.
There is a worrying lack of resilience in the fleet, with inadequate stocks of missiles, torpedoes and spares. Vessels regularly put to sea without a full complement of munitions and critical equipment is often rotated around ships. Although such a system may appear efficient in budgetary terms, an effective and credible navy needs flexibility and strength-in-depth to meet contingencies.
“The undeniable truth is that we are simply not spending enough on defence, and our sailors, soldiers and airmen are suffering in consequence” Col Bob Stewart
Waves of redundancies have left the RN with just 29,500 personnel and a lack of manpower is further diminishing its strength and resilience. This has created the familiar vicious circle where extra pressure lowers morale, causing more people to leave. The decline in warship numbers is the obvious effect of cuts but this ‘hollowing out’ of the Navy is just as serious, but conveniently hidden from public view. The crisis is particularly acute amongst technical ratings. In the last few years the RN has begun many initiatives in an attempt to stem resignations and aid recruitment. Regenerating manpower is challenging, particularly in competition with well paid civilian jobs. Wholly avoidable, this crisis was largely triggered by the foolish decisions made in 2010 and running the fleet too hard. The 2015 SDSR has given the RN a small uplift of 400 additional people. Together with internal redeployments and a plan to swap 300 officers for 600 ratings, theoretically RN will just about have enough personnel to man its future fleet. However, the manpower situation will be exceptionally tight and the planning depends on retaining its experienced people in the long-term. The unsustainable level of resignations has been reduced a little, but measures to improve retention remain a very high priority for the RN leadership. Recruitment targets in 2016 were not fully met and the RN is now around 2.3% below its liability (ie. the strength it is funded for and has agreed to maintain).
Overall the RN has some great capabilities with much good kit in the pipeline, but it lacks critical mass, has its eggs in a few very expensive baskets and is inadequately resourced for its current commitments, never mind the unexpected.
The RN has not only suffered from cuts to funding, but is also the victim of absurd industrial policy. Over the past three decades, governments have foolishly allowed the consolidation of competing defence contractors into a single giant corporation that can virtually dictate terms to the MoD. Despite the efforts of the new Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO), the MoD has limited options and has frequently signed off on poor deals for the taxpayer. The majority of MPs (with a few notable exceptions) and Ministers have little understanding of the forces and the Navy in particular. For them defence procurement is about ensuring there are jobs for their constituents, the real needs of the frontline are secondary considerations.
Despite having the world’s 5th largest defence budget, it is clear we are getting terrible value for money. British defence procurement has been plagued by waste, cock-ups and mismanagement over the last 40 years and the RN continues to suffer from this. There have been some success stories but most major warship, submarine or aircraft programme has delivered late and over budget. Although there has been a concerted attempt in the last few years to bring some order to MoD finances, there has been only limited progress in reducing the colossal waste and inefficiency in defence procurement.
There is a fundamental problem with lack of political courage to raise defence spending to match Britain’s stated ambitions and to counter proliferating threats. The carrier programme, Trident submarines and a new naval base in the Middle East all demonstrate the right kind of ambition, but inadequate funding threatens to undermine the whole fabric of the Navy and is in danger of making UK defence a laughing stock. For example, from 2018 lack of funds leaves the RN unable to field an anti-ship missile, and will in effect, be a navy unable to sink other warships. It is foolish to be investing very high-end kit, if it comes at the expense of fundamental capabilities. Brexit makes the highly regarded UK armed forces more important than ever and the global reach of the RN of assumes even greater importance. In addition, a resurgent Russia and a less certain US commitment to the defence of Europe, presents a growing danger to UK security.
Failure to properly resource the RN at this critical time is a strategic error on a grand scale.
Further related reading
- Dear Theresa May and Michael Fallon, this is how you should fix the navy… fast
- SDSR 2015 – Putting the Royal Navy back on Course
- SDSR implications for the RN – Aircraft carriers: front & centre of UK defence policy
- Royal Navy manpower – the hidden crisis
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Attack submarine force: sinking below critical mass?