The University Royal Navy Units – student yacht club or valuable asset?

The 15 University Royal Navy Units (URNU) provide an opportunity for students to go sea and to broaden their naval understanding. Against a background of constrained funding for the navy, there are some who perceive this as an indulgence of limited value because the URNU does not exist for primarily for recruitment or operational purposes. Here we examine the real value and wider benefits the units offer.

Each of the three armed forces operates University Armed Service units (USUs). Each University Royal Naval Units (URNUs) is independent but under the command of Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. (There is liaison with Universities via the Military Education Committees (MEC)). URNUs were established with the primary purpose of helping students to understand the navy and to develop the leaders of tomorrow. URNU are not intended as an officer recruiting organisation and there is no obligation to join the RN, although obviously it is promoted as a possible career option. Typically each unit will contribute two successful officer candidates each year to begin training at BRNC. On average, a unit has 4 training officers and 51 cadets, recruiting about 17 new entrants each year to replace those graduating. Nationally there are around 880 URNU members but this represents a tiny percentage of the 2.2 million students in the UK. There is some fluctuation in numbers as students may take 3, 4 or 5-year degrees or masters. In some ways, the URNU is like any student society and students who are either ineligible for full membership or who cannot fulfil the training commitment may join as unpaid associates.

The main vision of the URNUs is to provide maritime experience to students and share some of the ethos and values of the RN with those likely to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Some of the students will go on to successful carers and become influencers in wider society. In a nation where the RN’s visibility is receding, it is important, particularly at elite levels, to have advocates with a sympathetic understanding of the navy informed by experience.

Providing a disciplined but fun learning environment is attractive to many young people and benefits both their development and the navy. Besides pay, membership of the unit offers the opportunity to go to sea, learn seamanship, navigational and leadership skills, travel, visit frontline naval vessels as well as a plenty of social activities. Cadets may also be involved in public ceremonial or promotional events, and charitable work.

Each of the URNUs are affiliated to a regional group of Universities dispersed across the UK and draws students from the HQ institution or others located up to one hour’s driving distance from the unit. In addition to classrooms for lectures and training near to the HQ university, each unit has a nominated P2000 fast patrol boat which is used extensively for afloat training.

URNUs-listing-2

Joining

Students are normally recruited from one of 64 universities at their societies freshers week. Those indicating interest are invited to attend an introductory evening where they are given more insight into the organisation. Candidates wishing to apply must be 18, on an undergraduate or postgraduate degree programme at a UK university and fit the nationality criteria. They must complete application forms, a medical and sit a selection board chaired by the URNU Commanding Officer. This process is considerably less demanding than joining the regular forces and URNU medical standards are lower because their main mission is to educate rather than recruit. Students must be able to pass the Military Swimming Test (MST) conducted at the first New Entry Weekend, normally held at BRNC.

Cadets are expected to attend at least 24 days of training per year and this should include a 12 day continuous training period, which is normally completed on a P2000. There are typically 16 drill nights each year and at least one sea training weekend per term. As far as possible the timetable is structured around normal student terms, exams and holiday periods. Cadets may sometimes be excused drill evenings if their CO is satisfied pressure of studies is an issue. Cadets are paid for their time and receive travel expenses, earning a bounty payment if they attend the full 24 days each year.

On entry, students are known as Officer Cadets and work towards completion of the URNU Officer Cadet Task Book (and wear URNU tabs only). On completion, they wear URNU tabs with Officer Cadet white tabs above. They then work towards becoming ‘Honorary Midshipmen’ and when qualified, are entitled to wear URNU tabs with Midshipman’s sliders.

  • Cadets learning navigation, HMS Ranger, 2016.

  • Cadets at the helm, HMS Example, 2018.

  • Danish frigate HDMS Iver Huitfeldt and HMS Example, one of seven 1st Patrol Boat Squadron P2000s that participated in the large-scale NATO exercise BATLOPS, Baltic Sea, June 2018,

  • Helicopter winching exercise, HMS Tracker, Loch Ness, 2017.

  • HMS Tracker enters a lock in the Caledonian Canal, Scotland, 2017.

  • Officer cadets are treated to a visit by the Secretary of State for Defence on board HMS Biter, 2015.

  • HMS Trumpeter participates in the Thames Royal River Pageant, 2015.

Controversies

Critics of the URNUs suggest that the funds could be deployed better elsewhere in the navy. Even the small regular manpower requirement for the URNUs is now under scrutiny. There has always been a debate about the value of cadet units going back decades. Many of the benefits to the RN may be intangible or at least hard to quantify, especially financially or in terms of operational effect. Since the capability of the P2000 boats is very limited, the advantages of ‘showing the flag’ and ‘training civilian leaders of tomorrow’ could be perceived as luxuries.

URNU Officer Cadets are categorised as RNR List 7 and do not qualify as reservists that could be called up. Many question whether they could make any useful contribution in time of crisis. Hardened matelots may not universally appreciate college students with reduced fitness and training standards sporting naval uniform apparently on weekend ‘jollies’.

As the number of undergraduates has ballooned since the 1990s the old idea that most will become ‘captians of industry’ is fading and today’s graduates will have very diverse career paths. Does the cost of the URNUs justify an entirely unquantifiable degree of civilian advocacy and influence somewhere in the future? In broader terms, the URNU is just like any other part of the armed forces that indirectly contribute to society through the relatively expensive training and experience they provide for people before they leave and enter civilian life.

The Benefits

Despite the controversies, the Navy board continues to take the long view that URNUs are a sensible investment and their relatively modest costs are worthwhile. The goodwill and positive experiences of the URNU are recognised and there is a modest contribution to officer recruitment. Most importantly, to retreat from the Universities would just be another link broken between the RN and wider society, another small contributor to national ‘sea blindness’.

The URNU P2000 boats do have some utility besides training platforms. Although they rarely stay at sea overnight, are constrained by weather conditions and are unarmed, they are another potential surveillance asset that can gather intelligence about activities in UK waters. P2000s participate in some inshore naval exercises and may be used to carry VIPs or attend ceremonial events. They can visit harbours, marinas and small ports that larger RN vessels cannot. This gives the RN an extended visible presence around the UK and Northern Europe and there are few British mariners who are not reassured by the sight of the White Ensign.

With the number of active RN vessels continuing to decline, there are ever-diminishing command opportunities for its officers. Captaining a P2000 boat is a very useful experience for a young lieutenant who may have to wait a long time for the next command or, statistically more likely, will never gain another command. Axing the P2000s would further constrain the options for the important initial career development of junior officers.

Frisky and photogenic vessels – HMS Smiter offshore at Bournemouth Air Show, 2016.

The P2000 – a tidy little package

The P2000 (or ‘Archer class’) fast patrol boats form the 1st Patrol Boat Squadron (1PBS) headquartered in Portsmouth. Since 2014, the boats are independent of the units. Instead, the units are supported in a more flexible way from the pool of 1PBS boats that may conduct a range of other naval tasking. They were based on the design of a coastguard cutter built for the navy of Oman and 16 boats entered service between 1985 and 1988. They measure 20m in length have a displacement of 54 tonnes, are constructed of moulded glass reinforced plastic and can achieve speeds of up to 25 knots. Two of the class, HMS Raider and HMS Tracker, are assigned to force protection for submarines entering or leaving the Clyde. They have no connection with URNUs and are armed with three general purpose machine guns and have additional ballistic protection.

With little hope of funding to fully replace these vessels, in 2013 it was decided the Archer Class Ship Life Extension Package (SLEP) was the best option. The first SLEP began on HMS Biter in 2013 and the final boat, HMS Puncher completed her upgrade in 2017. The old twin Perkins CV12 engines were replaced by two Cat C18 ACERT diesels with new gearboxes and generators fitted. New stern tubes, shafts and propellers have also been installed. The exteriors have been repainted with high-performance epoxy paint and a modern fendering system has been fitted. These measures will extend their service lives into the 2030s. Each vessel also conducts an Annual Survey and Repair Period (ASRP) which includes the removing the vessel from the water either using a hoist, ship lift or slipway at various commercial boatyards around the UK.

Each P2000 has a permanent crew of five or six, under the command of Lieutenant, usually with an experienced rating acting as coxswain and second in command. Serving together for two-three years they have to work as a close-knit team in a very confined space and have each will have several duties. Although sometimes deployed on operational or ceremonial tasks without cadets, they usually embark batches of 12 cadets for training. The crew have their own cabins, but the Officer Cadets sleep in the gun-room where midshipmen have traditionally always been berthed. In the P2000s this is literally the case as the gunroom was intended as the magazine for a 20mm cannon which has never been fitted to the vessels.

The boats usually conduct several two-week deployments in the Summer, sometimes in company with other P2000s, which may be around the UK coast or to ports in Northern Europe or Scandinavia. Such deployments are usually memorable opportunities for team building and the cadets to further their training while travelling further afield.

The temptation to close the URNUs and pay off the P2000s for financial reasons will always remain. This would almost certainly prove to be a false economy, given the impact they achieve for a relatively small cost. The more young people given an understanding of the navy and maritime, the better. Only a small percentage will join the regular navy but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the URNU experience spreads goodwill and enhances the RN’s reputation. The P2000s are sometimes deceptively counted as part of the RN’s order of battle but although very small, they deliver a useful presence, training and career development platform.

 

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