What to do about the disappearing Royal Navy…

This is a guest post by Dr Alexander Clarke which first appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog. Dr Clarke graduated in 2014, he volunteers for the Phoenix Think Tank, writes for European Geostrategy and British Naval History, hosts the East Atlantic section of the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcasts and tweets occasionally. 

It is an often quaffed line, ‘British Defence Spending is the 5th largest in the world’ – inferring therefore that everything must be fine. The trouble is this the amount spent is not the issue; as % of GDP Britain ranks joint 7th with Turkey, and this is all before the current strength of the pound in relation to over currencies is factored in, or the costs of wages in Britain compared to those of other nations. Nor does it account for the success or failure of projects, for projects cancelled or reduced after billions of £s have been spent because a new government or minister changes their mind. In reality though none of this matters, as the reason for defence spending is not position on lists, but for a nation to be able to protect itself and its interests as best it can when necessary. In recent years, the service most visible in carrying out these task has been the British Army, but even its visibility hasn’t be a sure security.

In 1994 the British Army had 42 line battalions, by 2014 it had 25 regular and 14 reserve battalions – after five reviews decided that more could be done with less; Front Line First (1994), the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, Delivering Security in a Changing World (2003), and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. During this time the British Army was not sitting idle, it was deployed on many operations by various governments – including fighting two Gulf wars, the second of which, like the war in Afghanistan fought at nearly the same time, resulting in long-term commitments in those theatres, as well as these of course there was a eighteen year commitment to the Balkans. Yet still those four reviews have seen a cut to the regular army by 40% over ten years. The army though has at least been granted a reserve, which is being emphasised, the RN doesn’t even have that, and its escort strength has shrunk by 51%.

The RN in 1994 had 39 escort vessels, frigates and destroyers, in service. These are the vessels which provide Task Forces with their anti-submarine capabilities, many of the air defence layers, the naval gunfire support for ground forces, and perhaps more importantly; much of the global presence and maritime security capability that Britain’s place in the world is secured by. This meant that in 1994, at any time, the RN would be able to guarantee at least 13 vessels to meet its commitments (based on the standard of 1 deployed, 1 returning/going to deployment and 1 in either training/maintenance). Whilst there was no ready ‘slack in the system’, the RN was still far more able to absorb emergencies, accidents, and the sheer random events of international relations. In 2014 the RN has 19 escorts, it has no reserve ships – it hasn’t since 1967, there are ships in extended readiness but these are regular vessels which are being kept at reduced operational status to save money. Now there has been talk that even the current strength, that can guarantee just 6 ships to meet commitments (which include at least 9 ongoing escort level missions, a number which of course doesn’t include things like HMS Daring being sent to the Philippines in November 2013), might be cut with the next generation of frigates, the Type 26 class.

Successive governments have been building a navy for peace, but forgetting the RN’s own, well proven, motto “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, which in English translates to “If you wish for peace, prepare for war”.

So what is the reason for this? Well, ships are expensive, and for a nation which has seemingly lived by the motto “economy & treasury first” since before the First World War, they can make easy targets to cost/cut minded governments. This is due their high individual unit cost – something which actually increases by fewer being built, due to research costs largely staying the same and economies of scale not being achieved. The trouble for Britain, is that there have been cuts sold to government and public alike on the ideas of a more peaceful future, and collective security. The latter of course is an insurance scheme which only works if a country can pay into it, as well as draw out – and money alone just isn’t enough. The more peaceful future, hasn’t emerged, threats that were presumed to have been put to bed, have awoken, and threats which were never foreseen are now front and centre of strategic reality. So this is the problem, but in the climate of deficit reduction, short term at least there will be no radical reversal.

This is bad though because Britain is the definition of a nation with Global Interests – i.e. it’s economically, politically and culturally, linked to a huge port of the rest of the world; partially as a legacy of Empire and Commonwealth, but also the way we have to forge, and interact with it to this day, the global economic system. This means that Britain, like nations with similar levels of interests, in order to secure those interests, has to maintain both Global Presence and Global Reach.

Presence matters, because international events, like voting elections, if you don’t turn up you don’t count. Presence can also have big advantages in building local relationships, and increasing understanding/information available on a region. It’s often easiest to accomplish from ships, as they don’t tie a nation to another like bases do, they allow you to visit as many of the states in the region that have ports, they are self-contained, often carry extensive sensor equipment that enables them to gather information and can also be used to drop off ‘gift packages’ for embassies. The ships used for this role, are often of course escorts.

Global Reach is the ability to fight, whereas Presence is usually a single vessel ‘wandering around’, reach is about aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, the ability to wage war or conduct other major operations far away from home. If the presence ships are the equivalent of the bobby on the beat, these are the riot police, water cannon and aerial support. They of course though depend upon escorts as well, a concentration of them in fact, to provide the inner and middle layers of defence, to provide naval gunfire support. The roles which provide the back bone of a Task Forces capabilities. All of this is what is being undermined by the cuts, the reduction of 12 Type 45 Destroyers, to 9, then 8 and eventually 6 might have seemed only small cuts at the time but they have had long term ripples. If 8 had been built, then the RN would have been able to guarantee 7 ships to meet commitments, if 12 then it would have been 8 – still not enough to fulfil all the ongoing escort level missions, but it would have been a good start. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened, and now there is a situation which must be addressed.

The solution to this situation therefore comes from pursuing a core and offset strategy – much as the Army has done with its new reserves. Somehow the money must be found to at least maintain the future frigate numbers, only this can keep the core strong enough to hopefully provide for what needs to be done, when it needs to be done – as well as the basis for expansion should economies provide. An offset must be sort to make this more viable, to allow for the necessary concentration of force to enable adaptation to events. An increase in smaller, cheaper, patrol and presence assets such as Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), so that these craft can take on a great part of the maritime security and presence missions – freeing the escorts to concentrate on war fighting, and higher risk missions.

In addition to this, the most must be made of assets available, even if the F35 suffers no more delays, the HMS Queen Elizabeth will not receive fixed wing aircraft for years. It may therefore be sensible to enquire about the procurement of Sea Avenger UAVs (an advanced version of the Reaper drones, which can make use of the same infrastructure as that aircraft) in order to provide an interim fixed wing carrier capability (if they are suitable to Short-Take Off & Landing/Ramp carrier operations), that can in time provide a suitable partner to the F35s, while in the meantime giving the fleet a long range strike and intelligence asset to enable it to maximise capability.

Type 22 Frigates disposal

Should we be putting more ships in reserve? The Type 22 Frigates axed from the frontline fleet in 2010 await to be towed away for scrapping in 2013. (Photo: Tim Webb via Flickr)

Finally, and possibly the hardest change to make, for a nation which prides itself on always having its forces equipped with the best, in 2020, instead of being sold to other navies or scrapped, some of the Type 23 Frigates (a class in which some units have served over thirty years) must be kept for reserve. This would have been the sensible course of action with the last four Type 22 frigates, but they are now gone forever. Of the 13 Type 23 vessels, 6-8 would need to be kept. This force would provide the RN with what it has so needed for nearly fifty years, slack – the ability to mobilise more strength when numbers are required. In time, or perhaps even before 2020, over vessels, patrol ships, and mine warfare vessels must also be put in reserve. This reserve will not be rusting hulks, tied to the quays, they will need small caretaker crews of regulars, and the reserve personnel which will be called upon in times of need to man them, shall have to be given regular opportunities to practice. Infrastructure wise this would not be a difficult thing to facilitate – the difficulties will be psychological, national, government and service, perspectives will need to adapt.

This work began with the British Army, and it will finish with it, the British Army is an army which has always been tempered by the fires of conflicts – in recent years, with ongoing commitments and falling strength it has been forced to rely upon, and prove, the necessity and viability of reserves. This has not been accomplished without trepidation, in fact it is still an ongoing transition – but ultimately it is what will be. If this is to be the new reality for the Army though, why can’t it also be the reality for the RN? Why can’t the RN also draw more than just piecemeal strength and succour from its reserves? Why can’t the RN Reserves have their own ships, as the Reserve Army has its own battalions, to rally around?

George Osborne’s big day out in Portsmouth
Is Britain prepared for the naval challenges of a new Cold War?