Why the Royal Navy has just been cut by another 2 ships

There has been no official announcement but in early 2016 the surface fleet was effectively reduced by a further two ships.

HMS Dauntless, in commission for just 6 years has been reduced to harbour training ship status and unlikely to go to sea for some time. Dauntless has suffered the most from the propulsion defects that have plagued the Type 45s. A cure will be found and she should eventually resume a full operational role, although it is unclear when this may be. The MoD is still considering proposals for rectifying the Type 45 propulsion but it will require major work, almost certainly involving cutting open the hull and the insertion of at least one new generator set and this will not happen before 2019.

HMS Lancaster has been put into “mothballs”, or in MoD double-speak, “extended readiness”. She is being stripped of stores for use by active ships and laid up in the basin in Portsmouth where ships have traditionally awaited disposal. This is not to say Lancaster will never go to sea again. Her official out of service date is listed as 2024 and she remains in commission. She may be refitted and see further service after a few years laid up. Alternatively she may go the way of several RN vessels that languished in extended readiness for years before a final trip to a Turkish scrapyard. Lancaster is one of the older Type 23s, she had a £17.9M ‘mid-life’ refit in 2011-12 but does not carry the Type 2087 towed array sonar or the Artisan radar the rest of the class have received.

Reducing the status of these 2 vessels was not a cut mandated by government, rather a wise, if difficult decision taken by the RN leadership in the face of a manpower crisis. The 2015 SDSR supposedly promised an end to cuts but this reduction is not a result of recent policy. This is the legacy from years of commitments mismatched with inadequate resources, over-stretching the service. Both ships could possibly have been keep operational but there is such a shortage of people, that it could only be done at the expense of breaking promises. Keeping ships alongside obviously saves money but lack of suitably qualified & experienced technical senior rates is the bigger immediate problem.

Trading a temporary weakening of frontline strength for a reduction in stress on a service with shaky morale may prove to be a prudent decision in the long-term.

Retaining the best people has to be a priority, particularly at a time when the new aircraft carriers are building up their ship’s companies. If appropriate levels of manpower cannot be generated and retained, then the great plans for the fleet of the 2020s lack credibility. Overworking engineers and shuffling them around the fleet to cover gaps is ultimately counter-productive if they leave in droves for better-paid opportunities in the civilian sector with stable working hours. As comments on manpower posts on this site indicate, there is a great deal of resentment and anger amongst some ratings due to past broken promises and too much time deployed. By mothballing these ships some of that can be alleviated, this measure alone is by no means a panacea but there are lots of other personnel retention initiatives in hand. Unfortunately beyond RN control, less attractive armed forces pensions and another inadequate pay rise of just 1% are hardly helping matters. It should also be noted that stress on submarine manpower is similar. The commitment to the continuous at sea deterrent and the small fleet of attack boats leaves the submarine service even fewer options than surface fleet has for relieving pressure.

More ships are being kept in home waters so promises to personnel about leave & length of time away from family can be honoured. The effects on the frontline are visible. The priority commitment to the Persian Gulf remains but some of the RN’s regular tasks are impacted. Sending HMS Iron Duke to join a NATO group appears to be at the expense of the Atlantic Patrol Task (South). The prime focus of APT(S) is to provide reassurance to the Falklands Islands but recently it has included defence diplomacy in West Africa, South Africa and South America. Although Argentina still claims the islands, the demise of the crazed Kirchner administration offers more hope for sensible relations. Despite rumours of Chinese or Russian assistance, the Argentine Navy and Airforce are currently in a pitiful state and fortunately offer very little threat to the Falklands.

HMS Lancaster

HMS Lancaster, the Queen’s frigate conducted a very successful 9-month North Atlantic deployment in 2015. She is now laid up in Portsmouth.

A resurgent Russia with submarines and aircraft frequently probing near to UK waters and airspace may also explain why RN is keeping more of its fleet closer to home in European or Northern waters. Apart from the 2 in mothballs, 10 of the RN’s escorts were either alongside at home or in UK waters around Easter 2016 with just 3 overseas and 4 undergoing major refit. HMS Iron Duke is currently attached to Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 in the Baltic region and was recently joined by HMS Sutherland & HMS Monmouth participating in NATO exercise Cold Response off Norway. More RN vessels will be deployed on large-scale NATO exercise BALTOPS later this year. An increased commitment to NATO makes sense. While the ‘Brexit’ debate rages and the value of the EU to our security is hotly debated, it should be noted that NATO is the real bedrock of European defence.

The 13 frigates and 6 destroyers that comprise the escort fleet was already painfully inadequate, even for existing tasks and the semi-permanent absence of one of each type will just makes matters worse. Mothballing ships maybe the right choice in difficult circumstances, but the ability of the RN to respond quickly to a serious crisis in the near future is further impaired.

Main image: HMS Dauntless. Photo by Mattbuck, via Wikipedia