Will 2017 be “the year of the Royal Navy” ?

On New Years Day the Ministry of Defence stated: “2017 is the year of the navy”. The Defence Secretary said, “2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home.” There is no doubt that there will be some very significant milestones in the program to deliver new equipment to the RN and there are many reasons to be positive. But this is just one side of the story. While it is very heartening to see new vessels arrive, this must be seen in the context of the size and strength of the fleet as a whole.

Delivery of new kit is exciting but it should not distract attention from what is happening on the frontline at present. While the headlines are all about new equipment, the relentless demands on the RN continue and the MoD noted that 2017 will “follow one of their busiest years since the end of the Cold War”. At the peak of activity in 2016, the Naval Service was involved in 22 operations at home and abroad with 8,325 of 29,500 personnel (28%) actively deployed.

On this evidence, perhaps it should be argued that every year is ‘the year of the navy’ as the service is clearly flat out, continuously contributing the security of the UK.

In broad terms, a shortage of manpower and vessels leaves the RN stretched, but just about managing its routine tasks. More worrying is the lack of depth to cope with the deteriorating geopolitical situation. Government talks of a “bigger Royal Navy” but the fleet is actually smaller now than in 2015. Real growth, in hull numbers at least, is a vague projection for the 2030s and only if the Type 31 programme delivers more than 5 ships. Budgetary pressures may even require further cuts in the next 2 years.

We do not want to dim the excitement about the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth which will make a bold statement to the world (and be of some relevance to Brexit negotiations). The carriers have huge potential and, although controversial and subject of great misinformation, are the right choice for the RN. Unfortunately, it will be 2023 before HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves full operating capability with her F-35B fixed-wing aircraft. Ever since the order for the aircraft carriers was secured in 2007, successive ministers have used them as evidence of their ‘support for the navy’ while their size and profile provided a convenient smokescreen to hide damaging cuts and procurement mistakes elsewhere. There is a major re-equipment program underway but in almost every case the project is delivering late, either leaving a complete capability gap or the RN making do with ageing assets. Most significantly, new equipment tends to replace old equipment with a fewer number of units.

2017 will not actually see the RN gain a great deal in the way of operational capability.

Of the 9 major items listed by the MoD, almost all are some years away from fully operational status. Assuming we make it without facing a serious global conflict, then the RN can look forward to a real step-change in capability sometime in the mid-2020s. In a previous post we assertively laid out some of the problems and capability gaps facing the RN that need to be urgently addressed. We will not repeat them here but instead provide some brief context to the major milestones of 2017 listed by the MoD .

9 milestones

HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail from Rosyth, ready to conduct sea trials in summer and debut in Portsmouth later in the year

We certainly look forward to the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth which will represent a major industrial and engineering achievement, as well as a boost for a Navy that has endured so much bad news. It will be at least a further 5 years before she achieves full combat capability.

HMS Prince of Wales will enter the water for the first time in the summer as work on her continues and is due to be formally named in the autumn

David Cameron’s decision to keep both aircraft carriers will prove to be one of his few good decisions on defence issues…

Design and manufacture will begin on the multi-million pound Crowsnest, the early-warning ‘eyes in the sky’ system for the helicopters that will protect the new carriers

The programme has been advanced slightly to ensure this capability is ready just in time for HMS Queen Elizabeth becoming operational. Some commentators dismiss helicopter-based AEW but, although not as capable as fixed-wing Hawkeye, this system has served the RN pretty well since 1982.

In the summer, steel will be cut on the first of eight Type 26 frigates in Glasgow

Construction should really have begun about 5 years ago and we must fervently hope that it can deliver the ships without technical problems or delays. Whether the gamble on cutting the order from 13 to 8 ships can pay off, will be determined by the success of the parallel, cheaper Type 31 frigate program.

The first of four Tide-class tankers, RFA Tidespring – crucial for supporting the new aircraft carriers – will arrive from South Korea in the spring to undergo UK customisation work

No mention by the MoD that RFA Tidespring delivery has been delayed by a year due to faulty electrical cable installation. Despite this unfortunate issue, these four large ships should prove to be great value for money. They are desperately needed to replace ancient or already decommissioned ships.

In the spring, the first of the Navy’s five next-generation patrol ships, HMS Forth will begin her sea trials

These ships are really an expensive job creation scheme to keep workers on the Clyde employed until the delayed Type 26 frigate project begins. They are only a very marginal improvement on the ships they will replace. There would be some reason to be excited if the four relatively new existing OPVs were being retained so the RN could actually grow its fleet slightly, but this is not the current plan.

The fourth Astute Class submarine HMS Audacious will enter the water for its commissioning phase in spring

The Astute class are probably the best hunter-killer submarines in the world. Unfortunately, we will only have 7 of them. HMS Torbay will decommission in 2017 and we will be down to just 6 boats until HMS Audacious is operational in late 2018.

The keel for the seventh and final Astute-class submarine – as yet unnamed – will be laid in 2017 as work continues apace on the fifth and sixth, HMS Anson and HMS Agamemnon in Barrow

The latter part of the Astute submarine programme is now in its stride and delivering boats on schedule and on budget. Hopefully, some lessons have been learned during the lost decade and more than £1Bn wasted in the early part of the programme.

The opening of the first permanent Royal Navy base East of Suez in nearly half a century

Construction of HMS Jufair has been funded by the government of Bahrain and will be a welcome improvement in accommodation and support for RN personnel and vessels deployed to the Middle East. It is a sign of a sensible UK strategic commitment to the region but Bahrain’s poor human rights record will make the new base a focus for controversy.

2017 will see significant progress with big naval procurement projects and should generate some positive coverage for the beleaguered RN. However, scratch beneath the surface and there are still many reasons for concern. “2017 – year of the carrier” was perhaps a more sensible title for the coming year.