In broad terms 2019 was a positive year for the Naval Service, building on the successes of 2018. The political turmoil that enveloped Westminster left significant decisions about the future on hold but, apart from events in the Arabian Gulf, it was mostly business as usual.
The year began with the RN being called on to help patrol the English Channel in response to a rise in the number of illegal immigrants attempting to cross from France. HMS Mersey was deployed for a few weeks to carry out the patrols. Border Force vessels are far cheaper to operate than naval assets and better suited to this task, although the UKBF struggled to get two of its cutters back from the Mediterranean where they had been ‘forward-deployed’. HMS Argyll returned from a successful 9-month deployment to the Pacific region and hit the headlines by rescuing 27 merchant seaman from a blazing ship in very challenging conditions in the Bay of Biscay.
2019 marked 50 years of Operation Relentless comprising more than 350 patrols. The RN’s achievement of maintaining the unbroken Continuous At Sea [Nuclear] Deterrent and was rightly described as by the new First Sea Lord as “a staggering achievement” which has involved thousands of submariners, civil servants and industrial workers.
Held in May and June, Exercise Baltic Protector was the largest maritime exercise in the Baltic for several decades. This was the first major test of the NATO Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and involved 4,000 personnel and 40 ships led by the UK Littoral Strike Group commander in HMS Albion. The force also joined exercise BALTOPS 2019 before a final phase working with Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian forces. This kind of demonstration of NATO (and other nations) interoperability has a genuine deterrent effect for its target audience despite Trump and Macron’s clumsy diplomacy that may appear to undermine the alliance.
On 4th July the tanker MV Grace 1 carrying oil from Iran to Syria was impounded in Gibraltar waters. This action increased the threat from Iran to British shipping in the Gulf and put RN warship numbers in the spotlight. Despite having maintained a surface escort presence in the Gulf, almost continuously since 1980, only HMS Montrose was immediately ready to respond. Although driving off one attempt to capture a merchant vessel, inevitably a single frigate could not be everywhere at once. The MV Stena Impero was taken by Iran on 12th July and was only released after the MV Grace 1 was allowed to leave Gibraltar on August 15, where she completed her journey to Syria.
The strategic thinking behind this embarrassing episode seems to have been confused and compounded by a lack of preparation for the inevitable Iranian response. For its part, the RN did a valiant job coping with the emerging situation in the Gulf. HMS Duncan was rapidly redeployed from the Black Sea and HMS Kent was given an unscheduled Gulf trip. No further Iranian interference has occurred and by October, over 7 million tonnes of merchant shipping had been escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by the RN. HMS Defender and HMS Montrose remain in the Gulf at the close of the year but until warship availability improves, the RN will be hard-pressed if it must sustain more than one escort in the region permanently.
CEPP momentum building
2019 proved to be a very satisfactory year in the development of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP). Despite a significant internal flood which was quickly rectified, HMS Queen Elizabeth completed operational Sea Training and sailed on the Westlant 19 Deployment. The first UK jets landed onboard and work was begun on learning to fly the aircraft operationally from the carrier. All of the tests were passed and various benchmarks achieved during this operational testing phase. Supported by HMS Dragon, HMS Northumberland and RFA Tideforce, the deployment provided an insight into how the future UK carrier strike will take shape. This was the first opportunity for a Type 45 destroyer to develop air defence tactics with the carrier and act as fighter controller with F-35s. The ships also exercised with the US Navy and US Marine Corps jets joined the UK aircraft onboard the carrier. The deployment culminated in a highly successful trade and diplomatic visit to Annapolis before the group returned home in December.
HMS Prince of Wales completed her initial sea trials two weeks ahead of schedule and arrived in Portsmouth for the first time on 16 November. She formally commissioned on 10th December and the RN is now a “two carrier navy”, the first of which should be fully operational in May 2021.
Progress in acquisition
Besides the arrival of HMS Prince of Wales, the selection of the Babcock/Thales Arrowhead-140 as the winner of the Type 31 frigate competition was the most significant acquisition story of the year. The choice of Arrowhead has been welcomed as offering a large and proven platform with plenty of space for upgrades. (Following the announcement, we published the most detailed description of the RN Type 31 equipment fit currently in the public domain). Although progress on the project has been relatively rapid, it is now very clear that the first vessel will not be ready to replace HMS Argyll when she is due out of service in 2023. Either Argyll and a few of the older frigates will have to be run on well beyond their planned OSD or frigate numbers will dip.
The 26 frigate programme is progressing smoothly, if slowly. HMS Glasgow will be launched into the Clyde at the end of next year and the first steel was cut for the second ship, HMS Cardiff, in August. After a shaky start for the Batch II OPVs, the serious issues with the lead ship, HMS Forth, have been resolved and she is about to take over as Falkland Islands Patrol Vessel. Ship 2, HMS Medway, commissioned in September and ship 3, HMS Trent was accepted by the RN in December.
Work was started on the second Dreadnought class submarine, HMS Valiant, in September. So far work on these 17,200-tonne boats is described as “on budget and on schedule” but very little detail of their design and construction process has been made public. While the project is fully justified as the ultimate insurance policy, the £31Bn cost is increasingly perceived as submarines taking “a disproportionate share of the defence budget”. There is an increasingly strong case for Dreadnought to be funded directly by Treasury.
In February 2019, the then Defence Minister, Gavin Williamson, announced the plan to rapidly procure two Future Littoral Strike Ships (FLSS). Whether FLSS will survive political and budget challenges and remain an RN priority is unclear.
The Fleet Air Arm continued to take deliveries of the excellent Merlin Mk4 helicopter (upgraded former Mk3 airframes) and the first CROWSNEST-equipped Merlin took to the skies to begin flying trials. The Wildcat helicopter will see a significant uplift in capability next year as the Sea Venom and Martlett (LMM) missiles are due to enter service.
Availability and manpower restrain ambition
This year a series of delays to refit projects became a growing cause for concern. Nuclear deterrent submarine HMS Vanguard will not return to the fleet as scheduled because of serious problems during her long overhaul and refuelling at Devonport. Delivery of the vitally important 4th Astute-class submarine HMS Audacious will be at least 18 months late with impacts on the programme for boats 5-7. The first Type 45 destroyer to undergo engine upgrades is at least 6 months behind schedule and the Type 23 frigate life extension programme has also been delayed. A series of over-running RFA vessel refits rounds off an unhealthy list of upkeep issues that are counter to the Defence Secretary’s directive to improve the availability of the assets the RN already has. Naval sources say expenditure on the aircraft carriers is not the underlying cause of these failures and the fault lies mainly with contractors and DE&S.
At least naval recruitment was buoyant with a 20% increase in new entrants over last year. The far bigger challenge of retaining experienced technical personnel remains and in October the service was still 1,610 people short of its intended strength.
The new First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin took over in June and there are already signs that he is accelerating the pace of change, taking the transformation programme, that was begun by his predecessor much further. The removal of 5 Rear Admiral posts and a 50% reduction in personnel at NCHQ will free up extra funds and more personnel for the frontline. It will also help address the perception that the RN leadership structure is top-heavy and there has been rank inflation for roles that could be performed by less senior officers.
Other changes will see the Fleet Commander take direct responsibility for support and training, and the Devonport and Portsmouth Flotillas merged. Another frigate or destroyer will adopt the double crewing model already used for HMS Montrose to increase availability (possibly forward-deployed in Singapore). Amphibious warfare and the Royal Marines doctrine are evolving under the Future Commando Force initiative. The use of Cyber, AI, Big Data and Unmanned technologies in the RN continue to be explored on a modest scale through a variety of projects.
The election result should bring a measure of stability back to government which will come as a relief. The defence interests of the UK may have dodged the Corbyn bullet but taken an SNP shot to the head. The existential threat of an independent Scotland won’t go away and may become another disruptive and expensive factor in future defence planning. The full impact of Brexit, for better or worse is still yet to be understood. The initial effects will likely be felt by the RN when policing the fishing grounds which could become a much more complex job, depending on negotiations in Brussels.
Three out of four of the ministerial team in charge of the MoD are ex-Army. Of the 45 MPs in the new Parliament who have served in the forces, the majority are former soldiers. Many of these politicians will prove to be great advocates for the RN but there are plenty within the Army who dislike the aircraft carriers. Influential adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings is also known to be gunning for the carrier programme and previously made the wild claim that “A teenager will be able to deploy a drone from their smartphone to sink one of these multibillion-dollar platforms”. Just as the carrier project is about to start returning the great investment that has been made, the RN may be forced into a new battle with elements within Westminster and Whitehall to ensure their future.
Cummings also seems keen to join a succession of politicians and bureaucrats who arrived, like Jesus come to clear the Temple of sinners, with grand plans to “sort out the procurement mess at the MoD”. While change is certainly needed, the reformers usually underestimate just what a complex beast they are dealing with. In particular, they may not realise just how fragile the defence-industrial base has become and how few options there are for rapid transformation.
The ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ review started in 2017 was lost in the political maelstrom but Boris Johnson has announced it will be superseded by SDSR 2020 which will “seek to modernise defence capabilities while reducing costs in the long term”. This is ominous, further modernisation is urgent but should not be used as a fig leaf to hide budget-driven reductions in overall capability. The Tories promised in their election manifesto to “increase defence spending by least 0.5% above inflation every year of the new Parliament”. Only a sustained increase in spending at this level or above will avert cuts as there are still many £Billions of unfunded projects in the Equipment Plan which can’t be met by so-called ‘efficiencies’. In 2020 the RN must continue its own transformation work and hope that those guiding any new defence review are informed by sound grand strategy with maritime power at its core.