This website has been covering the challenges faced by the Royal Navy since 2007 but it is hard to remember a time when there were so many positive developments in such a short period. There are still fundamental weaknesses in the fleet but there is now a little more substance in the claim that we have a ‘growing Royal Navy’.
Yesterday while on board HMS Tyne alongside in Newcastle, the Defence Secretary announced that 3 of the Batch 1 OPVs will be retained in service. This is a reversal of the 2015 SDSR decision that they would permanently retire from service as the Batch 2 OPVs were delivered. In fact, HMS Severn and HMS Tyne had already decommissioned. HMS Tyne was reactivated in July and HMS Mersey is still operational. HMS Severn is currently in Number 3 Basin in Portsmouth, de-stored but reportedly in good condition. We have campaigned for some years to retain these relatively young ships (15 years old) in service and this announcement is a vindication of this common sense.
By retaining these ships and with the addition of five new OPVs, the fleet will actually grow by three new ships above the 2015 plan. (Assuming HMS Clyde is decommissioned). OPVs do not represent significant combat power but they reduce pressure on the force as a whole. Brexit is the prime reason these ships are being retained and it is not entirely surprising, it was announced in March 2018 that £12.7 Million had been allocated to the RN for 2018-19 from the Chancellor’s ‘Brexit preparedness fund’. (The Batch 1 OPVs cost around £6.5 million per annum to operate.) It is unclear at this stage what agreements will be made with the EU on fishing rights but reinforcement of UK territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) patrol capability is long overdue anyway. The Batch 1 OPVs will be retained for “at least 2 years” but it must be hoped that funding and manpower can be found to keep them in service for at least another decade. Post-Brexit it is likely that long-term maritime law enforcement and monitoring will be needed.OPV_Plan_2018-1
In another surprise move, Gavin Williamson also said the ships would no longer use Portsmouth as their home port but will ‘forward-operate’ from around the UK coast in ports appropriate to their nomenclature. HMS Tyne will be based in Newcastle, HMS Mersey in Liverpool and HMS Severn in Cardiff. The ships will be dedicated to UK waters and fishery protection patrols and regional basing will help them react quickly and spend less time in transit. They may need to return to Portsmouth for logistical support at times and presumably will continue to undergo maintenance periods at A&P Falmouth. Portsmouth will be the base for the five new batch 2 OPVs, but the retention of the Batch 1s may allow the new ships to be more frequently deployed for long periods overseas.
There was no mention of the future of HMS Clyde so it must be assumed she will be sold after being replaced as Falkland Islands patrols ship by HMS Forth early next year. Basing HMS Clyde in Faslane dedicated to patrolling Scottish waters would go down well in Scotland, but there is probably insufficient manpower to support this plan. Latest figures show the RN is currently 4.4% below intended strength, short of 1,350 people. A very difficult balancing act will have to be performed to find sufficient sailors to crew the additional OPVs, while bringing both aircraft carriers into service and avoiding impacts on the frigate and destroyer crews.
We have also had the pleasure to report other positive results for the RN in recent months;
- Both Canada and Australia have selected the Type 26 frigate design for their future frigate programmes. UK Industry will benefit to the tune of at least £1Bn from the Australian contract alone, while the figures for the even larger Canadian deal are yet to be worked out. The RN will be able to count on greater interoperability and shared training and logistical and supply chains which will result in reduced running costs and potentially, capital costs for the later vessels.
- After a very successful high-profile visit to New York, HMS Queen Elizabeth has completed the first two phases of F-35B flight trials ahead of schedule and exceeding all expectations.
- The RN participated in two major exercise simultaneously in October. Amphibious ships, Royal Marines and minehunters participated in Exercise Saif Sareea 3 in Oman, while the RN contributed to the anti-submarine and mine warfare elements of NATO Exercise Trident Juncture.
- It has been confirmed HMS Albion and Bulwark are to be retained along with the Royal Marines after their future had seemed in Jeopardy.
- HMS Protector is in currently alongside in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A good sign of improvement in relations that have never properly recovered since the war of 1982 and a recognition of the part played by the RN in the search for the missing submarine ARA San Juan. The wreck was finally located by a US-UK team last week using data and analysis provided by the RN. 800m down, the wreck is unlikely to be raised but photographic survey may aid investigation into the accident and help bring some closure to the families of those lost.
The RN is still far below the strength and capability that it should be for a nation with the aspirations and potential threats faced by Britain, but the OPV announcement is a step in the right direction. Positive news in defence matters is usually accompanied by a realisation that cuts will be made elsewhere, but the modest £500M extra for defence and Brexit funding may have given the Defence Secretary slightly more room for manoeuvre than usual. The Brexit storm and a level of political instability not experienced in a generation mean future projections cannot all be taken for granted, but for now at least, much of the news for the Royal Navy is highly encouraging.