Figures showing the precise number of days spent at sea by the RN’s escort force in the past 6 years were published recently. Here we briefly analyse what this says about the health of the fleet and the factors behind the data.
The RN’s escort force managed an average of just 20 – 24% of their time at sea which is rather underwhelming. In the worst year, 2017 escorts spent an average 80% of their time alongside. Some wider context is needed, but having two ships laid up due to personnel shortages and the start of the Type 23 frigate LIFEX programme are the main causes.
Despite these apparently low numbers, the RN is still one of the most active navies in the world and compares favourably with almost every other top rank fleet. It is also important to remember that there is a fine balancing act between activity and maintaining your ships and the morale of your people. The US Navy has discovered to its cost that sustaining a tempo of operations that is too high can result in tired mistake-prone crews and a backlog of maintenance work that is difficult to recover from.
Between 2012-17 the RN saw a big exodus of experienced sailors leaving the service, primarily because they felt they were being asked to spend too much time away from home. A belated decision to think more long-term and “put people first” may have resulted in ships staying alongside on occasions. Personnel numbers are now going in the right direction and there is confidence that lack of sailors will not be an issue, especially for less manpower-intensive future platforms.
On paper, the average frigate or destroyer spent 81 days at sea per year in this period but of course, the tempo is not that even, with most ships in a cycle of more intense activity followed by time in maintenance. From the average must also be subtracted days at sea when the ship is on trials, work up or undergoing Fleet Operational Sea Training and is not available for operations. However some of the time when alongside will be when overseas on active operations. While ‘in-theatre’, the vessel can deliver diplomatic effect as well being close where they are needed.
With the bar set relatively low by an ageing frigate force, destroyer propulsion issues and manpower challenges, it is not surprising the RN says it is confident it can deliver much greater availability in the late 2020s as the Type 45 destroyers will have completed the Propulsion Improvement Package (PIP) and the fleet will start to take delivery of a new generation of frigates.
It is also interesting to note that, despite conventional wisdom that says “serving on a Type 45 is a shore draft”, overall the destroyers average about the same amount of time at sea as the frigates. In the years when the destroyers were less active, frigate activity increased and vice versa.
Numbers for 2020 are especially interesting. Despite the enormous challenges of COVID, the RN delivered its highest level of escort vessel activity since 2015. The frigates were particularly busy, producing the biggest total in 5 years by a considerable margin, despite 4 ships being in deep refit. HMS Montrose is clearly the star performer, benefiting from having two crews. As it has been decided she will be retired in 2022, she can also be run hard without worrying too much about eeking out her service life further. The performance of the frigates helped mitigate the low total for the destroyers, the result of two ships being in major refit as well as HMS Dauntless starting the PIP.
In 2019 the Defence Secretary said “I’ve made it very clear to the First Sea Lord one of my priorities is to get what we’ve got working”. The performance in 2020 shows that the RN has managed to respond rapidly to this instruction and 2021 is likely to see a further rise in output. The transition to a carrier group navy will inevitably demand more of the escort force. The two destroyers and two frigates on the CSG21 deployment are likely to be at sea for the majority of the 7 months they are deployed.
During this period, HMS Sutherland was particularly notable for her consistency, having spent more than 100 days at sea every year for 6 years (averaging 131 days). This ratio of about 35% at sea to 65% alongside is perhaps nearer to what the RN may aspire to for its future frigate force.