The RN currently has 18 frigates and destroyers in commission and this number will fall to 17 in 2022. Here we examine the justification for this reduction and the wider issues around fleet size discussed in the December 2021 House of Commons Defence Select Committee report titled “We are going to need a bigger navy”.
Less ships = more ships
In one of his last acts as First Sea Lord, Admiral Radakin submitted written evidence to the HCDSC explaining the reasoning behind HMS Monmouth’s decommissioning that will be followed by HMS Montrose next year. Since the 2010 SDSR, governments have settled on rather arbitrary figure of 19 surface escorts as the agreed “absolute minimum” number the navy needs, yet we have now passed below that threshold. Despite retaining that on-paper strength until recently, many of the 19 ships have been unavailable due lack of people and maintenance issues. Our analysis shows between 2015-20 that overall, escorts averaged 20 – 24% of their time at sea.
Directed by the Secretary of State to maximise the assets it already has, RN analysis concluded that they could actually achieve higher levels of availability and more days at sea by removing two ships and redirecting the funds saved on their refits and maintenance to other ships. This is counter-intuitive but actually represents good management of a limited budget and upkeep capacity.
There were a number of factors that lead to this conclusion. Regulatory changes have allowed the Type 23 frigates to be operated for 6 years between major refits instead of 5. The planned LIFEX refit schedule has been plagued by delays, creating a situation where frigates would be retired just a few years after completing major refits. Unsurprisingly, the ships that have gone through LIFEX are more reliable and cheaper to operate than the older ships that have not.
Extending the lives of HMS Argyll, HMS Lancaster and HMS Iron Duke will maximise the value from their funded or completed refits and generates an additional 135 months of availability. Argyll and Lancaster have already had LIFEX and Iron Duke is currently mid-refit. They will not get new engines but will run on for another 3-5 years or so. The decommissioning of HMS Monmouth and Montrose without further refits saved around £100M which funded the extension of Argyll, Lancaster and Iron Duck in service. If the two ships had undergone their planned lengthy refits (between 2021-2024) both were due to retire between 2026-27, so their deletion has only removed 51 months of availability. These measures create an additional 84 months of General Purpose Type 23 availability between 2021-2029, a 55% increase over the old plan, more effectively bridging the gap between the oldest Type 23s being phased out and being replaced by Type 31s.
With the arrival of HMS Glasgow and HMS Venturer, the RN expects to return to a force of 19 escorts by the end of 2026. The projected in-service dates for these ships including time spent on sea trials and commissioning activity has been synchronised with planned phasing out of the Type 23s. Inevitably there will be some flexing in the schedule as it is difficult to predict the exact in-service dates of the first Type 26 and 31. Both projects are on track right now but still have major hurdles to overcome. Both also feature weapons, sensors and equipment that is new in RN service that will have to be tested and certified before they can be declared operational – unlikely before the end of 2027.
In an ideal world, the RN would be able to afford to refit and crew all 19 ships (preferably more) but this is the best option in the circumstances. There may be some consequences in overall flexibility by reducing hull numbers as the HoC Defence committee notes: “Relying on higher availability as the main solution to deliver more vessels has significant limitations. Vessels often break down unexpectedly. Surges in the number of available vessels require planning and a decrease in availability at other times to compensate; this means it may not be possible to surge vessels to respond to unexpected crises or without abandoning other missions.” This would be true except for the fact that the RN has effectively been operating a 17-ship escort force for some years with two uncrewed ships kept in very low readiness, besides those in the planned deep refit cycle. Even in the direst emergency requiring a “surge”, these ships would take several months to be made operational, assuming enough sailors could be found.
Running to stand still
The HoC Committee notes that the RN availability is being impacted by the inability of its contractors to deliver on time. All 11 maintenance projects started since 2019 finished later than planned and, while in 2017–18 just four of 11 projects finished on schedule. On average, work packages are taking about 30% longer than expected with delays attributed to “the scale of work required only becoming evident when the upkeep period commenced” and COVID. These delays are not limited to one company but are across the board including Babcock, BAE Systems, UK Docks, A&P Falmouth and Cammell Laird.
These shoreside engineering problems are not just confined to routine maintenance but also critical specialist projects. As previously indicated, the Type 45 Power Improvement Package for the first ship HMS Dauntless has taken more than a year longer than planned. Trident submarine HMS Vanguard is still in number 9 dry dock at Devonport and it is understood she will finally undock in January and rejoin the fleet in mid-2022. Her refit/refuelling is more than 3 years late and £millions over-budget with the delay having knock-on consequences for the other 3 ageing deterrent boats. Naval maintenance capacity has been hollowed out by years of cutting back and uncertainty, resulting in a lack of capacity, and most importantly, an insufficient number of suitably qualified and experienced people.
Double the Fleet?
Examining the extent of government ambition for the RN, the HCDSC is absolutely right to conclude we need a bigger fleet. “If the Navy intends to deliver all missions, especially the presence the IR specifies, growth of major surface combatants needs to double, with growth from small, adaptable vessels. The resource budget, personnel and the number of auxiliary vessels should grow commensurately. This expansion will require a significant increase in funding.” There is no doubt that Britain needs a bigger navy, given the challenges it faces but the HCDSC needs to be realistic about both political realities and what UK industry is actually capable of delivering. It is very unlikely there will be another major uplift in defence spending any time soon. Only a year ago the MoD was promised a £16.5 billion increase (over four years) which the Tories can point to anytime there are demands for more resources. In reality, this uplift is just a case of running to stand still, plugging gaps and helping deliver the existing programme rather than actually strengthening the order of battle.
Even as this new funding shakes out, the budget is still very taught and there are plenty of areas of concern. Capital expenditure on new kit (CDEL) may have risen but funding for ongoing expenditure (RDEL) has actually declined. Incidentally the promised “refresh” of the National Shipbuilding strategy that was supposed to be published “Autumn 2021” is now missing in action.
Let us imagine for a moment that Tobias Elwood and co did manage to persuade the Treasury to provide the navy with a multi-billion pound increase in its budget. Even with the cash available, doubling the escort fleet is simply not a realistic ambition, at least within the next 20+ years, given existing shipbuilding capacity, the supply chain and naval personnel numbers. The HCDSC report goes down something of a blind alley suggesting the RN build heavily armed corvettes although it is broadly correct that the RN surface fleet lacks enough offensive weaponry if ever faced with peer conflict, especially land attack missiles, and surface to surface weapons. Rather than playing fantasy fleets that are undeliverable in a meaningful timeframe, spending priorities should be the retention of experienced sailors, more investment in spares, shoreside infrastructure and logistic support, speeding up existing construction programmes were possible and up-arming the Type 26 and Type 31.