An increase in resignations and slow down in recruitment in the last 18 months means sailor numbers are declining. Here we look at some of the causes, the long-term effects and potential remedies.
Throughout its history the RN has experienced manpower issues as the fleet expanded or contracted and as the balance has swung back and forth between the attractions of secure jobs in the navy or better paid 9-5 work ashore. The 2010 defence review saw RN personnel numbers forcibly reduced by a 4,000 and not all of this was achieved through natural wastage as some people were made redundant. Of all cuts to the navy made in 2010, this arguably left the most toxic legacy and in the following decade, lack of people really began to impact operations.
Initially the RN tried to carry on business as usual but pressure on sailors and emergency drafting to fill gaps led to worsening morale and a vicious circle of increased resignations (Voluntary Outflow). By 2015 seniors had recognised this was unsustainable and accepted the need to keep ships alongside at times in order to preserve workforce morale. Another crisis was never far away but things stabilised a little and gradually management has adapted, implementing a raft of measures such a new crewing models to cope with a of permanent state of over-stretch.
There is no equipment programme, no deployment or effect that can be delivered by the navy without trained and experienced people. Even the more automated fleet of the future will still be reliant on the number and quality of its sailors. During 2022 trained strength (including Royal Marines) fell by about 1%, a loss of 330 on the previous year. This may not sound significant but assuming at least half of those people would be in seagoing jobs, that equates roughly to the crew requirement for HMS Echo and Enterprise. (This is not the only reason the SVHOs were retired). If trained strength continues a sustained fall at the same rate, it will quickly result in painful choices such as laying up frigates or keeping an aircraft carrier at low readiness.
Crash follows COVID bounce
The pandemic had an unexpected benefit for the RN as recruitment increased and VO slowed to a trickle. The strange circumstances of lockdown encouraged people to carry on serving rather than risk trying to find work in the uncertain civilian job market. Applications to join as officers increased by 34% and rating applications jumped by 28% compared to pre Covid-19 times as people were attracted by the security of military career. 6,000 people submitted applications to join the RN a the 12 months up to September 2020 (11% of them applying to join as aircrew) and 3,975 were accepted. While large parts of the economy were either locked down or working from home, the RN continued to train and deliver outputs on the frontline, albeit under difficult conditions for many.
By the end of 2021 the Naval Service had over 40,000 people on strength, the highest since 2012. Such was the surge in new joiners that for a while, BRNC Dartmouth and HMS Collingwood were also being used for basic training of ratings as HMS Raleigh was full. Unfortunately the RN was not able to scale up phase 2 training to match, leaving a cohort of of baby sailors who had passed basic but were not qualified to go to sea and hanging around until phase 2 training spaces became available.
As the graph shows, the end of the pandemic era in late 2021 saw a sudden decline in numbers as VO increased and applications fell by 25.2%. Figures are only available until the end of 2022 but outflow has noticeably overtaken intake which means an unavoidable reduction in the size of the workforce. The VO number is the more serious problem as this represents a loss of experienced and trained people that cannot be replaced quickly, even if recruitment increases.
Made in the Royal Navy
Recruitment has been reasonably buoyant over the last decade. Getting enough young people through the doors has generally been easier than holding onto them when they are older, have families and have gained skills sought after by other employers. The RN is still a very attractive career for many 18-25 years old looking for adventure, friendship, high quality training and the opportunity to gain qualifications. Excellent recruitment advertising campaigns have also helped. The strapline “I was born in [Carlisle] but made in the Royal Navy” has achieved real cut-through with target demographic. This success has not come cheap and the RN spends more than £20M per year on its campaigns. On average about 10 times more is spent on advertising to recruit a member of the armed forces than spent to attract a nurse to the NHS.
Since the end of 2021 recruitment has become more more difficult and both BRNC and Raleigh have been unable to fill all the training billets available. (Precise figures are not available as Navy Command is stalling in a response to an FOI request for recent RN recruitment numbers. FOIs are supposed to be answered within a month, but the question submitted in May has been deferred until July.)
Pay is not the primary reason the people join and is not the top factor cited as driving resignations. The impact on family life remains the primary reason for VO but, like other areas of the public sector that have consistently received below-inflation pay rises, renumeration is becoming a an issue of growing importance. People leaving the service for better pay is exacerbated by a tight post-pandemic jobs market where employers with staff shortages are offering increasingly attractive packages. 14% of forces pay is for the ‘X factor’, supposedly a premium for the dangers and special conditions of service life but as inflation devalues overall pay this is no longer adequate compensation.
The latest Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) is grim reading (especially for the RAF) and offers an insight into morale across the board. Dissatisfaction with pay has increased sharply in the last 18 months. This is primarily a reflection of the rising levels of inflation and the cost of living crisis which is particularly impacting more junior staff. Only a very substantial pay rise, of the kind that the government is anxious to avoid across the whole public sector, can really address this problem.
The total number of people are of course not the only metric for understanding the health of the force. Ships and submarines cannot deploy without a number of key personnel that must be qualified to operate specialist systems. ‘Pinch points’ in particular trades have always been an issue but experienced marine engineers continue to be the most critical shortage. There are shortages in other specialist trades but a lack of engineers is a defence-wide issue but the RN is most affected. Unsurprisingly details of branch numbers are no longer published but it is known that the number new recruits joining with the intention of serving as engineers actually increased from 1,1193 in 2017 to 1,340 in 2022.
Retaining engineers once qualified is the real challenge as there is a worldwide shortage both in maritime industries and ashore. There are various bonuses schemes in place including Recruitment and Retention Payments (RRP), Financial Retention Incentives (FRIs), Golden Hellos (GH) and re-joining bounties but further decoupling of pay from rank may be required to make technical staff salaries fully competitive with the commercial world.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary has been especially hard hit and the pandemic has resulted in a global shortage of seafarers. With its feet in three camps, the Naval Service, the Merchant Navy and the Civil Service its profile is complex and not easy easy to recruit into while pay is falling below that of commercial shipping. Between October 2021 and October 2022, the number of RFA sailors declined from 1,840 to 1,750, a loss of nearly 5% from a workforce that was already overstretched. Many RFA vessels are now operating at Tailored Scheme of Compliment (TSOC), the minimum level of crew possible to run the ship safely which can mean 70 or 80 people doing the workload of 100.
Tail v teeth
With less people joining explicitly to ‘serve King and country’, the expectations of how they will be treated have risen over time and the variable quality of the defence estate is not helping. While there has been investment at many shore bases in personnel accommodation and welfare facilities, there are still areas that leave a lot to be desired. HMS Collingwood is a recent case in point where trainees were living in squalid conditions due to the poor state of the buildings. It took media attention on the issue to force decisive action. The state of HMS Collingwood is an example result of the understandable need to focus resources on the frontline at the expense of the supporting infrastructure. The bare bones ‘fix on fail’ contract did not maintain the buildings properly, storing up problems for the future and impacting morale.
AFCAS reveals increasing dissatisfaction with Service Family Accommodation (SFA) and Single Living Accommodation (SLA) standards. Some of these problems such as dilapidated married quarters are due to ill-advised arrangements with private contractors who have delivered a shoddy service which the MoD seems to be slow to address. A few poorly maintained buildings may seem relatively trivial but if it is the last straw that drives experienced people to the navy then the impact can be long-lasting and prove to be a false economy. The RN has identified about £2bn worth of investment is required in the long term to bring its accommodation and training establishments up to the right standard.
No time to waste
Post-pandemic disruption is affecting every sector of the UK economy making it harder to recruit people and the RN is subject to many of the same new challenges as other employers. The manpower situation was just about sustainable, if very fragile, before the pandemic but there was no slack in the system to absorb the impact of the new conditions.
It would be inaccurate to characterise the situation as unrecoverable or morale being low everywhere. There are many who are having enjoyable and rewarding careers with no plans to leave soon. It is now much less common that RN personnel are being deployed in breach of harmony guidelines (the recommended ratio between time away and at home). Commenting on the situation an RN spokesperson said: “We are exceptionally proud of the high quality of those who serve and ensure the unequivocal delivery of our operational commitments. Modern employment options are increasingly competitive and we remain committed to ensuring we continue to attract the best by offering a comprehensive employment package including health and childcare, as well as subsidised accommodation.”
Every senior officer will say “people are our greatest asset” yet there still seems to be a kind of disconnect between investment in people and in shiny new kit. Besides pay issues, improving “the offer” may include changes to career structures, better incentives, more predictable deployment cycles and increased family support. The Haythornthwaite Review of Armed Forces Incentivisation is due to report very soon and may point the way to more radical changes which are needed. Implementation of the recommendations will almost certainly require substantial new funding. More than any other issue if not addressed quickly, a lack of the right people will undermine the ability of the RN to fight and win.