This is a guest post by John Dunbar who argues that Brexit and the end of austerity mark a turning point for the future of the UK, and for the Royal Navy. With some modest additional funding there are several potential ‘easy wins’ for the new government of Theresa May to consider that could strengthen the RN.
Whilst remaining fully engaged with European Partners, the UK now has the opportunity to be more outward looking while building stronger economic political and military ties with other nations. The RN has always played a vital role in supporting UK ‘soft power’ with the offer of military cooperation, and it is vital that steps are taken to re-establish that global reach. Brexit has resulted in a record low cost for Government borrowing, and this could be taken advantage of to re-invest in the Navy whilst stimulating economic activity in the UK.
With the entry into service of the two new aircraft carriers, the RN, even in its diminished form, will be by far the most powerful navy in Europe. Time should be taken to establish a sustainable ship building programme based on an appropriate RN strength that can be maintained in the long-term. A revitalised RN could help to secure European security and would be a useful bargaining chip during exit negotiations.
There are a number of immediate steps that should be considered;
A serious lack of manpower has left the navy stretched and ‘hollowed out’, with the result that valuable assets are being placed at extended readiness to reduce demands on personnel (including HMS Albion, HMS Dauntless, HMS Lancaster). Overstretch on crews for longer deployments also impacts on retention and morale. Ideally personnel numbers should be increased by 3,000 as rapidly as possible to ensure that the Navy’s existing assets can be fully utilised. The Royal Naval Reserve would benefit from a similar increase to provide some resilience and depth.
Invest in forces housing and ‘value added’ benefits for service personnel
As public sector pay restraint appears to be here for good, the RN needs to find other ways to offer the best possible quality of life for its service personnel to aid recruitment and retention. Ensuring that new service housing is built or existing stock brought up to a consistently high standard should be a priority. At the same time this investment would provide work for a construction sector that may face challenges as the economy adjusts to Brexit. The MoD should be able to get the best possible prices for work which would need to be carried out at some point in the futures in any case.
An immediately implementable inducement would be to increase the level of armed forces housing subsidy in lieu of a pay increase. This would help attract recruits and retain existing personnel in the short term. A fund should be provided to finance university degrees or high quality vocational qualifications in return for a commitment to a defined period of service.
Maximise availability and potency of the existing fleet
Building new ships takes time, so steps should be taken to ensure that the existing surface fleet has maximum availability. Once manpower issues are addressed the Type 45 Destroyer propulsion problems should be speedily addressed. These issues have resulted in HMS Dauntless being laid up for use as a training ship.
The capability of the existing surface fleet should also be maximised. This means; equipping all Type 45 Destroyers with Harpoon (while bringing forward deployment of the UK next generation anti-surface missile); installing Vertical Launch systems into the Type 45 Destroyers to provide land attack capability; fitting towed array sonar to the 5 Type 23 Frigates that are not currently equipped and installing Sea Ceptor missiles and Artisan Radar as soon as possible on all the Type 23’s.
This work will provide a stimulus to UK industry, and in particular would provide expanded activity in Devonport which could undertake the majority of the re-fit and improvement work. It will also mean that the surface escort fleet can deliver a full array of fighting capability, whether deployed individually or as part of a larger task force.
Sustain or bring existing assets back into use
The decision in SDSR 2015 to place one of the Albion class LHD’s into extended readiness should be reversed, and HMS Ocean retained in service beyond 2018, or at least in put reserve until their is sufficient available manpower. This would provide the RN with a more robust and always readily deployable amphibious capability (Helicopter carrier, 2 Landing Hull Docks, 3 Landing Ship Docks). Retaining HMS Ocean avoids the need for the aircraft carriers to undertake amphibious operation in littoral waters to which they are unsuited. If HMS Ocean needs a major life-extension refit this is work that can be undertaken in UK shipyards.
The eight Merlin HM1 helicopters that are currently mothballed should be brought back into service and modified to meet HM2 standards – work to help sustain or increase activity at the Westland plant in Yeovil, and a welcome increase in the Merlin fleet which is heavily tasked at the moment. An order for additional Merlins should be considered.
Utilise the current OPV building programme to stop ‘role drift’
The strain on the Royal Navy and RFA to meet deployment requirements has resulted in ships intended for specific roles being shoe-horned into roles for which they are not well suited, or deployed in such a way as to diminish the effectiveness of the fleet capability as a whole. For instance, the deployment of HMS Bulwark, and RFA auxiliaries, to undertake rescue missions, command and control or patrol activities denudes the RN of flexibility to respond in force or to train to the highest level of capability. Time to train is being limited by constabulary or defence diplomacy deployments.
Many of these tasks – rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean, anti-piracy duties on the East African Coast – could be undertaken by the planned Batch 2 Offshore Patrol Vessels currently being built. If the three Batch 1 OPV’s currently planned for retirement were retained in service, and the new build number increased from five to six, this whould provide enough flexibility to allow RFA and Royal Navy vessels to return to a more effective model of training and deployment.
Start Type 26 construction now and bring Type 31 programme forward
There is an urgent need to resolve delays in the Type 26 Frigate building programme. Clearly, the MOD needs to ensure value for money – but increasing the flow of money into shipbuilding in the short term to support the economy is a real consideration. Bringing forward construction of Type 31 frigates in parallel with the Type 26 construction to enable a sustained increased level of shipbuilding would also be beneficial, and see an increase in surface escort numbers which can be sustained in the longer-term.
There are a number of short-term quick fixes to revitalise the RN which would also help to stimulate or sustain economic activity over the next three to four years. These improvements will also offer a more credible capability that is badly lacking elsewhere in Europe. This could help ensure successful negotiations for the UK in exiting the European Union. A stronger Navy can also offer support in strengthening other important relationships overseas. With the cost of borrowing at record lows, this looks like a chance to invest in the UK economy while increasing the Royal Navy’s influence in the global maritime environment.
John Dunbar is an analyst with a particular interest in naval policy.
- Britain is not retreating into its shell (Telegraph)
- Worried MPs call for answers over delays to frigate programme (Portsmouth.co.uk)
- RN manpower articles (Save the Royal Navy)
- UK cost of borrowing falls on Brexit vote (John Redwood)
- Military muscle is Britain’s EU bargaining chip (the Times)