Ahead of the First Sea Lord’s conference for RN personnel held on 10 September, Admiral Tony Radakin posted a series of Tweets highlighting progress in transforming the navy. This is a brief analysis of his messages and the state of the RN right now.
“The Defence Secretary challenged me to improve availability. We now have Fewer Admirals. A Bigger Navy. On Budget. Recruitment up. Retention up. More Sea Days. More People on the Front Line. More Stability. Better Availability. All Despite Covid. “
The RN has been seen as rather ‘top-heavy’ for some time. There has also been a problem with ‘rank inflation’ with some jobs done by people of higher rank than necessary. The headcount at NCHQ has been cut and the number of managers is now more in proportion to the size of the fleet. What was not always fully understood in the criticism of “too many Admirals” is the number of important jobs with major responsibility, many of which are not operational but managing complex projects in procurement, personnel, the MoD, Joint and NATO commands etc. Cutting Admirals and support roles will only be judged a success in the long run if delivery is maintained and improved. These reforms lay down a challenge to the Army and RAF to do the same and is a popular move with politicians and taxpayers.
The claim that the RN is “bigger” is the more contentious, bigger than the time of Henry VIII? There has been a growth in overall tonnage since the low point around 2015 helped by the sheer size of the carriers and personnel numbers have risen slightly. In terms of combat vessels, besides the carriers, the RN is now down to 12 frigates (with another to go next year), 6 destroyers and just 6 SSNs. The OPVs fleet has increased by retaining the Batch Is but the remaining 11 mine hunters are being phased out in favour of autonomous systems. Although frigate numbers will eventually rise, the RN actually has fewer active ships now than in 2019.
Maintaining almost normal outputs in the face of the pandemic that has made everyone’s lives more difficult is an achievement the RN can be proud of. Both retention and recruitment was improving slowly before the pandemic hit but outflow all but stopped and applications rocketed as a result of COVID. As the UK economy picks up again and job vacancies are rising, the outflow figures will be an acid test of whether efforts to create better conditions for those serving are paying off. Recruitment has almost been too successful, with lots of baby sailors passing Phase 1 basic training but some left kicking their heels awaiting sufficient Phase 2 training places to become available.
“In the Submarine Service, we have maintained unbroken continuous at-sea deterrence for the 52nd consecutive year.”
Because it has been sustained for so long it is almost taken for granted but CASD is a staggering achievement involving surmounting all kinds of technical, personnel and logistic challenges on a daily basis. No-fault of the RN but the decision to delay starting construction of the Dreadnought class will make the next 5-10 years even tougher as the Vanguard boats age. HMS Vanguard has still yet to emerge from Devonport. Nearly a year overdue already, her major refit and refuelling proving more problematic than expected.
“Both Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are now operational. On schedule. Fully crewed. With jets when required.”
Bringing the carriers into service has mostly been an incredible success story for the RN. Not only Radakin but his predecessors going back two decades and a vast army of contributors have made it possible. At the time of writing, both ships have jets embarked and the RN is becoming a carrier-centric navy again. Everyone would like to see more F-35s at sea and sooner but delivery is constrained by funding, industry and the aircrew training pipeline. In the short-medium term, the ‘tip of the spear’ is somewhat blunt as the F-35 awaits integration of the Meteor BVR air-air missile, SPEAR-3 and ideally a stand-off anti-ship/land-attack cruise missile.
“We are delivering across the board. May and June 21 saw the highest number of days at sea for the surface flotilla in seven years. We are piloting a 25-30% reduction in the next frigate upkeep period, maximising maintenance efficiency and driving up available sea time.”
The CSG21 deployment began in May so it is not surprising that the surface fleet achieved high levels of activity in this period. Unfortunately, this is not sustainable at all times and will likely be accompanied by reduced activity for a few months when the group returns in December as the regeneration process begins. It is the long term trends that are more important. Overall frigate and destroyer availability has slightly increased during Radakin’s tenure (averaging 24% of their time at sea in 2020) but ships still spend too much time alongside. Anything that can reduce the time spent in maintenance is to be welcomed but it will be uphill work. Most of the Type 23s have completed LIFEX refits and more multi-crewing may help in the near term but in the medium term, the ageing frigate fleet will present more, not less maintenance challenges. Only in the very late 2020s with the arrival of new frigates can availability be expected to really improve.
“Type 45 has been a tougher story. Individual deployed ships have improved enormously. And the ships are hugely capable, which is why we are investing more to upgrade the propulsion to allow 4 from 6 ships to always be ready for operations by 2026.”
The medium-long term outlook for the Type 45s is good with the propulsion issues resolved and Sea Ceptor being fitted between 2026-32. The picture is disappointing right now with HMS Dauntless still in Birkenhead as the PIP engineers struggle to integrate the new diesel generators. As the first of the class to undergo the process, difficulties were to be expected but it now seems she is unlikely to be back in Portsmouth before early 2022, the “6-month” project having over-run by about a year. HMS Daring was brought out of the tidal basin in Portsmouth for the first time in 4 years last week. She has no ships company and will soon be towed to Birkenhead to start her PIP. She will then have to return to Portsmouth to complete her main refit and will probably not be operational before 2024. HMS Duncan is in the final stages of a very challenging major refit. HMS Dragon has been active this year and is likely to participate in exercise Joint Warrior at the end of the month. HMS Defender has had an outstanding CSG21 deployment so far while HMS Diamond is set to rejoin the CSG after a delay of 7 weeks repairing a major engine defect in Italy.
“All five Batch 2 Offshore Patrol Vessels are in service and are deployed on permanent operations.”
All 5 of these ships have now left UK shores and are unlikely to return for many years. HMS Forth (Falkland Islands) HMS Medway (Caribbean) HMS Trent (Mediterranean) HMS Tamar and Spey (Indo-Pacific). Relatively large ships, very economic to run with good sea keeping and endurance, they are ideal for constabulary, diplomacy and humanitarian missions. It should be remembered these are in no way a parallel of the Royal Navy’s cruiser deployments of the 20th century and lack the weaponry to contribute to the balance of military power wherever they are.
“At the end of this year, we will have achieved a 60% increase in RFA operational availability over the last 4 years.”
This improvement is largely down to the four brand new Tide-Class tankers overcoming initial teething problems and settling down in service. RFA Tideforce is the last of the 4 ships currently undergoing final inaugural inspection and refit at Cammell Laird. RFA Tidesurge will join RFA Tidespring in supporting the latter stages of the Carrier Strike Group deployment. RFA Argus is due to go in 2024 without replacement and RFA Wave Ruler remains laid up, while the delivery of the first Fleet Solid Support ships slips further into the future.
“We are shifting 15% of our workforce from shore to sea. We are changing our promotion system to be more skill-based than experience-based, allowing our extremely talented workforce the opportunity to advance more quickly. We will employ multiple crew models on more ships and submarines to improve stability and certainty for our people, as well as availability. With multiple crewing of ships and submarines we will give our people more certainty, more stability and less churn.”
No one would argue that the RN should strive to maximise resources on the frontline, although even fewer shore jobs may not be good for retention in the long run. Changes in the promotion system are long overdue, over-dependence on the assessment of just one or two seniors for career advancement is can be unfair and a broad meritocracy is healthy. A really radical option would be to consider sideways entry where candidates with specialist skills are recruited for particular roles and enter at higher ranks, instead of working up from the bottom. The rotating crew system is certainly popular and provides a more predictable routine allowing people to plan their lives with more certainty. There may be some downsides such as reduced crew cohesion and pride in the ship as well as a reliance on benign conditions and commercial airlines to deliver personnel all over the world.
“Climate change is a challenge that we need to play our part to address: greener ships, more energy-efficient buildings and also better utilising the infrastructure we already have.”
Some may perceive this as pandering to the vocal environmental lobby but the UK has a net-zero emissions target of 2050 and like all parts of government, the RN needs to play its part as a good citizen. Besides the environmental considerations, it makes sense to reduce fuel and energy use which will lower costs in the long run as well as have the strategic benefit of decreasing dependence on hydrocarbons. There are difficult decisions ahead, especially around potential higher up-front costs and where ‘dirtier’ technology still holds battle-winning advantage over greener alternatives.
“The three specific areas we will go after to achieve Operational Advantage are underwater dominance, autonomous air systems and Commando forces.”
Should the RN have to fight in a peer or near-peer conflict, the underwater domain will arguably be the most critical. 7 SSNs is simply not enough, however excellent the Astute class may be but there is nothing that UK industry can realistically do to increase that number in the next decade or more. The ideal solution would be to buy German or Japanese conventional AIP submarines but lack of money, political will and manpower issues make this a fantasy. Heavy investment in UUVs is the best hope for the RN to partially offset its lack of boats.
There are big plans in the pipeline for UAS including the very ambitious aspiration for catapult-launched drones to operate from the carriers to complement the F-35. Although it has emerged the Merlin helicopter fleet will have to soldier on until 2040, it is intended that the Crowsnest ASaC system will be phased out to be replaced by an uncrewed system by 2029. What is harder to forgive is the lack of UAS actually in service right now. While the RN has conducted endless experiments and trials with UAS in different forms over the last decade, only the humble hand-launched Puma UAV is actually operational. In the ISR role, there are many very affordable options that could be bought off the shelf and most of the fleet could have been equipped with at least a modest surveillance RWUAS several years ago.
Future Commando Force and Littoral Response Groups concepts make some sense but cannot mask the fact that overall we are downgrading our amphibious capability and reducing Royal Marine numbers.
Cynics might suggest that 1SL’s PR broadside was not just for the internal audience, but part of a pitch for the Chief of Defence Staff job which General Carter will soon vacate. The fact that there has not been a naval CDS for 20 years is not an argument in itself as it is ultimately about selecting the right candidate. Radakin is clearly a strong contender and can point to real progress in reforming and strengthening the RN. The timing of his appointment has been fortunate, benefiting from a helpful political climate, marginal improvements in defence funding and the aircraft carriers beginning to show their potential. The RN is slowly recovering from the damage inflicted by over-emphasis on counter-insurgency operations and the disastrous 2010 defence review and is arguably now in the best shape of the three services.
Given the catastrophic mishandling of its armoured vehicle procurement and muddled strategic direction over the last 5-10 years, any candidate from the Army must bear some responsibility and should be automatically disqualified. The little remaining appetite for foreign interventions involving boots on the ground is fast disappearing and a return to maritime-centric defence policy in tune with the government vision for a ‘Global Britain’ would suggest a naval candidate would be a good fit.
Overall the RN is in better shape than 5 years ago, under Admiral Radakin it has been better managed and is responding faster to a changing world. The Integrated Review confirmed a broadly satisfactory shipbuilding programme with modest growth in hull numbers a real possibility by the 2030s. Unfortunately, the threat environment continues to develop rapidly and the next 1SL will have to work even harder with resources that are still inadequate to match the tasks expected of the RN.