The British Royal Navy

Our concerns about the state of the UK Armed Forces are extensive, particularly so with the RN which is at a very low ebb.  Each year Navy Books publishes a Complete Guide to the ships and aircraft of the Fleet.  This is authored and compiled by Steve Bush.  For twenty-two years he served in the RN.  On leaving in 2000 he joined Maritime Books and from 2003 has been editor of Warship World.  There is no better person to comment on the state of the RN, so for your information we republish his Introduction to the 2017 British Warships & Auxiliaries.

Over the twelve months that have elapsed since the previous edition it may have appeared that the years of cuts and underfunding, suffered by the Royal Navy might be coming to an end.  The first of the new carriers, QUEEN ELIZABETH, is scheduled to start sea trials in 2017.  The Successor submarine programme has become the Dreadnought class as steel has been cut on the first of the four new Trident missile carrying submarines.  The Type 26 frigate programme is to begin production in the summer of 2017.  A programme for a new class of general purpose frigate has been announced and procurement of five new Offshore Patrol Vessels is underway.  It would seem, on paper, that the future of the RN is, at long last, looking positive.  However, there is still too many capability gaps – just at the end of 2016 it was announced that the RN is to lose its anti-ship missile capability in 2018 as Harpoon is withdrawn without replacement.  As a weapon it is out of date but the decision emphasises the need for long term planning, its replacement should have been in development 10 years ago and ready now to take over.  Manpower issues remain, particularly with engineers and submariners.  Perhaps of most concern is the question of how the government will deliver the ambitious equipment procurement programme and whether there is sufficient funding and industrial capacity to resource this programme.

With the aircraft carrier programme well under way attention is now turning to the escort fleet and the need to replace the elderly Type 23 frigates.  It is in this area that the RN has suffered the most over recent years.  The 1998 SDSR determined that a minimum of 32 frigates and destroyers was, just, sufficient to meet operational commitments, although, even then senior officers expressed disquiet about the Navy’s ability to cover directed tasks.  Since then the number of escorts has been cut to just 19 ships.  Of these the 6 Type 45 destroyers have machinery issues which are going to have to see new diesels fitted – a timetable for which has yet to be determined.  The remaining 13 ships are the Type 23 frigates which will start to decommission, one a year, from 2023.  The standard operating tempo for deployments requires three ships for each commitment (one on station, one in transit and one in maintenance/work up) – allowing for ships in refit and two currently laid up in secondary roles alongside, the number of hulls available of the fleet planners is, to quote the Commons Defence Select Committee report of Nov ’16, “woefully inadequate”.

It was initially proposed that the 13 Type 23 frigates would be replaced, on a one for one basis, by the new generation Type 26 frigates, or Global Combat Ships.  The SDSR 2015 reviewed the requirement for future escorts and determined that 8 Type 26 would be configured for anti-submarine warfare, to replace the 8 ASW capable Type 23s.  The balance would be made up of a new general purpose frigate, the Type 31, which would be less costly and less complex than the Type 26.  A minimum of 5 would be procured, and perhaps more; a potential increase in frigate numbers by 2035.  All very encouraging, but government has not guaranteed funding nor set in place a firm programme.  Governments change, priorities change and defence does not carry the same political clout as Health, Education or Welfare.

However, if MoD is able to fund this ambitious programme there needs to be a robust shipbuilding infrastructure in place to ensure delivery to what is now a very tight timetable.

At present UK complex warship construction is carried out by BAe Systems on the Clyde.  In reality, BAe are the only remaining facility in the UK capable of undertaking such work.  Famous names such as Vosper Thornycroft, Swan Hunter, Cammell Laird and Harland & Wolff, have all since vanished from the shipbuilding landscape.  With a single source of procurement, the MoD have, for many years, paid above market price for their warships to be built in the UK.  Facilities on the Clyde, at Scotstoun and Govan, are dated and part of the Type 26 programme was to see a ‘frigate factory’ established on the Clyde which would introduce modern construction methods and allow production to become more competitive.  In turn it was hoped that this could present export opportunities for UK built complex warships.  The Type 26 could have good export potential with several nations looking to replace their frigate fleets in a similar timescale to the RN.  However, the last UK built complex warships for export were the two Type 42 destroyers for Argentina and the Vosper Mk10 frigates for Brazil – and that was way back in the 1970s.  The lack of investment in shipbuilding infrastructure has limited export potential and therefore all RN acquisitions have been bespoke, short production run designs – with a price tag to match.  The reduction of the Type 26 programme from 13 hulls to just 8 makes the ‘frigate factory’ option unlikely.  France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands all have modern warship building industry with strong records of exports while UK steadfastly fails to attract overseas sales.  If Europe has so many good warship builders, why are complex warships not put out to international tender?

The government contends that the building of complex warships is a sovereign capability which must be maintained; to that end it is to announce a National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) which should set out the framework under which Type 26 and Type 31 frigates are to be delivered and ensure that the UK retains the workforce with the necessary skill sets and the facilities to produce such vessels.  In the past such strategies have determined a drumbeat of work to retain a skilled workforce whilst guaranteeing a set amount of work under a Terms of Business Agreement (TOBA) should that drumbeat falter.  It is to be hoped that any new NSS would address not only the modernisation of the shipbuilding facilities to improve and streamline production but also the introduction of competition to reduce prices.  The NSS must also look at the wider UK industrial base because true sovereign capability can only be such if the UK can provide the raw materials and support systems.  Is it a sovereign capability if we have to source our special steels from France or Sweden or our weapon systems in collaboration with other European partners?

So, to build the Type 26 the MoD must get value for money and meet a timetable which will allow their introduction into the fleet without further reducing the current woefully small number of frontline escorts.  The Type 26 manufacturing phase is already behind schedule as negotiations continue.  BAe say that the design is still to be finalised while the MoD states they are not prepared to sign a contract until convinced they are getting the best value for money.  Many suggest that the delays are due to a lack of funding – Lord West, a former First Sea Lord, has suggested that the RN is underfunded by some £750 million.  In November 2016 the Secretary of State for Defence announced, in Govan, that the Type 26 would begin construction in the summer of 2017.  However, it would seem  that this was to demonstrate that the programme was moving forward rather than a firm commitment to construction; the caveat was “subject to final contract negotiations”.  The negotiations that have delayed the start of the build programme continue and therefore a summer 2017 start date cannot yet be guaranteed.

The Type 26 schedule remains tight and, if the escort numbers are not to fall, is absolutely linked to the out of service dates of the Type 23 frigates. It has been reinforced over many years that there is no possibility of moving the Type 23 decommissioning dates; as such the first Type 26 must enter service in 2023 to relieve ARGYLL.  Given a probable five-year build, the Type 26 Hull-1 must start to build this year.  The new frigates are going to enter service with many of the sensors and weapons transferred from the older Type 23s.  The first ship will have newly acquired systems to allow her to complete before ARGYLL leaves service – her equipment will then be transferred to Type 26 Hull-2 and so on.  All seems logical except that four non-ASW Type 23s are among the first five to be decommissioned, so either the early Type 26s will enter service without the Type 2087 sonar, or it will be stripped off the later Type 23s before they leave service.  Also, government have stated a drumbeat of 18-24 months for the Type 26 programme.  If this is not addressed by NSS, the Type 23 frigates will be taken out of service faster than the Type 26s are introduced.  To achieve a one-for-one replacement the Type 26s must be built to a drumbeat of one per year, with Hull-8 replacing RICHMOND on 2030.

If the MoD do achieve the Type 26 programme, there still remains the follow-on Type 31.  The first of these, theoretically lighter and cheaper, frigates will be required to replace SOMERSET in 2031.  Assuming, once more, a five year build per ship, the Type31 Hull-1 needs to be laid down in 2025.  Given that the ship design is, as yet, undefined (the RN need a small crew; the MoD a cheap frigate and the industry a lengthy period of work), urgency is essential.  It is likely that BAe will be the prime contractor once again, but the Secretary of State for Defence during his announcement at Govan only said that the Clyde is in “pole position” for the contract which may leave the door open for an off the shelf purchase of a commercial design, similar to the Type 21 Amazon class.

What is increasingly obvious is that the SDSR 2015 aspirations are going to be very difficult to translate into physical assets without robust programme management and committed funding.  The ambitious Type 26/31 shipbuilding programme is running in parallel to the acquisition of the Dreadnought class Trident missile submarine, which will devour a large chunk of the RN budget; the Astute class submarines and the need to refit the whole Type 45 class destroyers.  The MoD must meet a very strict timeline to prevent the “woeful” number of escorts available to the RN becoming even fewer.

The UK has the 2nd largest budget in NATO, the largest in the EU, and the fifth largest in the world.  It is one of only five countries to meet the NATO guidelines to spend 2% of GDP on Defence.  Surely this fact should enable the UK to deliver better and more?  As an island nation we will always need a strong Royal Navy and enough warships to keep our sea lanes of communications safe.  If UK shipbuilding is unable to modernise and produce ships at a reasonable cost, perhaps it is time to start looking elsewhere for our much needed warships.

Steve Bush, Plymouth, November 2016

Since this was written things have moved forward, but not in an encouraging way.  As we shall see in the posts that follow.



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