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Should the Type 31e frigate be reclassified as a corvette?

Plymouth MP, Luke Pollard, suggested last week in Parliament that “the debate around the Type 31e Frigate could be resolved simply if we renamed if from a frigate to a corvette“. This is proposal is unlikely to be welcomed by the Navy, the MoD or industrial partners but does raises questions about the Type 31’s capabilities and results from the general confusion over how surface combatants are to be classified.

How are warships classified?

Unlike merchant ships, there are no internationally recognised standards for the way warships are classified. Over time conventions have evolved but are not applied consistently. There is enormous variation in size between vessels that have the same classification, even within NATO. A very crude classification scale in descending order of surface combatant capability would be (1) aircraft carriers and battleships, (2) cruisers, (3) destroyers and frigates, (4) corvettes and fast attack craft and (5) Offshore Patrol Vessels.

The main trend is that warships are much bigger than their equivalents in the past. The motivation to downgrade classifications may partly come from a wish to play down their cost and size from politicians and the Treasury. The RN and majority of NATO navies generally designate surface combatants optimised for anti-air warfare as destroyers, and those designed for anti-submarine warfare, as frigates. The Type 26 frigate will be almost as large as the Type 45 destroyer and at 8,000 tons will be nearly double the displacement of the Type 23 it replaces.

HMS Belfast (Type 26 frigate) and HMS Belfast (1938)

This is a mock up of how the future Type 26 Frigate, HMS Belfast might look alongside the museum ship HMS Belfast (1938). It demonstrates how classification of warships has changed. The Type 26 frigate of c2028 is 70% WWII Cruiser size. (The Type 26 actually has a broader beam than the cruiser). A typical frigate of WWII displaced just 1,400 tons.

Defining a corvette

Modern Corvettes are usually considered to be the smallest credible surface combatant. Larger and more capable than a fast attack or patrol vessel but smaller than a frigate. Some may have the weapons and sensors fit similar to a frigate but compromise on range and endurance to make them smaller and cheaper. Corvettes are normally operated by second-tier navies that may need to engage in full naval combat operations, but not for a sustained period or over long distances. (This excellent piece by Chuck Hill discusses the definition of a corvette in more depth).

Examples are the small 650-ton Swedish Visby class stealth corvette that has a range of just 2,550 nm and is designed to primarily to fight in the confined waters of the Baltic. A more typical mid-range corvette is the German Navy’s Braunschweig class that have a range of 4,000nm and 7-day endurance without support. Possibly the best all-round corvette design at sea today is the Russian Steregushchiy class which have balanced armament, genuine anti-submarine capability, 15-day endurance and 3,800nm range. 

At the top end of the endurance, scale is the British-built Khareef class of the Omani Navy that have a range of 4,500 nm and can operate for 21-days without support. An enlarged version of the Khareef design forms the basis of the BAE Systems/Cammel Laird Leander concept which is a contender for the Type 31e frigate.

The last vessel designated a corvette in service with the RN, HMS Oakham Castle, decommissioned in 1950. The castle class were simple 1,060 ton ships, evolved from the more famous flower class which were designed to be quickly mass produced for convoy escort work in WWII. The Type 31e is likely to displace around 3-4,000 tons, have little in common with its wartime ancestors and will be larger than any corvette in service with any of the world’s navies.

How will the Type 31e meet the Royal Navy’s requirements?

The outline specification issued for the Type 31e frigate states it should be “capable of global operations, in between the marginal ice zones and including the Gulf/Red Sea, with self-sustaining food and water for 28 days and a fuel range of 6,500 nm at economical speeds.” While the combat capability and survivability of Type 31 may be more limited than the typical frigate, the RN is very clear that the ship it wants must be able to serve around the globe. Type 23 frigate has a range of 7,500 nm and can stay at sea without replenishment for around 40 days. Type 31e is not expected to match this, but will have greater endurance than most corvettes.

The emerging concept of operations for the RN frigate force is that in the main, the high-end Type 26 will escort the aircraft carriers while the lower-end, general purpose Type 31e will conduct maritime security duties. (Whether this role could be done by cheaper OPVs instead is another discussion). Typically this might include deployments to the Caribbean, Indian Ocean or South Atlantic where endurance and sea-keeping are important factors.

Type 31e splits opinion

As the comments made in Parliament suggest, the Type 31e is becoming increasingly controversial. Supporters are keen to see a broad revival in UK shipbuilding and break the cycle of ever-fewer and more expensive warships. Off-board, unmanned systems may yet be able to mitigate the budget weapon and sensor fit and poor baseline anti-submarine capability. Opponents argue against the National Shipbuilding Strategy, saying it would be more efficient to cede all warship building to a single ‘super yard’ (BAE Systems) and see the Type 31e as a dangerously compromised “snatch Land Rover of the seas”. There is fierce debate about whether the RN would be better off abandoning Type 31e in favour of obtaining a further two Type 26s, or if it is better to maximise hull numbers and hold out for the chance of a warship export revival.

Growing awareness about of the state of the navy in Parliament

The four and a half hour defence debate in Parliament on the 11th January proved there are a growing number of MPs who have a real understanding of UK defence issues and even a few with a genuine grip on the specific problems faced by the RN. There was also an encouraging cross-party consensus against any government attempt to make further cuts. However, defence is still a relatively low priority in Parliament, only around 45 out of the UK’s 650 MPs attended the debate. The column inches and hand-wringing devoted to the similarly parlous state of the NHS, will outnumber defence by a hundred to one.

Luke Pollard did make a substantive point about how the very low price tag will make the Type 31e such a big step down from the Type 26. However, the RN does not want limited-range corvettes and the export appeal of the Type 31e would be diminished by this classification. The designation of “light frigate” is a better fit, reflecting the global capability of the ship, even if its anti-submarine credentials are in doubt.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/should-the-type-31e-frigate-be-reclassified-as-a-corvette/

The painfully slow process of dismantling ex-Royal Navy nuclear submarines

There are currently 20 former Royal Navy nuclear submarines awaiting disposal in Rosyth and Devonport. They do not represent a great hazard but maintaining them safely while they await dismantling is a growing drain on the defence budget. Nuclear submarines are arguably Britain’s most important defence assets but the failure to promptly deal with their legacy has been a national scandal. Although there has been discussion and consultation going back years, only recently has there been action to actually start the disposal process.

Status of submarine disposal in early 2018. OSD – Out of Service Date. Hull age – years since hull laid down.

Plans for the safe and timely disposal of nuclear submarines should have been drawn up as far back as the 1970s but successive governments have avoided difficult decisions and handed the problem on to their successors. RN submarines were designed so the Reactor Pressure Vessel could be removed from the hull. Other nations cut the entire reactor compartment out of the submarine and transport it to land storage facilities. The US has successfully disposed of over 130 nuclear ships and submarines since the 1980s. The Russians have disposed of over 190 Soviet-era boats (with some international assistance) since the 1990s while France has already disposed of 3 boats from their much smaller numbers.

The first Royal Navy nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought decommissioned in 1980, has now been tied up in Rosyth awaiting disposal longer than she was in active service.

As any householder knows, It is sensible practice to dispose of your worn out items before you replace them with new ones.

The capacity to store more boats at Devonport is limited, every further delay adds to cost that will have to come from a defence budget that is much smaller in real terms than when the boats were conceived at the height of the Cold War. Apart from the attraction of deferring costs in the short-term, a major cause of delay has been the selection of a land storage site for the radioactive waste. It has also taken time to develop a method and ready the facilities needed to undertake the dismantling project.

Afloat storage

While awaiting dismantling, decommissioned submarines are stored afloat in a non-tidal basin in the dockyard. Classified equipment, stores and flammable materials are removed together with rudders, hydroplanes and propellers while the hull is given treatments to help preserve its life. The 7 submarines in Rosyth have all had their nuclear fuel rods removed but of the 13 in Devonport, 9 are still fuelled. This is because in 2003 the facilities for de-fuelling were deemed no longer safe enough to meet modern regulation standards and the process was halted. Submarines that have not had their fuel rods removed have the reactor primary circuit chemically treated to guarantee it remains inert and additional radiation monitoring equipment is fitted.

The former HMS Resolution in dry dock at Rosyth in 2014 for hull inspection and preservation

More than £16m was spent between 2010-15 just to maintain these old hulks alongside, and costs are rising. Apart from regular monitoring, the hulks need to be hauled out of the basin for occasional dry docking for inspection and repainting to protect the hull from corrosion. All this effort and expense is a drain on precious resources for no direct gain. Responsible care of the growing number of hulls means they pose little risk to the local population, but a tiny risk does remain. This makes some people living nearby uneasy and provides another grievance for those idealogically opposed to nuclear submarines and Trident.

The flotilla of retired attack submarines in number 3 Basin in Devonport, continues to grow. Three more T-class submarines will decommission and join them before 2023, with 4 large Vanguard class to follow between 2028-34. There are now more boats laid up in Devonport alone (13) than there are in entire active submarine flotilla (10).

The good news is that the Submarine Dismantling Project (SDP) finally started in 2016. HMS Swiftsure is in number 2 dry dock in Rosyth and will be the ‘pathway’ project to prove the dismantling process. Disposal of the eventual total of 27 boats will cost at least £10.4bn over 25 years and continue into the 2040s. The MoD Disposal Services Authority (DSA) is in consultation with Babcock (with owns both the Rosyth and Devonport sites) to agree on the final timescales and costs for the project. The task at Rosyth is easier with just 7 submarines that all had their fuel removed some time ago.

Preparing the sites

Work has been continuing at Devonport over the last few years on the De-fuel, De-equip and Lay-up Preparation (DDLP) project which centred on preparing number 14 Dock for submarine dismantling. This work had to be done concurrently with the initial decommissioning work on HMS Turbulent and HMS Tireless and the refits of HMS Trenchant and HMS Talent in number 15 dock. In the early 2000s a major upgrade to the nuclear refitting facilities was completed (Project D154), to support both the maintenance and future dismantling of submarines. The giant 80-ton crane at the centre of the Submarine Refit Complex that used to dominate the dockyard skyline was used for lifting reactor components but this has been dismantled and replaced with a safer and more efficient Reactor Access House (RAH). The RAH is a moveable enclosure that spans the dock and is mounted on rails on the dock walls. Number 14 and 15 dock floors were raised, multi-cellular, impact resistant caissons now seal the dock entrances and new isolating submarine cradles have been installed along with seismically qualified dockside cranes.

For fuelling or de-fuelling operations, the RAH is placed over the submarine reactor compartment and provides a stable, protected area that houses the crane and de-fuelling tools from which the operators can work safely. The RAH concept has been used successfully at across the basin in number 9 dock for refuelling the Vanguard class for some years.

Devonport nuclear facilities

The upgraded nuclear facilities at Devonport that will be used for the submarine de-fuelling and dismantling process.

As the only site that can de-fuel submarines, Devonport is well equipped to undertake dismantling work and it’s facilities now meet the latest Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) standards. In addition to the docks, there is the only seismically-qualified railway in the UK and the Low-Level Refuelling Facility (LLRF) which can store spent reactor cores and fuel rods, prior to being sent for storage at Sellafield.

In July 2017 the MoD announced that URENCO Nuclear Stewardship Ltd at Capenhurst in Cheshire has been selected as the interim site for storing the nuclear waste. The Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPV) removed from the submarines are classed as Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) and will be stored in purpose-built buildings above ground. They will eventually be moved to a permanent underground Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) that is supposed to be constructed in the UK, sometime after 2040.

The dismantling process in simple terms

Once the submarine is in the dry dock, the first main task will be to remove the two steam generators through holes cut in the top of the pressure hull and into containers suspended from the RAH. Then the primary circuit pipework, pressuriser and coolant pumps can then be removed. The Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) head is classed as LLW and is removed separately and a temporary head put in place. The primary shield tank (PST) which surrounds the RPV has to be drained of hazardous chemicals before the RPV is then attached to a lifting cradle in the RAH. The RPV is then lifted out and placed in a special container ready on the dock bottom. Once the RPV is sealed in the container, it is lifted onto a transporter to be taken away. The remaining parts of the PST are also removed and cut up into manageable sizes. All liquids and materials removed during the process have to be sorted, segregated, size-reduced if necessary and packed into appropriate containers ready to be stored, reprocessed or recycled.

A very simplistic diagram of a Nuclear Steam Raising Plant (NSRP) showing the primary circuit pipework and Steam Generator (SG) on the left. Once the fuel rods and core have been removed, the Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) is the largest and most radioactive element that must be removed.

Scrapped on site?

Only about 1% of each submarine comprises the more radioactive ILW. Around 4 % is LLW and 5% is non-radioactive hazardous waste. The remaining 90% is mostly steel that can be sold for recycling. (Depending on the class of boat, anything between 3,000 – 7,000 tons). As yet, there has been no public announcement about how the submarines will be broken up, once the hazardous components have been removed. The pressure hull will have to be cut open in places for the NSRP removal and if the hulks were going to be transferred elsewhere, more work to make them seaworthy would be needed. Submarines are notoriously difficult to tow, even when manned and with a working steering gear. There is very little ship-breaking done now in the UK (most ex-naval vessels are scrapped up in Turkey) so it is almost certain the hulks will have to be broken up at Devonport and Rosyth and the scrap metal taken away by sea.

Limited options

Government has admitted there is a shortage of expertise available for the Submarine Dismantling Project. There is plenty of competition from the civil sector which is occupied decommissioning old nuclear power stations. The SDP is a very necessary but rather unglamourous task and may struggle to attract engineers who have the opportunity to work on more exciting projects. Faced with limited budgets and personnel, the MoD has little option but to proceed at this very slow pace. Until the work on HMS Swiftsure is completed the MoD is reluctant to commit to a timetable but says current assumptions are that on average, one submarine will be dismantled every 12 – 18 months at each site from 2022. Let us hope faster progress can be made otherwise, whatever the future of Devonport Naval Base, the dockyard could still be disposing of Vanguard class submarines in the 2050s.

The blame for this situation cannot be laid at the door of today’s politicians, rather it is the fault of many administrations, going back several decades. In the civil nuclear industry, operators are required by law to put aside funds and make plans during the life of the plant to pay for decommissioning. It would be prudent if a similar principle was applied by the MoD to all new nuclear submarine construction.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-painfully-slow-process-of-dismantling-ex-royal-navy-nuclear-submarines/

Diverse consortium formed to bid for Type 31e frigate contract

Babcock Marine has announced the formation of a consortium of shipbuilders and designers who will bid for the Type 31e Frigate. Design and construction of the 5 Royal Navy ships is worth around £1.25 Billion but a major goal of the programme is to attract export orders.

Babcock will be the lead contractor for the consortium called Team 31, with Thales BMT, Harland & Wolff and Ferguson Marine participating. It was clear from announcements as DSEI in September 2017 that BMT and Babcock would be co-operating but the partnership has expanded so there are now 4 shipbuilding facilities that could be involved if Team 31 are the winners.

It is possible that sections of the frigate would be constructed at the smaller yards owned by Ferguson on the Clyde and by Babcock in Appledore and then taken by barge for assembly at larger facilities, either Harland & Wolff in Belfast or Babcock in Rosyth. Harland & Wolff possesses the world’s largest dry dock and their two 1600-tonne capacity Goliath cranes are more than capable of lifting blocks for assembly. Their inclusion maybe somewhat politically motivated as they not been involved in shipbuilding for many years, concentrating instead on engineering for the offshore energy sector. With the DUP holding the whip hand on the government, providing naval work in Belfast could be advantageous when government is considering the bids. Alternatively, blocks could be assembled by Babcock in Number 1 dock in Rosyth, although the Aircraft Carrier Alliance seems intent on selling the £12.2 million Goliath crane they imported from China to assemble the aircraft carrier blocks.

By creating a broad consortium of companies, Team 31 may gain a useful political advantage by distributing work across the UK. Their main competitor is the BAE Systems / Cammell Laird consortium which probably plans to do the majority of work in Birkenhead, possibly with some work subcontracted to A&P Tyne. To coincide with the Team 31 announcement, the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is due to visit Babcock’s Appledore shipyard in Devon today to reiterate government commitment to the Type 31e programme.

BMT and Thales add significant warship design and systems integration experience to the capabilities that Babcock already possess. It is unclear whether the BMT Venator-110 concept will have any influence on the final offering or if the Babcock Arrowhead concept will be the foundation for the design offered by Team 31.

Type31e- Procurement Timeline

MoD timeline for the Type 31e procurement process

With the first Type 31e required to enter service with the Royal Navy in 2023, progress on this project is going to have to be refreshingly rapid in a way that those involved with large defence procurement projects are quite unaccustomed to. The competing consortiums will have to present their final design and tender documents to the MoD by the end of 2018, with the contract to begin construction to be placed just over a year from now.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/diverse-consortium-formed-to-bid-for-type-31e-frigate-contract/

Why the Fleet Solid Support ships should be built in the UK

In a previous article we discussed the importance of the Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships to the future of the RN. Here we focus more on the industrial aspects of the project and look at why building these ships in the UK is the only sensible way forward.

When the Tide class oil tankers were ordered in 2012 (a remnant of the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) project), no British company had bid for the construction work. There were two main reasons, most UK yards were occupied working on the QEC aircraft carriers blocks but they also knew they would not be able to compete on price with foreign state-subsidised shipyards. The controversial decision to look abroad made sense at the time, the MoD got four ships at a bargain £452M and no British shipbuilder could claim they would go under without the work. (£150M was spent in the UK with BMT who designed the ships together with A&P Falmouth who are fitting them with additional military equipment). Five years later the landscape has changed significantly. The QEC construction project is in its final phase but one of its very positive legacies has been to help stimulate a modest revival in commercial shipbuilding and there are now yards hungry for further naval work.

“We plan to procure the three Fleet Solid Support ships, announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, through international competition” (Harriet Baldwin, Defence Procurement Minister, 5th September 2017).

The National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), published in 2017 stated that the contract to build the FSS ships would be subject to an international competition and this policy has been reiterated several times by Ministers in Parliament. The NSS says the reason for the open competition is to incentivise British companies to become more efficient and able to match the prices offered by overseas shipyards. This may be a worthy goal but unfortunately, the ‘open competition’ may not be as fair as it appears. Many foreign shipbuilders receive support from their government, either in the form of direct or indirect subsidies, loan guarantees or even complete bail-outs following bankruptcy. This may allow them to submit high-risk, low-price bids which a UK shareholder-owned yard cannot match. British shipyards, entirely reliant on maintaining a sustainable and profitable business, are therefore not competing on a level playing field.

“The defence industry plays an important role in the prosperity agenda of the nation.” (Phillip Dunne, Defence Procurement Minister, September 2015)

Open competition may be in line with Conservative party policy which is broadly against intervening in the free market, but it should not be against intervening in a rigged market. Many foreign governments, even within the EU, have no compunction in subsiding their shipbuilders and government should recognise this. Should UK companies lose out to an overseas yard, it would be a direct contradiction of the Conservative ‘prosperity agenda’ which has been part of their manifesto on UK business since 2010. Placing substantial shipbuilding contracts within the UK has very obvious benefits to the local economy and the wider supply chain. There NSS admits there is a need for a clearer definition of the ‘prosperity agenda’. The Type 31e is supposed to help create a framework that would allow the economic benefits of shipbuilding contracts in specific, and often deprived parts of the UK, to be quantified.

As the QEC project has already demonstrated, building in Britain would help industry invest and become more efficient so as to be able to compete for future work. When the MoD next needs to place a shipbuilding contract it would then more choices available from a broader and healthier industrial base, offering more competition and value for money. It may also provide another stepping stone towards British yards moving back into the commercial shipbuilding market which could provide a sustainable future.

Five options for competition

There are essentially five possible options government can consider when seeking contractors to build the FSS ships.

  1. Hold an ‘open competition’ with no caveats or restriction and open to any British or overseas companies (assuming only non-aligned nations such as China or Russia are excluded). This appears to be the option that government is pursuing at present.
  2. Hold an open competition but exclude any companies that have been bailed out of bankruptcy by its government or received any form of state subsidy. This would level the playing field and exclude a very broad swathe of foreign shipyards such DSME in Korea, Naval (formerly DCNS) in France, Navantia in Spain or Fincantieri in Italy.
  3. Exclude all foreign companies and allow only British companies or consortiums to bid against each other.
  4. Ask British companies to form a single consortium to share the work.
  5. Form a single consortium of British companies of which the MoD owns a percentage (using a similar model to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance)

EU rules no longer apply

For security reasons, warship construction is allowed under EU rules to be restricted to sovereign nations. Under existing EU regulations, the construction of support vessels must be open to international competition and government is using this as one of its justifications for not restricting bids to domestic companies. Britain will leave the EU in March 2019, so by the time the FSS construction contact is placed, we will no longer be bound by such rules and could quite reasonably ignore them for the competition phase. Brexit can be seen as a signal that the public wish government to pursue an industrial policy in British interests and exists as a clear mandate to place the FSS contract in the UK.

Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System

The FSS ship is likely to incorporate some of the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (HMWHS) technology used in the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. HMWHS uses a series of automated ‘moles’ on tracks which transport palletised munitions around the ship. This system is quick, efficient and most critically, reduces expensive manpower requirements.

They may not be warships but the FSS vessels could be more accurately described as “complex naval support ships”. The project to build the three 35,000 tonne ships is expected to cost at least £1Bn, a clue that these are no ordinary vessels. The need to safely embark, store and transfer explosives adds complexity to the design beyond simple merchant vessels or even the Tide class tankers. Ammunition and explosives require careful handling and storage so the ship must be equipped with measures to mitigate the effects of blast and additional fire protection far beyond what is found on a standard merchant vessel. Otherwise the design is intended to follow merchant ship practices where possible and the NSS states that there will be “a focus on ensuring that the military features and standards that deviate from the commercial norms are minimised”.

Tight timetables

Within Navy Command, Brigadier Jim Morris RM, Assistant Chief of Staff (Maritime Capability), was appointed Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of the FSS project in September 2017 and is expected to have this role until at least December 2019. QinetiQ beat off competition from BMT and Frazer-Nash to secure a 4-year, £10M contract with the MoD to provide analysis and consultancy services for the assessment phase of FSS. The project began its initial assessment phase in back April 2016 and a pre-qualifying questionnaire will be issued to potential bidders in the next few weeks. The competition phase will begin officially on 30th April 2018 so there is only a short window of opportunity for Government to decide to revise the terms.

The timing of the FSS and the Type 31e projects presents an interesting conundrum for the Navy. If we assume the Type 31e is not intended as a carrier escort and if carrier strike is the RN’s stated priority, then why is FSS scheduled to pass main gate approval in December 2019, a full year after the Type 31e? The geometry and design arrangements of the RAS rigs on the three current Fort class ships do not permit them to resupply the aircraft carrier’s full range of needs. They do not have heavy RAS rigs compatible with the carrier (capable of supplying big items such as F-35 engines). The only alternative would be vertical replenishment (VERTREP) using helicopters to transfer loads which is a slow process and fatigues the airframes. Effectively a key component that enables the carriers to deploy globally will be missing until the first FSS ship is delivered sometime around 2025. Should the FSS not then be taking precedence over T31e as the more urgent requirement? (Type 26 deliveries can replace the initial Type 23 frigates being disposed of).

The only possible benefit from allowing the FSS ships to be constructed overseas might be a lower price which benefits the MoD’s cash flow in the short-term. The Treasury should take the longer-term view that a very substantial part of any money spent in the UK is returned to the Exchequer through VAT, corporate taxes, income taxes and healthier local economies and may outweigh any savings made by foreign construction.

As a matter of urgency, we call on government amend its policy and restrict the FSS project to a domestic competition only, to the long-term benefit of British shipbuilding and the naval service as a whole.



from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/why-the-fleet-solid-support-ships-should-be-built-in-the-uk/

Thoughts on Future Force Design

Based on the #SDSR18 series in which I defined a number of general conditions, risks and approaches this post is a few thoughts on a resultant force structure. Part 1 – Breaking the Crisis Cycle Part 2 – Risks Part 3 – Alliances and Politics Part 4 – Defending Europe Part 5 – Middle East […]

The post Thoughts on Future Force Design appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2017/12/thoughts-future-force-design/

“The year of the Royal Navy” – a review of 2017

On 1st January 2017 the MoD published a press release that proclaimed it would be “the year of the Royal Navy”. Ministers may have come to regret such a bold statement but it certainly helped shine the spotlight on a service during turbulent times. Here we review some of the highlights and some of the difficulties the RN has experienced this year. 


It was revealed in a leak to the press that there had been a failed Trident missile test launch during the Demonstration and Shakedown Operation (DASO) conducted by HMS Vengeance in June 2016. Despite the Trident II D5 being consistently the most reliable ICBM on the planet, the ill-advised cover-up helped create a false impression the system has serious problems. The haemorrhage of people leaving the RN has been stemmed somewhat but the personnel shortage continues, figures released in January showed the service to be 2.4% under liability, i.e. 720 short of the meagre 30,170 the RN is supposed to have. In the first revelation of the MoDs budget problems that were about to explode into view this year, it was stated that the navy now faces a shortfall in its annual budget of at least £500 million. It became clear that the March date originally set for HMS Queen Elizabeth to begin sea trails had slipped slightly and June was now the likely target date for her to sail. First of the new MARS tankers, RFA Tidespring was quietly accepted from her builders DSME in South Korea, nearly a year behind schedule, but on budget at least.


The Sun newspaper published a story claiming all seven of the RN’s attack submarines (SSNs) were alongside either in refit or experiencing material defects. This was certainly the case for a short period at the start of the year and represented a very serious weakening of UK defence, symptomatic of ageing Trafalgar class boats and problems with the new Astute boats. The Daily Express went a step further claiming HMS Trenchant would never sail again and the Trafalgar class boats had terminal defects that would end their careers. Fortunately, this was proved to be total nonsense and HMS Trenchant has been at sea for much of this year. The Sea Venom light anti-ship missile successfully completed its next round of trials on the way to being in RN service by 2020.


First, of the batch II river class OPVs, HMS Forth was formally named at a ceremony in Scotstoun, Glasgow. The Lynx Mk 8 Helicopter and the Sea Suka missile went out of service, leaving the RN with no light anti-shipping missile for two years. The RN conducted their first Exercise “Information Warrior” (alongside the regular Ex Joint Warrior) and tested naval cyber and AI capabilities.


The RN announced it was reducing the Royal Marines by 200 men in order to free up funding for more sailors while 42 Commando was being downgraded in size and capability. This was the first indication that amphibious forces were the only place left to go for the RN to make cuts as it was being squeezed in the funding crisis. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee finally confirmed the ugly rumours that there exists at least a £10 billion ‘black hole’ in funding for the MoDs equipment programme.

The 4th Astute class submarine, HMS Audacious was rolled out of the build hall and into the water at Barrow, 10 months behind schedule and £200M over-budget. (Image: BAE Systems)

The MoD had stated in January that the keel for the 7th Astute class (HMS Ajax?) would be laid in 2017 but this has not happened. Although some steel has been cut, it would appear the delays to boats 4-6 means there is not space or manpower available to lay the keel of boat 7. On appeal, Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman was cleared of committing murder during deployment in Afghanistan and was finally freed, after serving 3 years in prison.


HMS Daring returned after a successful 9-month deployment in the heat of the Persian Gulf confounding the critics who claim Type 45 always break down in in hot weather. On return Daring went into long-term lay up as a harbour training ship, replacing HMS Dauntless which has been in a similar state for the last 2 years.


Defence was largely given low priority by politicians and media in the General Election campaign. The Tories just hung on to remain in government but in a chaotic and much-weakened state. However, the same ministerial team remained in place at the MoD and continuity in defence policy seemed likely. The new government began its “National Security Capability Review” which was supposed to be a low key assessment of UK security across government departments, rather than a full defence scale review. HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Rosyth to begin sea trials. A landmark moment for the RN and the progress of this great ship which, for better or worse, would dominate media coverage of the navy for the rest of the year.


The US Navy kindly lent the USS George H W Bush to the RN for 2 weeks to conduct Exercise Saxon Warrior to help regenerate carrier battle group command skills. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s sea trials were interrupted by a propeller shaft issue which was corrected during 2 weeks alongside in Invergordon, amid much media speculation. After a gestation period for the new frigate programme of more than 20 years, the first still was finally cut for HMS Glasgow, the first type 26 Frigate. It was subsequently announced the 3rd ship in the initial batch of 3 will be named HMS Belfast. HMS Torbay was decommissioned after 32 years of outstanding service, reducing the SSN force to just 6 boats until HMS Audacious commissions.


The iconic image of the Royal Nay in 2017. On a truly memorable day for the RN, procedure Alpha for HMS Queen Elizabeth as she made her first entry into Portsmouth with universal media coverage. The Prime Minister also visited the ship on the same day and made a speech on board.

HMS Forth sailed from Glasgow to begin contractors sea trials. 3rd of the 4 Tide class tankers RFA Tidesurge was officially named in South Korea. HMS Ocean sailed for her final deployment to lead a NATO group in the Mediterranean.


When Hurrican Irma hit the Caribbean, RFA Mounts Bay was already in the region and prepared to assist. The scale of the damage demanded a major response from UK armed forces in the form of Operation Ruman. HMS Ocean was hurriedly re-tasked to sail from the Eastern Mediterranean to store in Gibraltar and cross the Atlantic to assist. The humanitarian aid effort across the Caribbean led by the RN was a demonstration of the flexibility and utility of naval forces and did a great deal to alleviate suffering in the British dependencies. The outline specification for the Type 31 frigate was issued by the RN with a very low budget set at £250M per ship. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales was formally named at a ceremony in Rosyth. It was discovered that minehunters HMS Atherstone and Quorn would not complete the refits that they had begun and would be decommissioned early as a cost and manpower saving measure. The RN sensibly decided to defer the previously planned retirement of its semi-obsolete Harpoon anti-ship missiles until 2020, pending a replacement. Rear Admiral Alex Burton, Commander UK Maritime Forces handed in his resignation, ostensibly in protest at the possible plan to axe HMS Albion, Bulwark and large numbers of Royal Marines. Leaked proposals to scale back UK amphibious capability generated enormous controversy and have cast a long shadow of the “year of the Royal Navy”.


HMS Queen Elizabeth departed Portsmouth for part 2 sea trials off the Cornish coast which were conducted successfully over a 3 week period in very benign weather. 2nd OPV HMS Medway was formally named at a ceremony in Glasgow. At Barrow a ceremony was held for the Defence Secretary to start the first steel cutting for the new Trident successor submarine, which it was announced will be named HMS Dreadnought.

HMS Ocean

HMS Ocean off Crete, leading Standing NATO Maritime Task Group 2 after returning to the Med from her aid mission to the Caribbean. She visited Hafia, Israel and Lisbon, Portugal before coming home to Devonport from her final overseas deployment in December. She will conduct a tour of UK ports before decommissioning without replacement on 31st March 2018.


Michael Fallon resigned suddenly amidst a scandal about his personal conduct and was replaced by the former chief whip, Gavin Williamson. The NAO published a report which revealed the growing extent of cannibalisation of stores and spare parts across the RN. In a relatively low key ceremony, the Prince of Wales opened the new Naval Support Facility (NSF) HMS Juffair in Bahrain which will greatly improve alongside support for RN vessels deployed in the Gulf region. After covering for HMS Ocean doing NATO duty in the Mediterranean, HMS Diamond was forced to return home from her planned Gulf deployment with a serious propellor shaft problem. The lack of alternative vessels to cover this kind of contingency left the RN with no major warship East of Suez for the first time in living memory. RFA Tidespring was dedicated into the fleet at a ceremony in Portsmouth. The 4 new tankers will be fantastic additions to the RFA and are designed specifically to refuel the aircraft carriers. RN sailors provided the guard at Royal residences in London for the first time in 400 years.


HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in the presence of her majesty – another landmark moment and a demonstration of the RN’s enduring ability to excel in the organisation and presentation of ceremonial events. Just a week later, more negativity and disinformation about the carrier project was generated by the Sun newspaper grossly exaggerating the significance a minor leak on a stern seal of HMS Queen Elizabeth. HMS Prince of Wales was floated out of the basin in Rosyth to begin fitting out with sea trails scheduled for mid-2019.

The adventures of Gavin
In the two months Gavin Williamson has been defence secretary there has never been a dull moment. The new man had no previous track record of interest in defence matters and many perceive him as a clever and ambitious schemer using the post as a stepping stone to the Tory leadership. However, rather than continuing the bland and conformist approach of Micahel Fallon, he has given the impression that he will fight for the department. Of the commitment to 2% GDP spending on defence, he said : “I’ve always seen 2% as base, not a ceiling”. It was reported he has demanded significantly more money from the Treasury and even had a physical altercation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Westminster. He also barred Philip Hammond from using RAF transport aircraft until the Treasury paid money owed. On British Jahdis who had gone to fight for ISIS he said they “should be shot, bombed or banned from coming home”. He blocked the Army’s plan to ditch their strapline “Be the Best” because consultants deemed it “elitist”. Speaking on Russian warships and submarines operating close to UK territorial waters he said: “I will not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression”. One could interpret his statements as a carefully stage-managed attempt to get attention and appeal to a section of disenchanted Tory voters. A less cynical view is that he has listened to the procession of experts warning about the sorry and dangerous state of UK defence and he is determined to actually do something about it. The appointment of the new defence secretary has been used as a reason to extend the ongoing “defence review” into 2018. There is greater public opposition and awareness about further defence cuts than there was in 2010 and at least 20 Tory MPs are likely to rebel against the government if new funding is not forthcoming.

Still doing the business?

There is no doubt that the RN is in a poor state in many ways but there remains much to be positive about. As the summary above shows, this year has been one of contrasts. New equipment has reached important milestones on its way to join the fleet but at the same time manpower shortages, not enough ships and further possible cuts continue to blight the service.

A little lost amongst the focus on equipment is the day to day business of the RN. The service is just about able to manage the tasks mandated by government and has achieved a great deal in protecting the nation’s interests in 2017. As a snapshot, on 22nd November 2017 the RN had 32 ships and submarines either overseas or on operations (including RFAs but not including P2000 boats) and around 8,000 people actively deployed. (Reflecting the growing concern about Russia, the majority of these vessels were deployed in European or northern waters.) At Christmas, the numbers deployed had about halved mainly because for this sake of morale, the RN is determined to give Christmas leave to as many of its people as possible.

Decisions that will be taken in Westminster in the early part of 2018 will determine if the RN will have a more stable future or must endure yet further reduction and over-stretch.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-year-of-the-royal-navy-a-review-of-2017/