In perspective: the loss of HMS Sheffield

35 years on from the sinking of HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile, the full and un-redacted Board of Inquiry (BOI) findings have been made public. A heavy-handed piece by Ian Cobain in the Guardian heaps blame on the ship’s operations team and implies results of the inquiry was subject to a sinister cover up .

Mr Cobain’s article is reasonably well researched but the bare facts need to be seen in their full context before making accusations. Unless you were aboard HMS Sheffield between 14.00 and 14.04 on 4th May 1982, you can never know precisely what happened or what it felt like to be on the spot. Despite the supposedly reliable evidence of the board of enquiry now available, we should exercise caution when passing quick judgments on the actions of men on the frontline 35 years ago. Theoretically, the statements of fact recorded during the BOI should be accurate, but years later some of its contents are still contested by those who were there. What is certain is that there were failures at many levels that led to the destruction of Sheffield. Who should be blamed and to whether blame should be apportioned at all is a complex matter.

Something wrong with our bloody ships

In 1982 the RN was primarily an anti-submarine navy, much of its institutional focus was on the threat posed by the Soviets and in particular their submarines. The RN did, however, still regularly deploy outside of the NATO areas, HMS Sheffield had just spent 6 months in the Persian Gulf when she was sent to the Falklands. The ASW focus had resulted in a navy that retained a broad spectrum of capability, but the heavy investment in its critical nuclear submarines had contributed to a surface fleet that was inadequately armed and equipped.

The Type 42 destroyer was designed as an air defence ship and built to a tight budget resulting in a slightly compromised platform. The main Sea Dart system was usually very effective against medium and high altitude targets but the fire control radars did not have the ability to successfully track low-level targets. Although the sea-skimming missile threat was well understood and the RN possessed their own ship-launched Exocets, the entire Royal Navy fleet of the time lacked effective Close In Weapons Systems (CIWS). (The only exception were the new Type 22 frigates armed with very effective Sea Wolf). This was a glaring institutional failure that is hard to explain, especially as the Soviets had many potent anti-ship missiles. Space and funding constraints would not allow the fitting of the Sea Wolf missile on the Type 42 and the only back-up weapons were 2 manually-aimed 20mm Oerlikon cannons, dating from WWII. The Sea Dart was not always reliable and it seems extraordinary that a cheap second line of defence consisting of several modern 20 or 30mm cannon mounts had not been fitted. The Sheffield also lacked basic electronic jammers that could confuse missile radars. The best option would have been the Phalanx CIWS that had been in development since 1973 and was proven in service with the US Navy by 1980. Phalanx is entirely automated and would almost certainly have saved the Sheffield. It was hurriedly purchased by the RN and subsequently fitted to many surface ships, it is still in service today.

The only other potential defence against Exocet was the chaff launcher which fired clouds of aluminium strips that create false radar echoes to lure the missile away from the ship. Chaff was successfully and liberally used by the task force later in the war but relied on alert reactions, perfect timing and ship handling to place the ship away from the chaff cloud as it floated downwind.

There also existed many shortcomings in warship design and equipment fit that were quickly exposed by the Exocet strike. The use of formica panels were a hazard that created lethal flying shrapnel shards when subject to blast. Some escape hatches were found to be too small for men dressed in breathing apparatus. The Rover portable fire pumps were unreliable and there was inadequate fire-fighting equipment held onboard most ships. There was insufficient attention to the dangers of smoke in the design of ventilation and provision of fire curtains. Standard issue nylon clothing was found to have melted in contact with fire, severely exacerbating burns. The ship contained PVC cable insulation and foam furnishings that gave off toxic fumes in a fire.

No single individual can be held accountable for these decisions which are typical of a long period in a peacetime mentality where painful lessons learned in past conflicts fade from consciousness and funding pressures result in corners being cut.


The BOI implied that despite the inadequacy of the ship’s equipment, Sheffield could have saved herself by being better prepared. It is clear the operations room was not functioning well when the missile was detected, 30 seconds before impact, but part of this was unfortunate timing.

The Captain was resting in his cabin at the time and “The anti-air warfare officer had left the ship’s operations room and was having a coffee in the wardroom while his assistant had left to visit the heads”. No one can be on duty 24/7 and everyone had to pace themselves and take breaks. Fatigue was a particular problem for commanders in the Falklands who could not fully relax for weeks on end. The timing of these absences was exceptionally unlucky but not an indicator of slackness. When hit, Sheffield was not at actions stations which requires the entire crew to be closed up, but in defence watches where half the crew are on watch while the other half rest.

The BOI did find that the Principal Warfare Officer did not react as he should have and the AA Officer was absent from the ops room for too long. Sister ship, HMS Glasgow detected the aircraft and Exocets and reacted better. In a further stroke of bad luck, at the exact moment of the attack, Sheffield was making a transmission on her SATCOM which blinded her UAA1, a masthead sensor which could detect electronic emissions from aircraft and missiles, further reducing potential warning time. As the Guardian reported with relish back in 2000, the Entendard aircraft were detected by radar operators on HMS Invincible, a full 19 minutes before the Exocet hit Sheffield. Plagued by a series of false contact reports in the preceding days, the senior officer on Invincible responsible for air defence of the whole task force classified the contact as “spurious” and no warnings were issued. It was not just a few men on Sheffield who were on a steep learning curve in the early part of the war.

The Guardian quotes the BOI as saying some of the crew were “bored and a little frustrated by inactivity”. This has been selectively quoted by the Guardian article – the BOI actually says in the preceding sentence “the atmosphere on board was tense but there was no evidence of complacency.” The easy victory at South Georgia and the simple sinking of the cruiser Belgrano had given rise to a perception back in the UK that the war would be “a walk-over”. This was not that case amongst the task force as is clear from the biography of Admiral Sandy Woodward. Sheffield’s CO, Captain Sam Salt was an experienced officer and a seasoned submariner. He was perhaps more concerned with the submarine threat over the air threat but this is was partly due to faulty intelligence assessments and confusion among some officers about whether the Argentine airforce was capable of air-air refuelling required to get within range. Virtually every personal account of the Falklands war notes the poor quality of intelligence about the Argentine intentions and order of battle that was provided to the task force from London.

The BOI reports that when the incoming missiles came into view, officers on the bridge were “mesmerised” by the sight and failed to broadcast a warning to the ship’s company. This is not consistent with accounts of survivors who say that Sub Lieutenant Clark who was on the bridge, saw the incoming Exocet and shouted “missile attack, hit the deck!” over the main broadcast.

In keeping with history

Conflicts throughout history are littered with examples of mistakes, particularly at the start of hostilities. The loss of HMS Sheffield was a horrible shock to the RN and was news around the world. But lessons were learned and procedures are changed rapidly. The painful experience gained probably saved others, it was no coincidence that later in the conflict HMS Glamorgan survived an Exocet hit. The ship was alert, detected the missile and made a pre-planned turn that prevented the missile from penetrating the hull and main missile magazine.


Admiral John Fieldhouse who commanded the Taskforce from Northwood and later became First Sea Lord, decided not to court-martial officers on Sheffield who were implicated by the board of enquiry. Fieldhouse was noted for his humanity and was one of the most outstanding officers the RN has had since WWII. There are those who would like to portray this as a “cover up” but people who may have made fatal mistakes in combat have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. There are men that are still suffering today from the effects of what they experienced onboard HMS Sheffield and many of the veterans are angry about the release of the BOI and the Guardian article which they call “misrepresentative” and an “insult to the heroes of that day”. The Guardian article also hardly mentions the many outstanding acts of courage by the ship’s company in trying to save their ship after she was hit, some of which are recorded in the BOI report.

Having won the war, it made more sense to focus on how things could be done better in future than hand out punishments for failure. Undoubtedly mistakes and errors made during the conflict were kept in-house. Some of those who suffered loss or injury may want to see specific individuals named and punished but as discussed, it was a collective failure. Airing the dirty washing in public may have achieved little, added to the suffering of the bereaved and detracted from what was an incredible achievement overall. Sister ship HMS Coventry was sunk later in the conflict despite being alert and ready. In every armed conflict mistakes are made, usually, it costs lives but this is the terrible nature of warfare. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but is it not a luxury anyone has in the moment. The RN did conduct extensive analysis what happened and the lessons from the Falklands led to drastic changes to warship design, training and concept of operations. Many of these lessons are still kept alive in the RN today, particularly by the globally-renowned Flag Officer Sea Training organisation.

Responsibility starts at the top

The Falklands War was ultimately a triumph for Mrs Thatcher, standing against tyranny and holding her nerve while others would have given in. However, it could be argued that it was the actions of her government that created the conditions for the war in the first place. John Nott’s 1981 Defence white paper planned to axe South Atlantic Patrol ship HMS Endurance, together with the Navy’s aircraft carriers and amphibious capability and was perceived as a green light by the Argentines. Numerous officers and diplomats had tried to warn the Foreign Office of exactly what could happen if British resolve to defend the Falklands was seen to be waning. The men who died on HMS Sheffield might perhaps still be with us if the Thatcher government had not planned those defence cuts.

The principal of armed deterrence remains every bit as relevant. Spending on a properly equipped navy now may ultimately save bloodshed and far greater loss in a future conflict. This principle was ultimately proven in the peaceful victory of the Cold War and politicians of today would do well to consider this.



from Save the Royal Navy


Photo essay – disaster relief work conducted by the naval service in the Caribbean Ruman


from Save the Royal Navy

What have the Royal Marines ever done for us?

In case anyone in government is unclear about why the Royal Marines are so valuable to the defence of our national interests and are arguably the UK’s best fighting formation, here’s a very brief overview of their actions since WWII.

  • 1948 –3 Commando Brigade RM covers withdrawal of British troops from Palestine. 40 Commando RM last British unit to leave.
  • 1950-1952 – 3 Commando Brigade RM deploys to Malaya for counter terrorist operations. Brigade wins forty awards for gallantry (not including sixty-eight mention in despatches), and suffers thirty-three dead.
  • 1950-52 – 41 (Independent) Commando RM, deploys to Korea, in addition to carrying out twenty-one raids on the coast behind enemy lines, the Commando took part in the 1st Marine Division USMC action at the Chosin and Hagaru including the epic march to the sea. 31 KIA in Korea.
  • 1953-1954 – 3 Commando Brigade deploys to Suez Canal Zone and conducts counter-insurgency operations.
  • 1955 -1959, 40 and 45 Commandos RM, alternate on operations in Cyprus during EOKA campaign. 42 Commando deployed in UK.
  • 1956 – 3 Commando Brigade RM (including 42 Commando) spearhead amphibious assault at Suez, 6 November 1956. 45 Commando carries out the first ever helicopter assault in an amphibious operation in the world.
  • 1960 – 1967 – 45 Commando RM deploys to Aden.
  • 1961 – 42 Commando lands from the LPH Bulwark into Kuwait to forestall Iraqi invasion under President Kasim of Iraq. 45 Commando RM flown to Kuwait by RAF to join 42 Commando.
  • 1962 – 40 and 42 Commandos operations in Brunei, including Limbang operation by L Company 42 Commando.
  • 1963-1966 – 40 and 42 Commandos on anti-terrorist and incursion operations in Borneo and Malaysia.
  • 1964 – Mutiny by army in Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) 41 and 45 Commandos deploy to Tanganyika. 45 Commando by helicopter launched from carrier HMS Centaur (CVA not an LPH so a swift re-roling required by ships company into ad hoc LPH).  Mutiny suppressed.
  • 1964-1967 – 45 Commando deployed on operations in the Radfan, and in Aden city.
  • 1967 – 45 Commando second last British unit to withdraw from Aden and returns UK, covered by 42 Commando who are last out and withdraw in LPH Albion. 40 Commando embarked in LPH Bulwark covers from seaward ready to reinforce.  40 Commando remains offshore as part of task group which includes two CVA ready to go back in and evacuate British civilians.
  • 1965-1975 – RM Officers on loan service with Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces on operations in the Dhofar region of Oman.
  • 1967 – 40 Commando deploys to Hong Kong for Internal Security duties (rioting as part of Mao’s ‘red book’ revolution)
  • 1969 –2004 – In 1969, 42 Commando first RM Commando to deploy to Northern Ireland. Thereafter, for next 35 years RM Commandos take their turns on operations in the Province until 2004.
  • 1974 – Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 40 Commando deployed to protect Greek zone. Subsequently 41 Commando deployed on UN operations.
  • 1982 – 3 Commando Brigade spearheads recapture of the Falkland Islands.
  • 1983 – 40 Commando deploys to Cyprus for UN Tour of duty.
  • 1990-1991 SBS operations in Iraq. 3 Commando Brigade on Operation Haven in Northern Iraq.
  • 2000 – 42 Commando deploys to Sierra Leone. HQ 3 Commando Brigade and 45 Commando to Kosovo.
  • 2002 –. SBS first Allied troops to land in Afghanistan, and seize landing zone for US Special Forces. 45 Commando operations in Afghanistan. 40 Commando deploy to Afghanistan in Special Forces Support role (SSFG). 42  Commando in Northern Ireland.
  • 2003 – Op Telic, invasion of Iraq. 3 Commando Brigade amphibious ops and advance to Basra.
  • 2004 – 40 Commando operational tour in Iraq.
  • 2006 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 5 in Helmand Afghanistan.
  • 2007 – 40 Commando Op HERRICK 7 Afghanistan. RM Armoured Support Group (Vikings) in support of army units in Afganistan.
  • 2008 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 9 Afghanistan.
  • 2010 – 40 Commando Op HERRICK 12 Afghanistan.
  • 2011 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 14 Afghanistan.

In the 12 years of the Afghanistan Campaign, the Royal Marines were awarded 206 gallantry and meritorious service awards, 13% of the total, including 25% of the CGC and MC awards. In doing so suffering 61 KIA and 256 seriously wounded. During every tour the Royal Marines have been in the ‘hot spots’, no other regiment has done more in the campaign.


Drawn up by Julian Thompson from information in A Short History of the Royal Marines, published by the Royal Marines Historical Society. (Any errors are the fault of Julian Thompson and not the Royal Marines Historical Society). The latest edition is Fourth Revised Edition 2013, the first edition was printed 2003; an indication of how busy the Corps has been recently.   Issued to all young officers and recruits under training. Copies available from: RM Historical Society, RM Museum, Eastney, Southsea, Hands PO4 9PX,

Royal Marines in action during the Falklands war, 1982. Image: Imperial War Musuem

from Save the Royal Navy

Further cuts to the fleet in “the year of the Royal Navy” ?

Recent headlines about possible further body-blows to the Royal Navy are an indication that the terrible state of Ministry of Defence finances is starting to bite. Here we look at what could be cut, what could be the impact on RN capability and the potential political fall out.

The defence review that is not a defence review

The Cabinet Office led by Mark Sedwill, National Security Adviser, is currently conducting a “Strategic Defence and Security Review Implementation” it is supposed to be looking at how the decisions made in 2015 fit with the current global security environment. In reality, it is an exercise in desperately trying to find ways to reduce a £20 Billion gap between the funding the MoD will receive and the money it is committed to spending over the next 10 years.

The Defence Secretary has demanded each of the three armed services offer up “efficiencies”, ie. capabilities that could be cut in order to make savings. The RN is in a slightly different position to the other two services because the majority of its programmes are large and politically untouchable. Of its three core elements, the Continuous At Sea Deterrent, (CASD), Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and Amphibious Capability, the Royal Marines and amphibious ships have always been most vulnerable to the axe. Trident renewal is thankfully non-negotiable and there is too much political, industrial and economic capital tied up in the carrier programme, (including F-35 and the new frigates).

Take your pick from our menu of cuts

To maintain its operations and existing equipment plan, the RN is now short of between £350 – 500 Million a year. It has already agreed on the early retirement of 2 minehunters, HMS Atherstone and Quorn, but there are very few other options available for cutting. There are plenty of rumours and speculation about what may be cut next. Thankfully it has been confirmed that a Daily Mail report HMS Scott was to be axed is false. She does have serious engine problems but there is a plan in place for her to be upgraded and retained. HMS Scott does not just conduct hydrographic surveys, but also generates oceanographic information which is key to the operation of the nuclear deterrent and anti-submarine warfare.

Further cuts of some kind are almost certainly coming, although no definite decisions have been made. A reduction of 200 Royal Marines to release funds for more sailors has already been agreed and Marine training has already been considerably scaled down. The Times reports that 1,000 Royal Marines could go and both LPDs HMS Albion and Bulwark could also be axed, almost removing the RN’s amphibious capability entirely. The RN has already been operating with just a single LPD, one in mothballs or refit while the other is active. HMS Bulwark worked very hard during her last period in service but it now in mothballs, while Albion has just emerged from a two-year £90 million refit. These ships have proved to be very versatile platforms that have conducted all sorts of operations beyond just training for amphibious warfare. It should also be remembered that the loss of HMS Ocean combined with the loss of HMS Albion and Bulwark would call into question the future of Devonport naval base and could create a political storm in Plymouth and the South West.

The exact nature of how we may conduct amphibious warfare in future is open to discussion as many consider assaulting the beach in small boats from an LPD in a vulnerable position, close to shore is now just too dangerous. Some argue we should conduct assault by aircraft alone, preferably expensive V-22 Ospreys flying in fast from the ship well out to sea. Unfortunately, there is still a need to get heavy equipment ashore that cannot go by air. Provision of logistic support for troops by air alone for a sustained period is not realistic. Even the recent relief effort, Operation Ruman in the Caribbean has proved again the need for afloat ship-shore capability. This debate over what is called “assured access” is complex but not an excuse to get rid of HMS Albion and Bulwark. Once a ship is gone it is also very difficult for the RN to argue for a replacement (See also the case for keeping HMS Ocean in reserve).

Blame it on the carriers – simplistic scapegoating

Many critics try to blame budget problems on the RN leadership for choosing to build aircraft carriers. This is a completely backwards way to view such a cornerstone conventional capability and which was part of a prudent strategy started in 1998 to build a balanced fleet. The cost of the CEPP is considerable but in fact, it is not the biggest item on the MoD books, the Army will have the largest share of the 2016-26 equipment budget. The RN recognises that without carriers it is a second division navy, its ships and those it maybe protecting are inherently vulnerable without organic air cover. As we have discussed frequently, the strike carrier also has vast utility beyond protecting amphibious operations. Cuts to either the carriers or amphibious capability would be strategic nonsense. Carriers are needed to protect and participate in landing operations and we need both as they compliment each other. Will Taylor has written an excellent piece on the utility and value for money that amphibious capability delivers.

Wildcat Helicopter

Axing 28 brand new Wildcat helicopters would be an extraordinary step and a sign of desperation.

The Times also reports that the RN’s Wildcat helicopters are being considered for sale. Such a move would leave the RN’s escorts ships short of a key weapon. The Wildcat carries the new Sea Venom and Martlet missiles, the only anti-ship missile that will be fielded by the RN between 2020-30. The torpedoes dropped by Wildcat may also be the only means to prosecute submarines. The 30 Merlins HM2 helicopters are already grossly over-worked and have too many tasks.

The Trident solution?

We applaud government commitment to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, the cornerstone upon which UK security rests but how it is funded is contentious. In 2010 the chancellor George Osborne managed to move the full cost of Trident into the core MoD budget this was the start of another wave of problems. Although the defence secretary at the time Liam Fox protested, Osborne got his way. At the time this bombshell was almost overlooked by many overshadowed by the carnage of the 2010 SDSR, but as the costs of the Dreadnought submarine programme ramp up in the next decade, this is a big underlying pressure driving cuts. A radical solution would be to return the costs of CASD to Treasury reserve where it used to be. This could be implemented over a period of years so the Treasury could adjust. This would be a fair and sensible solution as Trident is a political and national security overhead that quite reasonably should be treated as being outside the conventional defence budget. Defence campaigners might have more success arguing for this large single and easily-understood measure than uncoordinated one-off campaigns to save specific units, ships or establishments.

Admiral, it’s entirely up to you which of your arms you must to cut off

The devolved budget system has the enormous political advantage that cuts can be portrayed as the choice of the service. This allows the underfunding to downplayed and cuts portrayed and merely the service making sensible choices to “live within its means”. The First Sea Lord is accused by some of “not defending his service”. This is disingenuous as no one wants to cut capability and officers do not have the luxury of publicly criticising Ministers or demanding new money. Instead, he should be commended for trying to maintain morale and momentum while being failed by his political masters.

Fundamentally the problems come down to a lack of money for defence. Although the defence budget is rising by 0.5% above inflation this is not nearly enough to compensate for the long-term underfunding and mistakes of the past or the rising costs of virtually everything. There may have been colossal waste and mistakes in the past but that does not solve the problems of today. The Defence Secretary recently showed a little backbone for the first time and admitted that the target of 2% of GDP on defence may not be enough and “we should do better”. Whether he has the guile or ability to actually obtain more money in a divided cabinet and a weak government remains to be seen. While there is certainly a case for overseas development aid, an obvious solution would be to divert funding from DFID’s generous budget to the MoD, which is often involved with aid operations anyway.

At a time when the world is more dangerous than ever, Trump expects Europe to pay its way and Brexit Britain must look outward, cuts to strength are the opposite of what we should be doing.

Paying the political price

Having nailed his colours to the mast by calling 2017 “the Year of the Royal Navy”, Michale Fallon would be in an awkward position if the year ends with him disposing of high profile ships or a big swathe of naval strength. This is not just a numbers game or pieces on a chess board but the future security of a nation. David Cameron has admitted that one of his biggest regrets from his time as Prime Minister was his decision to cut the aircraft carriers in 2010. Mrs May and Mr Fallon should be mindful that axing the Royal Navy’s amphibious capability could be a mistake of a similar magnitude they could come to sorely regret. If new money is not found for defence quickly, then the 2017 “review” could be seen as undoing the positive aspects of the 2015 SDSR and a failure comparable to the 2010 debacle.


from Save the Royal Navy

An ode to efficiencies

Who will notice another minehunter gone?
Sandown and Bridport, sold for a song.
Bicester and Berkeley, Inverness, too
When we’re short of a quid what must we do?
Pick on the humble MCMV, axe little ships nobody sees.

Cottesmore and Dulverton didn’t survive, another little cost-cutting drive.
Walney retired – still in her prime, rots in the basin with the passing of time.
Cromer and Brecon don’t sail anymore, expensive classrooms tied to the shore.

Now Atherstone and Quorn to be lost from the fleet, a sacrifice to the balance sheet.
Three more will go in a year or two, nicely settled in the defence review.
Years ago we used to have Tons, there were plenty of sweepers way back then.
But look forward to the future, we’ll make do with ten.
Maybe the mine threat just went away or the ocean was bigger back in the day?

Gaps in the fleet, fitted-for-but-not-with, doing more with less and a half-empty mess.
Salami-sliced down to the bone, just think about carriers, try not to moan.
We need more efficiencies, you’ll understand.
Another young officer without a command, but jam tomorrow is promised and planned.

Don’t get confused by the number of ships,
Read my press release and read my lips.
We’re growing the Navy, repeat after me,
No, we’re not making cuts, only ‘adjustments’ you see.

from Save the Royal Navy

It’s time for a honest conversation about the future of the Royal Navy

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has repeatedly stated that we have a “growing Royal Navy”. The facts do not support this claim and it is simply untrue. Worse still, there are now strong indications of another round of cuts to RN strength.

Since the much-vaunted SDSR 2015, the growing Royal Navy is still suffering cuts. RFA Diligence was quietly withdrawn with no official announcement and is now awaiting sale or scrap in Portsmouth. HMS Ocean is due to decommission March 2018 and will probably be sold to Brazil. A reduction of 2 mine hunters was included in the 2015 SDSR, they will leave the fleet sometime before 2023.

On 24th September The Mail on Sunday reported ocean survey vessel HMS Scott is to be sold or scrapped. She is the probably first victim of the low profile ‘mini defence review’ now being conducted to in the face of catastrophic MoD financial problems. Type 23 frigate HMS Lancaster was towed to Devonport earlier this year due to begin a major refit, this has not been started and there is now real concern she will never sail again. HMS Portland is also in Devonport without a crew and awaiting refit at some point in future. HMS Daring and HMS Dauntless are inactive Portsmouth, although Dauntless is due to start a major refit soon. Other cuts on the menu include losing 1,000 Royal Marines and reducing the F-35 purchase. (The purchase of 138 F-35s over the next 20 years promised in 2015 is now seen as completely unrealistic, most analysts expect the UK to buy less than half that number). The exact details of what will be axed are still subject to speculation and internal horse-trading, but cuts are coming.

Black holes and revelations

The drastic round of defence cuts in 2010 were excused by the Con-Dem government of the day because it was claimed the previous Labour administration had left a £34Bn ‘black hole’ in the defence budget. By May 2012 Phillip Hammond was claiming his prudent management had eliminated the problem and he even had had £8Bn ‘headroom’. Today it is widely accepted another ‘black hole’ of £20 – 30 Billion has opened up again. Fallon says he “does not recognise those figures” but “efficiencies will have to be made”. Clearly the promises of the 2015 SDSR we never properly funded but there are other factors; A conspiracy of optimism around the cost of big defence projects – everything is more costly than original estimates. Ongoing mismanagement of procurement continues, although this has supposedly improved a little. The only issue on which government may be partially excused from blame are the post-Brexit foreign exchange issues which have reduced our ability to buy equipment from abroad, particularly the US. Ironically the defence budget is now actually growing slightly but not by nearly enough to cover the annual shortfalls or an unaffordable equipment plan.

Painful truths will always serve us better than comforting lies.

Honestly and a national debate

It is time our political leaders were honest with the British people. Admitting that the public finances cannot support the existing defence equipment plan and we are therefore scaling back our capabilities would be a first step. Pretending that everything is rosy is not only dishonest but hinders analysis, reduces our credibility with our allies and does not fool our adversaries. Having the political integrity to present the real situation would take courage and draw criticism, but in the long run would build respect and restore trust.

There could be a real debate about defence priorities and whether Britain is willing to raise tax or make other cuts in order to prepare us for a world that is increasingly dangerous. We must stop talking in terms of “the threat we can afford” and take a sober look at the real threats we face, not least on the high seas upon which our trade and lifeblood depends.

Dressing it up

Government and senior officials will predictably respond to complaints about cuts to the RN by pointing to all the new equipment that is being delivered. The vessels that will commission in the next decade are mostly like-for-like replacements for old vessels that have either already gone or will come to the end of the lives anyway. The two Queen Elizabeth class carriers are replacements for 3 Invincible class carriers. The arrival of Type 26 and Type 31s (at least 5 years away) will allow the decommissioning of ageing Type 23 frigates. The 7 Astute class replace the 7 Trafalgar and 6 Swiftsure class submarines. The 5 OPVs will replace 4 similar OPVs. The 4 Dreadnought class ballistic submarines are a replacement for the 4 Vanguard class. The 4 Tide class RFA Tankers replace the 4 Rover and 4 Leaf class tankers that are already long gone.

The next excuse will be that “our new equipment is so much more capable than what it replaces”. While certainly true, particularly in the case of the aircraft carriers, at the same time the capability of our adversaries has increased, in many cases significantly. New equipment is simply keeping up with global technological change, and does not inherently amount to a great increase in our naval power. The quality of vessels may be better but their numbers continue to fall. The Fleet Air Arm is a graphic demonstration of this. In 2009 the Navy had 194 helicopters, after a major modernisation programme by 2019 it will have 83.

Talking up the navy

The First Sea Lord is right to be outwardly positive about his service and lead with optimism. As the relief work of Operation Ruman in the Caribbean demonstrates, the RN is still doing great work on a daily basis. After the Daily Telegraph printed a misleading cover story and falsely stated that HMS Ocean had broken down, he was right to forcefully rebut the article.

However, he also claimed the RN had “more than 30 ships and submarines deployed on operations this week”. This is something of a deception. Of that 30, only about 10-12 could be described as major combat vessels. To reach the figure of 30 must also require counting several P2000 patrol boats. These are very small unarmed boats that provide useful training opportunities and experience for potential recruits and junior officers. In military terms, at best they have a good weather-only short-range surveillance capability and are certainly not “ships”. Including P2000s in the RN’s ORBAT shows a drift into the realms of spin and hyperbole which we might expect from politicians, but not defence chiefs.

There are those that say the chiefs should resign in protest at cuts. This is unlikely to make much impact. It could even be counter-productive as the leaders of other public sector organisations are expected to live within their means and, sad to say, there is not broad enough public understanding about the seriousness of our weakening defences. The courageous resignation of the French Chief of Defence, Pierre de Villiers, in protest at cuts caused a few days of embarrassment for President Macron but has not seen any change in policy. It would likely be the same story here. Ultimately it is political masters who must take responsibility, not the servants they employ.

Facing facts

Almost as frightening as the state of UK defence is the national debt at nearly £2 Trillion and currently increasing by £52Bn a year (£1,648 a second). Clearly ‘austerity’ measures have failed to get a grip on public finances. There are increasingly tough choices for those in power and in every government department, with no easy answers. Who is willing to say we must raise taxes or cut public services because 2% GDP spending on defence is inadequate in the face of new treats?

Despite a populist view that all politicians are corrupt and in it for themselves, one suspects Michael Fallon, Harriet Baldwin and many others of all political shades entered politics with good intentions, aiming to make Britain a better place. If they really had the budget, these ministers would be in favour of a genuinely bigger Royal Navy. Unfortunately, once in power, they have become addicted to a lethal cocktail of media spin and political short-termism. As every addict knows, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have problems. So Mr Fallon, in the year of the Royal Navy you have the opportunity to be a statesman, not just another in a long line of liars in suits. Be honest with us about the true state of the Royal Navy today and what we can afford in the future.



from Save the Royal Navy

Sustaining Royal Navy manpower – the greatest challenge

Despite his usual upbeat tone, the First Sea Lord recently admitted the RN still faces manpower challenges. Here we look at some of the serious on-going manpower issues and how they might be addressed. (In this context “manpower” is shorthand for a diverse mix of men and women).


The period 2010 – 2016 has been especially problematic for the RN because it has lost too many people and is unable to replace them fast enough. Various manpower crises have arisen throughout RN history but the 5,000 redundancies forced on the service in 2010 were the catalyst for the recent crisis. Until around 2014 the RN tried to conduct ‘business as usual’ but this exacerbated the problem by putting further pressure on already under-manned, under-sized fleet. There has now been an acknowledgment that things must change and restoring morale and manning levels is a stated priority. There have been many initiatives and attempts to put people before programmes, some well received, others not so. As an example, the number of ships alongside over the summer period in the last few years is a witness to the drive to give planned summer leave to as many as possible.

In 2017 the situation has stabilised a little since the peak of the crisis (2012-14), with people joining approximately matching the numbers leaving. However new recruits will need to significantly outnumber leavers in the near future if the RN is to get to the 30,450 ‘liability’ it is supposed to have in 2020. Today the service is 820 people short of its current liability (30,320), 2.7% understrength. Almost half of the shortfall is amongst vitally important engineering personnel. The RN is 100 engineer officers and 300 engineering ratings short of what it is supposed to have. (This raises an interesting question about what would happen to RN finances if manpower was up to full strength. The money saved by running understrength is clearly significant and helping keep a very stretched budget in balance.) The issue is not just about numbers but about the loss of experience and skilled people that take years to accumulate and which no amount of new recruits are a substitute for.

“Slowly but surely people are being sent to the ships but we have a lot of very ‘new to the navy’ ratings being pushed through and getting promoted to fill gaps in ranks. It’s all very well having plenty of AB’s, however, we need the killicks and the PO’s to lead them. This creates a big dilemma, do these young ABs going into leadership roles have enough experience? They’re becoming leading hands and promoted to senior rate but in reality, some have very little experience of the job.”

The ship’s company of HMS Queen Elizabeth was originally specified as a rather miraculous 690 but, even before sea trials had begun, it had risen to 730. It is very likely that operational experience will demand further increases. The RN has prioritised the manning of both carriers above the rest of the surface fleet and, for now at least, both ships have all the people they need. Even if the RN’s modest target strength of 30,450 could be met, the manpower needs of the carriers will continue to put considerable pressure on the rest of the fleet for at least the next 4-5 years. That 2 of the RN’s 19 surface escorts are permanently confined to harbour (currently HMS Daring and HMS Portland) because of lack of manpower is a testament to how serious the problem has become. 2 more minehunters are also going to be cut from the fleet sometime before 2025 to save money and release manpower.

In 2016 the RN conducted a super-lean manning trial with a Type 45 destroyer, cutting numbers right down to just the people needed to keep the ship fighting and operational. The ship was taken through a specially-adapted Operational Sea Training period which the ship passed successfully. It was hard on the crew, being run ragged, everyone performing 4 or 5 different roles. This setup proved the ship could conduct routine operations for short spells in UK waters configured this way, although completely unworkable for overseas deployments or demanding operations. This kind of initiative is sensible in the circumstances but a palliative that will not cure the problem or strengthen the fleet.

Assuming no one is impertinent enough to demand a bigger RN than is planned now, there could be some relief on the distant horizon. By the mid-late 2020s the new Type 26 and Type 31 frigates will have a considerably lower manpower requirement than the today’s Type 23s. In the long term, the trend toward greater automation, more unmanned systems, or even unmanned ships, points to a reducing manpower demand.

For now it is pretty much a given that before even discussing any real expansion of the fleet, a significant growth in personnel numbers would have to come first.

Recruitment and retention

For the average 16-18 years old the Navy is still offers an attractive and exciting prospect and applications to join are reasonably buoyant. 13,888 applications were received between June 2016-17. In the same period 2,884 people were accepted and began training with the RN. Even if more money were thrown at recruitment, a large new intake would present problems. The waiting list from application to beginning initial training at HMS Raleigh currently varies between 12 – 18 months. There is not the spare capacity in the training pipeline. New facilities at Raleigh would be needed and experienced people would have to be withdrawn from the fleet in order to train greater numbers. There would also be an issue around how a big surge of raw trainees could be absorbed into the fleet.

The RN operates a single point of entry where everyone must enter at the most junior level and work their way up over time. This practice has obvious great advantages but is enormously restrictive when you are short of more mature or qualified people. In most other industries people are free to move sidewise in and out of different organisations at different levels of seniority. The RN has made some attempts to offer sideways entry to some trades such as engineers but could it be time to radically overhaul the entire entry system? Parachuting in 25-35-year-olds straight from civilian life to be POs or CPOs would certainly be a challenge for all!

There is perhaps a slightly misplaced faith among senior officers that the new generation of ships and exciting new equipment will help with recruitment and retention. The arrive of HMS Queen Elizabeth has certainly helped raise the RN’s profile and the opportunity to work with the latest technology may prove an initial draw and is a source of job satisfaction for some. However it is the amount of time away from family and friends, the balance between long dull days and exciting foreign trips, together with pay and general conditions that are much more likely the decisive factors on when deciding to join or leave.

Anecdotally we have also heard plenty of examples of experienced people who were let go too easily. For the sake of small compromises, the RN has lost valuable people who will cost thousands of pounds and many years to replace. (especially the technically qualified ‘gold dust’ senior rates) There are also former personnel willing to rejoin who are refused on apparently minor or unexplained grounds. Individual cases are hard to verify but perhaps in desperate times, there needs to be more flexibility and application of a less rigid rulebook. The first sign of thinking along these lines is the “Street to Fleet” initiative by which the RN hopes to attract up to 1000 former naval personnel back into uniform.

Accepting cultural changes

Old salts who complain that the delicate young ’snowflakes’ of today are ‘too soft and should just toughen up’ are not helping and should recognise there is still a significant core of fine young people serving today with dedication. It may be fair to say that a bigger proportion of younger people have higher material expectations and are less used to physical or psychological hardship than before but naval training can overcome this in many cases. Because of World War II and conscription, previous generations were more likely to have a link to the forces, probably there was an older relative in the family who had served. Together with a general sea-blindness, this link to the Navy is dying out and patriotism and sacrificial service to your country is seen as an anachronism or not even considered by a large section of young people.

Older people may find it hard to understand what a big deal internet connectivity is for young people who have grown up in an era of Snapchat and WhatsApp. Although some may scoff, it is not unusual for young people even report serious anxiety when separated from their phone. The average 18 year old joining the RN has have never known life without instant connectivity. If you are used to conducting much of your social interaction in almost real-time online, then it is a big shock to discover you are suddenly cut off from this and may even be a factor in the rejection of a service career. Although OPSEC must always come first, it is a complex and difficult issue that the RN is making some attempt to address. There has been email access at sea for many years but this is quite different from the on-demand access to everything using the phone in your pocket. Some ships have on-board wi-fi providing some limited availability. (Submariners will still have to accept long periods with virtually zero connectivity). There was a recent case of an RN warship operating in sensitive waters and was overflown by a foreign military aircraft. A young sailor onboard photographed the aircraft and put the photo on Facebook. An obvious and stupid breach of OPSEC that was quickly picked up by RN monitoring teams. This sort of incident demonstrates the pitfalls of providing internet access to personnel at sea.

The RN devotes enormous, possibly excessive, effort to present its credentials as an equal opportunities employer with a diversity agenda. Of course, everyone deserves a fair chance, but by its nature, appealing to minority groups is not expanding the recruitment pool by much. The majority of effort needs to be focused on the mainstream, particularly reaching and engaging with schools and further education colleges and with young people interested in technology and engineering.

When there are so many comfortable and attractive and potentially better-paid alternatives ashore, it is no longer good enough to say “tough luck, that’s life in a blue suit”. Many have, and will vote with their feet and leave. The RN has always had to adapt to the expectations of each generation and this can be seen in the vastly improved accommodation on modern warships. This may help a little but it is the terms of service and daily experience of sailors that really counts.

Terms and conditions apply

The 1% cap on pay rises has caused income for everyone in the public sector to fall in real terms by about 3% in the past 10 years. The government is under growing pressure to lift this cap, some public sector workers will shout more loudly than others but the forces must remain silent and have no union or collective voice beyond Whitehall. The long-suffering forces clearly deserve to be somewhere near the front of any pay rise queue. Even a small rise beyond the annual 1% would have a big impact on MoD finances at a time when there are already huge funding gaps. Without specific additional funds from the Treasury, pay rises might have to be accompanied by equipment and capability cuts. Some argue that there has been too much emphasis by the service chiefs on new equipment at the expense of operations, training and overall morale, and perhaps priorities should change anyway.

Pay levels are not the primary reason for the RN’s retention problems but it is an ever-growing factor. Just 33% of personnel now say they are satisfied with pay and benefits and this figure is going down even year. Pensions have historically been cited in the top five reasons for people staying. The reduced value of pensions has removed this incentive for people to extend their service, making it less likely the valuable experienced people will not extend their engagement to a long career.

Despite the efforts to put people before programmes, the proportion of Royal Navy personnel spending more than four months away in a year has increased from 49% in 2016 to 56% in 2017. There has also been an increase in ratings not able to take their leave due to workload and undermanning. This is significant because by far the biggest reason given for leaving is “impact of service life on family and personal life”. More than a quarter of RN personnel (27%) say they intend to leave before the end of their current engagement or commission. The 2017 UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey makes for mostly grim reading and does not point to a dramatic improvement in overall morale or retention rates in the near future.

It’s  a conundrum that even Nelson would have recognised, the challenge is to improve sailors morale while at the same time delivering a disciplined and effective navy.

A view from the lower deck

It is not our place to dictate to the RN exactly how to manage its people. The RN has already made considerable efforts to put its people first. However, there is very strong anecdotal and primary evidence of dissatisfaction with management practices that could easily be addressed. Some of the complaints may be as old as time itself and the familiar tensions between all bosses and workers in the workplace, but there are some reasonable grievances. Should senior leaders be telling officers that keeping sailors happy and creating the conditions that lead them to stay in the service must be treated as far greater priority? Is this possible while delivering an effective navy that meets “the command aim”? It is often quite small issues, information, appreciation, flexibility – that would not cost vast sums or impact on ship’s programmes that may make a big difference. Maybe there are unpopular but traditional routines, practices or duties that could be dispensed without letting fighting efficiency slip?

“We are often unsure of what was happening on a weekly basis, dockies, senior rates and even officers spin us dits that lead us to believe that things are going to happen or not happen. This takes its toll on everyone. You can’t make real plans to go home on the weekends because there could be delays, surprise duties and weekend working, and so on. You could have been given a weekend off right until Thursday then be told “sorry mate” and those travel plans or and family visit is just wasted. Officers promise to let you know ‘as soon as they find out something’… but we see them leaving to collect their hire cars and going on leave hours before we know if we can get away.

Officers come down to ask the lads how things are going and tell us to be honest about problems. But yet we get told beforehand not to complain about anything when we do it is utterly frowned upon. If something’s wrong, you can’t complain”

“Another, major issue that damages morale is lack of funds for the small things. Everyone accepts we need to save money but the whole system just lacks common sense! Letting the lads off for an occasional day just for a bit of R&R or to go to the gym or travel to other places would help. Nowadays, every tiny bit of leave needs to be accounted for on JPA, every half a mile traveled has to be accounted for. Daft things like if you travel from base to base, you’re entitled to a food allowance but if you’re traveling to play sport representing the ship it’s out of your own pocket. It’s a battle to get everything, from basics like pillows and curtains to proper cleaning gear, to  bigger items the ship needs like weapon kits”

“those that do dip in.. and the ones who get to do the things the navy should do, live the best life ever. The runs ashore, the dits, the work, utterly incredible. I know lots of lads who adore the navy, and will stay in. The good times far out way the bad times. More thought could be given to making sure everyone gets good experiences and exciting overseas deployments. Life in the navy can be so so good, but there needs to be more consideration.”

‘Jack’, a rating currently serving in the surface fleet


from Save the Royal Navy