An Independent Website Considering the Future Royal Navy and Promoting Naval Affairs


  Site Updates
  About Navy Matters
  Site Index
  Email the Editor




2008 in Review: The Admiral has no Clothes
14 December 2008
Updated 26 December 2008 - Royal Marine casualties

HMS Barham sinking, 25/11/19412008 has been the year in which the threadbare state of Britain's maritime capability could no longer be disguised by political platitudes.  For the last six years the Royal Navy's budget has been robbed by the government to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without an increase in the UK's overall defence budget.  In 2008, no matter how hard the shrunken and exhausted service tried, the Royal Navy could no longer meet all the demands being placed upon it - it's ships and submarines are now too few, too poorly maintained, and too old and outdated.

The headline good news item this year was the announcement on 3 July that the MOD had finally contracted for the construction of two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, they would enter service in 2014 and 2016.  The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, said that the ships were affordable and "This is a historic day for everyone in defence. The two aircraft carriers will provide our forces with the world-class capabilities they will need over the coming decades".  The decision had been so long delayed (nearly five years), and the RN had made so many sacrifices to get the carriers, that the resulting applause to this significant and apparently definitive statement was very subdued.  

The immense scepticism that has developed in the UK maritime community towards the current Labour government was yet again reconfirmed when barely five months after the high profile carrier announcement in July the new Defence Secretary - John Hutton - made a written ministerial statement to Parliament.  Towards the end of this appeared the paragraph "We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the Joint Combat Aircraft [JCA] and the Aircraft Carrier [CVF].  This is likely to mean delaying the In Service Date of the new carriers by 1-2 years.  We are in close consultation with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance on how this might best be done."

It should be noted that UK had originally planned to have the JCA (the American nomenclature is Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)) enter service in 2012, technical problems would have delayed this by about a year, but because of funding difficulties the UK is now thought to have changed the target in-service date of JCA to no earlier than 2017/18.

2015 has long been considered a more realistic date for HMS Queen Elizabeth to enter service so a delay to the first ship is not unexpected (although the risk and costs that would have accrued to industry will now apparently be transferred to the MOD), but the likely two year delay to HMS Prince of Wales is far more worrying as it gives space for consideration of the cost and implications of the outright cancellation of the ship next year as a result of Planning Round 09.  The MOD will now renegotiate with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance a contract that took two or three years to agree originally, it can only be expected that the overall cost of the two ships will go up substantially from the currently expected 3.9 billion - assuming that both are still built.  The MoD and the government seems to be accepting increased long term costs in order to achieve short term savings - the exact opposite of the Smart Procurement/Acquisition philosophy that the MOD formally adopted in July 1997.

The crisis in the carrier strike programme is being compounded by the Royal Air Force proposing under the banner  "One Nation One Air Force" to advance the out-of-service date of the Harrier GR.9 aircraft from the currently planned timescale of 2018/9 (or later), to 2013.  Joint Force Harrier squadrons would start disbanding as early as next year - with the problematic Naval Strike Wing being the first candidate to go.   The RAF estimates that its initiative would save the MOD a highly attractive 1 billion compared to current plans to keep the Harrier in service until 2018/19.

The RAF's intent seems to be to free resources for the continuing ramp of its Typhoon fighter force to 232 Typhoon's at a total cost of at least 20 billion.  The RAF is arguing (with some success given the already announced delay to the CVF project) that the need for Harrier's in Iraq and Afghanistan is declining, that there is no currently no operational need to deploy these at sea, and that the CVF design is optimised for the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and operating these with Harrier's for a few years would not be a cost effective option.  Senior RAF officers are publicly giving only limited support to the 8 billion JCA/JSF project, if it does proceed the "One Nation One Air Force" initiative apparently advocates that the lowest cost approach for future carrier operations is for the RAF to own and man any fast jet (i.e. JCA/JSF) squadrons that can operate on RN aircraft carriers. 

In regards to the Joint Strike Fighter, on November 25  the following amazing evidence was given by General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue to the House of Commons Defence Committee:

Robert Key: General, ... are you any clearer about the unit cost of a Joint Strike Fighter?

General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue: No, I do not think I am, am I?

Robert Key: Can you now tell us how many JSFs the UK is planning to buy?

General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue: At the moment, and this is still a decision-making process going on, we are looking at buying three, which are the Operational Test and Evaluation aircraft.

Robert Key: Beyond that?

General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue: Why do we not wait and see what the Operational Test and Evaluation comes out with?

This conversation supports the analysis by Navy Matters in October that the UK would not order even a small number of production aircraft before 2012.

The Royal Navy currently has two small Invincible-class aircraft carriers and another highly worrying element of recent developments is that there is no indication that the life of either HMS Illustrious (the only fully GR.9 capable carrier, planned decommissioning date: 2015) or HMS Ark Royal (planned decommissioning date: 2012) will be extended.  Indeed, if the current Harrier force was rapidly disbanded, the pay off date of HMS Illustrious may well be brought forward as well.

I will just summarise some of the other bad news this year:HMS Daring on sea trials

  • The planned (Batch 3) seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers were cancelled on 19 June.

  • At the time of the T45 Batch 3 cancellation it was stated that the MOD was "bringing forward the replacement programme for [the] Type 22 and 23 frigates", apparently to 2018.  This is a quite aggressive timescale but six months later there is no sign that the Future Surface Combatant is about to become a stand alone "Assessment Phase" project, indeed the MOD's Frigates Integrated Project Team is apparently investigating whether the Type 22 Batch 3 frigates could remain in service until at least 2020 - a five year extension compared to currently announced plans.

  • It was announced by the Defence Secretary on 11 December that "We have ... reviewed all the components of the MARS fleet auxiliary programme, and have concluded that there is scope for considering alternative approaches to its procurement which is likely to involve the deferral of the fleet tanker element."  In the last few years obtaining new fleet tankers has been the RN's highest priority construction project after CVF.   The "alternative approach" seems to involve the eventual purchase and conversion for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service of a small number of existing oil commercial tankers - these are currently available at bargain basement prices - however such ships will lack some fundamental features that the RN and RFA was seeking in their new fleet tankers, most notably related to speed and survivability. In the meantime the RFA will continue to shrink, and RN warships will have to increasingly rely on port visits or the auxiliary ships of allies (in particular the USA) for replenishment.

  • The non-appearance of the Defence Industrial Strategy 2.  The first version, published in 2005, was relatively favourable to the RN - for example it projected a major surface warship to be built every year and a submarine every 15 months.   The lack of a follow up to a generally well received but very rapidly dated policy document is worrying for the RN.

  • The Type 42 destroyers HMS Exeter and HMS Nottingham were unexpectedly decommissioned in mid 2008 - about two years earlier than expected.   Another Type 42 destroyer - HMS Southampton  - is also in "extended readiness" and unlikely to sail again baring a major crisis.  The result is an RN escort force now consisting of just 22 units (5 Type 42 destroyers, 4 Type 22 frigates and 13 Type 23 frigates), compared to 35 ten years ago.

  • The planned eighth Astute submarine has been dropped from the MODs equipment plan, the seventh is in serious doubt, and there are rumours that the fifth unit - the first three were ordered in 1997 and the fourth progressively in 2006-7 - may not be ordered until 2010 or even 2011.  The situation is not helped by further delays and cost over runs appearing in 2008 - at the start of the year it had been hoped that HMS Astute would be delivered in August, there is currently no announced date.

  • The nuclear attack submarine HMS Superb decommissioned in September 2008, leaving the service with just eight such submarines compared to 12 until 2004.  Further reductions are now expected as the entry in to service of the early Astute's is delayed, further orders fail to be placed, whilst the decommissioning of existing submarines proceeds as planned (or is even advanced) .

  • The Future Lynx helicopter project finally seems to secure, but the order announced in 2006 of 30 helicopters  plus 5 options for the Royal Navy has been reduced to 28 aircraft.  Back in 2001 the RN was hoping for 60 new helicopters. 

  • The demoralizing failure by the UK to deploy the Royal Navy counter pirates off East Africa - hardly helped when the increasingly negative press resulted in very belated short-term deployments that had serious knock-on consequences for other important tasking's by an over stretched service.

  • The continuing embarrassment of the Royal Navy's sole "strike carrier" - HMS Illustrious - having  to regularly deploy and exercise without any UK owned Harrier's embarked.

  • The RN's inability at the end of 2008 to find a warship for Atlantic Patrol Station South, a tasking which includes the Falklands Islands.

  • Despite constant "down sizing" of the target number, on 1 July 2008 the RN is again 1,220 short of its latest requirement for a full time trained strength of 36,140 personnel, with critical shortages in some branches and specialisations.   The previous official requirement (1 April 2008) was 36,260, which in turn was 6.5% down on the 1 April 2004 number (38,720); when this government came to power in 1997 the requirement was for 42,911.  The current deficit would be far worse but for the counting of full time reservists - currently numbering about 1000 - as trained manpower since 2000.

As a counter balance, I've tried to find a few bits of good news:

  • The Future Submarine project is ramping up rapidly.  However UK industry seems to lack the capacity to usefully spend the 200 million plus that the MOD is already allocating to the project every year - leading to concerns that the projected 2024 in service date will be very difficult to meet.
  • All six of the desperately needed Type 45 air defence are under construction - indeed four have already been launched and HMS Daring was handed to the Royal Navy on 10 December 2008.

Finally, we must remember the magnificent work that thousands of Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines personal have performed during 2008 in Afghanistan and Iraq - often at great risk.  Sadly Corporal Robert Deering RM was killed by a bomb on 21 December whilst Lance Corporal Benjamin Whatley RM lost his life during a fire fight on Christmas Eve.


Happy New Year


PS It is eleven years since I set up the website which has became Navy Matters and, as regular readers may have noticed, updates have been few and far between in this year.  Given the choice between spending my precious spare time with my kids, or reporting on the latest bad news for the senior service - it has often become break a case of break out the Ludo (similar to Uckers).  I hope 2009 will be different.




Back to top

  2004-13 Richard Beedall unless otherwise indicated.