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RN in Review: 2012
24 February 2013
2012 was yet another dismal year for the Royal Navy, although it might just mark the lowest point in the Naval Service’s long and painful decline since World War 2. A slight ‘upward tick’ appears to be in prospect as new ships, submarines, helicopters and aircraft enter service – with the alternative being the very public collapse of any pretence that the United Kingdom (still one of the five permanent UN Security Council members) is even a second-rank naval power.
Which way things will go remains far from clear – it comes down to money and political will power. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has prevaricated as to whether the UK’s Defence Budget will be protected from yet more cuts after the unexpected 2% (about £1 billion) immediate reduction which was announced on 5 December 2012, whilst Treasury officials (e.g. Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander) are openly seeking further cuts in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) planned for 2015. The previous SDSR of 2010 reduced defence spending by 8.5% in real terms, and cut the front line strength of the Royal Navy by approximately 20% - on top of a similar 20% reduction since 2004.
A graphic from Save the Royal Navy, showing the decline in warship numbers
2012 was the first full year for the SDSR 2010 down-sized RN – with no aircraft carriers, only 3 or 4 operational nuclear attack submarines (all over 20 years old), and a total force of just 19 frigates and destroyers. The Royal Navy (RN) is now about two-fifths of the size it was at the end of the Cold War in 1990, but its tasks have not been cut proportionally - the government still expects the RN to fulfil tasks around the world. In 2012 it finally proved impossible for the RN to hide the impact of the huge mismatch between requirements and means. The temporary remedies adopted in 2011 (during the Libyan Civil War) such as delaying the decommissioning of some frigates, and grossly over working other ships and submarines ceased to be viable. Some deployments in 2011 and 2012 reached 9 or 10 months and were quickly followed by a second deployment, acceptable in wartime but far exceeding the MoD's 'harmony' guidelines which permits one six-month deployment for personnel in every 30 months.
During 2012 the RN was increasingly reduced to meeting the most urgent operational requirements and politically directed tasks with whatever assets it could scrape together. A few examples:
The situation had clearly become both embarrassing and unacceptable, and a senior officer publically admitted this when in November 2012 the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, made a speech at Oxford University in which he said that he was particularly worried about the size of the fleet and suggested that a shortage of ships meant resources were being allotted to the wrong tasks. He highlighted the inefficiency of this approach by stating that “You get to this ridiculous situation where in Operation Atalanta off the Somali coast, we have £1 billion [Type 45] destroyers trying to sort out pirates in a little dhow with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] costing $50, with an outboard motor [costing] $100, …. That can’t be good. We’ve got to sort it out.”
Events in 2012 have continued to show that the SDSR 2010 decision to immediately scrap the UK’s only aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, was a huge mistake – and contrary to international trends such as the commissioning by China of its first aircraft carrier. Regenerating some form of RN carrier capability has become a high political and military priority, but the most amazing development of 2012 was the government U-U-turn on the variant of the Joint Strike Fighter to be purchased by the UK.
Perhaps the only sensible decision in SDSR 2010 was to switch from buying the short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), to the far more capable F-35C carrier variant (CV). This would also involve the fitting of one the two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers with catapults and arresting gear (CATOBAR, or ‘cat and trap’) at a cost of about £1 billion in order to operate the F-35C. With this decision it suddenly it looked like the RN would once again have a true strike carrier capability – indeed second only to the US Navy. By early 2012, the redesign work was well advanced, and the RN had nearly 100 personal either seconded to the US Navy or about to be seconded to the French Navy, in order to relearn the skills needed for 'traditional' carrier operations. It all then went wrong….
In 2003, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) selected an “adaptable” design for its Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF), which was intended to allow an easy conversion from STOVL to a CATOBAR configuration. Unfortunately, as the design moved towards construction, maintaining adaptability became a very low priority for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance is building the ships. By early 2012 it was clear that converting the carriers to CATOBAR would be a very major job, and the cost estimate had risen to £2 billion (including about £600 million for equipment purchased from the USA) for HMS Prince of Wales, and £3 billion for the constructively more advanced HMS Queen Elizabeth. The MoD considered this unaffordable and on 10 May 2012 Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced to Parliament that the government had decided to revert to the F-35B rather than the F-35C, and would complete both aircraft carriers with "ski-jumps" in the STOVL configuration. The £100 million already spent on the redesign was written off.
The reversion to the F-35C effectively meant the death of the ‘carrier strike’ concept, and the RN’s hopes of owning and operating a new generation of fast jet aircraft. The MoD intends to buy 48 F-35B’s by 2022, including 3 test and evaluation phase aircraft which will probably never be converted to an operational configuration. Delivery of the first production standard aircraft should be in 2014 (although as it won’t be ordered until 2013 as part of LRIP Lot VII, a 2015 delivery date seems more probable), with flying trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth beginning in 2018. The Royal Air Force (RAF) plans to form the first front line JSF squadron - No. 617 Squadron RAF - of 12 aircraft (9 deployable) in 2020/21. Whilst there is speculation that in the longer term there could be two front line F-35B squadrons, each of nine aircraft – one RAF manned and one Fleet Air Arm manned - there is no evidence to back this up.
Given the very small number of carrier capable aircraft likely to be available in face of other competing commitments, the RAF is advocating that the model adopted in the later years of the Invincible class aircraft carriers should be followed. This allows for one operational aircraft carrier, which would embark a “single figure” number of F-35B aircraft (5 or 6 based on historical experience) for a few weeks a few times a year – either for training purposes or for major exercises. However the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, referred in a speech on 1 November 2012 to 12 F-35B’s being routinely embarked, and he thought that there was “a realistic possibility of both carriers coming into service”, rather than one being sold or going in to extended reserve as SDSR proposed. Operating both carriers will cost an extra £70 million per year (mostly on additional personnel), and it is vital that the RN makes a convincing case in SDSR 2015 as to why these very large and expensive ships are still needed – a case extending far beyond their original ‘carrier strike’ raison d'être.
It was hoped that 2012 would finally see the first operational deployment of the new nuclear attack submarine HMS Astute, however she continued to be dogged by bad news. The tragic shooting and killing on the submarine in 2011 of Lieutenant Commander Molyneux by Able Seaman Donovan continued to make news, with the police publicly also expressing concern at the level of alcohol abuse and binge drinking by the crew of the submarine. The press also reported that the submarine still had serious engineering defects, was suffering badly from corrosion (some components of the submarine are already 15 years old!), and that her advanced optronic periscopes were not liked by the crew. 2012 should also have seen the second of class, HMS Ambush, complete sea trails and commission, but she ended the year still at her builders yard (BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines, Barrow-in-Furness) for further defect rectification work.
Two very positive developments in 2012 related to the Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS), and the MARS Fleet Tanker. The former project passed a key approval stage (Main Gate 1) in April 2012 and detailed design work began. The first of up 13 units could be ordered as early as 2014, entering service in 2021. Also, on 22 February 2012 the MoD placed an order worth £452 million with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) of South Korea for four new Tide class fleet tankers.
Some other major developments and news items during 2012 include:
As indicated above, the Successor programme (replacing the four Vanguard class Trident missile nuclear deterrent submarines) is gathering a serious head of steam - spending will soon reach £1 billion per year. Decisions announced or leaked in 2012 include the development of a new PWR3 reactor for the submarines, and the adoption of an 8- rather than 12-missile compartment. It also seems that the orders long-lead items for the first of class submarine (expected to enter service in 2025) are already being placed.
Over the ten budget years 2012-13 to 2021-22, the MoD expects to spend £35.8 billion pounds of its equipment budget on Astute and the Successor submarines, but only £17.4 billion pounds on surface ships (carriers, destroyers, Type 26 frigates, etc.). The actual cost of renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent is being deliberately obscured, but it certainly amounts to more than the entire capital expenditure on the rest of RN.
2013 looks set to be a 'holding' year for the Royal Navy, but hopefully none of the nasty surprises that have dogged these reviews for the last decade will emerge yet again.
© 2004-13 Richard Beedall unless otherwise indicated.