Doing More With Less? the Argument for Cutting the Royal Navy Escort Force.

 In Uncategorized
The number of active warships in service in the Royal Navy has long been a matter of public interest. You only need look at the debates in the 1900s over the procurement of Dreadnoughts or arguments around aircraft carrier and battleship numbers to realise that numbers matter to the public.
It is traditional when people assess the state of the RN to look and compare ship numbers to that of Admirals or other metrics, or compare like for like the number of vessels to other navies. Usually these statistics can be spun any which way you like in order to meet the story you want to achieve.
The current area of interest is that of the size of the escort fleet (namely the six destroyers and thirteen frigates in service) and whether it is enough, too small or even too large for the tasks ahead of it.
The well regarded defence publisher Shepard media put out an article this week suggesting that the force of 19 is likely to drop over the next few years as the gap between existing ships paying off, and new ships entering service becomes unsustainable. Despite the public aspiration for growing the force, it is likely, in the short term, to shrink.
The question Humphrey wants to explore in this article is that of playing devils advocate and asking whether the RN actually needs 19 escorts, or if this paying off gap and the forthcoming SDSR represents an opportunity to do something very different to the modern RN.
On paper the escort fleet is the metric by which most people gauge the operational capability of the RN. It provides anti-air, anti-submarine and anti-surface ship capability as well as offering a general patrol and reassurance platform capable of doing the litany of tasks that could be packaged up under the banner of ‘maritime security’.
The RN has traditionally built and funded an escort fleet intended for the ability to scale up to the highest and most intense levels of conflict – fighting a peer rival possessing highly capable weapon systems and being able to win. This capability comes at significant cost though, as RN ships possess not just the visible weapon and radar systems, but a plethora of electronic capability, combat systems, internal survivability features, soft kill measures and all manner of other discrete but expensive parts that make them inherently more lethal and more survivable in combat.
This is underpinned by a training regime intended to work ships up to be able to fight at the full range of conflict spectrums including general war, and when an RN escort ship deploys, it does so in the knowledge that if called upon, it is ready to fight at any conceivable level.
But this capability comes at a price, and expensive ships force down escort force numbers as they become increasingly unaffordable. This is, in part, being addressed by the Type 31 frigate, designed as a cheap but relatively capable platform able to do much of the maritime constabulary role, but potentially not go toe to toe with a peer rival.
Is this a good indicator of the future way the RN should evolve, focusing its efforts far more on ships that can do maritime security, but not be ready to fight WW3? If you look at the sort of work that most RN vessels carry out on deployments, many are very busy trips focusing on high end work – for example operating with NATO allies in the Black Sea, tracking hostile submarines that pose a threat, defending UK merchant shipping from missile attack in the Southern Red Sea, or providing task group defence to high value shipping like carriers and amphibious platforms.
But there is also a large chunk of work that doesn’t require a particularly sophisticated platform to deliver. For instance counter piracy work, maritime security patrols, capacity building with local forces, defence diplomacy visits and so on. For every high capability role that needs capability to be available, there is a myriad of good unglamorous work that goes undone for lack of hull availability.
The challenge for RN force planners is working out how best to make use of their platforms when they deploy. If you have a billion pound anti-air warfare destroyer, you want it doing relevant work – but what has to be dropped to cover it? How many port visits need to be scrapped in order to keep ships on station elsewhere, damaging soft power and influence opportunities? Part of the challenge is with relatively few highly capable assets available, the temptation is both to work them hard, and focus on what they are good at.
Maybe the time has come for the RN to think the unthinkable and ask whether it actually needs 19 escort ships or if it could reduce the high capability force down to 12-14 ships? Before this causes gasps of outrage from readers, its worth setting out why this may be quite a good idea for the benefit of the Royal Navy as a whole…
The highly capable force is busy, hard worked and focused on building up to delivering Task Group operations for the carrier force. Out of area deployments are going to become increasingly rare and the idea of the lone deployer of destroyer or frigate going off on its own for 6-9 months will be unthinkable. The modern Task Group navy is going to focus on delivering big groups of ships in one place able to deliver a lot of power if required.
But while this Task Group concept is in many ways admired as a means of generating a credible navy, there is still a sense in many quarters of the media, online and elsewhere that the Navy ‘needs to send a gunboat’ and have ships abroad in far flung locales to represent the UK and be ready to ‘do stuff’.
Its this latter bit that is potentially challenging because the question is, what is it we want it to do? It is exceptionally unlikely that a lone RN vessel deployed, hypothetically, in the Indian Ocean is going to find itself needing to suddenly fight a high intensity peer level war. If a war were to break out then the ship is either going to need to regroup with allied forces, or its likely to be overwhelmed – either way, the chances of a single highly capable platform adding much value in isolation at the start of a war is probably slim.
At the same time there is strong value in having the white ensign flying proudly around the globe helping represent the UK. To the nations these ships visit it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a minesweeper or an aircraft carrier- the fact is that the UK has chosen to send the Royal Navy in to visit.
Presence and political intent is a capability all of its own, and it probably doesn’t matter if we send a minesweeper with a 30mm gun or a battlecruiser armed with hypersonic missiles – because the people we’re trying to influence are more interested in the signals the presence itself sends, not the particular weapons fit.
There is also the fact that much of the work that is likely to be done does not need particularly advanced sensors or capability. You don’t need a battery of anti-ship missiles to do a humanitarian aid operation, or long range anti-aircraft missiles to intercept pirates. What you do need are good logistical capabilities, aviation facilities and perhaps the ability to intercept, capture and house pirates securely. None of this calls for a huge cruiser sized platform to deliver.
At the same time you do need ships that can step up to escort the carriers, fight the AAW and ASW battle and send a potent message about the UK’s willingness to fight. These ships cost a lot of money, and if you deploy one out to the far east on its own, you make it much harder to bring back in time to join up with the rest of the task group.
This means that in practical terms the Royal Navy arguably has the force balance a bit off at the moment. It probably has too many highly capable ships that you either don’t want to deploy in isolation or which are getting very elderly and in need of extensive refits and updates.
At the same time there probably aren’t enough mid capability vessels to properly do the maritime constabulary roles that need to be done day in day out. Its all very well having a massively capable frigate do counter piracy, but it really is a bit of wasted resource.
A better approach may be to shrink the highly capable force down to essentially enough ships to support the concept of a Task Group navy, able to operate around and protect the carrier / amphibious force, and not deploy in isolation. Pay off elderly Type 23s and use the crew savings to properly flesh out the crews of the residual ships and increase their availability for sea.
At the same time focus freed up resources onto buying some very simple ships that can go out and do much of the work that the RN needs doing daily. Essentially more RIVER class OPVs – cheap, simple and not intended or designed to go and fight but intended to go and maintain a presence. 
Continue the Type 31 purchase now because it will provide valuable capability in years to come, but recognise that what is needed as well is probably more very simple ships that can do a good job.
Arguably RN interests would be much better served if the force expanded to cover far more OPVs like the Batch 2 River class, which are essentially the size of a corvette, and are able to do defence engagement and low level tasks, maintaining a drumbeat of ship visits, training and exercising and helping keep international relations ticking over, than it is by a once every 3-4 year visit by a busy grey hull that almost as soon as it arrives is gone again.
This requires a mentality shift away from the sense that the purpose of the escort force is to scale up and fight WW3. This must not be lost, but perhaps this desire to be ready to go to sea and fight has damaged the RN by forcing it down a path where the 80% solution that we could have had lots of was sacrificed in favour of the 100% solution that was too expensive to buy enough of. This has led to good ships for WW3, but ones that are probably wasted on much of the maritime work that gets done on a day to day basis.
The wider advantage of buying more OPVs is simple – it prevents requirements creep from turning a light cheap frigate that isn’t survivable in a general war into a bloated design that isn’t survivable in war. There is a cultural blind spot that says that escort ships need to be able to fight and survive and that this drives their equipment and design. The risk with the Type 31 is that it is either employed as first rate frigate on its own in high threat zones, or that money that could be spent on new builds is spent on enhancing its lethality without asking if this is the right outcome for the ship in wartime.
The risk with mid capability platforms is that they will either be sent into places that they are not going to necessarily be able to go ‘toe to toe’ with the opposition in the expectation that ‘well it’s a frigate it will be fine’ or that people will want to spend time and money upgrading them to be a frigate that survives.
No similar expectations exist with OPVs – they do not exist to go to war in the same way, and this drives their design philosophy. One very good decision the RN has taken is not to up gun or make these designs too complex by adding missiles aplenty – this merely encourage delusions of survivability that probably won’t be fulfilled.
Perhaps what is needed is a mindset shift into the idea that there is nothing wrong with having lots of OPVs out there, cheap, simple and straightforward designs able to fly the flag and represent the RN. In the event of a crisis they either need to get out the way or get ready to be sunk.
The challenge at the moment is that the RN is very much fixated on trying to be a global navy, but doing so in a manner where it wants to be both cost effective and deliver the 100% solution for its fighting ships.
The reduction in the core escort force frees up money, it frees up people and it forces people to ruthlessly prioritise on the commitments that really matter. By freeing up resources, it helps solve funding challenges in the short and medium term.
Paying off 5-6 escorts would in the short term free up crew who could be used to plug gaps in the remaining ships, potentially increasing availability of full crews. It may in time permit reconsideration of whether an enhanced manning option (possibly crews at 130-50% of strength) could be used to keep ships operational for longer.
A difficult question to answer is whether it is more important to have 19 escorts in service which the RN is struggling to crew properly, or a force of 12-14 which it may have the ability to sort out the headcount for. What delivers better operational effect for the Navy, and what is more beneficial to our longer-term interests and goals?
The adoption of more OPVs would also make it easier to solve crew challenges – simpler ships requiring fewer complex systems means less reliance on highly skilled technical ratings, thus making it easier to properly crew them. The potential impact could be more ships at sea because they are not alongside due to lack of crew.
In the medium term the reconfiguration may provide more stability to branch career managers, able to appoint highly technically skilled ratings to escorts in the knowledge that they are less likely to be crash drafted to fill gaps elsewhere. It provides more certainty of base port location and more certainty that if they are on an overcrewed ship, that time at home and to take leave is likely.
Paradoxically a forward deployed OPV force going into smaller ports could act as a retention positive initiative for many sailors keen to see exotic locations. The chance to deploy abroad and have time to focus on these sorts of visits compared to the hectic life of a modern escort could be a good focus. The chance to do credible maritime security operations on a smaller ship provides a good draft alternative to punchy warfighting preparation on a bigger one.
There are challenges that need to be considered – how do you maintain the advanced UK defence electronic and other industries that need to be properly supported, where areduction in major work may lead to challenges? Likewise, how do you support the dockyards with workload to prevent skills fade?
Another challenge may be how to ensure that come the day, the RN has the ships available to deploy. The biggest risk here is that numbers reduce, but behaviours do not change and the ships continue to be run in a manner that causes retention problems and headcount challenges. To adopt this, the RN needs to be certain that in a crisis, if it is intending to generate an operational force of 6-8 escorts from a force of 14 (a not unrealistic target), that those ships can go to sea ready for war.
The arguments here may sound like heresy and will doubtless attract comments about needing more ships – in this matter Humphrey completely agrees. The Royal Navy does need more ships – but it also needs to get its people strategy right too, and there is little point in building more ships if there are no people to crew them.
A much longer-term perspective may be to take the hit now in the 5-10 year frame to stabilise the escort force, expand the OPV force to renew presence and then look to grow the escort force again in the late 2030s onwards.
This would help concentrate minds not only on what the next generation of destroyer was, but also how to merge in replacements for mine warfare vessels and survey ships too, and do so in a way that balances operational capability with the need for grey hulls at sea.
It takes years to grow the crews of a ship and you cannot just click your fingers and wish another half a dozen escort frigates into existence. What is needed is a long term approach that provides a measure of balance to hard pressed ships companies who are often tempted into leaving too early, while also maintaining a global naval presence.
The Dutch are perhaps a fantastic example of who to emulate in this regard. They have taken the decision to move to a force based on both a small number of very capable escort ships, coupled with a good number of mid-tier vessels that can meet much of the threat, but not all of it, and round this off with some specialised amphibious shipping and submarines too. They are also a globally deployed and focused navy, but seem to be able to work at both levels to capture the breadth of their interests.
Were the RN to take a similar two tier approach, then mindset shifts are needed, understanding that the presence of a white ensign matters more than the hull from which it flies. The challenge the RN perhaps has is that it is a globally focused navy, wanting to deploy on all the oceans of the world and be able to fight, but as numbers falls and commitments rise, this gets harder to do.
Taking the step to a two tier fleet will be emotionally hard for many, but may be the move that helps save the Royal Navys aspirations and return it to the globally focused, globally based role it so craves.

Thin Pinstriped Line source|articles

Favorite 0

Start typing and press Enter to search