Mama Mia, Here We Go Again — Why the Royal Navy Isn’t the Size of the Italian Navy.
According to an exclusive Sun story, based on MOD material so elusive and secret that it was publicly released and extensively commented on in the defence media recently, the Royal Navy is delaying the full introduction to service of the Type 31 frigate.
The delay, of approximately 4 years, means that when combined with the planned paying off of the Type 23 frigates, the Royal Navy will, allegedly, have the same number of ships in service as the Italian Navy.
According to the Sun, and at least one rent-a-quote retired Admiral who, it omits to mention, was partly responsible for this situation in the first place, this is apparently a bad thing. How big a deal is it though, and what is really going on – should we be concerned, or is the issue more elusive than perhaps thought?
The first question is a simple one – how many escorts will the Royal Navy have between 2023 and 2027? On paper the force is mandated to be 19 escorts strong, with a desire to grow this out at some point in the 2030s, probably back up to the 20-plus figure. That of course, assumes that the next SDSR retains this ambition.
The future frigate fleet will comprise two classes of ships – the Type 26 frigate and the Type 31 frigate. The Type 26 will be a large vessel optimised for ASW operations as part of the Carrier Strike Group and individually, while the Type 31 will deliver a patrol and presence role in various parts of the globe.
The Type 31 was the product of the 2015 SDSR when it was clear that 13 Type 26 were not affordable. Instead the design was split, with a much cheaper, essentially ‘austerity’ design emerging to handle the sort of roles where the already very capable Batch 2 RIVER class may not be sufficient, but where you probably don’t need a first rate ASW escort.
Work has moved quickly, going from initial concept through to order being placed for five ships in under four years. By contrast the Type 26 has been existing in various plans and concepts since the early 1990s and is still several years away from getting a hull into the water.
The first key takeaway is that no matter how you look at it, Type 31 is a fast moving project delivering very capable ships quickly and to a very demanding budget.
The question is how big an issue the slip is, or if it is a realism measure? The desire to have ships coming into service to align with Type 23 replacement dates was always going to be a challenge, but a laudable one. Bringing new ship types into service is complex, and can take a while to make sure the vessel is ready for ops with the right equipment, all trials completed, first of class tests completed and everything is ready to make sure the ship is fit for deployment.
This always take a bit longer for the first of class of any new hull design. Consequently accepting that the jump from 2023 to 2027 is perhaps a more realistic measure of what was probably always going to happen – namely that even if the ship is in the water and being fitted out, it wouldn’t be possible with barely 3 years to run, to get the ship in service as a fully worked up platform.
Before we enter into the ‘typical Brits can’t even get a new ship class in service’, there is probably not a single navy in the Western World, or more likely globally, that could put a new frigate sized class of ship into full service from the initial contract being placed in less than four years. Lets not start feeling sorry for ourselves because the Royal Navy cannot break the laws of physics.
The next question is, how big a deal is this for the RN escort force and does it impact on operations? It’s a reasonable question to ask, but it deserves a slightly complex answer – the Royal Navy, like every navy in the world, cannot and does not put 100% of its escort ships to sea.
Ships need repairs, refits and updates, and work to a carefully planned maintenance routine. No navy in the world would plan, or arguably want, to have 100% of its escort force available, because this means the flip side is that sooner than they’d want, 100% of their escort force would be unavailable due to the need for repairs and refits.
Of the 19 escorts in the RN, two are permanently at low readiness, due to lack of crews while they await longer term refits. This leaves a force of 17 hulls theoretically available to generate a force capable of deploying somewhere between 4 – 6 hulls on an enduring basis (e.g. right now there are two escorts in the Gulf, one UK high readiness escort, and others deployed on a variety of visits and operations, or preparing to deploy).
A smaller number of ships are working up, either getting the crew trained to deploy, or recently back from operations and the crew are on leave. The remainder of the ships are in refits, repairs or life extension programmes. What all this means is that each year the Royal Navy tries to ensure that, roughly, 30% of its ships are available for operational deployments on a constant basis.
During the ‘gap period’ how big an impact will this have on the ability of the RN to deploy ships? Well in the first instance, with a Type 23 in long term harbour ship status, one could pay off without any impact at all on the operational fleet. This means that from 2023 – 2025, there will in practical terms be no impact.
From the period 2025 – 2027, there will be Type 26s and 31s in the water getting up to speed while the older Type 23s pay off. There is then a period over several years as both the 26 and 31 force grow, while the Type 23s leave service.
From a wider perspective, of those ships left in service, how many will be available, versus how many in deep refit? One of the challenges now is that a number of 23s are in long running mid life refits intended to fit new weapons, sensors and other updates to the ships. This is a slow moving process and can take a long time – meaning that hull availability is relatively low while these ships complete the updates, and are generated back into the fleet.
But, once this work is completed then it is unlikely that there will be as many Type 23s in deep refit, so (hopefully!) availability will rise as ships are less likely to be in the big multiyear refits. From a planning perspective this means that even if the paper force is slightly smaller, it is entirely possible that the RN will be able to generate and maintain the same number of ships on operations as it does now.
Of course, at this point the usual ‘but what about a crisis’ comments come flooding in. As noted, 100% of the fleet will never be at sea – this didn’t happen even in WW2. So, we must be realistic and accept that the force we have will probably have similar levels of readiness for our needs in a few years compared to what we have now.
The second question to ask is ‘what if the RN runs on the Type 23s to mind the gap’? This again is likely to be a question asked by some people wanting to know how to keep numbers up. On paper it seems a good idea, run the ships on for a few more years and hope that the Type 31 comes in as planned.
There are risks to this option though. Firstly be in no doubt that the Type 23 force is very old, and like all ships of advanced age, pretty tired. The ships have been managed through work programmes to ensure they are able to serve until their decommissioning date, so internal certifications, lifed materials and all the other complex web of regulatory and paperwork paraphernalia that is an essential part of operating a ship is based on their paying off on a set date.
This means that to extend beyond this will almost certainly require a refit to take out material that will expire, put new systems in to replace old broken ones, and probably extra dockings to look after the hull. The cost of this will be millions of pounds just to keep the ships in commission.
The next question is are the ships of an acceptable fit to deploy, or do they need updates – for example, if you’ve planned paying a ship off then you won’t budget to fit new equipment to it to remain able to do the jobs you expect a frigate to do. This means a refit is required to get the ships able to operate effectively for the extra part of their life – again adding cost on.
Finally what impact does not paying these ships off have on the Type 26 programme which will be cannibalising some parts out of the Type 23 force? There is considerable reuse of some parts into the new design, so it needs to be asked whether this is a critical project requirement for the Type 26 – would delaying paying off a Type 23 in the early 2020s have serious delays and cost increases for the Type 26 fleet as a result?
The other issue is what do you do about the people to cover the gap? The RN is short of people, particularly those in the right rate / rank and the right level of experience. The crews freed up from the Type 23 force will almost certainly be quickly reassigned to the training and planning for delivery to bring the Type 26 and 31 into service.
If the crews are instead kept on, this creates a shortage of people to bring the new ships in, leading to delays in the programme and making Type 26 and 31 potentially late, and potentially crewed by people without the right training needed, because they had to stay at sea keeping a Type 23 going.
This of course also doesn’t take into account the impact on training schools, with extra courses being needed to keep the 23 force going, possibly impacting too on how the RN gets suitably trained sailors for its new ships.
The point of all this is to say that yes it is theoretically probably possible to keep the Type 23s going, but it comes at a heck of a price tag, and people impact that will hurt the bigger picture. What is more important to the RN, and by extent the UK – is it getting new ships into service, or is it keeping older ones going to artificially extend force numbers?
The bigger question for the RN is what conclusions does the SDSR draw about force size. Does it need 19 escorts at all, or can it reduce further and do more with less? If decisions are taken around wider force structures – for instance scrapping the LPD force (for hypothetical example), then if the mission that the platform exists to do (e.g. protect the LPD) is removed, then do you still need as many escorts or can you take some risk?
Fleet numbers isn’t a business of sticking fingers in the air and going ‘we need twelfty’ – it’s a complex process of assessment, analysis and judgement about what the likely missions are, what they may need ships to do and how many you need in total to ensure you can do the tasks asked of you. If the RN changes the structure and tasks, its need for ships will reduce – surely, if the tasking goes, then why keep ships on for which the RN cannot ascribe specific roles for? This isn’t sensible financial or operational planning, and ties up bodies and cash in ships being held for roles that no longer exist – that is, arguably, a waste of public money.
Lets be in no doubt here, the RN is in challenging financial set of circumstances – the mere fact that HMS BRISTOL is going to be scrapped to save less than £2m a year in ongoing running costs and a docking programme shows how every possible penny can be saved. While its lovely to deploy the power of handwavium and say ‘make it so’ to run on the Type 23 force to cover the Type 31 ‘gap’ it is a lot harder to identify where the money comes from to actually make this happen. It could well happen, but its going to require a lot of money to be taken from somewhere else to do it.
So, the key takeaway from this is that in the short term there is likely to be a dip in escort force numbers. This won’t necessarily have a direct impact on escort ships going to sea, or being available to deploy as needed. It also won’t necessarily be the end of the world as the UK is clear, currently, about its aspiration to grow the escort force in the medium term.
Comparisons with the Italian Navy are also perhaps a little unhelpful in this debate. Randomly googling how many escort ships a country has tells you very little about the state of that country’s navy or what its future plans are.
For instance, the Italian Navy on paper has four destroyers, and eight, soon to be 10 modern FREMM class frigates and four elderly Maestrale class frigates for a total of 16 ships (using Wikipedia as a source).
In reality a quick check shows just how many Italian Navy ships are paying off soon – large numbers of those listed in the Suns comparison will be scrapped within the next 2 – 3 years, with the force dropping by 2024 to just 12 escort ships (2 destroyers and 10 frigates). On paper a further two destroyers are planned, but have yet to be ordered, meaning they are realistically many years away from service.
So, before we start embarking on a national moan fest about comparing to the Italian Navy, lets be clear that in the period the Sun is referring to, on current plans the Italians will have 12 escort ships, possibly growing to 14 in due course, while the Royal Navy will have 17 – 18. Pretty sure that this is a fairly significant disparity and makes the Suns article not as accurate as it could be.
More tellingly still the Italians are in the process of reducing their overall naval force numbers by some 65%, reducing a plethora of ships and hulls to a more manageable number overall.
The key differences between the UK and the Italian Navy is that the Italians have traditionally favoured a large number of small frigates and corvette sized vessels, often well armed against air attack, reflecting the operational requirement for the bulk of their navy to work in a confined space against potentially hostile air attack.
The Italian Navy is great at what it does, which is to act as a regional navy in the Med, with some capable ships able to exert limited power projection and operate close to home. What it isn’t designed for is to act as a global blue water navy with the associated fleet train and supporting units like nuclear submarines or SSBNS (although they did have a cruiser for many years with Polaris launch tubes fitted). Like for like comparisons between the two navies are fairly pointless because they are very different forces with very different missions.
For the Royal Navy though it is important to recognise that this is not some ‘doom and gloom’ story. Not only are the Suns maths deeply dubious – for example according to the article Italy has 17 escorts, when even Wikipedia lists 16, and the French have 22, when in fact the French navy thinks it has 16.
It also forgets to mention that the US Navy is actually planning to scrap several of its surface ships (for instance the first four LCS are to be decommissioned) and is facing serious budget challenges to delivery of its next generation of frigate. Meanwhile the German Navy is having so many problems with its shipbuilding programmes that it returned one vessel to the builders..
Given all of this, its perhaps helpful to reflect on how strong the forward building programme looks for the Royal Navy right now. There are no less than 8 frigates on contract today, with a further 5 planned to be ordered soon. These are all being home built in the UK, and Scottish shipyards are benefitting from the opportunities here.
Not only are these ships being designed and built here, but they are in line with the well regarded UK national ship building strategy which calls for this sort of programme to occur to keep building going for the medium to long term.
There are no alternatives that are good to go sooner either. While lots of people will turn around and say ‘oh just buy X off the shelf’, the problem is that X doesn’t exist, or isn’t available in time, or doesn’t remotely meet the UK’s needs, or costs far too much to deliver a product that won’t support jobs in Scotland. Calling for alternatives works only if there are credible alternatives available to consider – simply put, there aren’t any.
The fact is that actually UK military shipbuilding isn’t in a bad place at the moment – there are two classes of escort ship, an SSBN and an SSN building programme under way while the RFA is likely to hopefully order its new support ships soon as well. The future looks coherent, well organised and seemingly on a reasonable keel.
There is a lot to look forward to, and it is being done in a manner that is coherent and helps manage the drawdown of older forces while building up newer ones – this is sensible planning in action. Add to this export orders for the Type 26 and its hard not to look at a coming golden age of UK military shipbuilding well into the 2030s and beyond.