To Boldy Sail No More – Is There a Case for Scrapping Royal Navy Frigates?
There are media reports emerging that suggest that the Royal Navy may be considering paying off some of the Type 23 frigate force. Such a move, if reports are to be believed, could see the four oldest ships pay off in the near future as part of defence cuts in the Integrated Review.
This has already led to concerns that the Royal Navy escort force could drop to just 15 escorts in the short term. Is this accurate, and should we be concerned about this, or is there more to this than meets the eye?
Let’s be clear at the outset. Anyone who tells you that they know precisely what the Integrated Review will say is, without doubt lying. It is still several weeks away, and anyone involved in defence reviews can tell you that a week is a long time in Main Building politics. Right now, there is no point worrying about a decision that may, or may not, have been made.
A better question to ask is ‘why would the Royal Navy consider looking at scrapping its escort ships in this way’? The answer is a bit more complicated than the usual response of ‘never served civil servants trying to shaft our brave boys’ or other such nonsense.
A strategic defence review is fundamentally a chance to take stock of what it is that the UK wants to do in terms of defence. What it should do is look at the wider strategic goals of the nation, and identify the missions that in broad terms, it wants the armed forces to carry out to support this and why.
With this understanding in place, it is possible to determine more clearly what forces are needed, and what they contribute to these goals. For instance, one outcome may be to say that the UK will no longer operate east of Suez in some ways, so we could scrap our aircraft carrier force. Another may be to say that we will withdraw our amphibious shipping as conceived as the effect will be delivered differently to take the Royal Marines to Norway.
Over time it becomes clearer what the UK wants to do, and very roughly what is required to make this happen in terms of basic force structures. The challenge is then to work out what is affordable, and what is necessary to meet these goals, and set this against the challenges of the budget.
In the case of the Royal Navy, there will be work going on to try and understand at a top level what is it that the escort force contributes – what roles and missions will it fulfil, how much time is needed to different tasks, and how many ships are required to meet various scenarios?
At the same time, its trying to work out the resources it has available to deliver these tasks -for example, how many people, in the right combination of ranks and rates, the planned availability of ships, and what wider considerations exist. For example, over the next 10 years the surface fleet must both maintain the Type 23 force, but also introduce the Type 26 and 31 into service, which places a significant burden on people and resource.
Its also got to consider both the medium and longer term picture of the financial situation. The NAO is clear that the MOD has a lot of financial shortfalls ahead, and an optimistic approach to financial planning. This means that any package of measures put together needs to be costed to work out whether doing something not only supports strategic goals, but could also help solve major financial challenges.
So for example scrapping a refit may help set in motion a series of savings that help add up to making a real dent in both the 1,5 and 10 year plans deficit. Alternatively another measure to not do something could save money in the short term, but generate so much extra cost in terms of mitigating the risks it creates, that its more expensive to not do it than to try to save money.
With this information the RN can look at what sort of options are open to it to meet these challenges, or where it must take some risk, or identify ways of increasing availability to do things differently.
One option it could look at, for instance, is to potentially pay off some ships to free people up to help increase overall ship capability. There is without doubt a people challenge involved in getting the right combination of people to sea, and this isn’t going away any time soon. Paying off older ships does free up ships companies to go and fill roles elsewhere, taking gapped complements up to full strength.
The eternal question is whether it is better to have 15 escorts of which the available force is fully crewed and ready for operations (perhaps with a ’2 crew option in place to improve availability overall), or is it better to have a numerically larger, but more inadequately crewed force?
Ultimately the business of the Royal Navy is to go sea ready, if required, to go to war. This requires ships to sail with people who know their jobs, who are not tired from working longer hours to cover gaps for maintenance, and who have had leave. It needs people who are a worked-up ships company capable of doing the job asked of them, not a scratch effort brought together in a crisis.
While numbers sound good, arguably it is far better to focus on having ships with the right crew onboard able to stay at sea, not focus on higher numbers but less overall capability?
The next consideration is what do the plans for ships look like? A ship is an expensive asset and requires a lot of maintenance and support. In the case of the Type 23 force, these ships are increasingly elderly and fragile, and require a lot of maintenance to keep operational.
The question is whether the resource investment is worth it – with some of these ships due to pay off soon anyway, is it worth spending scarce in year resources on supporting ships that are soon to reach the end of their lives? This money could be reprofiled and spent on upgrading other vessels that may last longer or helping support wider work to deliver new capabilities into service (such as support to trials).
A difficult decision is whether it makes sense to spend money on a ship that may have had a refit a few years ago, but which is becoming materially more fragile, and where a building list of repair work indicates that the ship may become a money pit?
The final issue is whether the ships programme is such that taking her out of service would have an appreciable difference on programmes or wider work? For instance, a ship that is fresh out of refit, worked up and with a clear plan for the next 3-5 years would be far more keenly felt as a loss than a ship about to go into, or during, a multi-year refit. This sounds counter intuitive, but ships that need work in dockyard hands can be taken out of service without, in the short term, impacting on wider force planning.
That’s because the planners have already assumed these hulls are out for several years to come, and the fleet schedule recognises this and incorporates it. The loss of these ships would not really be felt until several years downstream when they were due to deploy again, and suddenly the task would have to be gapped, or covered differently.
This is why there is a logic to the argument of looking to pay off ships now that are either approaching the end of their careers or are out of action. The actual impact on force numbers and capability is minimal, and it frees up people and money for use elsewhere.
If you took a wider, longer term perspective then the 2020s is about the decade of growth for the Royal Navy. With an exciting range of new ships due to enter service, there is no doubt that there are exciting times ahead. Timed correctly, ships withdrawn now could be taken out of service without having a major impact on the fleets planning and be replaced in a few years by the Type 31 force.
From that perspective, scrapping these ships is an entirely understandable option. You gain people, you gain money, and if you choose the right ships, then you lose very little in terms of operational capability. In the case of at least two ships named in reports, they are at very low readiness, and (allegedly) in extremely poor material condition. The operational impact on the RN of losing a couple of the most elderly ‘general purpose’ Type 23s is arguably limited.
The benefit of taking this decision now is that it frees up people to properly crew other ships, or to go and take part in the trial’s units for new ship types or help get the fleet ready for the very exciting new ships arriving soon.The direction is clear – the armed forces have been given a substantial amount of new money to invest in new technology, but they are also need the people and time to set this up and deliver this transformational journey.
The trade off is a slightly smaller force – but, of an escort force of 19 ships, only 17 are operational at any one time. The reported loss of four hulls would amount to two hulls, and as noted this may be a small operational impact – and in fact increase capability more widely (for example it could hypothetically be used to provide people to ‘double crew’ other ships).
Most fans of the Navy focus purely on ship numbers in isolation, but this is the wrong metric to use. It’s a helpful one, but it doesn’t really address the wider question of availability and roles. The most important asset is not the ships we have, but the people we need to crew them – without adequate people, we have a collection of hulks, not fighting ships.
All this debate needs to be set against a wider perspective too. Namely that the Royal Navy exists to support the strategic aspirations of the government of the day. Right now there is a clear and extremely exciting direction of travel – multiple new escort ships, new submarines and innovative technology for Mine Warfare to name but a few. This fits into a plan that seems to look for a globally focused navy capable of operating around the world. There is also a very clear drive to grow the escort force in the medium term, even if that means a short-term reduction in older hulls.
This is not the time to worry about a smaller Royal Navy, but it is worth thinking about why these options are considered, and both the costs, and opportunities, of scrapping ships and what the effects may be.
Right now, we don’t know what the IR will say, or what it will decide to do. There are a lot of options available to planners, and doubtless all manner of different options are under consideration. Until the Prime Minister and Secretary of State stand up and announce the plans in person, it would be wise to assume that nothing has been decided.