SERVICES MANNING CRISIS: EFFECT UPON THE ROYAL NAVY
Type 23 frigates, HMS Northumberland, Richmond, and Montrose outboard of each other.
There is a crisis affecting all three of the United Kingdom’s armed services. It has been years in the making exacerbated by a decision in the 1990’s by the RN to freeze recruitment. With no sideways entry the consequence was that there was a shortage in each rank for the next 20 years exacerbated by the ill-thought-out 2010 Strategic Defence Review.
For the Royal Navy, the chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance, leading to the announcement of the disposal of two Type 23 frigates, the laying up of both LPDs and a submarine service, itself short of many essential skills, which cannot find a Head of Service from within its ranks. Similarly, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary [RFA] has ships idle due to a lack of personnel and which has had to advertise for its professional head [Commodore RFA] because no one from within the service seems interested in the appointment.
Problems involving both recruitment and retention revolve round the attractiveness of the "package" – Terms of Service - an understanding of career paths and advancement, certainty for the future [i.e. can I be made redundant if defence policy changes yet again], pay and conditions. For example the disgraceful state of the defence housing estate! Today’s junior rates will become the skilled and experience senior NCOs of the future, these people being the backbone of all three services, and without whom the Navy cannot function.
However, HMG seem to be stuck in the groove of treating servicemen like general government employees without taking into consideration the special nature of the tasks the armed forces are required to carry out. The same can be said of the RFA personnel. At present both officers and ratings of the RFA are being balloted by their respective unions on taking strike action because of the lack of progress on salaries and conditions. Whilst it may be convenient for government to regard them as civil servants, they are in fact British merchant seafarers, and as such deserve far better
than a “take it or leave it” offer. As a consequence many are voting with their feet along with many Royal Navy colleagues and leaving at the earliest opportunity.
It is therefore suggested that without a proper review of terms and conditions for serving personnel, Defence of the Realm, supposedly the first concern of government, may simply collapse. Perhaps Ministers might take urgent notice of this, bearing in mind the current state of play worldwide in 2024.
The Current Naval Situation
It is time to examine the current situation regarding RN/RFA manning and its effect on surface ships and submarines.
It has been widely reported that two Type 23 Frigates - HMS Westminster and HMS Argyll - are due to be taken out of service. MOD PR is calling this an example of taking older ships out of service to release crew for new “high tech” ships, and the Type 26 frigates have been mentioned in this context. In this regard it should be noted that the Type 23 ship’s complement is 185.
HMS Glasgow is in the water and is being fitted out by BAE Systems at Scotstoun [expected sea trials circa 2027] whilst HMS Cardiff is on the hard standing at BAE Systems Govan with no floatation out date announced.
Frankly to suggest that ship’s complements are about to embark in either is fanciful even if as stated that Type 26 complement will be 157. Further more, no mention of the Type 31 frigates under construction at Rosyth has been made, the first of which, HMS Venturer, is expected to be launched later this year and will require a complement of circa 80-100.
T23/T31 Frigate Fleet.
There are 11 T23 Frigates: 5 General Purpose (GP) - Argyll, St Albans, Sutherland, Iron Duke and HMS Lancaster. 6 Anti Submarine (ASW) towed array ships - HMS Northumberland, HMS Kent, HMS Richmond, HMS Portland, HMS Somerset HMS Westminster.
HMS Westminster's OSD was slated for 2028 and her life extension refit [LIFEX] was completed in 2017 with a post LIFEX refit scheduled for the summer of 2023. However, a subsequent survey of Westminster suggested that her material condition was such that it was uneconomic to proceed.
Some refits of the class have cost circa £100m and taken 3-4 years to complete. Consideration must therefore be given to the condition of her sister HMS Northumberland, similarly hard run, whose LIFEX was 2026-2028. HMS Argyll is the oldest Type 23, completed in 1991 as a general purpose (GP) as opposed to a towed array (ASW) frigate. She is the first Type 23 to have a post LIFEX refit, which started in 2022, and must be near completion. This will have cost many millions of pounds, and when she is disposed of, will leave only two GP Type 23s, HMS Iron Duke, recently completed LIFEX, and HMS Lancaster (OSD 2024), is forward deployed to the Gulf. HMS Somerset has recently completed LIFEX and is the first ship in the fleet to fit the new Norwegian origin NSM in lieu of the "obsolete" Harpoon. This missile will be progressively fitted to Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers. The first two Type 31 frigates are assumed to be years away from active service, so the decision to remove the newly refitted Argyll is bizarre.
T45 Destroyer Fleet.
There are 6 T45 Destroyers: HMS Daring, HMS Dragon, HMS Defender, HMS Diamond, HMS Dauntless, HMS Duncan.
Three Type 45 ships are in refit. HMS Daring and HMS Dragon are completing her re-engining under the Power Improvement Project [PIP] at Portsmouth. HMS Defender is in the first year of a 3 to 4 year refit programme [PIP and weapons enhancement]. Of the active T45s HMS Diamond is at sea [Red Sea/Gulf of Aden]. HMS Dauntless and HMS Duncan are in maintenance at Portsmouth. The Type 45 has a complement of 190; so perhaps it is fortunate three are currently inactive. This despite MOD stating some years back that the aim was to have five destroyers
active a target that seems unlikely to be achieved currently.
Landing Platform Dock (LPD) Fleet.
There are 2 LPD: HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark.
Landing Platform Dock [LPD]. HMS Albion was reduced to stand by status in the summer of 2023 to be replaced by HMS Bulwark. However, the latter’s restorative refit is still to complete and this will have cost millions of pounds and will have to be finished before she is laid up. This speaks of desperation; it certainly is not a strategic decision. LPDs have a ship’s complement of 352 and the Secretary of State for Defence has states that “by doing so [laying up] it will release 200 personnel” for manning other ships. If this implies manning a Type 26, the statement is nonsense in terms of both numbers and skill sets.
As HMS Argyll is to be disposed of, the only other frigates needing crews might be HMS St Albans [just completing a 4-year LIFEX], or HMS Sutherland [currently in LIFEX]. Interestingly, a senior officer, commenting on the LPD situation is reported as saying “they can be put in the cupboard and dusted off when needed.” It is difficult to comment on the absurdity of such a remark. A final comment on this is that it must throw the future of the Royal Marines mode of operations and indeed the future of the corps itself in doubt.
There are 7 Astute Class SSN in service or planned: In service HMS Astute, HMS Ambush, HMS Artful, HMS Audacious, HMS Anson. In build HMS Agamemnon, HMS Agincourt. There is a single T Boat SSN still in-service: HMS Triumph.
It has been apparent for years that the submarine service is having difficulty in manning boats. There has, apparently, been shortages of engineers and technical Rates in a number of specialisations. Presently in service there are six SSNs - 5 Astute class and 1 Trafalgar class [HMS Triumph]. Of the Astute class boats, one is still on trials after commissioning [HMS Anson] and one has been inactive for eleven months [HMS Audacious] as she awaits availability of a dry dock at Devonport!
There are 4 SSBN in service: HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, HMS Vigilant, HMS Vengeance – to be replaced in due course by 4 Dreadnought Class SSBN.
HMS Vanguard is presently in America conducting her Demonstration and Shake-down Operation [DASO] on completion of her seven-year refit. This operation culminates with a test firing of a Trident missile, an event which will take place shortly. HMS Victorious is in Devonport commencing her five-year delayed refit, whilst the remaining 2 boats conduct CASD patrols.
As there have been two CASD patrols of over six months in recent times, it is perhaps unsurprising that the silent service is having retention difficulties. Two DS Colleagues are former submariners and suggest the fact that the service is having to advertise for a new 2-star head of service illustrates that there may be something seriously wrong in the organisation.
DS would further posit that perhaps, like the similar position in the RFA, the appointment is seen as a poisoned chalice or that the early retirement age of 55 from the Armed Forces has driven out people who would be qualified and otherwise have time in their naval careers.
The situation described shows that these decisions are not Strategy driven, rather by panic reaction to factors that should have been known for years. They certainly were to DS who have written on them and briefed the HCDC many times.
If people are not paid properly or feel insecure in their terms of service they also feel undervalued, their morale declines, and they vote with their feet. Governments need to address these matters urgently, and move away from the “this is what all public sector employees are getting, etc, etc” to a realisation that the armed forces are not in any shape or form ordinary public sector employees. If this is not recognised the armed services will collapse, as they cannot exist without people.
The same applies to the RFA. We now have the ridiculous situation where Serco are advertising for crew for an unidentified RFA. Does this mean Serco are going to run the ship? If so, where will this end up?
In conclusion, the UK is staring into the abyss. Despite the Foreign Secretary’s recent brave words, the UK has not sent “ships” to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The RN has deployed “a Ship,” HMS Diamond, the only running Type 45.
We are a trading nation [significant amounts of LNG and oil pass through the Gulf and into the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal] and it is shaming that we seem to be leaving the heavy lifting to the USN. Is it impossible to send a carrier or even an SSN to bolster the naval effort, or does the present administration simply not care?
DefenceSynergia argues that this analysis by one of our naval colleagues is correct and that remedial action must be taken by HMG/MOD to secure the defence of the realm?
Finally, DS would ask whether the UK Armed Forces are less capable of fighting because they have remained within their allocated budgets despite the percentage of GDP being above most of our NATO allies? Either way, UK Armed Forces seem to be in a situation reminiscent of the 1930s lead up to WW2 - UNREADY.
07 January 2024.
DefenceSynergia Open Input to the HCDC Inquiry into UK Air Capability - 9thJanuary 2024
DS is aware of the HCDC inquiry into Future Aviation Capabilities. A worthy topic no doubt but DS wonders if the issue of critical mass alongside full spectrum capability will ever be addressed?
We are mystified as to what CGS and CAS talk about given that ASTOR has been scrapped without a murmur; that the RAF no longer has an anti-radiation missile capability; that SEAD is just a topic for Staff College apparently; and that AEW/ISTAR coverage is in the hands of 3 Rivet Joint and 3 E-7 Wedgetail (if and when the latter arrive)? Or, that the RAF tactical AT fleet is now predicated upon 22 x A400m and Strategic airlift on 6 x C-17 and 14 Voyager A330 when they are not tasked on AAR duties elsewhere?
DS is also mystified as to what the First Sea Lord and CAS talk about given that the RAF can offer limited AAR for CSG except along the littoral axis and limited LRMPA to cover SSBN CASD operations; coverage of the Greenland, Iceland, UK Gap; surveillance of the Western and Eastern Mediterranean; and, presumably, further East should the CSG deploy there in support of stated HMG Foreign Policy towards AUKUS or FPDA?
All of that is before any rationalisation of the CSG Air Group versus the alleged land based use of UK's 48 x F35B has been properly assessed. E.G. Should UK buy a mix of F35A and F35B? And if a CATOBAR system is retrofitted should UK buy an E-2 derivative for carrier-based long-range AEW cover?
As the RAF consolidates into fewer centralised air bases it would be helpful to know what the AD/Ground Defence plans are given that our enemies not only know exactly where these bases are but will have to use less of their missile technology – subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic - to target them from range?
As lack of manpower is the current topic de jour what is CAS doing to increase technical and logistic resources, recruiting, training, and retention?
And this just scrapes the surface before the HCDC begins the worthy process of examining GCAP.