Comment Admiral Sir Philip Jones, head of the Royal Navy, has written how "you'd be forgiven for thinking that the RN had packed up and gone home" in response to the kicking the naval service has received in the press recently.
In an open letter published on the RN website, the admiral wrote: "Sadly the world is less certain and less safe. But our sense of responsibility has not changed. The Royal Navy may be smaller than in the past but has a strong future so this is no time to talk the Navy down."
On 21 November the Defence Select Committee published a swingeing report into naval procurement, which concluded: "The MoD is embarking on a major modernisation of the Royal Navy surface fleet. Notwithstanding the Committee's concerns that the number of ships is at a dangerous and an historic low, it is a programme which has the potential to deliver a modern navy with a broad range of capabilities."
Meanwhile, HMS Duncan, a Type 45 air-defence destroyer, had to be towed back into port after her unreliable Rolls-Royce WR-21 engines* broke down, as they tend to do on all Type 45s with worrying frequency – so much so that the RN has started a dedicated initiative, Project Napier, to add extra diesel generators to the Type 45 fleet. This involves cutting large holes in the hull of each ship. Royal Fleet Auxiliary** tanker Wave Knight, currently deployed on Atlantic Patrol Tasking (North) in the Caribbean on anti-drugs patrol duties, broke down in St Vincent with Prince Harry aboard. APT(N) used to be carried out by an actual warship rather than a refuelling tanker, but cuts to destroyer and frigate numbers left the Navy with no option. Last year a naval offshore patrol vessel, normally employed to stop and search fishermen's boats and their catches, was trialled on APT(N).
A few weeks ago it was revealed that the RN will, from 2018, be left without any anti-ship missiles on its frigates and destroyers.
Then there's the Type 26 frigate programme, which continues to stagnate as MoD officials lock horns with vastly more experienced BAE Systems negotiators over contracts. The Type 26s are planned to partly replace the UK's current fleet of thirteen Type 23 anti-submarine frigates. There will be fewer Type 26s than Type 23s, however, with the final five Type 23s set to be replaced with Type 31 "general purpose frigates", a cheap 'n' cheerful concept intended primarily for export. The government, having initially pledged a like-for-like replacement of Type 23 with Type 26, later changed tack and cut the planned order of Type 26s, presumably because of the spiralling costs.
A perfect storm for the naval service
So what did the First Sea Lord have to say in defence of the RN?
Type 45 destroyers are "hugely innovative" and "money is now in place to put this right". Indeed, "if they weren't up to the job then the US and French navies would not entrust them with protection of their aircraft carriers in the Gulf." A strong point: for all their electrical flaws, the Type 45s are world-leading air-defence destroyers.
The Harpoon anti-ship missile was cut partly because it "was reaching the end of its life" – though the admiral's attempt to claim that last month's Unmanned Warrior robot naval boat exercise featured anything capable of replacing a dedicated anti-ship capability was fanciful at best and downright disingenuous at worst. That said, the admiral is duty bound, for better or for worse, not to embarrass his elected political masters.
Admiral Jones also mentioned the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and their F-35B fighter jet air wing, due to enter service in a few years. As previously reported on El Reg, the F-35 will not be ready for true carrier deployment for another five years minimum and even when it is, we won't own enough of them to put to sea without borrowing half the fast air wing from the US Marines. Moreover, each carrier will need, at the very least, both a frigate and a destroyer as escorts; the frigate to detect submarines, the destroyer to maintain an anti-aircraft screen. Will we be able to spare these two ships from all the other standing tasks, let alone training and maintenance requirements?
On the whole, the Royal Navy is in very poor shape. It cannot meet all its standing patrol tasks (as detailed in the Defence Select Committee report) without resorting to small patrol vessels and mostly civilian tankers to do so. The Fleet Air Arm will not be a credible force capable of deploying overseas at even minimal strength (12 F-35Bs) until the middle of the next decade. The frigate force is capable but ageing and due for retirement soon. The destroyer fleet will be plagued by engine problems for another five years.
On the other hand, the carriers will enter service. F-35B will enter service. Type 26 will start entering service from the mid-2020s. The RFA will receive its new Tide-class replenishment ships to support the carriers. Three new offshore patrol vessels are under construction and will be delivered in the next few years. New nuclear deterrent submarines are now under construction and will enter service in the coming years. In terms of fighting strength, ability to put to sea and ensure freedom of navigation and lawful commerce, the Navy will improve.
The tough part is that we will not hit rock bottom and start climbing out of this well of impotence for at least the next three years. What those three years bring – Brexit, more Russian sabre-rattling, possibly even a new Middle East flashpoint – could stretch the RN to breaking point or even beyond. While the First Sea Lord has publicly defended his service, ultimately it is the politicians of all flavours who starved the Navy of the funding for new ships and equipment that it desperately needed ten years ago, leading to today's situation where so many demoralised personnel have left that ship deployments were lengthened from six to nine months.
The next time the Defence Secretary pops up to recycle tired old announcements that amount to nothing new, remember that. ®
*The two gas turbines themselves are OK – it is the intercooler-recuperator assembly which lets them down. Briefly, the intercooler-recuperator recovers heat from the turbines' exhausts and uses it to pre-heat the fuel/air mixture being fed into the engine. This reduces wasted heat while increasing fuel efficiency and electrical output. Due to a design flaw, the intercooler-recuperator tends to drop out without warning when operating in warmer waters (reportedly as low as 30C). The sudden spike in electrical demand overwhelms the ship's two auxiliary Wärtsilä diesel generators and causes the entire electrical system, propulsion, weapons and all, to trip out, leaving the destroyer dead in the water as frantic marine engineers rush to reset it all.
**The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is a uniformed but civilian branch of the naval service. Officially classed as civil servants sailing civilian-registered British ships, their personnel man the tankers, replenishment ships and general duties vessels, which increasingly find themselves used as actual warships, such as on the APT(N) deployment or as the mothership for the British minehunter contingent in the Persian Gulf.