The continuing decline of the Royal Navy is a travesty. Today, it’a a shadow of its former self.
When I joined the RN in 1991, the numbers, both in ships and manpower, were on the decline. This was expected. The cold war had just ended, Saddam Hussein was under containment after his adventure into Kuwait, and there were no major threats on the horizon. We didn’t know it at the the time but we were entering a decade of relative peace.
Despite the relative peace of the 90s, the RN was stretched. Playing a leading role behind the US, we had commitments across the globe. Constant NATO operations between alliance navies, the Armilla Patrols in the Persian Gulf, anti-drug operations in the Caribbean and elsewhere, UN resolution enforcement in the Adriatic Sea during the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, UK maritime protection, as well as protection of UK overseas dependancies such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. If that wasn’t enough, there were the constant ‘flag-waving’ visits supporting Britain’s efforts to bolster international trade all over the world.
Then 9/11 happened and it changed everything, except, the RN continued to decline.
In 1982, when Margaret Thatcher gave the order to liberate the Falkland Islands, the RN was able to put together a task force of 115 ships. This included two aircraft carriers (HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible) with a full complement of fighter jets, and 23 destroyers and frigates.
During the 90’s, we maintained three aircraft carriers – HMS Ark Royal, HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious, which took turns in operational deployments so we always had at least one flagship carrier at sea, and often two. I was on HMS Invincible for 3 years.
Later, HMS Ocean joined the fleet as our largest amphibious assault ship – capable of carrying up to 18 helicopters and 800 marines for landing operations.
Compare that with today. The continued budgets cuts under both Labour and Conservative governments has decimated the RN, at a time when commitments have only increased.
HMS Invincible was decommissioned in 2005, followed by HMS Ark Royal in 2011, and HMS Illustrious in 2014. Their replacements, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are much bigger and more capable ships, but they are not due to be operational until 2020 and 2023 respectively.
So at the moment we have HMS Ocean as the flagship and even she is now going to be decommissioned in 2018.
In total, we are now down to 77 commissioned ships, but that doesn’t tell the whole store. The 77 includes:
– HMS Ocean (LPD)
– 6 destroyers
– 13 frigates
– 4 ballistic nuclear submarines
– 7 attack submarines
– 2 assault ships
– 15 minesweepers
– 22 patrol vessels
– 4 survey vessels
– 1 icebreaker
– 2 historic warships (HMS Victory and HMS Bristol).
Roughly half of the ships are in routine maintenance, refit or sea acceptance training at any given time, and manpower shortages means the Navy is constantly under stress. 9-month long deployments are now becoming the norm, and it’s largely believed that the decision to axe HMS Ocean is as a direct result of the need to provide sailors to man HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The UK defence budget in total has declined from over 4% of GDP in 1990 down to 2% today (the NATO minimum). In terms of manpower, the RN is down to just 30,000, compared to 39,000 in 2000.
The government has finally admitted that the continued cuts under the Strategic Defence Reviews (SDR) means Britain can’t keep its commitments, and has begun quietly withdrawing from the world.
The RN was playing a leading roll in combating piracy off Somalia and the wider East African coast. That ended in 2012 when the government withdrew the permanent role. Then, this year, after a continued 34 years of presence in the South Atlantic, the RN no longer has a permanent warship patrolling the Falkland Islands to deter Argentinian aggression.
The loss of sea-borne air power has also been an embarrassment for the Government. Shortly after the Sea Harrier squadrons were retired in 2010, the UK launched Operation Ellamy in 2011 to participate in the military intervention in Libya. We then had one aircraft carrier (HMS Illustrious) with no combat jets, so had to rely on the RAF flying Typhoons and Tornados out of Gioia del Colle in Italy and RAF bases at home.
Shortly after, Islamic State fighters started sweeping through northwestern Iraq. The US and French navies deployed aircraft carriers to launch air strikes and the Royal Navy had nothing to offer.
When questioned about the continued cuts the government points to the ship-building programs underway. Again, this tells its own story. The 12 Type-42 destroyers are being replaced with just 6 Type 45s (the programme is already delayed and will not be completed until the mid 2020s). The 12 Swiftsure and Trafalgar class submarines are being replaced with just seven new Astute class subs. The 13 Type-23 frigates are being replaced by 8 Type-26 Global Combat Ships and 5 (for now) type 31s, but there are concerns that lighter Type-31 General Purpose Frigates (GPFF) may not be able to offer the same level of protection.
As for the the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, they will surely be the pride of the Royal Navy. These are huge 70,000-ton carriers, second only in size to the US Nimitz-class super-carriers. As a comparison, HMS Invincible only displaced 20,000 tons.
However, whether the F35B Joint Striker Fighter will be ready for deployment on HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2020 is still doubtful given the continued, well documented problems with the most expensive weapons system every built.
Furthermore, aircraft carriers need escorts and support vessels to form the carrier battle group. An aircraft carrier on its own can’t sustain itself for very long and has limited means to defend itself. With the surface combat fleet now numbering only 19 (frigates and destroyers), and with usually only a third on active operations at any one time, HMS Queen Elizabeth is going to monopolise most of the fleet.
All in all it’s a sad situation and begs the question what role Britain wants to play, and is capable of playing, under its responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, particularly with post-BREXIT uncertainty causing the pound to plummet and risk the return to strong economic growth.
Header image attribution: BAE Systems – www.defenceimages.mod.uk