If all you read was the output of the Phoenix Think Tank and similar maritime monocled blogs , letters to the Telegraph or the public output of the Royal Navy itself, one could be forgiven for thinking that the the Royal navy had little future, was forever under siege from from scheming Air marshals and Generals and that a glorious future, as long as the right people realised it, would consist of simply more frigates, destroyers and especially carriers.
Because the Royal Navy has only been used in their high end war fighting role infrequently in the last 30 odd years, there has been a continuous chipping away at capabilities and hull numbers. Without a clear role, a defined ‘enemy’ and in the face of ever increasing personnel and equipment costs, is it any wonder the Royal Navy is in such a parlous state.
In the last few decades, with almost constant conflict on land, the role of maritime forces has diminished and with that has come an increasing struggle for funds.
The other services are not without their gaffs but for some reason the sight of a billion pound submarine stranded on a sand bank, a matelot crying about those nasty Iranians calling him Mr Bean, a number of unflattering TV documentaries, engine trouble, navigation errors (various) or aircraft carriers without aircraft strikes a particular chord.
It is acutely embarrassing and one must feel sorry for the personnel in the Royal Navy, they of course deserve so much better.
As if that wasn’t enough, the recent maritime major equipment projects are an unhappy tale of cost and time over runs; the Bay Class, Astute, Type 45, CVF and many others have all had significant problems of one sort or another. Not all these problems are the sole preserve of those in dark blue but that doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to the outside observer.
One symptom or perhaps cause of this decline, is a lack of innovation.
The other services are also similarly afflicted, overly concerned with equipment programmes, cap badge rivalry and fighting over the remaining yet diminishing crumbs of the defence budget. There are however, flickers of forward thinking in all three services; the multi role brigade structure, innovation in Afghanistan across a number of capability areas (including by it must be said, the Royal Marines) and the Integrated Electric Propulsion of the Type 45, but even with this, they all still remain very conservative and resistant to change.
The Royal Navy might seem like a conservative organisation but look back into its past and it is obvious that it is anything but; more often than not at the vanguard of all aspects of maritime activity, pushing the boundaries, trying new approaches and generally leading from the front. But, whilst the US Navy is experimenting with super cavitating 30mm cannon rounds, laser mine detection and distributed sonar arrays mounted on unmanned surface vessels, the Royal Navy proudly presents a new engine on its ageing mines countermeasures fleet. Given the RN’s capability in this area and it’s early adoption of REMUS remote vehicles perhaps I am being rather harsh, its is a deliberate cheap shot, but even so, the difference in ambition is clear. The recent hostage rescue at sea carried out by the US Navy showed the utility and general force multiplication effect of maritime UAV’s but what is the Royal Navy doing in this area, there aren’t even plans for a Watchkeeper ground control station on any ships. The Danish STANFLEX modular system or US LCS Mission Modules is yet another innovation that has passed the Royal Navy by.
It is difficult to reconcile the current lack of creativity with the past; it is definitely not an institutional or national problem, as history shows.
Why do we seem to be getting increasingly conservative?
There is a lack of military experience within the career political classes; active service or national service is a distant memory for all but a handful of MP’s. That is not to say military experience is a pre requisite for leadership of the MoD, far from it, but there is a distinct lack of confidence in the political and civilian leadership to challenge military advice. Many of the more forward thinking innovations in the British armed forces have originated from civilians. Military advice will always be risk averse, taking the least career limiting path, why would turkeys vote for Christmas?
Some might say it is simply a mismatch between aspiration and depth of pocket, but this is lazy thinking, many organisations when faced with resource constraint come up with inventive ways to achieve their goals.
I did wonder if the SDSR cuts were deep enough to force a change, there was no strategy and even the most sympathetic would concede that it was simply a horse traded collection of salami slices, the final nature of which was only decided at the last minute, like some sordid back street market.
Would a serious cut of 20 or 30% have forced a step change in thinking or just more letters to the editor?
It’s difficult to predict but one thing is certain, the current situation is the worst of both worlds.
But it’s all about the money I hear you say…
Yes and no
The Treasury is almost 100% characterised as the bad guy, an unfeeling Mr Bumble to the Admiralty’s Oliver Twist, but again, this is lazy thinking.
The Treasury has an important and increasing role in defence matters yet all the services seem to do is present them with grandiose projects that fail to deliver on cost/capability/time, requiring yet more funding, no wonder it sees the MoD as a basket case requiring close supervision, spending like a sailor on shore leave. The UOR requirements for Afghanistan and Iraq are the obvious result of the more more more resulting in less less less approach to defence projects, when push came to shove and those expensive equipments needed to deliver value, they were found wanting and in need of yet more cash.
I think the Treasury would actually welcome some innovation or different ways of thinking, the only real piece of innovation that has been delivered by the Royal Navy in the last few years was in fact foisted on it by the Treasury, one might argue that the Points/River class PFI was not the best way of delivering capability but there is no doubt it was innovative when the alternative was nothing.
The Royal Navy does not have a small budget yet in equipment terms, delivers very poor value for money. Instead of being forced to cut back because of an obvious and entirely predictable shortage of funds, surely it is time for all three services to recognise that constantly spending 100% of its budget and having to crisis manage events when budgets change or costs rise is not feasible any more.
We must move beyond the Falklands, moaning about cuts in frigate numbers and the ‘we are an island’ arguments if the Royal Navy is to reverse its slow and depressingly inevitable decline.
To thrive, the Royal Navy must define a realistic role for itself that uses the National Security Strategy as a guide but isn’t afraid to look beyond it. Above all though, the resultant equipment, manning and strategic approach must be rooted in financial realism and not be afraid of rediscovering some inventive zeal and creative thinking.
In the next in this series I am going to look at tasks, a new approach, capabilities and a road map (or should that be Admiralty Chart)
At this stage I would simply say, this is just a collection of ideas, one alternative in an ocean of options!
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