The main problem for the Royal Navy and armed forces at large is that the UK doesn’t actually have a grand strategy, so any subordinate strategies, i.e. a maritime strategy, have to cast around in the dark, second guessing the direction of travel but If there is an underlying strategy, it is this
‘We must do more with less, or possibly, less with less’
The financial situation for the next decade or so is the fundamental strategic driver for the nation as a whole. Everything else, to a greater or lesser degree, and this includes the military, is secondary.
We must all get used to this realism, yes I know that strategy should not be driven by money and I know there is waste and ridiculous spending across all departments but in the real world, our cloth must be cut accordingly and there is no point pretending we can do anything but. Sticking ones fingers in ones ears and muttering la la la la Falklands is not the basis for effective armed forces because it simply leads to regular exercises in ‘slash and burn’, sorry, Tough Decisions TM, without any real directional change or transformation, SDSR 2010 anyone?
As we all know, it is a fool’s game to look into the future with a degree of certainty but we can make educated guesses. These educated guesses allow us to shape a strategy and their resultant force/equipment structures. We are also subject to a number of treaty obligations and other standing commitments that we are bound to honour, unless the strategy dictates a change. This combination of educated guesswork and enduring obligations creates a list of ‘what do you want the Navy to do’. The to do list would normally be considered as a baseline but in a full review, those assumptions must be up for grabs, do we really need to do that?
Framing many of the things we require the Royal Navy to do are the standing tasks.
These standing tasks are;
- Fleet Ready Escort (UK waters)
- Atlantic Patrol (South)
- Atlantic Patrol (North)
- Mine clearance in the Northern Arabian Gulf
- Security Capacity Building in the Northern Arabian Gulf
- Offshore Patrol in the Falklands Islands
- Ice Patrol Vessel to the Antarctic
- Maritime Patrol support to Oman
- Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group 1 (North Europe)
- Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (South Europe and near East)
- Fisheries/EEZ protection
We recognise that a Frigate or Destroyer may not the best asset for certain tasks; the obvious ones are Mine Clearance in the North Arabian Gulf, Offshore Patrol in the Falkland Islands and Ice Patrol in the Antarctic. Atlantic Patrol (North) is increasingly being resourced with RFA vessels and others are regularly gapped.
The general approach recommended in this series of posts is to reduce the surface combatant numbers of the Royal Navy but expand certain key areas and take a different approach in others. This is in line with the Think Defence ‘Capability Plus’ model that suggests a reduced in size but still highly capable core, surrounded by a selected number of expanded capability plus areas that deliver increased security and influence in coalition operations.
These suggested maritime relevant capability plus areas are
- Building local/regional security capacity and defence diplomacy
- Disaster Relief and humanitarian support
- Mine countermeasures
- Maritime security and operations in the littoral
We must still be able to deliver underwater effects to protect the deterrent, provide sea denial, support special-forces operations, ISR and long range strike. A full range of anti air, anti surface, aviation and anti submarine capabilities should also be retained at a high capability level but in lower quantities.
Our future major strategic allies are the US, France, India and Brazil along with a select number of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It is to these that we should be focussing. Greater cooperation with France and Brazil has already been signalled with recent treaty declarations.
This series of posts consists of four central suggestions;
- Reduce the size of the ‘fighting fleet’ and form it into a single Task Group
- Ceasing or resourcing differently the majority of standing tasks
- Create a number of overseas Forward Presence Squadrons to perform a wide variety of less combat intensive missions and that can also cover most of the standing tasks
- Create or enhance additional capability in mines countermeasures, disaster relief and littoral security to supplement the Forward Presence Squadrons and Single Task Group
Single Task Group
The desired end state in this proposal is to have a single naval task group, maintained at high readiness or on task/training, consisting a single CVF and LPD, together with a range of supporting amphibious, SSN, AAW, ASW, MCM and logistics vessels.
Forward presence would be carried out with the Presence Squadrons and these would be backed up with the ‘big stick’ as represented by the Single Task Group. In some regards this is going back to the way the Royal Navy used to be configured.
This also has shades of the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) concept of C1, C2 along with C3 that seems to have withered on the vine, perhaps I was being harsh in my earlier criticism of the lack of innovative thinking in the RN, it’s not the thinking that is the problem, but the doing!
By making it smaller, keeping it together as much as possible and avoiding detached single ship taskings, the vital training that actually creates a credible fighting force can be carried out in depth. Equipment plays its role but there is no doubt that cohesion, skill and experience actually create an effective fighting force.
Accepting a smaller force size also frees up funding for other tasks, equipment and maintenance maintenance and contributes to the ability to meet harmony guidelines which have sound personnel retention, operational and financial benefits. Struggling to meet standing commitments that have little strategic or operational benefit reduces time available for perishable skills like ASW and combined sea/land operations and creates many other problems into the bargain. The deployments of the Single Task Group, apart from on operations, can be scheduled to ensure maximum benefit for ships and crew alike.
Forward Presence Squadrons
There would be 6 Forward Squadrons based in the following area.
- Caribbean and Northern Atlantic
- South Atlantic and Antarctic
- Mediterranean and Persian Gulf
- Far East
- West Africa
- East Africa
We must never forget that the main job of the Royal Navy is to fight but we should equally recognise that the world has changed and is changing even more. Maritime security, defence diplomacy, disaster relief and counter terrorism operations can equally contribute (if not more) to the security of the UK and our national interest. The role of all the armed forces is to protect the UK and advance our national interest and if this means helping Nigeria combat terrorism in the Niger Delta, guarding gas production facilities in the Qatar North Field, training with the Republic of Singapore’s Navy, interdicting drugs in the Caribbean or providing a disaster relief capability in East Africa then let’s get to it.
The Forward Presence Squadrons would provide a semi permanent UK naval presence in the 6 areas of strategic interest, be multi agency, link up with other UK assets and have a wide variety of non major war fighting tasks that make a significant contribution to conflict prevention, local security capacity building and protection of UK interests.
In high intensity operations they would provide limited additional capability for the Single Task Group
The geographic area is large but by making the commitments semi permanent and avoiding using ‘warships’ we can avoid stretching ourselves too thin. In the next post I will cover the roles and composition of each of the squadrons.
In addition to the Single Task Group and Forward Presence Squadrons a number of specialist capabilities would be enhanced and new ones developed, particularly disaster/humanitarian relief, littoral and maritime security.
This may need modification to existing vessels or new equipment and force structures, again the concept will be developed in subsequent posts.
This approach would require a reappraisal of the standing tasks/commitments listed above.
Some will be retained as is, some merged with others and some covered not by single warship/RFA combination but by the Forward Presence Squadrons.
Using the list from above;
Fleet Ready Escort, this is an important standing task because it provides a single high readiness escort in UK home waters for deployment anywhere in the world and therefore should be retained as is.
Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1), in order to provide a deployable NATO mine countermeasures capability the RN provides a small contingent. Most of the time, they are used to dispose of World War I and II sea mines that occasionally appear and need to be dealt with. Only a few years ago a Dutch fishing vessel was lost to an old mine. Mines remain an effective and asymmetric weapon; even a small number clandestinely laid would represent a significant problem for crowded intra European sea lanes and port facilities. With France coming into the NATO command structure proper and in line with greater resource sharing it may be possible to rotate with France, the newer NATO nations will also increasingly provide resources for this group. Retained as is but on a rotating basis.
Atlantic Patrol (South), the mid to South Atlantic is an area of strategic interest and covers not only the Falkland Islands but the East African coast as well. Both these areas as important and would be covered differently, by the West Africa and South Atlantic Forward Squadrons.
Atlantic Patrol (North), although not exclusively Caribbean based, of late, this standing task has primarily consisted of drugs interdiction and humanitarian relief in the Hurricane season. Despite a useful contribution being made by the RFA/RN, it is questionable if the security and drugs interdiction task is best met by a permanent frigate/destroyer presence. There are a number of British Overseas Territories in the area as well as Belize but the this be covered differently, by Caribbean Forward Squadron.
Mine Clearance in the Northern Arabian Gulf, in a previous post on energy security I highlighted the strategic importance of the Qatar oil fields and Straits of Hormuz to the UK. This task is currently resourced by a semi permanent flotilla of mines countermeasures vessels with crews rotating in and out of theatre as needed. This task can be merged with Security Capacity Building in the North Arabian Gulf and covered differently, by the Persian Gulf Forward Squadron.
Offshore Patrol in the Falkland Islands, complimenting APT(S) is the FI patrol ship, HMS Clyde is a slightly modified River Class offshore patrol vessel procured under a PFI. Although relatively low cost it has an important symbolic and practical role, clearly demonstrating commitment to the sovereignty of the islands and providing a range of EEZ protection capabilities that are less warlike in nature. If hydrocarbon exploitation does increase in the area then a case for a more suitable vessel could easily be made, providing a greater range of towing, fire fighting and pollution control capabilities. This would be covered differently, by the South Atlantic Forward Squadron.
Ice Patrol Vessel to the Antarctic, given the range of treaty restrictions this must remain essentially a ‘civilian like’ vessel. The SDSR reconfirmed the capability but did not detail how it would be provided, however, recent news seems to indicate a second hand Norwegian icebreaker will be used to replace the damaged HMS Endurance. In the longer term this would be covered differently, by the South Atlantic Forward Squadron.
Maritime Patrol Support to Oman, Oman is perhaps our strongest ally in the Middle East with many historic and military ties going back decades. Covered differently, by the Persian Gulf Forward Squadron
Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (South Europe and near East, SNMG2), this is the second NATO standing group the UK is committed to and notionally covers the Mediterranean but can be deployed anywhere. Normally, SNMG2 and SNMCMG2 come under the command of Allied Maritime Component Command (CC-Mar) Naples, which is one of the three Component Commands of Allied Joint Force Command Naples. However, for Operation Ocean Shield, SNMG2 has been put under the Operational Control of Component Command Maritime Headquarters Northwood. SNMG1 and SNMG2 normally rotate; SNMG1 is currently conducting Operation Ocean Shield, the anti piracy operation in the Indian Ocean and surrounding areas. Under the command of Commodore Christian Rune of the Royal Danish Navy the UK contribution is HMS Montrose. There are many questions that remain about piracy, its relative importance and the usefulness of traditional naval vessels in interdicting it maintaining a permanent commitment to SNMG2 can be questioned, again, the specific piracy interdiction/security task would be covered differently, by the East Africa Forward Squadron.
Fisheries Protection, this task also includes security of offshore energy installations in the North Sea and whilst one might argue about the efficacy of wind, tidal and wave power the fact remains that they are becoming more numerous and will therefore need protecting. We should have a serious debate about whether checking fisherman’s nets is a valid task for expensive Royal Navy crew but the they ship handling and command experience feeds directly into the large vessels, there are valid arguments on both sides. With the proposal to radically expand the forward presence squadrons there will be plenty of smaller command billets so this advantage of the FP fleet become less important. I think we should seriously investigate methods of transferring this mission to other agencies, open to debate
The next in this series looks at equipment strategies, quantities and concepts of operation but the goal is not to ask for more funding but to try and build this structure WITHOUT ANY EXTRA MONEY
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