One might be forgiven if the latest in a long line of rumours about what seems to be the most important aspect of the SDSR, whether the Royal Navy retained the CVF programme, are simply ignored, but the latest batch of rumours really are worth commenting on.
Reported in various news sources is the confirmation of 2 CVF, with QE having an austere helicopter capability with PoW going the cats and traps route and QE coming up to the same specification at her first refit.
What is painfully evident is that the First Sea Lord and associated grown-ups in the Admiralty will sacrifice almost anything to keep CVF. I can see their logic, get the hulls in the water and worry about the other stuff later, after all this time and so much sacrificed it would be silly to think otherwise or so they think. By 2015 we will be largely out of Afghanistan and they are gambling that the 2015 SDSR will confirm the largely maritime strategic raiding concept, slash the Army and transfer funding to the Royal Navy to build up aircraft numbers on CVF and crucially bring the Type 26 into being in quantity.
It’s a big gamble.
We keep hearing about how they will allow us to punch above our weight but in sacrificing the rest of the fleet they turn into paper tigers. Specifically look at the escort fleet, destroyers and frigates.
If the rumours are true the Royal Navy will come out of the SDSR with 15 escorts, now depending on how this figure is viewed (if it is indeed true) that could mean a number of variations.
15 in the short term might just not include the 4 Type 45’s that will be entering service in the next few years, the last one being launched only last week) so 13 Type 23’s plus 6 Type 45’s equals 19 in total, down 5 from the 24 today. I have assumed the Batch 3 Type 22’s and Type 42’s will be cut immediately.
Another interpretation of 15 might be 15 including the 4 new Type 45’s, resulting in a medium-term TOTAL of 15. This would mean the complete withdrawal of Type 42’s, 22’s and 4 Type 23’s.
A total of 19 is a reduction of still in excess of 20% and if it is to be 15 then that is a reduction of well over a third and about 1,500 sailors.
So is 15 surface combatants such a bad thing, that would depend on what is around them and how they are deployed but another thing the pro-CVF supporters often make is how it will keep us high in the world rankings of naval power, it’s a notion that I think is somewhat illogical because I don’t care what other forces have as long as ours meet our needs but it’s a useful yardstick?
Looking at other countries and ignoring Corvettes (which can in many ways equal the combat power of a frigate) the figure of 15 stacks up like this.
The figures are approximate and the definition of the vessel types can be contradictory in places but its a good approximation. It obviously takes no account of quality or effectiveness either but as Royal Navy supporters know, ships can’t be in two places at once.
What this shows is that the Royal Navy will become massively and dangerously unbalanced, slipping to joint 11th in our table on Total 1 and joint 15th on Total 2. If the outcome is 19, not 15 then things get better, but not by much, 10th on Total 1 and 14th on Total 2.
It might be argued that the smaller offshore patrol boats and corvettes are suitable only for second class forces but the importance of presence should not be underestimated.
How has it come to pass the Royal Navy might have fewer surface combatants than Turkey or South Korea?
The pro CVF lobby constantly talks about power projection, protecting vital sea lanes (we are an island you know) and overseas territories but how is it going to be possible to do any of this when we have such a paltry number of surface vessels, some of which will be in maintenance or other places i.e. of limited use when needed.
Compounding the reduction in the surface fleet is the rumours of the CVF aircraft handling configuration and aircraft.
If Harrier is withdrawn before its Out of Service date of 2018 it will leave the existing CVS, Illustrious and Ark Royal, without any fixed-wing aircraft, regardless of ownership.
Queen Elizabeth, again, according to the rumours, will be introduced in a cut-down configuration for helicopters only. This means she will be unable to operate the rumoured choice of F35C at all until her first refit, some years after Prince of Wales is introduced into service.
If we then go with either Rafale, F18 or F35C (preferred) then it will have to wait for the Prince of Wales to come into service. The additional design and construction costs of converting to catapults and traps will have to be borne relatively early, estimates vary but this does not seem likely to come in at any less than half a billion pounds. Additional crew will also be required to maintain the system and the training obligations for perishable conventional carrier operations. That might be OK if we had loads of crew and loads of aircraft but that doesn’t seem to be the case, with figures of 40 aircraft being bandied about. Of those 40 aircraft, some will have to be allocated to training, thus compounding the training problem so it is unlikely that any CVF will ever go to see with any more than a squadron’s worth, despite the capacity for much there.
The ownership of the 40 aircraft is also up for grabs; the plan of a joint force with F35B’s seemed a sensible approach as it allowed operations from ships, austere locations and conventional air bases in a very flexible manner, basing moving in line with the operational timeline. The Fleet Air Arm (despite their victimhood status) have been sustained by the goodwill of the RAF, an uncomfortable truth for many but a truth nevertheless. The current FAA pilots on exchange with the USN are being covered by what service I wonder, if the FAA have to go it alone with F35C the training and sustainment issues will be significant unless we have some serious sharing with the US and French Navies.
CVF and FJCA will continue to suck the funds out of the RN’s budget, important upgrades will be slipped, maintenance budgets cut, training curtailed and the prospect of C2/C3 seems to be but a distant pipedream. The Admirals dream of a temporary decrease in surface numbers in the short term followed by a new programme in the medium term to increase numbers in line with a maritime centric strategy will remain just that, a dream, in the absence of a major strategic threat, force levels will only decline.
We also have to address the de specification of CVF in order to ‘get them through such as a lack of adequate air defence missile system and a limited hangar height.
If these rumours are true, the Government have taken the easy decision by keeping going on a broadly similar path yet slicing all around, a bit here and a bit there. By pandering to the vanity and zipper measuring of the Admirals, successive governments have dodged tough decisions because it was on the path of least resistance.
I get the need for maritime fast air but I stand in amazement that the grown-ups have allowed these white elephants to proceed knowing full well it would cause massive damage to the wider navy and other capabilities, it really does beggar belief.
Let’s just hope the rumours aren’t true.
*Apologies to Richard Thompson for nicking the name of his best album