One of the authors favourite websites (www.thinkdefence.co.uk) has a regular round up of Hansard answers. Over the years, the author has done his fair share of Parliamentary questions, and enjoys the mental challenge offered by trying to answer the question in a way which is neither informative, politically damaging or terribly exciting (in other words, a political party manifesto...). One particular recent question though caught the authors eye -
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex, Conservative)To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many RFA tankers are to be ordered in the MARS programme.
Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative): We have received the final bids for the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) Tankers programme and anticipate announcing the winning bid later this spring. Up to four MARS tankers are expected to be ordered.
This is a most revealing answer, as all of a sudden the phrase of death 'up to' has been inserted. Sir Humphrey loves the phrase 'up to' - its a wonderfully powerful phrase, which can be used to placate angry MPs, irate members of the public and Daily Mail readers that all is well, and let them think that our current military capability will be replaced by 'Up to' X, Y, or Z units.
What 'up to' really means is 'up to this amount if we ever find sufficient money and the planning round balances, and the Army don't suddenly find a requirement to send whichever obscure unit hasn't had a damn good war for a decade to go to OP HERRICK and the RAF suddenly discover they can downgrade their aircrew to a 4* hotel in future'. In other words, 'up to' means 'no chance at all of that number ever being bought, but it sounds good in press releases and thats what really matters.
The announcement that MARS may drop to less than four tankers is extremely unwelcome news indeed. For most of the last century, since oil fuel became the accepted mode of fuel, and particularly since WW2, the RN's ability to operate globally and unilaterally, with minimal reliance on shore support for its fighting units (stand fast the RFA), is down to prolonged investment in a large fleet of naval tankers and support ships.
To say the current fleet of tankers is long in the tooth is no understatement. The RN tanker fleet, for much of the past decade has been built up of two brand new fleet tankers (the Wave class), three smaller fleet tankers built in the 1970s (the Rover class) and four support tankers (collectively known as the Leaf class) dating from the 1980s. This was deemed sufficient to support a fleet of 25-30 escorts, two carriers and a small number of amphibious ships operating in four fixed locations - West Indies, Falklands, Gulf and home waters, and also support task group deployments and refits.
These ships (other than the 'Waves') are very old vessels now. They are single hulled as well, which reduces the ports they can visit. For the last few years, the RNs newest and most potent tankers have been operating almost exclusively in the West Indies and the Gulf, not because they are necessarily the right ships for the job, but because they are the only dual hulled tankers in service.
The RN tanker fleet is now five strong (two waves, two rovers, one leaf). It has been brought down massively in size as the escort fleet reduced, and during the lean years of the noughties when ships were paid off into long term reserve to cover the impact of the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan on the defence budget.
Their replacements (the MARS project) has been ever more delayed. Originally the order for six tankers was due in 2005, which then slipped to 2007, which has now slipped to 2012. All of the ships should have been in service now, but instead the contract has merely been let and re-let time and again. The problem is that the tankers simply arent seen as a high enough priority in the spending round, at a time when all manner of other equipment needed replacing - who will support tankers for jaunts into the Caribbean at a time when troops are dying in Helmand, ostensibly due to a lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles?
As such, the RN is now in an incredibly difficult position. Its operating a tanker fleet where most ships are probably older than most of their crew, and is doing so with no sign of the desperately needed replacements ever showing up. Its almost inevitable that the MODs reputation in the shipping industry must be near rock bottom - it keeps trying to buy ships, failing to find the money and then missing the opportunity to acquire good ships at cheap prices. Had the tankers been ordered in 2007/2008 then it would have been a great chance to acquire good hulls cheaply as the world economic crisis hit. As it is, its doubtful that MOD will get anywhere near as good a deal again.
What does all this mean for the RN? Bluntly, if as is now being hinted, three, or possibly only two tankers are a likely buy, then it means the end of the Royal Navy's ability to operate globally as an independent force.
A buy of three MARS tankers, coupled with the two Waves will give the RFA a total of five tankers to operate. Current defence planning assumptions mean that the RN (and RFA) need to sustain a tanker in the West Indies, the South Atlantic and the Gulf. Thats three hulls permanently committed. A further tanker is required to deliver support to home operations and conduct sea training. This leaves one spare tanker, which will have to fill in for other vessels in refit, and maybe have ocassional spare capacity to do separate missions. In addition there is one AOR (Fort Victoria) theoretically assigned as support to the Carrier, but she is getting older, and also does stores duties too, and recently seems to spend most of her time east of Suez conducting anti-piracy drills.
The net result is that in future, if the RN wants to send a task force overseas, then its either going to have to strip homewaters of the duty tanker, or rely on the task force getting out to its operational area and linking up with the duty tanker in theatre. This means a heavier reliance on the AOR fleet, which will find themselves doing tanking duties, and also a major reliance on allied navies.
In other words, the RN is about to lose the ability to surge a task force to sea with integrated tanking support and do so while still sustaining all other operations. Previously its been able to deploy extra vessels to sea in support of a crisis, wheras now, if there is a crisis in one region, then the chances are that the RN will not be able to respond with stripping assets and capabilities from another area.
This marks a further decline in the RNs ability to operate as a global navy - and merely accelerates its headfirst decline towards a second division navy, albeit one with a very expensive aircraft carrier carrying a mighty six jets due in service in 2020.
Maritime logistics is not cool , exciting or sexy. What it is though is the means by which this nation has for centuries sought to exert power and influence overseas. While the buy of less than four MARS tankers will not end British Maritime Power, it will massively change the confines by which we plan operations, and support them. As a nation we will in future need to accept either increased reliance on port access, or have to decide which operational theatre will have to do without its tanker in order to meet higher priority objectives.
Who is to blame for this debacle? This author doesnt feel inclined to blame politicians of either hue. No Minister is interested in tankers or stores ships - they want to be filmed holding a mini-gun or in the company of Our Brave (soon to be made redundant) Boys. They should be seen as culpable for not holding the real decision makers - the Defence Council and Service Chiefs to account for this. The blame probably lies with the RN, for failing to assign sufficient funding in planning rounds to get MARS through the round and into an order. The inability to put MARS funding at the top of the planning round tree has helped save other aspects of the RN, but runs the risk of pulling the rug from our entire maritime strategy.