There was a fair amount of press coverage recently on the trials of the new RN No4 (No8 in old speak) uniform onboard HMS DARING (HERE)
The new uniform appears to be a vast improvement on the old one – unlike previous iterations of the No4 uniform (which Humphrey has worn and not always loved over the years), this appears to have a sensible series of improvements to help make life more practical for the end user. For instance, sensible combat type shirts, and zip up boots (easy to put on or off in an emergency). Despite much adverse comment about the baseball caps pictured on HMS DARING, which are emphatically not part of the trial (they were privately purchased by the crew), the reaction from acquaintances of the author has been overwhelmingly positive to this kit. It is good uniform, that does a sensible and practical job, and which if adopted will go a long way to making life easier for the average sailor at sea.
It is often forgotten that this uniform exists in order to provide a safe and practical working kit on the sea – an inherently hostile and dangerous environment. This kit is designed to make donning it in the wee hours of the night, when people are being roused from deep sleep to respond to possibly life threatening situations such as a fire, or man overboard, far easier. Humphrey knows what it is like to try to done No4s in a rolling small patrol craft in the dark in a hurry – it is neither easy, nor pleasant. Valuable seconds can be wasted trying to find the right button, or force shoes on tightly – the idea of Velcro and zip up shoes, while it may have traditionalists outraged, is in fact a very welcome development that has potential to save lives.
Despite this, and the fact that this is a good news story clearly showing that the RN is adapting to change and trying to introduce new kit to make peoples lives easier, there has been a media hue and cry, complaining about how truly dreadful this all is, and that Nelson must be spinning in his grave if he were to see the sight of RN sailors today.
Firstly, ignoring the fact that sailors in Nelsons day didn’t actually have uniforms, so it’s likely he’d be rather impressed at the sight of a uniformed ships company, the media have also seemingly chosen to ignore the fact that the uniform isn’t actually intended for ceremonial work. The Telegraph event went to the lengths of running an editorial about how this was a step too far HERE
To the author, this summarises a wider problem – to the media, and to its readers, there is what appears to be a near constant narrative that the armed forces are reluctant to embrace the concept of change, and that they are led by hidebound individuals who don’t want to see change unless forced to do so. This author would argue that in fact the opposite is true – if anything the military embraces change on a regular basis – the changes in technology, tactics, equipment and even uniforms over the last 100 years shows that implementing change (even if it is not necessarily warmly welcomed by all individuals in the military) is something that is a clear fact of life at all levels.
If anything the media, in an effort to support the views of their readership seem to this author to be the ones who seem unhappy to see change occur. It is not just in the uniform changes, which are an easy thing to be negative about, focusing on items seen as “it would never have happened in my day” to many older readers, but also a wider view on the role of the Royal Navy as a whole.
One thing that has become ever clearer is that to many media organisations, the last time the Royal Navy seemed to have a clearly defined role was in 1982 in the Falklands War. It feels at times that one cannot move for a small select band of retired naval officers and other pundits emerging to take a pop at the current RN and its strategy.
In many ways this is understandable – to the public, naval conflict is something which is built around the notion of warships exchanging fire with the enemy, shooting down planes and sadly exploding in fireballs. The Falklands war has captured the imagination of the public in a way few other naval wars ever will, simply due to the fortuitous presence of media filming some hugely iconic events (such as the loss of HMS ANTELOPE). This, coupled with a huge amount of national pride at a ‘good war’ means that the UK is rightly proud of the conduct of the RN during 1982. More importantly it is a war that put across naval warfare in a manner that most bystanders can begin to understand – a clearly defined foe, naval engagements in the classic naval manner, and a hard fought victory.
This in turn has created the situation where to the public the role of the RN is seen as being that of 30 years ago – the prevalence of retired naval officers who ‘had a good war’ as pundits, and who can easily be called upon as ‘talking heads’ to provide comment on modern naval situations. The author has lost count of the number of times he has seen these pundits commenting on the navy and naval developments and referring back to the events of 1982.
The issue though is that the RN has massively changed since the Falklands war – even a cursory glance at the orders of battle, the equipment and the recent operations shows that the RN has been forced to adapt to a massively changed international environment, and in no way represents the navy of 1982.
This is perhaps the most frustrating element of the uniform story – the fact that no matter how hard the RN tries, it is seemingly unable to move away from its past without incurring negative comments from the media. The RN has an incredibly proud history of conducting itself in a hugely professional way since 1982 – look at operations in the Gulf in the 1980s and 1990s, off the Balkans, and all of the operations since 2003 in the northern Arabian Gulf. The RN has been working to an operational tempo and rate that few navies could handle without approaching breakdown, and throughout it all has had to adapt to major international changes, and force structure changes, all without publicly failing to deliver.
Rather than criticising the RN for changing, or for failing to change, Humphrey would argue that the RN (and wider armed forces) should be held up as examples of organisations that have proven robust enough to handle organisational change on a regular basis, and still deliver.
At the same time, he remains concerned that the public seem to fail to understand just how much the RN has evolved and changed since 1982. Relying on men who served their country then, but who have not worn uniform for over 20 years to act as the ‘talking head’ commentator on media issues seems an inherently dangerous approach – the public understood the issues of the Falklands, and they understand comparisons made to the war, and they understand when people say the UK could not mount a similar operation again. What it feels is not being made clear is the counter argument that actually the RN has delivered clear visions of what it wants to do, it has delivered change to respond to the new global environment, and it has served with huge distinction and heroism in some incredibly difficult situations. That the main news story for the RN isn’t the superb news about HMS DARING working with a USN CVBG in the Gulf, or the excellent work being carried out by the EXERCISE COLD RESPONSE forces, but instead is a series of angry diatribes about baseball caps (served up with a side order of near glee at the news that HMS ILLUSTRIOUS is due home with a hole in her side, which means surely someone must be to blame?) is depressing. How can the RN sell its hugely positive message if the media are more reluctant to comment on the bad news?
What is equally sad is the fact that no new commentators appear to have come to the fore as respected military observers. The public is reliant on being fed what feels like a diet of regurgitated Falklands War veterans to talk about naval matters, and they do not get to hear from more recently served personnel who may have left the service, but who can coherently put the argument in favour of sea power, and change across.
This is most manifested in the uniforms argument – where were the recently served sailors to stand up and support the RN in this matter? It felt like watching a group of retired sailors condemn the RN for changing a uniform, while no one who actually understood the rationale for change was able to speak for the alternative perspective. There is only so far that the MOD press office can go – people are inherently mistrustful of official spokesmen and press releases, but the problem seems to be that the arguments about the RN, and the way it is portrayed to the public increasingly seem to be built around elderly retired sailors who are less and less current on the issues affecting the RN.
What is needed is for the emergence of a new generation of ex sailors, who are able to coolly, rationally and sensibly put the case for sea power, dampen down the wilder excesses of the media, and also to sell the case for the RN and explain the good that it has done over the years. Where these people will come from though is harder to tell – sadly the RN probably needs another good traditional war such as 1982 before naval officers become household names again, and the cost of this is far too high to contemplate…