Sunday, 17 June 2012

Reasons to be positive about the Royal Navy - Part One (Training)

As regular readers of the blog will know, Humphrey tends to take a fairly positive outlook on most things in Defence. For all the comments about the loss of capability, power and military numbers, he remains upbeat that actually things aren’t looking too grim, particularly for the Royal Navy. While the popular narrative remains that the RN is declining after years of neglect, and that the UK has ceased to be a credible military power, there is actually a lot of good stuff going on in the RN at the moment. Too much of what the RN does, or achieves daily is taken for granted, and never actually commented on by the media.

The aim of this post is to take a look at the sort  of things about the RN that make it so potent, and why, despite the loss of hulls, it remains a genuinely credible naval power. Too much has been written about ships, and how the loss of frigates or fixed wing carriers impacts on the UK ability to project power. This post aims to look beyond a simple ORBAT, and try to explore some of the less tangible aspects that make the RN a potent power, and why we should have reason to be optimistic for the future. Ultimately, there is no point in having dozens of warships in service unless you have very good and very well trained personnel to crew, support, and fight them. Lets take a look at why the RN has reasons to be very positive about its future.

Getting through the Gates
Arguably the best job in the world. How do you get people to do it though?
 The greatest strength of the RN is its people. The process of how it selects those people is a forgotten asset. The RN invests a great deal of time and effort in running a careers service to ensure that people come through the door and get a place only on fair competition. Entrants to the RN cannot bribe their way in, there is no advantage for people due to their place in society. The sons of Admirals receive no favours (and indeed arguably receive a tougher grilling) at the Admiralty Interview Board.

The process of identifying and selecting the future Naval Service is something that is rarely thought about. But in fact the RN has kept a process which has continuously managed to bring in high quality people over many decades. Lets actually think about what the RN careers service (e.g. entry for ratings, and selection for Officers at AIB) has to do. It has to find, and select a disparate pool of people, from those destined to do catering and deck work, to those destined to be nuclear engineers. It must select people who will in 40 years’ time be Admirals with responsibility for billions of pounds of public money and thousands of lives. This is not an easy task, but somehow the RN has managed to continuously bring in high quality people, and select them. There is no short cut into the RN, no easy way of buying a place at BRNC or RALEIGH.

So, from the outset, Humphrey would argue that one of the best reasons to be positive is that the RN has invested in a selection process which delivers only the very best people into the training pipeline. How many civilian companies today are required to recruit people for hundreds of different trades, and handle the recruiting process from point of entry through to posting. Most companies rely on headhunting, or bringing in talent at different levels. The RN has to bring people in, take risk on them, and hope it turns out okay in 15-25 years’ time. This is a significant responsibility, but so far it seems to be going well.

Think of other nations out there where entry is through conscription (or those paid to ‘volunteer’ so other can avoid conscription!), or those where entry is by less than auditable methods. Think of those nations where a position in a royal family, or being the son of an Admiral or other notable may result in an easier time. The RN works because everyone in the system has been selected to the same standard, with no favours shown. Do not underestimate what a difference this makes to the quality of people in the system. Do not underestimate what a force multiplier this really is.

Shore Training
One advantage the RN has is the strength of its training system, and its ability to learn and adapt to future challenges. If you look at both BRNC and HMS RALEIGH, it is clear that both sites have learnt a lot of lessons from the military encounters of the last few years, and reflect this in their current training packages. The process of Phase One training is not easy, and remains a challenge for any recruit to pass. The current package though seems well adapted to producing personnel capable of augmenting both the RN in complement jobs, and also the wider military on operations. This ability to learn, to change and to produce a new training system is critical to the strength of the RN. It learns from what went well, and what has gone wrong in the past.
BRNC Dartmouth
The system remains a source of influence too – there are many navies which wish to have their officers trained by the BRNC system. To this day RN vessels can pull into ports around the world and find naval officers who are the product of Dartmouth. This gives the RN an influence, both in helping shape the attitudes and views of naval officers who may one day occupy influential positions in their own country, but also in ensuring that other navies out there operate to high standards.

Dartmouth remains one of the crown jewels of the Defence Diplomacy network, and provides the UK with the ability to influence at a level most countries can only dream of. It is essential that this is funded properly, as a failure to take BRNC seriously as an influence tool could reduce foreign intakes. Similarly, the UK has to work out how to square a smaller surface fleet and intakes to BRNC with the ever increasing demand for foreign places at Dartmouth. Take too many foreign cadets and the college loses some of its RN ethos, and it may be less possible to produce foreign officers who have trained with the RN. Take too few, and navies will look to other nations to take up the slack, and this could lessen UK influence across the globe.

Looking further down the line, the RN maintains a strong network of very good training schools, such as the Maritime Warfare School, and HMS SULTAN. These are capable of producing highly trained individuals to meet Fleet requirements and provide through life training. It is important not to underestimate the importance of assets such as HMS SULTAN and HMS COLLINGWOOD – they provide a raft of training courses and capabilities that many navies don’t have, and ensure that the RN can indigenously train all its own personnel. This makes a real difference as the RN has control of its training syllabus, and can run courses to meet its needs, and not send staff on courses which may be of only limited use overseas.

The RN training estate, although not hugely glamorous, is an excellent reason to look positively at the future. A lot of money has gone into investing in first rate equipment and technology to provide world class training. Again, there is no point in having good ships, if your naval personnel don’t have the ability to use them properly.

That concludes the first part of this article. In the next part, Humphrey will look at wider issues around the RN, including the renewal of the shore infrastructure and support services. The point of this is to show that while this may not be ‘sexy’, the wider infrastructure is indispensable, and without regular investment, would render the seagoing element of the RN as next to useless.


  1. ""Again, there is no point in having good ships, if your naval personnel don’t have the ability to use them properly."" I can agree with that and the same principle applies to the other two services.

    In my day engineer training in the Navy was much better than engineer training in the other two services, and the Royal Navy produced better engineers.

    Good people won't stay unless you have the ships for them and the operations to carry out - There isn't the challenge.
    We don't have the ships - so the good people won't stay.

    1. Ianeon - I disagree on this. The problem isnt people not staying due to a lack of ships and operations. The problem is the reverse - ships are heavily committed and people need quality shore time to train, develop, and move forward.
      The RN is busier than it has ever been - I see no sign of this changing.
      However, one area where I do agree we have a possible issue is in the HOD / XO / CO billets, where you seem to get one job and thats your lot.I'll touch on this later on.

  2. Sir Humphrey,

    Thanks for this interesting article and I look forward to your future ones in the series.

    I agree with pretty much all you said here especially about Naval selection procedures. It isn't easy to get into the RN these days, even as a rating, and for many trades there is a long waiting list - two to three years for the surface fleet. So the RN has no problem in getting good recruits in sufficient numbers and it trains them very well. The problem, as you touched on in your paragraph about BNRC and as Ianeon mentions above, is that the RN is just too small.

    Hopefully, you will deal with the size issue in later articles. What can a small (and probably still shrinking - the 2015 review is coming down the tracks) RN be expected to do and will it be enough?

    1. Hurst - originally this was going to be a one off article. I'd gotten to 1200 words, and realised that I'd still got a huge list of issues I wanted to work through, and thought it better to turn this into a part work (which over 260 weekly editions comes with a part to enable you to build your own non working civil servant ;-) )

      In terms of the waiting time, the demand is there to join now. Will this be here when the economy recovers and people look elsewhere? Possibly - but we have to think about how we offer credible long term careers to people beyond just doing a short time at sea. We need a lot of specialists, and the RN needs to be able to retain them for a long time. Right now staying in looks pretty good. Now try that again in 5-10 years time as industry reboots and people want good staff with RN skills and experience.

  3. Same applies to the other two services, pretty good stuff.

  4. Having been involved in training both at Flag Officer Sea Training,at the MWS and abroad with other navies I agree wholehartedley with your article. Many people believe that our training pipeline is too long; especially for Seaman Officers. These arguments are based on other services and how long it takes to produce a front line Officer. One has to look at the equivelent Merchant Navy Officer who will be at College for 3 years and served time at sea. A Seaman Officer in the RN has to do all of this and deal with warfare aspects including running a small airfield on the stern. Having worked with other Navies they generally train in the same way as the RN, an exception being the USN, and this is reflected in the exchange positions that are taken up by RN officers in training exchange positions all around the world.
    Another great post thanks Sir Humphrey

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  6. This quote has nothing to do with the Grey Funnel Line, but all the same I found it interesting.

    ""Overall, the aim is to reduce the size of the armed forces from 180,000 to 150,000 over the next five years. The army will be reduced in numbers to 82,000 which, critics say, will mean it can no longer be classed as an army but a self-defence force, the widely accepted description for a force of under 100,000.""

    I think that about sums up the whole exercise :(

    1. Where is the definition of this so-called 'self defence force'? I've never seen it anywhere official, but have often seen it wheeled out by people to decry the current round of cuts. I suspect its provenance can be found in the luggage compartment of the bus of WRNS currently en route to the NAAFI :-)
      The other problem is that the UK can't afford to equip (or rather, politically has judged that other vote winning spending priorities take precedence) a 100,000 man army with new equipment. We can afford an 80,000 man army.

    2. It should also be remembered that it is not an 80,000 man army it is an 80,000 man regular army, plus the TA and Regular Reserve, which will take the total force well over the 100,000 mark.

  7. Jeez, Australia must be in trouble then....we have 55,000 odd regulars and less than half that in Reserves with our own cuts in the pipeline...we still call it the ADF.

    A persistent argument, at least until the Australian Labor Party got into office in 2007 was that the RAN should not be involved in boarder protection. They wanted to create a seperate coast guard service with its own crews and vessels and aircraft, rolled in from other agencies and with some additional equipment purchases. It was argued the Navy shouldn't be involved in police operations, it was demoralizing for crews, it would release officers and enlisted personnel for assignment to larger warships and shore postings.
    The counter argument was the RAN had been doing boarded protection since before the 1960s...they had the experience and training in this role. They were doing a damn good job. There seemed to be a perception since they were intercepting the boats they must be getting it wrong...sorry were they supposed to be sinking them (refugees)? But here was the argument nobody questioned.... The RAN had fewer than 14,000 personnel not counting a very small Reserve. The major elements consisted of (it varied depending what election year) 12 frigates, 6 submarines, 3 Amphibious ships and assorted support vessels. There were very few opportunities for junior officers to build up command and bridge experience in the RAN before going down a narrow funnel for billets on our surface combats...RAN ships had a far higher ratio of officers to men than on USN ships of similar displacement or roles. The only place to get that experience was on the 15 Fremantle Class Patrol Boats and thier subsequent replacements the 14 Armidale Class PBs, plus six MCMVs and six LCH. The transfer of the Patrol Force would have decimated the number of opportunities for junior officers to build up experience and confidence.

    The ALP came to power in 2007 and no further mention was made of removing the Patrol Boats from Navy control.

    I guess the point I'm trying to make or rather ask is whether there is a justifiable concern that with the fleet shrinking to its current size, are there going to be sufficiently trained and experienced officers for when the fleet bulges in 2020 with the new carriers.....or are you going to have officers leaving for where they feel more needed, with better prospects and potential new recruits take that potential elsewhere?

  8. Good article and a nice summation of the problem. My only problem with the analysis is given that much of the population joined the chorus of deregulatory mythology, given vested interest is inclined toward perpetuation of the current system and given a lack of a popular cheerleader for your arguments, I'm not seeing much in the way of change.