Thursday, 21 June 2012

Reasons to be Positive about the Royal Navy - Part Two (Shore Estate)

In the last part of this series, we looked at the importance of the recruiting and training system in creating a modern Naval Service which has, at its core, an extremely well trained and motivated cadre of personnel. We’ll return to the issue of personnel in a later piece, but for this instalment, Humphrey wants to focus on an often forgotten reason why the Royal Navy (RN) can be quite positive about its future – namely, the infrastructure to support the RN.

Current Shore Bases
Since the mid-1990s, the RN has operated around a cluster of three primary naval bases – Portsmouth, Plymouth and Faslane. There remains a large refit complex in Rosyth, although no vessels are based there permanently. Overseas the RN maintains a reasonable support complex in Gibraltar, a large fuel depot and wharves in Singapore, a small naval party and ‘Z’ Berth in Diego Garcia (albeit with minimal berthing), and a small military port in the Falkland Islands. There is a cluster of support and infrastructure in the Middle East, although this has never been formally commissioned as a support establishment.

The result is that the RN is able to not only sustain global deployments, but also maintain its own vessels at home with minimal problems. At its most basic, the UK is one of only a handful of nations with the ability to not only deploy its maritime forces globally, but also support them, at sea and on land, through its network of naval bases. This is a significant force multiplier, as there are still few parts of the world where there is not an RN shore party within easy reach if all goes horribly wrong.

The naval shore estate regularly comes under close inspection – an old standing joke is that there is a dusty paper on the options for closing all three naval bases, which appears to be dusted off and updated with each spending round. In reality though, it seems hard to envisage a situation emerging where one of the three bases goes.

Plymouth plays a vital role in hosting the Amphibious Fleet, Survey vessels and some T23 frigates. The last SSNs will move north or decommission within the next few years. At the same time, the large harbour space plays host to the largest naval base in Western Europe, and there are plenty of refit facilities and berthing space for the FOST organisation. Add to this the huge training estate across the water in HMS RALEIGH, and Plymouth clearly has an important part to play. This is without even looking at the fuel and munitions depots in the area.

Portsmouth is home to the T45s, T23s, minor war vessels, and the Carriers. The wider dockyard hosts shipbuilding facilities, Fleet Headquarters, the damage control school and a huge variety of dockyard and other RN support facilities.
HMNB Portsmouth

Faslane is home to the SSBN, SSN and some MCMVs. It’s perhaps the most remote of the three main bases, but it plays an utterly critical role in the defence of the UK due to its SSBN duties, and also hosting the Joint Warrior (or whatever the exercise is called today).

Positive Future
One reason to be positive is that a significant amount of investment has gone into all three sites to make them fit for purpose. If you go to Portsmouth today, it is quite incredible at just how much building work is going on to make the site ready for the arrival of CVF. The site is undergoing a lot of investment, as seen by the arrival of the huge build hall for the construction of parts of the carrier.

Similar investment is going on across the naval base estate, and although it is less popular than buying ships, it is worth considering that investment in good quality maintenance and support facilities can often generate more in ship seagoing availability than having an extra ship or two in the water.  Put simply, invest in the long term future of keeping ships at sea, and you’ll retain a truly blue water navy. Invest in the ships themselves, and that quickly disappears.

So, while this is not glamorous, it is important to understand that the raft of investment in accommodation (keeps sailors motivated to stay in), headquarters (improves joint working and efficiency), and new training facilities (sea survival centre on Horsea Lake will save lives) and so on play a major part in keeping the fleet at sea. In other words, while new buildings rarely excite people, they do provide the opportunity to make a tangible and very significant difference to keeping the fleet at sea, and this is surely a good thing?

A lack of emotional attachment
One advantage that the RN (and wider UK forces) has is the ability to close sites which have lost their value. This may sound nonsensical, but actually it’s a real strength. The MOD has managed to make itself into the second largest land owner in the UK, and has probably got more land than it knows what to do with. One real advantage is that the system is not afraid to close sites, collocate sites, rebuild sites and generally reduce down real estate.

Look at the growth of HMS COLLINGWOOD, which has merged several training schools together (HMS DRYAD, MERCURY and COLLINGWOOD in recent years) and put them on one site. Some decry the loss of naval facilities, or the loss of jobs and advancement – e.g. less positions as the Pusser at HMS NONSUCH or the First Lieutenant at DRYAD. Humphrey though sees this differently – a training establishment is fundamentally a collection of classrooms, accommodation and hotel services. If the classrooms can be replicated elsewhere (often in better condition), and the hotel services rebuilt as part of wider accommodation construction, then why not collocate? The ability to merge two or three sites into one reduces overheads, lowers staff costs and saves money which can instead be used to protect the front line.

The RN is able to have this debate and close sites down when they have ceased to be of use to the taxpayer. Don’t’ under estimate how important this is – having spoken with acquaintances in the US, they will often complain that no matter how much they want to reduce overheads by shutting down duplicate sites, the domestic politics means that it is almost impossible to do this without horse trading. As a result, much of the US defence budget is absorbed by sites of lower military value, and which could be closed, instead being kept open due to domestic political reasons.

So, although this may not sound that interesting, one reason to be positive is that the RN can shut the sites that it no longer needs, and get more value from its finances. This author passionately believes that the role of the RN budget is to support keeping ships at sea doing dangerous things, and not keeping old buildings in a state of repair if they are no longer required.

 Investment in new Maritime Services
One of the first books Humphrey ever saw about the RN was a copy of the “Warships of the Royal Navy’, published in the late 1970s. Although it was at nearly twenty years old by the time he saw it in a school library, its old grainy pictures of warships, RFAs and tugs were an inspiration to him.
At the back of the book was page after page of tugs, tenders, and other assorted maritime auxiliary services craft. Although utterly devoid of glamour, even then he realised these craft play a huge role in keeping a modern navy going.

The Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service (RMAS) was privatised and taken over by Serco back in the 1990s and run for profit. To this day, Serco Denholm are responsible for the provision of all manner of auxiliary services, ranging from tugs and tender transfers, through to torpedo recovery craft, exercise minelayers and range target vessels.

All in all, there are easily over 100 vessels which can be found primarily in naval bases, but also in other establishments such as the Kyle of Lochalsh, around the UK. This fleet of vessels is an important reason to be positive for two reasons. Firstly, many navies rely on their own personnel to man and operate these vessels. When they need replacing, these costs are funded from naval budgets, and not from a wider contract fund. Similarly, the manpower needed to operate them comes from the Navy, and not from the private sector, meaning more sailors are needed to do this sort of job, and not go to sea on a ‘proper’ military vessel. By contracting out the service, the RN is able to focus its resources and manpower on proper military vessels, and not have to worry about finding funds to replace elderly tugs, at a time when it wants to bring frigates into service. It is not remotely glamorous, but it is an essential part of operating a Navy, and one that is often forgotten.

Also forgotten is just how new this fleet is – there has been a huge amount of investment in the port services fleet in recent years, with literally dozens of craft (Humphrey read something saying over 80 new vessels were being ordered) being built and entering service. The RN has managed to acquire the services of one of the most modern and effective port support vessels fleets in the world. This would not have happened if the RN were still looking after the RMAS – instead, by privatising it, the funding instead has brought new ships and better capabilities into service, at a reduced cost to the taxpayer. This matters because without it, the RN would be reliant on ever older ships, or finding scarce equipment programme funds to pay for them. (For those interested in the ships in service now, try this link -

RMAS vessels in Portsmouth - Copyright 2010 Tim Webb, taken from
Finally, although not glamorous, the presence of these vessels around the UK coast helps demonstrate just how large and complex the UK defence maritime sector is, with many different areas operating vessels with a defence role. In one way it is a shame they don’t have grey hulls and carry RN crews – some of the ships out there, particularly the larger recovery vessels, would be an excellent first command. However, it is important to be positive that there is a large fleet of new, modern and very capable ships which exist to support the modern RN.

Again Humphrey has deliberately chosen to focus on the less glamorous areas in an effort to be positive. Running a navy is not all about putting a large grey hull to sea, and then doing stirring ‘warry things’. Investment in the dull but vital areas of shore based support, bases, tugs and so on is crucial to being able to run a first rate navy.

Over the last few years the RN has quietly, and with little fuss, managed to acquire a regenerated fleet of support vessels, and a modernised shore estate. It has done so to save money, be more effective and support the front line. However you look at it, this has to be a good thing.

The next part of this series is planned to focus on the purple dimension, and why the RN can be positive about its future in the operational context.


  1. The privatisation of the RMAS does seem to have been a great success. I've got a few volumes of the 'British Warships & Auxiliaries' series. It is very noticeable looking at the editions published after Serco took over of how quickly they put new vessels into service to replace the often ancient ones that the RMAS had been using.

  2. I'm confusselled

    The Navy has a secret strength, its ability to dispose of sites it does need

    The Navy has another secret strength, its three giant docks on the UK mainland...

  3. It is interesting to compare how many RN shore establishments have closed over the last 2 decades (plus the loss of assets such as RNEC and Greenwich) while the RAF seem to have station after station still open.

    From a purely strategic point of view, even though the barbarians aren't gathered on the Gallic shore, I wouldn't want to loose Devenport, Portsmouth, or Faslane.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel strongly about it and I benefit from learning about this topic. Please, as you gain facts, please add to this blog with new information. I have found it extremely useful