Friday, 21 December 2012

General Richards speech to the RUSI - Will the Royal Navy really get larger in the future?

On 17 December, General Sir David Richards (the UK Chief Defence Staff – CDS) gave a speech to the military think-tank known as the RUSI – Royal United Services Institute. The RUSI is a well-known international think-tank, and one which has over the years provided the venue for a variety of particularly interesting speeches, papers and other engagements.

Traditionally the CDS will always give a ‘state of the nation’ address to the RUSI towards the end of the year, as an effort to not only look back, but also look forward and see what the future may hold for the British Military. Bluntly, many friends of the author believe the speeches are often fairly routine, covering ground regularly debated in public and reiterating policy over thinking outside the agreed position.

This speech is notable though for being significantly more open than previous debates, and for its highlighting several areas where the General stepped away from the path of established policy and perhaps illuminated thinking associated with the next SDR. The full text of the speech can be found over at the Think Defence Website (link is HERE). It is well worth reading in full, as it is genuinely illuminating.

The speech highlights many areas of interest, and the first specific point here was the discussion on the size of the equipment programme, and in particular the importance of retaining people to operate kit. CDS makes a very valid point – there is no point having huge quantities of high quality equipment if you do not have sufficient personnel to operate it to full effect. One of the problems of understanding Defence today is that people look simply at Orders of Battle, and assume that because Nation X possesses a certain amount of equipment, it must somehow be a potent threat. People very rarely consider the human factors associated with being able to equip, maintain, operate and fight with modern equipment. This human edge is one reason why HM Forces remain world class – they are not only equipped with good quality equipment, but they have the ability to use it, and support it, to a high standard.

There was a strong push for the newly established Joint Expeditionary Force (presumably the word ‘British’ was perhaps a little too loaded with historical attachment to be used in this title). The speech highlighted the importance of our being able to provide not only a capable military force able to operate autonomously within an alliance – or as part of a truly integrated multi-national force. This is really important – the ability to work effectively within an integrated multi-national HQ is something that makes a huge difference in modern operations. A quick glance at almost all operations for the last 20 years will show that on ops, the UK can expect to be quickly working with a diverse group of countries, with differing tactics, operational procedures, understanding of situations and politically acceptable end states. By investing time now in bringing the JEF up to scratch and forming strong working relationships, not only between services, but between nations, then there is reduced likelihood of friction in future operations, and increased chance of success. This is perhaps most prominently highlighted by the reality that in OP ELLAMY the UK had to establish in short order a meaningful contribution to a complex multi-national alliance, which included both NATO states and other nations such as UAE, Jordan and Qatar, which had never worked in this environment before.

General Sir David Richards (copyright Daily Telegraph)
CDS went on to consider the individual roles of all three armed services in delivering the future UK military capability. Intriguingly he commented that:

“In the future, the Chief of the Naval Staff and I have a vision for a Navy which procures ships differently allowing us to have more, not fewer platforms.

 We must resist the pressure that has shrunk the number of platforms. Clearly that will mean rethinking the Navy, including examining the case for ships that may have a limited role in general war. But this is not new ¬¬¬– remember the corvette over the ages – and is similar to the utility of light and heavy land forces, tailored to task. And in so doing we will ensure seamanship skills and leadership qualities, so much in demand by our friends and allies, flourish into the long term.

The Royal Navy’s maritime and amphibious components, with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines at the core of the latter, will be at the heart of Britain’s JEF. As the concept develops we will look to acquire ships that range from top-end war fighting elements through potentially to more vessels tailored to discrete but important tasks, to be deployed on a range of routine non-war fighting duties.

In saying this, the CDS was implicitly suggesting that the findings of the SDSR were no longer correct, and that they may need revisiting in future. This may not sound like a surprising piece of news to many observers, but it is worth considering that in saying this, the CDS is speaking with the authority of the Government. He has effectively admitted that the SDSR is no longer valid and needs to be revisited in 2015, and that this may well mean changes.

The news that the RN may move back into acquiring larger numbers of vessels is interesting, and would no doubt be welcomed by the entire Royal Navy, but it is important to avoid getting carried away with internet ‘fantasy fleet’ debates. The first thing to remember is that any decision on the size of the RN would not be taken until 2015 at the very earliest – this is the time of the next defence review, and its findings would ultimately depend on the UK strategic interests at the time, the amount of funding available and also what other equipment funding is needed. It is not a guarantee that this decision will be made, and it is also very likely that neither the current CDS, nor CNS will be in post come 2015 – CDS can make this sort of pledge, partially because he will not be required to try and see whether it can be implemented.

If a decision to enlarge the RN is taken, the question then becomes what form do these ships take? The mention of the word ‘corvette’ is interesting – the recent debate about the Black Swan sloop,  modern class of corvette for the 21st century seems to have been quite high profile. Perhaps CDS was tacitly acknowledging that there is a case to be made for a sloop style procurement. It is clear that the use of very expensive warships such as T45 on deployments to interdict pirates, and ‘fly the flag’ is not necessarily the best use of a billion pound platform.

Acquiring a sloop class would perhaps ensure that the RN could continue to fly the white ensign in areas of lower threat, say for instance the West Indies or West Africa, providing a more relevant training capability for lower end navies, while retaining sufficient high end escorts for global deployments. The concept of a second rate frigate is not entirely new to the RN – look at the Type 14 class and how they were employed initially as low tech ASW escorts, but in reality spent much of their career doing more generic ‘fly the flag’ duties during the early Cold War.
Type 14 Frigate (Copyright

The acquisition of further platforms would be good in many ways, but there are equally many questions to be answered. The most pressing of which would be ‘where the money is, where the building capacity is and where is the manpower?

To bring a new class of vessel into service will take time – the design and construction of a new class of ship would take a couple of years to complete. Even if an uplift were approved, it would be 3-4 years before design work was completed and orders could be placed. Therefore, it would almost be hitting the 2020 SDR before the vessels were under construction.

The next question is where is the build capacity to take on this work? As has been noted before, the UK military shipbuilding market is operating at capacity right now, and has no real spare ability to construct extra vessels. This means any construction effort would either impinge on T26 construction, or require an uplift of shipyard capacity in order to build the vessels at the same time.

Finally the issue is one of manpower – where does the RN get the crews to man these vessels from? The RN is scaled to man the ships it currently has in service, introduction of a new class of vessels which increase the RN in size would place a manning challenge on the service. To effectively run a ship, you need to have a 3:1 ratio of crew in place to allow for shore drafts, training courses and so on. A class of 6 ships (putatively the Black Swan design, discussed in the doctrine note found at HERE , each requiring 68 crew) would in reality need over 1200 personnel in the system to ensure sufficient manpower with appropriate skills to crew them over their lives. This is a significant manpower challenge and one that would not easily be found.

It is fair to say that the RN is unlikely to see any significant uplift in personnel over the next series of defence reviews, and that in reality pressure is likely to see headcount reducing in order to reduce costs. So, to man a class of new sloop escorts, the RN is going to have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and it is not clear where that may fall.

The next challenge for the RN is to consider how it employs the fleet with new vessels in service – will availability increase overall, or will the arrival of extra hulls and reduction of tasks for the main escort fleet perhaps lead to long overdue refits being scheduled, or maintenance being carried out? The situation may arise where as new vessels come into service, the RN overall availability of ships at sea declines as much deferred refits can be carried out. An enlarged navy may at best be only capable of maintaining a ‘steady state’ for some years.

 Turning to the Army, CDS made a particularly compelling vision for an Army with brigades taking on the role of establishing links with different regions of the world. He noted that;  

Though more conceptual work is needed, given the importance of the region and clear Prime Ministerial intent, I envisage two or more adaptable brigades forming close tactical level relationships with particular countries in the Gulf and Jordan, for example, allowing for better cooperation with their forces. Should the need arise for another Libya-style operation, we will be prepared. This would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum.

In Africa, brigades would be tasked to support key allies in the east, west and south whilst another might be given an Indian Ocean and SE Asian focus, allowing for much greater involvement in the FPDA, for example.”

 This felt a clear statement of intent that the post HERRICK British Army will not be withdrawn back to the UK to form an overly large home guard. There is clear guidance that the Army will be re-engaging in some regions where its influence has been minimal since the withdrawal from empire. The notion of having forces tasked to support work in South East Asia points to a vision that over the next 5-10 years the UK will, if anything, be taking on a much greater role of engagement than it has done since the end of the 1960s.

The question is what form of engagement will this take? There seems to be little enthusiasm for a long term campaign commitment in future involving boots on the ground, and SDSR seems to note the importance of strategic raiding over long term campaigning. So, if there is little enthusiasm for high end military operations, the question is, what sort of training and operations will the army be conducting in future? It will be most interesting to see how the next Defence Review sets out this vision.

British Army engaging in Oman on Saif Sareea 2 (Copyright Defence
CDS went on to discuss in more detail the difficulties faced by meeting the growing threat of ‘cyber warfare’ and the potential damage it can cause to the UK and our allies. He set out that the future operating environment is one that is vastly different to the one he began his career in, over 40 years ago. This is perhaps a very pertinent point – when CDS joined the military, the then CDS (Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Hill-Norton) had joined the RN in 1928. The chief of the General Staff was Field Marshall Carver, who has joined the Army in 1935. Together they had started their careers facing a world of imperial policing, and of localised engagements, prior to fighting in the bloodiest conflict in human history before preparing for an even bloodier war that never came, while withdrawing from Empire.

This perhaps illustrates the point that for all the criticisms about the military preparing to fight the last war, the reverse could perhaps be true. As a military, we still have personnel today who joined and served with those who had served in the pre-war military. This timeframe has seen vast strategic changes, and constant reassessments of our military requirements, threats and challenges (see the ever present moaning on websites like ARRSE or the Daily Mail about how we no longer matter due to not having so many ships, tanks or the SLR still in service). At the same time, a wide range of supposedly informed commentators criticise the UK for not being sufficiently forward looking, but also berating our lack of capabilities such as tanks, warships and so on. This author would argue that in this speech, CDS has highlighted that if anything the current military leadership accept and realise that it is more important to look forward than back, and that they are charged with delivering a military capable of meeting the very different demands today of that 40, or 80 years ago. Perhaps it is the commentators who cling to the past, preferring to see resources focused on fighting the last wars, rather than the Military itself, which seems to have a very clear vision of just how different the future nature of conflict appears to be.


  1. " The most pressing of which would be ‘where the money is, where the building capacity is and where is the manpower?" - surely on the capacity point it's hard to ignore Portsmouth's potential woes post carrier building?

    1. The problem is that the timescale is such that any decision on portsmouth would have long been taken by the time any new vessels were ordered.

  2. Having just completed a Counter-Piracy patrol (CP), I would offer the following. If you are going to do Oceanic CP (such as Somalia), you need the following: long endurance, an ability to conduct long range target acquisition, sustained high speed capability, C3I infrastucture and the right type of people to do something about it all when you find the buggers. Whilst you may be able to find some of those traits in a ‘sloop’, they only really come together with a ship that is frigate size, with many (if not all) of the characterisitics one would associate with a modern Frigate or Destroyer. If oceanic range is not your thing (either you run from local bases, or are willing to only influence a relatively small piece of sea) then you can reduce the endurance and sprint requirements, but not the others.

    I would suggest that this would lead to a requirement not for small vessels, but rather much bigger vessels than a FF/DD. The USN are currently procuring a further 5 Afloat Support Bases (modelled on the USS PONCE) for operations around the world. An AFSB is large (i.e. not much smaller than OCEAN), can carry lots of enabling units and can support others. If we are to accept CDS’ premise that these are not war-fighting vessels (which I fear will be quickly forgotten if we go to war), then a large ‘flat-top’ could be built to civilian standards and then painted “haze grey and got underway”. Modern MVs are designed for a reduced number of personnel to run them (but the RN would probably triple or quadruple that!), and we could ensure the supported units bring their own CSS/CS personnel.

    There is also a point to be made about very small vessels. Operations inside the Gulf require a specific skill set, one that could make use of the very short lines of support (assuming Bahrain remains our “stone RFA”) and thus change our entire CONOPs. What say you to a combination of Cyclone class patrol vessels and SOC-R Riverine Craft/CB-90s to dominate the cluttered and congested waters of the Gulf?

    Lots of the TEPID OIL questions haven’t be answered, but the ‘sloop’ concept (which is a masterful piece of intra-RN posturing written by an Officer not qualified to Command anything apart from P2000s) is not the way we should be heading.

  3. Indeed, where will the money come for these sloops? From a canned second carrier? (arguably that single ship could be all the 'expansion' his mentioned). Or could it come from funds freed when/if we can the fourth SSBN?

    Or perhaps we may even see funds freed from the post Afghan withdrawal actually being fed back into the services?

    1. Mike - my instinct is that we're likely to see a reaffirmation of the value of a second carrier (and an operational one at that) in the 2015 SDSR. SofS has been very forward leaning in public, but this sort of decision, like a larger RN decision, is one which should be taken under the auspices of an SDSR - if only because by then we'll have a better idea of funding for 2015-2020 and whether the money actually exists.

  4. The discussion of ship types (if not numbers!) seems relevant to the RCN, to me--see end of this post at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute's "3Ds Blog":

    "Shipbuilding: If You Thought the Auditor General’s F-35 Report Caused the Government Trouble…"


  5. The RN is not going to increase in size. In the unlikely event that additional OPVs/covettes are procured, this will be instead of, not as well as, other platforms. I can't see the RN being prepared to sacrifice a pair of T26s in order to build a class of OPVs.

  6. I think Alfie got it spot on, and before looking at the alternatives not tried yet (but promising?), I can only think of the National SEcurity Cutter (how did they get around the corvette and sloop terms?)and the Holland Class that would fit the bill
    - you can get 4 Hollands for one of the USCG designs, and they are cheap to run, too
    - both are essentially frigates, where fightiness has been compromised for endurance, economy of operation and slim manning (who get enough of comfort to be bobbing up and down 60 days uninterrupted)

    Where do we go from here? Buy two of the Hollands, and rotate them (with the help of one FF/DD at times) between Windies, FI and the Gulf of Guinea
    - two on station, a third of the time spent in transit and "diplomatic" visits, makes 3 already, a refit every seven years, that then 3.3 FF/DD burden (OK, let's count RFA in and make it 2.5) replaced by one and
    1. an outlay of £ 200m upfront, and
    2. a ships company of 35 x 2 X 3 =210 total ships' companies
    3. which makes it better than 'crewing neutral'

    So, putting opportunity costs in full play, when did the RN last get a frigate's worth for a mere £ 200m?

    Cheers, ACC

  7. there is allegedly a £1.5b pot for MCHP, spend it on these:$file/SX119.pdf

    and keep 18 specialised ASW/AAW escorts 2:1 in favour of the former.

  8. Don't forget MHCP is the 'one size fits all' hull replacement which will take on a range of different classes and produce mission modules to match.
    Its likely to see a significant reduction overrall in hulls, so the problem remains one not only of insufficient hulls now, but also far fewer hulls in future.

  9. "The news that the RN may move back into acquiring larger numbers of vessels is interesting, and would no doubt be welcomed by the entire Royal Navy, but it is important to avoid getting carried away with internet ‘fantasy fleet’ debates."

    But it doesnt have to be "fantasy" fleeting.

    Spending on the three services is very roughly 55 / 25 / 20 on the Army, Navy, RAF

    50 / 25 / 25 Navy, Army, RAF is not that big a switch.

    The Army only became the dominant force during the second world war.
    Historically it was 70/30 in favor of the Navy

    I could make a cheap shot about the Navy winning an Empire, and the army losing it, but I wont....

  10. Hi TrT, a genuine question:
    - where did you get the break-up for spend?
    - if you look at NAO figures, the Services's budgets are dwarfed by the proc&maintenance item, which is broken up by capability, not by Service
    - it is quite obvious who benefits from one of the 7(?), namely Underwater Capability, but some of the rest are much more difficult to decipher

    Cheers, ACC

    1. I'm on my laptop at the moment, i think the files are saved on my pc.
      I want to say the 08/09 accounts, not the most recent, but it had a breakdown for loads of things.

      The navy was the most detailed, then the airforce, the army just had a giant amount and two or three small ones.


      Close, it was 09-10


      48% 27% 24%

      So I was a little off, but it just seems obscene to me that 48% of our defence budget goes to defending land borders, which we dont have....

      Would 50:25:25, or even 60:20:20 be that crazy?

      Sure, we would cease to be a "Top Tier" land power anywhere outside the UK, if you follow the fantasy that we are a "top tier" land power outside the the UK currently.
      However would easily be able to claim we are a Top Tier naval power almost anywhere in the world, the exclusions being a few littorals and anywhere the USN wanted a contest.

      I usually use the example of India and China, is it really that extreme to say we should be able to defeat either (both?) in a naval campaign around the BIOT?

      But if we want an example closer to home.
      Is it really that extreme to say the Royal Navy should have a better chance of beating a Russian Fleet in the North Sea than the British Army has of beating a Russian Army on the North German Plains?
      Because again, that's not the case.

  11. "The notion of having forces tasked to support work in South East Asia points to a vision that over the next 5-10 years the UK will, if anything, be taking on a much greater role of engagement than it has done since the end of the 1960s. The question is what form of engagement will this take?"

    - Apart from the Five Powers Defence Agreement (there is room to expand our activity by increasing the number and scope of exercises), there is also the option for UK armed forces to engage with SE Asia through the European Union, which is a participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). ARF decided recently to go from being just a forum to 'action oriented' organization and ASEAN's commitment to establish a 'regional capability' for peacekeeping as well as HADR activity presents an attractive opportunity for the UK to step up its engagement with SE Asian militaries as well as the other 27 members of the ARF, which includes a lot of interesting countries - China, Myanmar, Aus, NZ, Vietnam, Japan - with which we have or want to have dealings. Brunei has just taken over as ASEAN chair for 2013 - surely our longstanding connections there can help us think of some profitable new avenues for cooperation in the region..

  12. Did you come across the invitation by Japan's new PM Abe for UK and France to 'stage a comeback' in Asian security? Abe is asking to join the FPDA.

    1. hi, thanks for your comments!
      I'd not seen Abe seeking to join FPDA - a most interesting blog article and if I get the chance I'll try and comment in more detail on in due course.
      Would Japan be welcome in FPDA - doubtful in its current construct as the role of FPDA is primarily to provide consultation in the event of an attack on Singapore or Malaysia. To bring Japan into it would be unlikely unless the organisation underwent wholesale change and more widely expanded.
      what the article does show is that there is growing interest in bringing wider powers back into the region - while the US is a useful partner of choice, there is clear appetite to work with nations who have highly capable militaries, but who perhaps have different defence relationships.
      We're unlikely to see much of a shift before 2015 and the SDSR, but I suspect we'll start to see more frequent deployments of aircraft and vessels to the region. A lot depends on the financial situation post SDSR2015 and whether funding and aspiration remains for the UK to play a role in the region.

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  14. sackcloth and ashes10 September 2013 at 15:39

    Did anyone else notice that not once in this speech did the former CDS bring himself to mention Iraq?

    Not only an insult to the 179 men and women who died on that op (not to mention other veterans of TELIC), but a pretty clear-cut effort to sweep under the carpet a conflict that embarrasses the top brass.