Humphrey has a certain pet hate on some internet sites, and this is the trend to ‘fantasy fleet’ creation. While the merits of discussing possible courses of action are interesting, in recent years these sort of threads have routinely become an excuse to wishlist large numbers of ships, aircraft and vessels in an almost fantasian order of battle which bears no resemblance to any current reality. Almost without exception these threads prove immensely dull to read, and rarely achieve more than listing different types of impressive ships in arbitrary ‘fleets’.
The concept of these so-called ‘fleets’ has often puzzled the author – it is something to which many posters cling to – the notion that the Royal Navy should somehow hark back to its imagined glory days and establish a ‘Far East Fleet’, a Med Fleet and south Atlantic squadrons, along with the supporting bases and dockyards. These impressive sounding titles are bandied around without really thinking what this means. Ironically, those who most loudly advocate the creation of these fleets are the ones who also demand that the MOD cuts the numbers of officials and Admirals to pay for it – as if adding an additional layer of command is going to somehow reduce officialdom.
For this post, Humphrey wants to consider why foreign dockyards and the concept of ‘Fleets’ is perhaps less relevant than ever to the Royal Navy of today, and considers that what may have worked in the past is not necessarily the model of the future fleet structure.
What is this so-called ‘Fleet’?Historically until the early 1970s the Royal Navy has operated globally, with its assets split into squadrons or fleets for the purposes of command and control – in the post war era this was based around a home fleet, a Mediterranean Fleet, a Far East Fleet and ‘stations’ or squadrons based in the Caribbean and West Indies, plus other outlying locations.
At its simplest the role of the Fleet could be seen as providing a local level of command and control over an organisation, ranging from provision of support and training, through to conducting operations in the operating area. Essentially a Fleet could be seen as being an organisational overhead designed to provide support to fighting units of the fleet. Additionally the presence of a senior officer ensured a local staff able to co-ordinate operations, handle defence relations and staff talks, and ensure that the local interests of HM Government were sufficiently represented and adhered to. In wartime the fleet structure provided a similar level of operational support, with the staff co-ordinating operations and in very rare occasions marshalling the units of the Fleet to a co-ordinated action (arguably Jutland remains the greatest example of this). Such actions were relatively rare though, even in WW2.
The structure of disparate Fleets ended in 1971 as the Eastern and Western Fleets were merged into a single command (known as CINCFLEET), which in its new guise as NAVY COMMAND remains the organisation responsible for the generation of, and deployment of RN vessels across the world.
The reality today is that for an organisation like the RN, the Fleet is an organisational structure which adds little extra operational value. In decades past, when communication was much slower, and there was a very clearly pronounced ‘air gap’ between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of the RN and wider MOD, there was more value in having layers of command. It was simply not possible for a single headquarters and staff to oversee the movements and support to ships across the world, and also conduct the wider range of staff duties.
Today the IT revolution has changed all this – it is now completely possible for a ship deployed to have direct email contact with its operational command chain, and also bring in fleet HQ and the MOD strategic policy desks into the same discussion. Modern IT means it is possible to remain aware of deployments, stores problems and wider international challenges. A ship on deployment now has immediate ‘reachback’ to subject matter experts in the UK able to provide almost instantaneous responses on most issues. What this means is that the value of a deployed HQ is significantly reduced – there is no need for an HQ EASTERN FLEET to interpret guidance from on high about handle the process of working up, supporting and deploying HMS NONSUCH and then implementing it – this can all be done centrally with everyone involved in the process able to work together from the outset.
Additionally the rise of jet travel means that the days of deployed Admirals acting as ‘the voice of HMG’ for years at a time have gone. It is now possible for senior officers to travel the globe, handling defence talks, meetings, engagement and all the other niceties of naval relationships without being based in the region. The work still goes on, but it can be dealt with by officials based in the UK and not overseas.
While this is in some ways a sad development, for lets face it, there is something rather evocative about reading of long vanished posts like FLAG OFFICER FAR EAST FLEET, or reading the superlative John Wintons descriptions in ‘HMS LEVIATHAN’ of the Commander and commissioning in Sembewang. But, to read such descriptions now is to make you realise how much the world has changed – while the titles were impressive, the work that the posts generated is no longer needed – as times change, so do organisational structures and titles.
It is perhaps worth considering that for many years now the RN has essentially operated a ‘Far East Fleet’ in all but name – one only has to look at the plethora of RN assets deployed on a daily basis east of Suez, and the way in which they are controlled – through a 1* commander permanently based in Bahrain, to realise that while the vast organisational structures which used to control the RN may not exist, the fact remains that the RN is able to deploy, sustain and effectively operate a force with more capability than the majority of the worlds navies thousands of miles from the home base. While the complex relationship and naming convention of Task Group or Task Unit may be less romantic than ‘Far East Fleet’ but it should not hide the reality of a permanent presence overseas.
It is also worth considering how much tighter the overall RN command and control structure is these days – in the last 20 years there has been a massive reduction in the administrative oversight of the deployment of ships – the old structure of Maritime Headquarters, regional Flag Officers with responsibility for ships in their areas and a wider CINCFLEET structure has been replaced by a much tauter structure based in Northwood, which is able to maintain similar levels of awareness, with a much smaller overhead of ‘Stars’. This is worth remembering – those who claim the RN still has many Admirals forget just how many high profile Admiral posts have been abolished in recent years as the RN adapts to better technology and capability.
|Type 45 Destroyer|
The author has a very personal view that the RN is in the business of sending warships to sea, and not the business of managing an unnecessarily large property portfolio. Every penny spent on building and sustaining shore infrastructure is a penny not being spent on a warship. While there is a very clear case for a well maintained and modern infrastructure, this does come at a cost. The RN already probably has a surplus of real estate relative to its fleet size, and much of this is buildings that are decades (and in some cases centuries) old, which require updating, refurbishment and refitting.
Historically overseas dockyards made perfect sense – in the early 20th century when communications were slow, it made immense sense to ensure that local dockyards could repair vessels on station, ensuring they were available in short order, rather than waiting weeks or months for spare parts to be sent out. The presence of coal or oil in the days before the RFA was a strategic necessity, while ammunition depots could easily store shells for use. Similarly, the reliance on troopships rather than trooping flights meant that long drafts for overseas personnel made sense – it wasn’t feasible to keep moving people around unless there was good reason to do so. Hence maintaining a strategic network of dockyards and accommodation facilities made enormous sense.
Today though most of these requirements are either overtaken by technology or simply not feasible. The investment in strategic airlift means that the average RN ship can have parts flown out to it within 2-3 days if there is a pressing need, no matter where it is in the world. Similarly, personnel can be rotated around with ease, reducing the need to have any permanent overseas barracks.
Similarly, when considering ammunitioning a vessel, how does one manage the stockpile. Modern missiles are incredibly complex and need a lot of work and maintenance, and there is only a finite supply of them. To decide to store some missiles overseas suddenly imposes requirements for all manner of ammunition handling facilities, extra staff to handle the missiles and generally support the facility. It adds cost on to duplicate an existing capability for little (if any) discernible improvement in capability.
The investment in the RFA in the 1950s and 1960s provided the RN with a truly global reach, which has continued to this day – while there may fewer tankers and support ships than before, there is still a considerable afloat support capability. This means that the requirement for fixed shore bases is much smaller than it used to be.
The other major problem with supporting the re-establishment of overseas bases is where the manpower comes from the run such large facilities which will see hardly any use. The author often sees suggestions that the UK should just establish naval bases in its old stomping grounds across the world, without thinking why or for what reason. There is simply no manpower in the modern RN to establish bases of this nature, or is there reason why it should do so. Since the final merge of the two fleets in 1971, the RN has spent decades becoming a leading expert in the deployment at distance of its vessels while relying on either RFAs or other support mechanisms. There is simply no need or requirement for an overseas dockyard anymore beyond the small detachments which exist overseas.
If you look at the current RN overseas footprint, then the current structure appears to be sensibly balanced. It is surprising to consider that it is only in the last 20 years that the RN has closed its last West Indies and Far Eastern naval bases (HMS MALABAR in the early 1990s and HMS TAMAR in 1997). Since then its presence has been a small support unit in the Falklands, a minor naval base in Gibraltar which gets smaller with every year, a support unit in the Middle East and also a tiny residual presence in Singapore.
Although small, when backed up by vessels such as RFA DILIGENCE, and also strategic airlift capability, it has been proven for decades that the RN is able to deploy a long way from home and sustain itself on station. The requirement for these dockyards so often harked after seems non existent, and one which would merely throw money against a need which simply doesn’t seem to exist.
One final point on overseas basing is well worth nothing – while it is appealing to consider the RN having permanent dockyards overseas, one has to remember that having a base in somewhere like Malta means that the UK is inextricably involved with the domestic situation of that nation until the time comes to leave. Running an overseas facility means a great deal of engagement with the host nation, and accepting that you may find yourself sucked into all manner of crises which you may not want to deal with. Foreign military bases are wonderful political levers to build support for the host government from an overseas power, and while useful for deploying capability, may often be more hard work than is really needed. While dreaming of reopening some old dockyard may be fun, do we really want to find ourselves in difficult and contentious local politics which could cause major difficulties for the UK?
So in summary, Humphries very personal view is that overseas fleets and dockyards are wonderful part of our naval heritage, but not something that has a place in our naval future. The RN has done an incredible job since the end of empire in providing a long distance ability to deploy and sustain far from the home base, while not being reliant on a network of dockyards. The current deployment of the RN shows that it is still as globally versatile as ever, and while smaller, remains immensely capable.