Thursday, 30 May 2013

Of Fleets in Far Flung Places

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.

HMNB Portsmouth
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

 Overseas Dockyards
The other point which often crops up in Fantasy Fleet discussions is the keen desire for the RN to establish a network of overseas dockyards which will house whole squadrons of warships (presumably under the command of a newly re-established Fleet HQ). While it is wonderful to look back in history and see where the RN used to have permanent bases, it is hugely misleading to do so.

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.


  1. Its does come across as something of a straw man this I am afraid.
    Not only because, I havent seen many people arguing for what you say the mob demands, but also, because, we have the mess you describe already, and most fantasy fleeters want to pull us out of it.

    We already have bases around the world. This site itself told me about the huge docking and fueling facilities the RN maintains in Singapore.

    We already have squadrons scattered around the world.

    The problem is those standing tasks are minnows in an ocean of sharks.

    If Iran wanted to close the Persian gulf, close it it would, and 4 Hunt Class ships would run for their lives or die in flames.
    The Argentine Armed forces might train less than the Atholl Highlanders, but even they would accomplish the destruction of the APTS with little difficulty.

    I certainly consider myself a "fleeter", and for me, It does exactly what it says on the tin.
    A fleet. A group of ships that engage enemy ships in violence, sink them and drive the survivors back to port.
    Thats not a complicated ask, and yet the UK has a mere 20 vessels capable of offensive action, the SSNs and the Frigates, who are already extensively tasked with protecting the Deterrent and the home islands.

    The combined striking power of the Royal Navy is likely to be nothing more than one fleet sub and three anti submarine frigates with a handful of old missiles and a point defence AAW system.
    If someone did decide to attack one of our distant fleets, the fleet would lose, and theres nothing coming to avenge them.

    So maybe I missed your point?

    1. Trn, correction, it is a fueling depot in Singapore.

      That yes has been under-utilised by RN ships since the return of Hong Kong in 1997. In fact, most of it is being used by RAN, NZ ships, and US Navy ships now. There is a Commander in charge, but the last we see of him was shaking hands with Prince William and Kate Middleton.

      It's time to re-engage with the SEA.

    2. I'm with you in this. It's sad to think that we used to have the biggest and best fleet in the world and now we are reduced to just a handful of ships. The loss of the Ark was especially painful, our one and only Aircraft carrier with no immediate replacement. The premature scrapping of the harriers too snapped up by the US as they are still using theirs. I'm not saying we should aspire to have the biggest and best, no way could we compete with the US but we should at least have a force that could do the job and have extra to spare for anything unforeseen. Sorry to go on but it saddens me to see our Royal Navy depleted so badly.

    3. I kept hoping that I would win the lottery and so have a chance of buying the Ark. My plan was to keep her as a Naval museum especially the Fleet Air arm, employing ex Naval personnel especially those who had previously served on the Ark. So much for a dream anyway.

    4. After the Afghanistan surge, HMS carriers hardly had any Harriers operating off them.

    5. Barry Fountain

      The loss of the Ark Royal+Harriers was the lesser of three evils. The RN hasn't been able to put together a viable air wing since the mid-2000s and both ship end aircraft were due to go by 2015 anyway. In effect, a token capability winding down for retirement. Losing three T23s or the amphibious capability entirely (the other options on the table) would both have been more serious losses.

    6. I didn't want us to lose any vessels, in fact I'd rather see an increase in our Naval strength. It's all very well Cameron and his cronies penny pinching all the time but we need a navy, we also need and army and air force and he's cut them too which is also a bad idea. We could save some money by doing away with him and Cleggie for a start.

    7. If there is a mega sized defence budget annually, only then can there be a super duper fleet Barry.

    8. "If there is a mega sized defence budget annually, only then can there be a super duper fleet Barry."

      The Navy receives about a third of the defence budget.
      The Army half.
      The UK spends quite a lot on defence, unfortunately, it simply spends most of it defending the Rhine and Reforger

      The UKs *defence* needs could be met on a third of the current budget with ease. Our foreign adventures could be far better met on the current budget if we didnt maintain an army in West Germany who's purpose is to stop a surprise attack from an army that retreated 850miles two decades ago.

  2. Nice post Sir H on a subject that I am pleased to see you covering!

    I certainly agree that their is an element of nostalgia and reminiscence on the web that leads to some people dreaming up and listing quite ridiculous fantasy fleets and global bases with little or no thought and argument put into how they would be affordable and what they would actually be for.

    As you say the smaller size of the Royal Navy coupled with significant changes/advancements in communications and logistics has made the requirement for a string of global dockyards and the administrative division of the service into flotillas, squadrons, fleets and so on has become largely redundant.

    In my view it's worth hanging onto the residual facilities we have in The Falklands, Gibraltar and Singapore, mostly because they are already established and cheap to retain. Beyond the aforementioned clutch of small commitments I think the way we have a singular 'umbrella' officer post, use allied port facilities and deploy auxiliaries in support as we currently do in the Gulf is a good example and template for how things can continue to be done in the future.

    If the RN has any sense then it will build it's future composition and strategy on the twin pillars of an enduring and sizeable force in The Gulf and it's Response Force Task Group, with whatever is left over (if anything) being spread between The Falklands and other small scale token deployments.

    1. Gibraltar is far too small to support massive ship deployments. Same iwth Falklands--more the weather there though.

      Singapore is not a RN base but there are fuelling facilities under used! It's time to use them again.

    2. I didn't say we should use Gibraltar and the Falklands for 'massive ship deployments' just that it makes sense to hang onto the residual infrastructure we have left.

      Keeping the few small stopover and supply bases that remain around the world is very different to the fantastical idea of fully functioning and capable dockyards that Sir H rightly criticised in his post.

    3. In terms of overseas facilities, Gibraltar is a useful outpost as a forward operating base -the runway, berths and small stores area remain useful, although it is likely that the MOD will probably consolidate further over the next few years.
      The facility at Cyprus is a tiny wharf capable of holiding a couple of Army landing craft and P2000s, and is in no way a proper base.
      In the Far East, the RN retains a fuel depot which is substantial in size and generates a profit for the UK, but is rarely used by the RN. Its more useful as a gentle sign of UK commitment to the FPDA, without having troops on the ground. Similarly, the Sembewang wharves have berths for 3 escorts and a small support area, but again this is rarely used by the RN at present.

    4. I'm not interested in expanding the facilities you have listed, I agree with the main thrust of you're post.

      I only think it makes sense to hold onto the small set-ups that remain because the residual capability they offer is worth more than the effort that would go into downscaling and disposing of them. I'm principally talking about the bits left in Gibraltar and Singapore which you seem to agree are of some use. As you say Cyprus has virtually no naval facilities and the ones on the Falklands are exclusively in place to support the clutch of ships on patrol in the area and are of no real use beyond that narrow purpose.

      What's the set-up in Diego Garcia? I know their is a natural anchorage that the USN uses but have they built any shore based facilities or other bits of infrastructure to improve on this?

    5. Diego Gracia is fully used by the US; there is only a minute British military presence there--check parliamentary answers

    6. I know their is only a minute British presence, I just wanted some info on the US naval set-up there.

      Even though it's a US built and run set of facilities and the UK will probably have no need to use them in the immediate future it's always nice to know that such facilities exist on a British territory and can be utilised when required.

    7. Google Maps is your friend, as is free map tools.
      There is a sheltered port area within the Lagoon, a 63m ship is docked at the moment (well, when the photo was taken), looks like you can fit a 100m ship.
      As well as that, there is a 600m wharf just in the Lagoon, with a 250m ship docked.
      Along with a huge airbase, 13 big aircraft, C130s I think, are there now.

    8. Having been to DG, the RN presence there is not a naval base, but a small naval party to conduct sovereignty assertion and administration.
      The presence is tiny and is in no way a naval base - although RN vessels do call into the island on occasion.

  3. I have to agree with TrTs comments.

    According to the news - Russia has 29 warships in the Eastern Mediterranean:

    There isn't a lot our one ship could do, except watch from a safe distance!

    Sir H states "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."

    This is true, but only because we don't have a navy anymore

    1. I second that and take the "while smaller, remains immensely capable" comment with the pinch of salt it deserves. Although the RN has excellent training, infrastructure and support and some very effective units it is now just too small to be considered a serious global player. It may be very effective relative to size but unless the damaging policies of the last 20+ years are rethought the RN is doomed to continue its slide into irrelevance.

    2. If the UK places more focus on conventional weapons--ships and less on SSBNs that cannot effect change against pirates, help with evacuations, interdict, etc. then there will be a sizeable Navy.

    3. Jeneral28

      In theory this would seem to be logical, but in practice it may not work out like that. I think the political argument could well be that nuclear and conventional forces are separate and perform different roles. Abandoning the nuclear deterrent does not necessarily mean that there is a requirement for larger conventional forces.

      There would probably be significant pressure to cut a significant chunk of the money saved by abandoning Trident from the defence budget. Some may even argue that as RN conventional assets are used to support Trident there is scope for still deeper cuts.

      Be careful what you wish for!

    4. I didn't say a full removal of all Trident, one SSBN would do. In the spirit of the post Iraq years, the defence to have SSBNs sems weaker and weaker. During the Cold War and immediate post Cold War years, yes, but now, I would wager that terrorists and would be terrorists are laughing that they can break through the defences of the UK while four deadly SSBNs lie underwater, unable to threaten or counter the threats all nations face today.

    5. The United Kingdoms Strategic Nuclear Forces are already at their minimum level any further reduction or eliminating the requirement for CASD would be no better than unilaterally disarming. Those nations who have tactical nuclear capabilities e.g. Israel, India and Pakistan have their likely targets on their doorstep which the UK does not. Furthermore Terrorism is largely a security matter within the remit of the Police and Security Services to discover prevent and punish those responsible.

    6. You guys think is so great to have nuclear weapons while troops can be easily killed by smaller and cheaprer devices?

      Why didnt the UK Nuke Afghanistan? Problem solved. Let the fallout infect Iran.

  4. Forward basing and having regional presence is not something to be sniffed at, though I do agree playing nostalgic fantasy fleets, whilst fun, is little more than just that.

    I do feel though that the public does have the right to question how defence money is spent and ultimately the structure of the fleet. I have no problem in saying that the fleet should be focused in global ISR capability and a small but hard core based around the 2 CVFs. Is it wrong for example to suggest that the 5 GP T26s should be cancelled and replaced by a smaller but larger in number surveillance frigates?

    Cgallenging the perceived wisdom, is democracy after all.


    1. Hi Repulse, my thoughts change almost daily on what the composition of the future surface fleet should be!

      I have been recently thinking that a less than perfect but very cheap solution would be to build around 4 enhanced versions of the River class OPVs now (similar to the Thai Krabi version but with a hangar) and forward base them in various places to take the burden off of the high-end surface ships, whilst still hoping to get 13 Type 26 and a decent amount of MHPC further down the line.

      Now I am thinking that id rather see 4-6 Khareef class ships but with a sparse sensor and weapons fit, also forward based but this time in exchange for up-to 3 of the T26 to account for the higher cost with the remaining all standardised to an ASW configuration as some small compensation.

      16-18 high-end ships focused on task-group escort duties and deployments to the Gulf, and 6 light ships forward based with rotational crews sounds good to me! I'm thinking id put 2 in the S.Atlantic (with Clyde joining the other Rivers back home), 1 in the West Indies, 1-2 in the Indian Ocean and the remaining 1 or 2 in UK waters for training and other light duties.

      Sorry to hijack you're post to talk about ship numbers Sir H! I may be perilously close to fantasy fleet territory, but it's nothing that a cash injection of a couple of hundred million wouldn't fix, and my ideas don't have a new dockyard or even small supply base (that isn't pre-existing and/or an allied one) in sight!

    2. The way things are looking, we won't be getting 5 GP T26s. Maybe 8 ASW plus 2 GP or maybe no GP at all. Hate to be a pessimist, but it is fairly obvious that more cuts to both existing capabilities and future programmes are in the pipeline. If it comes to this then some smaller, cheaper platforms might be the only realistic way forward.

    3. Yeah the way things are going it doesn't look good for RN fleet numbers.

      Whatever shape of form the T26 ends up in I firmly believe their is a requirement for smaller, cheaper platforms in addition (not at the expense of) to the high-end fleet escorts and which can take the pressure off of them with regards to standing deployments.

    4. There's low probability of having both CVFs to operate at once. Neither is there a probability of having a CVF battel group like the US Navy. It is already quite stated the CVF will operate as an when it can and with varying other support ships, as the situation demands. That is, it works along the new RFTG format.

      Patrol vessels? Ok but don't demean the role of the RN to that of small ships. A good but not too large group of T26s works out.

  5. Hi Challenger, Khareef is an interesting but I'm actually thinking towards the French lines of a Gowind type L'Adroit. Having a small but flexible platform would not only allow significant numbers but also lend itself to stealth naturally and has the "fitted for but not with" (in this case Exocet) if ever needed. Keep them simple to maintain and you have a the option to forward base them (like Clyde is now). Also a workable platform for unmanned vehicles, a Lynx and SFs.

    Sounds like fantasy fleets but not an unreasonable proposal.


    1. Yeah I think whichever type ship were chosen it would have to be an existing design that was small, cheap and be 'fitted for not with' a lot of kit.

      Forwarding basing would work just fine if they weren't much more sophisticated or complex as Clyde and it would be the best way of squeezing a good degree of capability out of a small number of platforms.

  6. I'm not sure Sir Humphrey has thought this through – or perhaps he is looking at it from a contemporary perspective. As Mahan put it: 'Force is never more operative than when it is known to exist but is not brandished.' Aside the fantasy fleets, naval stations serve this purpose. While fewer are needed today than in the past due to the communications revolution and refuelling and resupply capabilities of modern logistical capacity, they nevertheless lay down a marker of intent, i.e. of the United Kingdom's determination to engage with particular regions in a permanent context.

    It is perhaps the fact that the armed forces are now seen as a surgical instrument to undertake a short sharp intervention, rather than a permanent component of national power, that is at the heart of the problem here.

    Getting involved in other people's domestic politics is a fact of life for a major power like the United Kingdom – just as it is for countries like France and the United States. Indeed, making other countries dependent on British strategic resources is the best way to gain leverage over them and prevent others from doing the same.

    Does Sir Humphrey not find it slightly telling that, while Western countries contemplate curling up and going 'home', other countries – India, China, South Korea – are starting to contemplate the construction of a number of additional naval facilities, both in their own homelands and abroad?

    1. South Korea abroad? Unless you have a massive budget and population and military-minded citizens, having bases abroad will not be sustainable in the long run. India naval facilities abroad? First I heard of it.

    2. Hi James,
      I think if you look at overseas naval expansion, there is very limited interest beyond India and China in any form of overseas facilities. Then it is linked to wider interests - e.g. China and its ongoing territorial disputes, and also the wider deployment to the counter piracy drills, and India in the Indian Ocean. There is yet to be any sign of further facilities beyond this, and it is not clear that any other nation is seeking naval facilities outside its immediate area of interest.
      Indeed only the UK, USA, France and Russia maintain overseas naval stations (arguably the Netherlands too if you count their tiny presence in the Dutch Antilles). Its hard to say that Western Countries are going home when they've not been out there on a permanent basis to begin with.
      Similarly, while permanent stations are a sign of commitment, this only stretches so far. Much as Singapore functions as an RN commitment to FPDA, it needs backing up by actual assets to provide the training and wider commitment, and these arent always available. Paradoxically, maintenance of underused facilities raises more questions about long term commitment than no facilities at all.

    3. India and China are all that really matter though! And while neither has opened any naval stations 'abroad' yet (bar India's small site in Madagascar) and China's strengthening of its footprint in the South China Sea, many scholars have looked to the growing debate in both countries as to the need for each to identify and develop such facilities in the longer term. India is enhancing its naval bases, both on its eastern and western coasts, as well as on the Andaman Islands. Both Beijing and New Delhi have also sought berthing rights with many regional countries. South Korea is building new bases, both on Jeju-do and Ulleungdo (on its own territories, but with strategic significance). Japan recently opened a small facility in Djibouti to fight piracy – its first overseas site since the end of the Second World War.

      I did say while Western countries 'contemplate' going home. This sentiment is growing in Europe at the moment, as the means to project power outwards are slashed back in many nations, while they seem to be growing elsewhere...

  7. I personally feel there should be a re-engagement with the East--South East Asia. The dynamics of Iraq and Afghanistan have literally stopped all RN deployment properly "East of Suez"--meaning the Pacific Ocean, not the Arabian Gulf. There's little argument that it is too far away given the fuelling facilities in Singapore and the presence of the RAN around. I'm not suggesting a permanent deployment but more regular ship visits for exercises and to conduct counter-piracy ops there.

    1. How the UK benefit by deploying military assets to the Pacific Ocean? The American's are already pivoting their focus onto the region, it would be far more useful for us to start looking as where and how we can plug the inevitable gaps which will emerge as a result of their scaling down of commitments in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Middle East.

      At the very most I think UK attention East of Suez and the Gulf aside should be towards our continuing Five Power obligations and seeking greater cooperation with India as a bulwark against possible Chinese expansion in the area.

    2. I specifically said Southeast Asian countries. I didn't say the entire Pacific, but mind you, who says that should be only America's backyard? Was there a legal document saying, Americans take the Pacific, Brits only up to the Gulf?

    3. I think the UK contributing ISR assets to the Five Power organization would be a good positive move. Perhaps a SSN on station, a few Surveillance Frigates, increased satellite coverage and long range UAVs would be mean the UK could gave presence and offer high end capabilities in a non aggressive way.


    4. @Jeneral28

      'The dynamics of Iraq and Afghanistan have literally stopped all RN deployment properly "East of Suez"--meaning the Pacific Ocean'

      If you make statements of opinion that include the words Pacific Ocean then I'm afraid confusion is likely!

      No their is no legal document saying where the UK should focus it's attention, but doesn't it stand to reason that broader western security will benefit more from the UK filling the gaps left by an American pivot to the Far East than by doubling up on resources in one area and leaving others lacking?

      Besides, it's about time the larger European powers started to take on more of the burden for our own regional security, principally in the Mediterranean backyard and in the Red Sea and Gulf through which a lot of our energy passes.

      I'm all for continuing our Five Powers relationship through diplomacy and training, but I can't see how sending sizeable amounts of our increasingly limited resources into area where current and future superpowers are flexing their muscles can be beneficial?

    5. You have your limited view that the RN should only stop at one area.

      Did I say whole of the Pacific?!!!

    6. No not stop at one area, just focus on the certain regions where their is a clear strategic benefit from having a higher presence.

      The Mediterranean is our backyard and should be monitored and engaged by predominately European forces as a result. The Gulf and Red Sea are choke points through which plenty of our trade (including of course the all important oil) currently flows and deserve an active and sizeable presence to make sure the flow continues uninterrupted.

      Similarly a case could be made for increased cooperation with India as an emerging power which could counter any potential Chinese expansionism and attempts to get a blue water capability into the Indian Ocean.

      In comparison the American's are increasingly focusing on S.E Asia and the Pacific. They are for example going to deploy 4 Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore, so I fail to understand what impact the UK deploying one or two frigates to the same area would have? Better to deploy assets to the areas where western (specifically American) hard power is waning as opposed to doubling up and making a far smaller impact in the Far East.

      But hey, we can agree to disagree!

  8. James Rogers - "Getting involved in other people's domestic politics is a fact of life for a major power like the United Kingdom" - where do you get the idea from that we are a "major" power ?

    Successive governments have reduced our armed forces to such a state that we can't defend the UK without help from our allies.

    It irritates me to continually read here about the paper dreams of our civil servants and politicians.

    Why can't you realise that we are a third rate military power and which is as Thompsons Cat was once described "All wind and p***"

    1. Do you think there's a quadrillion dollar budget every year to sustain an American or Imperial sized Armed Forces?

    2. Ianeon
      We're never going to agree on this, but ultimately I completely disagree with your view of the UK as a third rate military power. Its an easy phrase to throw around without defining, but to my mind, a third rate power is one unable to do anything beyond the token trip to sea, and maybe scratch together a tiny number of troops.
      The reason the UK continues to matter is exactly because its military remains in the top tier of capability and not statistics. Everytime I see someone say 'we can't do XYZ', my response is to ask 'well who can then'? At this point things go very quiet.
      Having spent years working with militaries across the planet, my clear view is that the UK is one of only a handful of countries capable of using their military in a meaningful context beyond national borders and in a way which matters. I'd include the US, the French (to a limited extent), and the Australians in the list, and to a very limited extent the Russians too.
      Other nations may have large forces, but they cant go anywhere, they cant be supported and they cant actually deploy them to apply effect.
      The view we can't defend ourselves is a nonsensical one - I would simply ask who can invade the UK today and who poses an existential threat to our way of life?

    3. Ianeon

      There hasn't been a direct military threat to the UK for well over 20 years and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. We have a nuclear deterrent to deter surprise attack from a nuclear power (e.g. Russia or China) and I can't think of a non-nuclear power which would have any reason (or indeed the ability) to attack us.

      We aren't a third rate military power and our forces are strong enough to be able to defend the UK from any conceivable threat. A lot of what the conventional forces do is more geared to national interest defence rather than national defence in the form of limited power projection. This does not come cheap and we do not have the resources to continually act as deputy sheriff to the US.

      If huge amounts of money are spent on expensive kit which isn't actually needed for most operations and scenarios (e.g. CVF/F35) then we shouldn't be surprised when there are insufficient resources for the essentials.

    4. "Successive governments have reduced our armed forces to such a state that we can't defend the UK without help from our allies."

      Defend against what? As said above there are no non-nuclear powers that could conceivable attack the UK. If there was an existential threat to the UK then that is what Trident is for.
      I also seem to remember that throughout the Cold War when the RN was the third largest navy in the world and the RAF and army much larger than today we relied on our NATO allies to help defend the UK.

    5. Ianeon: Sir Humphrey is right. If the United Kingdom is a third-rate military power, as you put it, then most of the world's armed forces are sixth, seventh and eight raters. Aside the United States and France (maybe also Japan and Russia in a very regional context), there are very few countries with the same kind of power, respect or overseas presence.

      Besides, armed forces are not for 'defence'. They are for military 'engagement' with other countries, to keep them from going astray or from being 'engaged' by foreign powers with different agendas to our own. 'Defence' is an old-fashioned concept, which is largely alien to Britain. If a country is forced to defend itself, it has failed.

    6. Unless you have a magical super duper defence budget and borrow outsider your means like the US, then you can have an Imperial sized fleet that would be recruiting every 18 year old in to the RN--would you want to be forced to sign on? Do you guys really think the UK population is capable of sustaining a mega fleet? And the what? Cut the NHS? Cut Education? Oh right, cut development assistance which mind you, is being used to clear up the mess created in Afghanistan in the first place.

  9. "Humphrey has a certain pet hate on some internet sites, and this is the trend to ‘fantasy fleet’ creation." - Couldn't agree more. Mine currently stands at 82 btw.

    But isn't "engagement" precisely what Future Force 2020 is looking towards, especially as regards the army in Africa, for example? So what do you do when a country you are trying to forge closer ties with asks you to station forces in their country?

    1. Wiseape
      To my mind there is a difference between engagement - e.g. short term training teams, discrete on the ground presence and an ability to walk away easily and a permanent operational footprint. I would view the latter as being a Cyprus style commitment.
      My take would be that many nations want us to train with them, but I'm not so sure there is a desire for a permanent UK military presence on the ground, nor is there a UK desire to do so either.

  10. hello great post sir h your blogs are one of my favourites!
    I have a (sort of) relevant question. People talk about the decline in our navy's size over the past 30 or so years and the fact that's the same thing has pretty much happened everywhere else, how does the royal navy relatively compare to its foreign counterparts? my guess is that's it pretty much in the same position as its always been. (not taking into account how advanced our naval force actually is.)

    1. Compared to which counterpart? Definitely small compared to the US. Compared to the French, less number of ships, but RN is more advanced in certain areas. Compared say to Singapore's RSN? Well, almost an even match, except that country has diesel subs.

    2. what I mean is, is the position the royal navy now pretty much where it was 30 years ago as those other forces have gone through similar reductions. Does the relative size of the royal navy just reflect the strategic environment the world finds itself in? perhaps my point is we all obsess about its size perhaps we should look more into its actual force structure and how it fits (or doesn't)what the nation requires of it.

    3. Short answer no it does not. Long answer, possible, if you concerntrate the RN in only a few areas--which is a silly and risky move.

      Don't tell me you don't know this.

    4. I do. but im open to others opinion. it breeds healthy debate which I enjoy. I do believe that we can be overly negative about the relative health of our armed forces but I also realise that that it isn't all chocolate and roses as well.

    5. Jeneral28

      The RSN is not in remotely the same league as the RN. It is a modest coastal force with a few patrol frigates, corvettes and SSKs. No AAW destroyers, no proper ASW frigates, no SSNs and no replenishment fleet. Maybe 20-25% of the capability of the RN on paper, more like 10-15% in reality.

    6. The RSN is technologically strong. It is not a "few"--have you counted the number of ships in the RSN? And the stealthy-ness of the Formidable Class Frigates?

  11. OMG, this "Author" is he real?, not going to write a 10k thesis on this, but this "Expert" thinks he can command a fleet in operation by email.

    We can sleep safe tonight. x

    1. And what are you? Some one with even more armchair criticisms?

    2. Before the Telegraph, wars were started, fought and over, before HMG learned of them, now, a warship could maintain video chat with the PM during a war.

  12. Sir H
    "but ultimately I completely disagree with your view of the UK as a third rate military power. Its an easy phrase to throw around without defining, but to my mind, a third rate power is one unable to do anything beyond the token trip to sea, and maybe scratch together a tiny number of troops. "

    "Everytime I see someone say 'we can't do XYZ', my response is to ask 'well who can then'? At this point things go very quiet."

    I do wish that wasnt how you defined it, because thats us.
    Keeping ten thousand personnel in Afghanistan has taken everything the Armed forces have and has ruined CapEx during that time.
    China or India could keep ten million in Afghanistan without breaking a sweat.
    India is openly debating doing so!

    A token voyage to sea?
    Like a deployment of three mine hunters to the middle east?
    Or a single submarine to the Indian Ocean?
    Or a single Amphib?

    Ok, its better than a single ship spending three days at sea, but other nations can deploy a single submarine in the the indian ocean, and some of them can deploy half a dozen, and they dont do it once for three months, they do it every day.

    The UK could just about get 5000 men to Syria, if we could deploy every fleet asset to move them, and provide air support from Cyprus.
    Hezbollah has 5000 men in Syria.
    We can match Hezbollah. Thats the extent of UK capabilities.

    Third Rate?
    Thats more like sixth.

    1. TRT - the sort of defeatist rubbish that you spout about how dreadful we are is exactly the sort of thing that inspired me to start this blog in the first place.
      You seem to genuinely believe that somehow the UK is an insignificant power, and cite lots of very odd examples - the idea of China or India having 10 million troops to deploy is interesting, and a capability that may come as a surprise to both the Chinese and Indian Governments.

      You seem to utterly fail to understand the difference between token deployments, and sustained effective presence - some navies can do the odd out of area deployment, and it takes most of their resources, support abilities and logistics train to do this. I would consider most non coastal NATO and Asian navies in this category. Many nations struggle to put a ship to sea and keep it at sea for more than a day or two, or to leave coastal waters- I would include most African and bizarrely Gulf states (primarily due to their reluctance to remain at sea overnight) in this category.

      The fact is that the RN does daily what most nations can only dream of doing - it keeps ships on station across multiple oceans - not just a once in a generation 'show the flag' but a sustained operational presence. There is an SSN permanently east of suez - how many nations can permanently deploy a submarine, let alone a nuclear submarine several thousand miles from home, and keep it there on task? How many nations today in the Asia Pacific region keep vessels operating permanently in the Med or Atlantic - the answer is none.
      the presence of the 4 MCMVs in the Gulf is actually incredibly valuable - its a capability that could prove incredibly vital in certain circumstances, and more importantly is something that most nations in the region cannot do. Similarly, deploying at a distance for sustained operations is bloody hard work - anyone can try a short cruise with a training ship, but operating for years at a time is a very different matter and requires massive investment in some very 'unsexy' areas like logistics.

      The problem TRT has is that they are looking at numbers, and assuming that numbers equals capability. The reality is that most navies are nowhere near the sum of their hulls when it comes to being able to operate effectively, let alone at distance. There is a vast variety of factors that impact on this.

      The simple question to ask is how many nations today have got ships deployed in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Med, South Atlantic, Red Sea, Gulf, Indian Ocean and have a presence en route to the Pacific. The answer is two - the USN and the RN. No other nation on earth has this ability.

      Brits love to slag off the UK and make out that somehow it is an utterly irrelevant nation. My own personal experience is that professionals outside of the UK tend to regard the ability of the British Military to sustain global deployments, and engage in high intensity combat operations as well as contingency planning on a small force size as nothing short of inspirational. We may do ourselves down, but plenty of other nations look up and regard us as a good example of what to aspire to.

    2. You are *still* missing the point.
      "There is an SSN permanently east of suez - how many nations can permanently deploy a submarine, let alone a nuclear submarine several thousand miles from home, and keep it there on task?"

      THEY dont have to deploy several thousands of miles from home, THEY can sit in their home waters and throw every ship they have at our tiny intervention force.

      That we can deploy more ships further than China is not the point. All that matters is who can deploy a better force to China, and it sure as shit isnt us.

      "the presence of the 4 MCMVs in the Gulf is actually incredibly valuable - its a capability that could prove incredibly vital in certain circumstances,"
      One where the enemy laying mines makes no effort to hunt down mine hunters?

      "The simple question to ask is how many nations today have got ships deployed in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Med, South Atlantic, Red Sea, Gulf, Indian Ocean and have a presence en route to the Pacific. The answer is two - the USN and the RN. No other nation on earth has this ability."
      A simple question.
      Who cares?
      In what way does that matter?

      A war between the UK and a partner to be named later is not going to be fought 3000 miles from each others homes. It will be fought 60 miles from theirs and 6000 from ours.
      I dont know how to make that any clearer.

      Prattling on about the fact that no one else can deploy a brigade around the world is irrelevant because no one else needs to or wants to. Our Brigade around the world will be against a Corps deploying around the corner, and it will lose.

      That Hezbollah can deploy more forces in to Syria than us is more than ample proof of this.

    3. TRT - I simply don't have the time or willpower required to try and understand what it is you are typing about. I am afraid your arguments make absolutely no sense to me, and seem very contradictory at times.

  13. Deep breath.

    When the UK invaded Iraq, the UKs armed forces were operating thousands of miles from their home base. Iraqs forces were operating dozens of miles from theirs.

    When the UK fought Argentina, Argentina was operating 300miles from their home barracks, the UK forces were operating 6000 miles from theirs.

    If the UK fights a war against South Africa, its unlikely to fight it in micronesia.
    So the ability of the UK to project power over longer distances than South Africa is of no consequence.

    We need to be able to project more power in to the enemies front yard than they can, and a couple of ships is not going to cut it.

    I dont get whats difficult to understand,

  14. In your very argument TnT you are advocating that the RN and by extention the British armed forces have a global role. In daming britsh capability yiu are actually highlighting our expeditionary capabilities.
    If i understand correctly, the point you are making is that in doing so our forces are over stretched and are of little more than token value.
    I disagree with this point, as in the atlantic we are a reassuring presence to our overseas territories. In the south atlantic we maintain, in my opinion a deterrence force that i more than adequate. In the gulf you mention that 4 minesweepers couldnt act without threat and you are corrct but to that end we have a type 45/23 warship in the region at all times aswell, would that ships aims not be to defend our flotilla of minesweepers? With the potential for flight of typhoon from either akrotiri or our newly established bases in the gulf. Moreover in the coming months the RN will have a nuclear sub a rfa ship and a type 45 stationed east of suez in the indian ocean/pacific to pass that capability off as a token force is to not fully understand the value of its ability to enhance the RN reputation around the world. In terms of co operation with that regions naval forces. And indeed to be honest, no that force would not terminate south east asias naval power. Would it act as a deterrent and a support for USN and aus naval forces then yes it believe it would.

    Excellent blog,
    Cheers, Sellers

    1. Sellers
      "If i understand correctly, the point you are making is that in doing so our forces are over stretched and are of little more than token value."
      Pretty much.

      "I disagree with this point, as in the atlantic we are a reassuring presence to our overseas territories. In the south atlantic we maintain, in my opinion a deterrence force that i more than adequate."
      Adequate against what?
      A T45 has ZERO anti surface or anti submarine capability.
      Its only adequate in that there is no threat to deter.

      "In the gulf you mention that 4 minesweepers couldnt act without threat and you are correct but to that end we have a type 45/23 warship in the region at all times aswell, would that ships aims not be to defend our flotilla of minesweepers?"
      It might aim to, but could it?
      Against a dozen of Irans fast missile boats?

      "to pass that capability off as a token force is to not fully understand the value of its ability to enhance the RN reputation around the world"
      Force Z was justified under much the same terms.
      The reality is its a tiny force that either runs or dies.

      I just dont get it, do you think the UK would be cowed by a submarine, two escorts and stores ship operating near us?
      We could sink it without thought.
      So why do you think anyone else will be?

  15. The deterence force is adequate against a under funded and delapidated argentine armed forces. It is my understanding that the t45s will get the harpoon anti ship missile from the retired t22s. And in the gulf would be very unlikely to be taking on fast iranian patrol boats without the support of the US or even the French. We are a major actor in the gulf region and this is likely to grow if you have read the latest report from rusi regarding british strategic interests east of suez. Finally, if a similiar force was in the north sea, then of course we could overcome them. However, would it make up sit up and take notice then yes it would, as can be seen last year when the russian carrier came close to british waters. Was that a realistic threat? No. But capabilities such as the RN possess being deployed to nearly every ocean on the planet, does still show we have capabilities that only a few nations possess. Would i like more capability? Of course. However, maintaining the current surface fleet, possibly supplemented by an order for additional patril craft similar to hms clyde could act as force multiplyers and allow us to deploy our more advanced ships to regions in our interest....he says dreaming out loud...

    Apologies for any typos, im on my phone.

    Cheers sellers