The intelligent blog on defence issues, providing high quality and objective analysis on UK Defence Policy, military affairs and wider global security matters.
The author does not work for, and is not employed by the UK Ministry of Defence or the British Armed Forces.
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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