The excellent website ‘Save the Royal Navy’, which has done a superb job over many years of raising issues with the RN today, recently put out some analysis looking at fleet escort availability (ARTICLE HERE). The article was picked up on twitter, and got quite a few comments by people who seemed to not understand why only 6 RN escorts were available for sea right now from a force of 19 hulls. To Humphrey, there are a number of issues coming out of this article and the twitter response which are worth further comment.
Firstly, the traditional metric of how a Navy can deploy is that it requires a roughly 3:1 ratio to sustain a vessel on a task indefinitely – in very rough terms this means that when a ship is deployed on OP KIPION, her successor is nominated and working up through to being on passage to join her (e.g. HMS DARING saw HMS MONMOUTH sail sometime before being relieved). At least one more ship is going to be somewhere in the refit system requiring essential maintenance, upkeep and life extension work too. This 3:1 ratio is something which can be broken, and availability can vary over time – but as a general rule if you want to keep a ship on task for the long haul, you’ll need three ships to do this.
In the case of the current RN, the force of 19 hulls is actually 17, with two in long term ‘harbour training ship’ (NOT reserve which has a specific and different meaning) roles to save on manpower levels. This means the RN is sweating its assets incredibly hard to keep ships on task for the long haul – particularly at a point when the T23 fleet is starting to show its age, and also go through a complex Mid Life Update process – at its simplest, ships designed for 18 years of life will be nearly 40 before they leave service, and its showing.
But, the risk is that in looking at the headline figure of ‘only’ 6 escorts, we lose the ability to explain that this is actually pretty good by any navies standards. If you look at the worlds navies right now, there are very few which are able to deploy and sustain more than one or two ships at distance from home – the USN, occasionally the French and Russians and that’s about it. Others can do some quite impressive training deployments, more for showing the flag than delivering effect. Other navies may deploy escorts, but to do so occupies a big chunk of their naval training and output for the year to deliver this, at the hidden cost of keeping other ships alongside.
Don’t make the lethal mistake of assuming that because the RN ‘only’ has 6 ships out there that every other navy is laughing at it. In fact the RNs ability to sweat its force so hard remains a real point of awe for other nations, who are amazed at how much the RN can do at one time.
The challenge is communicating this to an increasingly seablind nation that thinks the Navy only has six ships out there. Trying to explain the escort force is but one of many aspects of the RN, that many other ships are deployed too, and that keeping 6 ships on task (one third of the escort force) on a sustained 24/7 basis is a genuinely impressive ability most countries cannot do. That by the way is before you look at the SSBN deployments, the OPVs, the Survey Ships etc. What the RN is perhaps not able to communicate in a way that the public will get is that every single day of the year, the UK has more ships outside its home waters doing operational stuff than just about any other country on the planet other than the US.
This leads to well intentioned but ultimately misguided calls for more ships and to grow the Navy to do more. The problem though isn’t one of ships, but of people. To keep the fleet deployed and doing the job it has to do, the RN has to ask a great deal of its people. The challenge is keeping the right mixture of people in the right posts at the right time to be usable – this is not as easy as it sounds.
There is a clear recognition that the current manpower total of roughly 30,000 is too small – and the RN is slowly growing, but it takes time to get people into the right level of trained posts to be of value.
Even if HMS RALEIGH took 10,000 people tomorrow, it would still be 10-20 years depending on role before these keen recruits could generate experienced senior rates with the right mix of training and expertise in the numbers required. You could skip training or accelerate promotion, but this does pose a risk too.
Its often forgotten that the RN of today is still living daily with the effects of the manning ‘black hole’ caused by the recruiting taps being turned off in the early 1990s and an entire generation was never recruited. To add more ships would only make the problem worse right now. Instead what is needed is a two-step approach – firstly a lot of hands on management and moving people around to keep ships on task and at sea (and this in turn causes retention issues when a Friday pierhead jump occurs). Secondly, more people are needed to fill extant gaps and help the RN keep going for the long term – but this will take some years to deliver.
Interestingly during the election, the commitment to service manpower was a headline figure of not cutting total manpower, not an explicit commitment to keep the Army at 82000 (arguably still a lot more than is actually required if you listen to many commentators). So, its possible that over time you will see service manpower adjustments, with the Army being reduced in order to increase the RAF and RN by the same amount.
The other challenge is to ensure that people understand just how small the RN is, and how tiny some of its branches are. There are numerous ‘pinch points’ out there for personnel who cannot easily be filled – for instance, the surface fleet may have roughly 15000 sailors in theory, but this is not a block of people who can do each others jobs. What it actually has is several smaller branches of people in roles from warfare to engineering to logistics, and which take many years to learn to do well.
So, when you see suggestions that the RN could solve its manning problems by not manning a carrier or moving people round, remember that the manning gap doesn’t mean there is an exact total of two or three ships companies out there in the right ranks/rates ready to go to sea. It means there are a lot of people in different roles, with different experience but you can’t easily pull them together to form a ships company. Over the next few years the challenge is going to be managing the manpower pool and keeping the right talent in the right places at the right time to keep the RN going, without breaking them in the process. This is not going to be easy.
So, Humphrey would say that yes, there is absolutely a case for a larger RN – and the Government itself recognises this with the Type 31 frigate and suggestion it will grow the escort fleet. But this will take time to build the ships, time to recruit and build the right manpower pools to man them. Patience is what is needed here, because there is no magic manpower tree you can shake to produce SQEP at no notice to do difficult jobs well.
Humphrey predicts a couple of things will happen over the summer – firstly people will see ships alongside for summer leave and there will be outrage at the RN not working, or not deploying. Secondly people will not understand that the RN has more than 6 ships at sea, that it’s a very busy navy and that its doing a damn sight better than its friends and others. If only we could focus on the positives, focus on the sense that the need to grow is accepted and recognised, and focus on the medium term, not doing ourselves down in the short term.
There are absolutely big challenges ahead, but Humphrey is utterly fed up of reading rubbish on twitter about how the RN is some kind of failure or national embarrassment for ‘only’ having X ships at sea. The UK is lucky enough to possess a phenomenal navy that is well funded, well equipped and highly capable at doing its job. Perhaps if we started recognising this rather than feeling like we’re a nation of failures more people would join and help solve some of the manpower challenges that it has right now?