Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What is the role of the Royal Navy?

Now that's a dreadful question for an ex-matelot to be asking. Actually, it was worse earlier, it was going to be "What is the point ..." or "W(h)ither the Royal Navy". Dan, Alex and I have been having some discussion about what to do to improve UK Defence in general and the Army in particular, and I was poked into providing some view on the RN. I suspect you will be able to see the results on Dan's site at some point in the near future.

In a time where we have an Admiral appointed to the Home Office[1], apparently in charge of Security (although both his official bio and the Cabinet Office site on Ministerial portfolios are currently rather light on his actual responsiblities, it is probably time to readdress what the Navy does and should do (the two not being desperately strongly linked) for this country.

Now, the RN has a few issues at the moment - and has had others for some time. We are involved in two major conflicts minor peace-keeping operations, one of which is wholly inland and the other only (now, 'though I will cover trade and blockade a bit later) only peripherally involves them and not, it must be said, always to their benefit.

The RN, as it was a few years ago, was constructed (mostly) for the purpose of being a small part (although the second largets) of the fleet ensuring that the Reforger convoys would (mostly) reach Europe intact, in the event of a Warsaw Pact / NATO war across the Inner German Border. This is clearly, now, redundant, but with a warship life cycle of some 40+ years (initial design through to razor-blading of last of class), we still have a lot of that kit around. Our job was submarine hunting and our attack subs, including the new Astute Class, the Invincible class aircraft carriers "Through Deck Cruisers" fly-boys cocktail party venues, the Type 23 frigate (and the remaining Batch 3 22s) all come from that era. And the Type 42 and new Type 45 destroyers (destroyer, in modern parlance = "air defence") are there to protect these (possibly) fit-for-their-original-purpose-but-what-do-we-use-them-for-now ships.

So, what else does the RN do - well, actually, lots. Most of it important (although you may disagree on how much should be done by a military service). We provide the UK independent (and it is, unless we have a long-term break down of relations with the chimp's successors in interest) deterrent patrol, humanitarian aid throughout the world, power projection for UK interests (both national, protectorate and other - WIGS, the "West Indies Guardship" is a nice cruise though is regularly involved in serious aid work), the best maritime charting service in the world, aid to customs both in UK and international waters, and the floating (and Royal Marine) bits of the UK amphibious warfare capability. We generally just don't do it with kit properly designed for the various purposes (although, on the amphib side, at least, we seem to be getting there. It has also been nice to see the 4th manouevre unit for 3 Commando Brigade, though what 1 RIFLES would think if we actually sent them to see would probably not be too nice.)

So, what should we be doing? I have discussed this before. The first thing that needs to happen is that the Government need to come clean and set down a proper requirement for what they want the UK military, as a whole, to be able to achieve. Then they need to get the funding and the military procurement (and maintenance) systems sorted so that the necessary kit is available (due to major project life-cycles, this will take a ridiculous amount of time). Then they need to get recruiting and retention sorted so that we have the right people, properly trained and motivated (not worrying about the appalling accomodation their families are living in) to do the job - but that is all pan-defence. What about the Navy?

As I have said before, let's farm the budget (rather than the operation) of the deterrent out to a MOD-centre budget holder - say PUS or CDS. The order for launch already comes from the Prime Minister of the day rather than a military authority. Once we have that painful distortion of the naval budget cleared out, let's look at support for "Other Government Departments". Fishery Protection and support of HM Customs could go (or at least be paid for) by DEFRA and the Treasury.

What would that leave as core roles? Trade protection and embargo enforcement - you need ocean capable ships (but also small enough for operations in narrow-ish straits and coastal restricted waters) for this, but you don't need anti-ship or long-range anti-aircraft missiles. One of the problems in both Corporate / Falklands and Granby / 1st Gulf War was the relative paucity of gun armament on the newer ships. Littoral warfare - amphibous landing and landing support (including forward air power), as well as corvette-type patrol vessels. Anti-submarine - call me old fashioned but we are very good at this and it would be a shame to lose it. However, let's restrict it to our attack submarine capability, replacing the RAF's Nimbats with airframes that are younger than me, and some ASW capable aircraft for the new carriers. Mine hunting (and, as we keep picking on opponents with stocks of tethering mines, minesweeping) need to be brought back in to vogue. I would also retain the Hydrographic Office as an international centre of expertise - but that is probably another candidate for being transferred to an MOD-central budget.

What else do we need to sort. Well, naval procurement is a disaster. Not only is it subject to all the long term incompetence effecting large government projects (I am not sure that the MOD is much worse in general, say than, to pick one of many expensive disasters, the NHS IT Spin(e). However, the RN has problems that don't appear to effect the Army or, as much, the RAF. Ships need to be replaced, every 30 - 35 years: of the Type 22s, the first 2 of which were brand new for the Falklands, only the 4 Batch 3s are still in service. Therefore, they get sold off or razor-bladed and you rarely see much of the "we must keep" campaigning in the same way that the combining of the traditional Scottish regiments into the Royal Regiment of Scotland (regardless of the rights or wrongs of the actual decision) generated. This allows the politicians or the Treasury to salami slice the number of ships by cutting replacement programmes once the old ships. If we have a declared RN requirement, as part of the overall defence requirement, this will, at least, become public.

More later.


[1] - Are we going to be talking about "friends of Gordon" in the same dismissive way we learnt to talk about "friends of Tony", or, as AC Yates QPM might remark, in private of course, "the accused."

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