By Chris Cope: Political Correspondent - Warship World
May I respond to the debate: How will the RN deploy a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) from its very limited resources?
Ideally, a CSG should comprise a carrier with an SSN, two destroyers, two frigates, a fleet tanker and a fleet solid support (FSS) ship. (Apologies for the USN image accompanying this article - but no RN image available)
On the principle of quarts/pint pots, a CSG with two destroyers and two frigates is frankly unachievable with only 19 in service and major questions arising out of the availability of the Type 45s. Indeed, we recently learnt that Dauntless will remain alongside at Portsmouth for another year, before she goes into refit. Lancaster, also alongside at Portsmouth, will not commence her refit until next summer.
So, realistically, the best that the Navy can do is to deploy one destroyer and one frigate with the new CSG.
Even that will mean that there will be fewer escorts available for other commitments. Accordingly, senior naval staff need to make it plain to the government that there are two priorities, namely a viable CSG and, secondly, the present commitments must be met and that there is no question of any of these commitments being downgraded or abandoned, in order to provide a destroyer and frigate to the CSG.
SDSR 2015 was introduced a year ago with announcements from politicians and admirals that we would be getting a bigger navy. We heard that from David Cameron, as Prime Minister, Sir Michael Fallon (Defence Secretary), Admiral Sir George Zambellas (First Sea Lord) and Admiral Sir Philip Jones (First Sea Lord Designate).
It was only later, as a result of questions and probing, that it emerged that this “bigger Navy” would not materialise until the 2030s. Frankly, for a government to talk about a bigger Navy materialising in 15 years’ time was wholly misleading and I find it deplorable that these four individuals made statements which clearly misled the House of Commons and the general public. The reason I say that is because no government can bind its successor. It can only bind itself. The present government will cease to exist in May 2020. There will then be two further governments in 2020-2025 and 2025-2030, before we even get to the 2030s. Anything can happen in the next decade. Would Prime Minister Corbyn expand the Navy?
This “bigger Navy” will, apparently, only be bigger in terms of increased numbers of Type 31 frigates/corvettes, of which five will be acquired to supplement the Type 26 frigates, to replace the Type 23s on a one-for-one basis. Any number in excess of five will not appear until the 2030s.
Admiral Jones should now make it clear to the Prime Minister that this is unacceptable and that there is an urgent operational requirement for the Type 31 to enter service in the early 2020s, at the same time as the Type 26 and that substantial numbers need to be built (clearly in excess of five) to enable the Navy to meet its commitments, some of which otherwise it may have to abandon, on the basis of providing escorts to the CSG.
If Admiral Jones manages to convince the government that the CSG needs two destroyers and two frigates, then he is going to need another 12 Type 31s in order to meet his other commitments.
The MoD has recently disclosed that the Type 23s will leave service on a yearly basis between 2023 and 2035. That seems to suggest just one frigate/corvette order and commissioning every year from the early 2020s, until the mid-2030s. Are they serious?
The SSN fleet is now down to six boats and that will continue for some considerable time until number 7 is commissioned sometime in the mid-2020s. It has been government policy for at least the last ten years that the SSN fleet should be confined to just seven boats. I find it extraordinary that the senior naval staff has allowed successive governments to maintain that figure, bearing in mind that that number has always been too low in order to meet existing commitments. The position becomes that much worse with the introduction of the CSG, which must have at least one SSN, when deploying.
That alone should have convinced our politicians that the SSN fleet, as planned, would be inadequate and that numbers should be increased by perhaps two or three, in order to ensure that the CSG is viable. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed and we are now stuck with just seven, with virtually no chance of an increase in numbers, now that the Trident Successor programme is to proceed and which by the mid-2020s, will monopolise all construction work at BAE Systems (Barrow) until the 2030s.
The construction of the Astute class has been painfully slow. The construction period of Astute, Ambush and Artful was 106, 110 and 125 months respectively. Compare that with Torbay, Trenchant, Talent and Triumph (average of 64-68 months). The USN Virginia class is being construction at astonishing speed, albeit through two shipyards. BAE Systems could have accelerated the Astute programme (subject to Treasury approval) and it would have been possible to squeeze another two boats into the schedule by 2025. But it’s now too late.
It seems to me therefore that the Navy will simply have to make do with what it’s got and if it means that an SSN has to be deployed with the CSG, removing a capability from another area, so be it.
The position with regard to fleet tankers is secure. We already have two in service. The new fleet tankers to be delivered from South Korea will all be in service by the end of 2018. These six will ensure that there will always be a tanker available for the CSG. I see no problem in that area.
The real problem with regard to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is in connection with the Fleet Solid Support ships (FSS).
The MoD is taking a far too leisurely approach with regard to the design and construction of these ships and indeed all the indications are that the first of class will not enter service until 2025, long after QE herself has been commissioned. Unless this programme is accelerated (which clearly it should be), the CSG will have to rely upon ancient FSS ships which will have to continue in service, well beyond their planned decommissioning dates.
The senior naval staff must make it clear to the government that the FSS programme has to be accelerated. It may well be that there will be no choice other than to use the South Koreans for the construction of these ships and, if so, the order should follow on from the fleet tankers. We need to be getting the first FSS into service at about the same time as POW is commissioned.
The government seems to be locked into an inflexible mind-set with regard to defence reviews. Twice now, we have had defence reviews within months of the new government taking office and on both occasions, the reviews were carried out hurriedly and without sufficient thought. Let us hope that this does not become a trend to be repeated in 2020, 2025 and 2030.
Earlier this year, a Conservative backbencher asked Cameron, when he was Prime Minister, whether in view of the deteriorating world situation, the defence review could be carried out other than once every five years. Cameron dismissed this out of hand. This was a ridiculous decision.
The world situation does not change once every five years. It changes on a daily basis and governments must be receptive to this and look closely at their defence priorities, in order to decide whether these should be changed. Indeed, matters need to be kept under review all the time. It makes sense for changes to be introduced, when required and not once every five years. Let us hope that Mrs May takes a rather more serious approach to the problem. Nevertheless, it is essential that CDS convinces her that Cameron’s approach was wrong and that changes be implemented when urgent.
This would enable Admiral Jones to introduce changes to SDSR 2015 during his term of office.
What particularly appals me about this mess is that for the last 18 years, we have been planning the introduction into service of two carriers, both of considerable size and with substantial air wings and yet at the same time, no one seems to have given any thought at all as to how a CSG would be assembled on the basis of the limited resources available in respect of SSNs, destroyers and frigates. You do not acquire a mansion, unless you have the resources to pay for the staff to maintain and run the property. But, that is precisely what we are doing with the new carriers.