Continuing from Part II which was published yesterday:

Many of these issues have been compounded by poorly judged procurement of new equipment, cost overruns, and engineering issues that have seen some of the RN’s newest vessels laid up for significant works, including propulsion issues with the in-service Type 45 Destroyers, and electrical and build issues with the latest class of patrol vessels.

The introduction of any new technology can be troublesome, however, many of the current issues with the Type 45s could have been avoided had the then Labour Government listened to the builders, BAE Systems, and opted for a tried and tested propulsion system, rather than a ‘revolutionary,’ yet unproven Rolls-Royce supplied gas turbine design.

A design flaw with the Northrop Grumman intercooler system has on occasion left ships with no source of power or propulsion, especially when operating in warm climates. This has meant ships that should be out on-patrol are missing engagements, due to being in harbour undergoing expensive overhauls under the Type 45 Power Improvement Project (PIP).

The number of replacement vessels is also becoming a significant issue. In recent years, the Royal Navy has acquired just six new Type 45s, to do the work of the twelve Type 42 destroyers it replaces, and it is the same story with new submarines. Just seven new Astute-class attack submarines have been ordered to replace twelve outgoing Swiftsure and Trafalgar-class subs. While both the Type 45’s and Astute class submarines are bigger and pack more firepower than their predecessors, there just aren’t enough of them to cover all the areas or tasks undertaken by the older vessels.

However, ships are only as good as the crew, and it is with personnel numbers where the RN is struggling. As of Jan 2018, the Royal Navy was approximately 2,000 sailors short of its target 31,000 personnel. Retention of experience personnel is now under such strain that a senior Royal Navy insider is quoted as saying the navy, “is diabolically short of senior rate engineers.” The same source continued, “they can’t retain or train the replacements fast enough to stop the shortages.” According to Labour peer and former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, the problem stems simply from the move to axe 4,000 sailors under the SDSR 2010.

In fact, the pressures have become so great regarding manning, ships such as HMS Dauntless, one of only six Type 45 destroyers, have been laid up to have their crews dispersed to other vessels.

Further blows to the Royal Navy’s capability are still in the pipeline. Reports leaked late last year suggest that a further 2,000 Royal Marines out of a total force of 6,600 may be axed, together with the Royal Navy’s two amphibious assault ships.

The proposed cuts come on top of the consolidation or closure of several major Royal Marine bases including the Royal Citadel in Plymouth.

While the leak led to an angry backlash from MPs, who stated the Royal Marines, “risks being sacrificed to short-term Treasury book-keeping;” the pressures of finding experienced crew for the two new aircraft carriers and filling the £20 billion ‘black hole’ in the defence budget could prove too great an opportunity for the Treasury not to wield the knife.

Speaking of the cuts, General Julian Thompson, who led 3 Commando Royal Marines during the Falklands War, warned, “these plans will spell the end of the Royal Marines as we know them. The days of D-Day scale amphibious landings may be over, but the days of landing against an enemy that is going to fight you on the beach aren’t.”

Military insiders have also warned that any further cuts to the Royal Marines could have a dramatic effect on recruitment into the UK’s Special Forces, 40% of whom are taken from the ranks of the Marines.

Clipped wings

While the Government has made a great deal of noise regarding the purchase of new equipment for the Royal Air Force (RAF), such as an order for nine new Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the introduction of the F35B Lightning II in 2020; things are far from well.

As with both the British Army and Royal Navy, the RAF is currently running at least a 5% deficit in personnel and struggling to recruit replacements for experienced people leaving the service, with recruitment figures down 1% or the past year.

Under the SDSR 2010, the RAF also suffered huge losses in capability, most notably with the retirement of its entire Harrier ground attack force; and the loss of its maritime patrol BAE Nimrod aircraft; the closure of RAF Kinloss and a manpower reduction of 5,000 personnel.

The RAF has also seen much of its pilot training capability removed from the Force’s control and outsourced to a consortium headed by Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of the F35B) and Babcock International, under a 25-year, £1.1 billion Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

While the capability of the RAF was stricken by the SDSR 2010, the Government’s latest review, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015, appeared to be a victory for the RAF, at least on paper.

Under the SDSR 2015, the government pledged to continue with the purchase of 138 F-35 ‘Lightning’ multi-role fighter aircraft, albeit the first 48 at least being of the short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant (F-35B) rather than the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant (F-35A) that the RAF would have preferred.

The government also decided to retain the first tranche of Eurofighter Typhoons in service which will allow the RAF to form two additional squadrons. Added to this was the acquisition of at least twenty new unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), nine Boeing P-9A maritime patrol aircraft, three more Shadow R1 surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and the retention of fourteen C-130J-30 tactical transport aircraft.

To support this, the RAF was allowed a very modest increment in its personnel numbers. However, many of these posts are still to be filled, and with the lead time on new aircraft in some cases running to years, the RAF will still suffer large gaps in capability for many years to come.

Pressures on personnel also mean the RAF is now looking to retire its long-serving Panavia Tornado GR4 bomber force to redeploy personnel in other areas, despite the Phase 3 Typhoon (ground attack) aircraft not yet being available. Years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have also left their mark on the serviceability of existing platforms. This was highlighted by the recent grounding of the RAF’s E3A Sentry AWACS aircraft following electrical problems across the platform.

The future is also not bright for several existing platforms and services that were thought to be safe after the SDSR 2015, including the RAF Regiment, the R1 Sentinel intelligence-gathering platform that was initially protected, together with the world famous Red Arrow Display Team.

Budget pressures and the fluctuation in the exchange rate may mean the R1 Sentinel fleet is once again facing cuts, despite the often touted £178 billion equipment plan for the armed forces, while RAF Regiment is suffering from the same manpower stresses said to be behind the push for the retirement of the Tornado force.

The downward trend in aircraft and personnel led defence analysis group, IHS Jane’s to warn that the RAF could be left with only 127 combat jets by the end of the decade as the 87 Tornados are retired; while the Phase 3 Typhoons will not be in service until 2019 and the F35 will not be in full service until 2023. This scenario would leave the RAF with its fewest number of fighter planes since 1918.

The concluding Part IV will be published here tomorrow.


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