On Troubled Waters

The British Royal Navy has an illustrious, centuries-old history, but in the last decade, Britain's command of the sea has failed to remain relevant. Special review

Photo: AP

Last Christmas was extremely busy along the maritime routes near the British Isles, with traffic including at least four Russian naval vessels. One of those vessels was the new Russian frigate, Admiral Gorshkov that cruised the North Sea near British territorial waters as part of its sea trials, in preparation for its commissioning into operational service.

In line with standard operating procedures, the British Navy frigate HMS St. Albans, with a crew of 190, scrambled from its home port of Portsmouth toward the Russian vessel and escorted it until was safely away. "Missing parts of Christmas and New Year with our families is never easy, but it is absolutely required as part of our duty to keep Britain safe all year round," said Commander Chris Ansell, captain of HMS St. Albans.

The passage of the Russian vessel helped the British Royal Navy to dull slightly one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of the naval force that recorded some of the greatest naval battles in history, like the victory over the French Navy in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Apparently, for the first time in history, no active British warship was on operational assignment, anywhere around the globe, during Christmas. All 19 frigates and destroyers were to remain at their home ports in Portsmouth and Davenport, owing to technical problems, routine maintenance or crew leaves. In fact, HMS St. Albans was the only frigate still on operational alert to defend Britain's territorial waters.

A Spokesman for the British Navy hastened to declare that the Royal Navy was "deployed globally on operations and will be protecting our national interests," but former senior officers of the Royal Navy failed to conceal their displeasure with that negative historic moment. "Our defense forces are absolutely on the edge," said Lord West, formerly First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff. Vice-Admiral John McAnally, National President of the Royal Naval Association, said that the incident indicated the fleet is too small. "I am distressed and alarmed. I do not see that it is easily remedied," he added.

Britain on the Map

Twelve months earlier, on January 1, 2017, British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon declared that 2017 would be "The Year of the Royal Navy." "2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain's influence globally and delivering security at home," said Fallon, who promised to invest "billions" in the Royal Navy "for the first time in a generation."

The new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth should constitute the spearhead of the "new era." This vessel is the largest carrier in British Navy history and the first of a new generation of British aircraft carriers, after a period, since 2014, during which the Royal Navy did not employ any aircraft carriers. The HMS Queen Elizabeth, built at a cost of 3.1 billion pounds over more than eight years, was commissioned into the Royal Navy fleet at a festive ceremony attended by members of the royal family on December 7, 2017. In her address, the Queen proclaimed that the ship was "the most powerful and capable ship ever to raise the White Ensign" (the color of the Royal Navy).

"The Queen Elizabeth (QE) Class have a huge potential to put the UK and Royal Navy (RN) back on the big stage. Not many nations can achieve the complex build of aircraft carriers, let alone fund them either in build or operationally," says Seb Haggart, a former Royal Navy man and a current analyst and commentator on naval affairs in an interview to Israel Defense. "The QE class and the global sight of them leading powerful task groups will be at the forefront of what the RN does for many years to come if the government let them."

The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth that, among other things, would carry F-35 stealth fighters on board is still undergoing sea trials and should enter operational service only at the outset of the next decade, provided no delays are encountered.

At the Spearhead?

Meanwhile, even the prestige emanating from HMS Queen Elizabeth, even before it has become the official projector of the Royal Navy's power, cannot hide the problems plaguing the Royal Navy. According to official data published last June, the vessel complement of the fleet suffered a 60% cut compared to the state at the end of the Cold War, close to three decades ago. In 1990, the Royal Navy fleet consisted of 138 surface vessels, including two aircraft carriers, plus 33 submarines, but in April 2013, the numbers were 66 surface vessels plus 11 submarines.

The main reason for the sharp decrease in the number of vessels is not just the geo-strategic change pursuant to the collapse of the USSR, as the conflicts in Afghanistan and in Iraq proved the need for a long operational arm, but mainly budget-related considerations stemming from the economic crisis in the end of the last decade. In 2010, following a comprehensive defense review, the government decided on dramatic cuts in the armed services, including the reduction of 5,000 crew members from the personnel complement of the Navy and setting the number of frigates and destroyers at 19 only by 2020, instead of 23 vessels.

According to data provided by the British Parliament, the defense budget decreased by eight billion pounds in real terms in the years 2010-2015, an 18% cut compared to the budget for the years 2009-2010. Although a renewed increase in the defense budget was recorded in 2016, the budget is still significantly smaller compared to the situation eight years ago.

A report by the Defense Committee of the House of Representatives warned, last June, that the budget contained a "black hole", suggesting that the budget be raised to 2.5% of the Gross Domestic Product, and even up to 3%, as was the case in the mid-1990s (today, the rate of investment amounts to 2.12% of the GDP). The present Defense Secretary, Gavin Williamson, demanded a 20 billion pound increase of the budget. So far, however, he has failed to receive the support of Prime Minister Theresa May or Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.

The pressure to increase investments in defense does not come only from within Britain. Although Britain is one of the few members of NATO that invest more than the mandatory 2% threshold prescribed for member countries, the US government demands that the British significantly increase their budget. "I am concerned that your ability to continue to provide critical military foundation for diplomatic success is at risk of erosion, while together we face a world awash with change," wrote US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to his British counterpart, Williamson, hinting that unless the British increase their defense budget, Britain may not remain the USA's "partner of choice".

A Stop on the High Seas

One of the most notable manifestations of the manner in which the Royal Navy copes with the cuts is the need to extend the service life of the thirteen Type 23 (Duke Class) frigates. Originally, these vessels were to be decommissioned after 18 years of service, but current estimates maintain that the frigates will only retire after close to three decades of service, and that in addition to on-going life-extending operations, most of them will be fitted with new engines. For example, the oldest frigate of this class, the HMS Argyll, entered service in 1991 but should retire only in 2023, unless it is decommissioned earlier owing to budget-related considerations.

New Type 26 (City Class) frigates will replace eight of the Type 23 frigates while new Type 31e frigates, whose design will be finalized only during the first quarter of 2019, would replace the remaining five. HMS Glasgow, the first Type 26 (City Class) frigate, will enter operational service only in 2027. Consequently, the Royal Navy will probably operate, over a number of years, with a frigate complement that is smaller than required. The primary importance of the frigates stems from their Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities. This state of affairs is further exacerbated by the fact that today, the Royal Navy has only seven attack submarines, compared to the ten it had prior to the economic crisis, and Haggart admits that this issue concerns him most of all, mainly in view of the intensifying activity of Russian submarines near Britain's territorial waters.

The malfunctions plaguing the six Type 45 (Daring or D Class) destroyers present yet another challenge to the Royal Navy's ongoing operations. Each one of these destroyers, which entered service between 2009 and 2013, cost one billion pounds. During the early stages of the employment of these vessels (which are regarded as leaders in the field of anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense), the unit that recycles the heat from the exhaust system into the engine for the purpose of improving the system's efficiency, turned out to suffer from a design fault that causes the ship's two gas turbines to collapse. As a result, the two diesel generators come under excessive pressure and shut down, leaving the destroyer without an electrical power source and rendering it unmovable.

The first case occurred as early as 2010 when the destroyer HMS Daring found itself stranded in the Atlantic Ocean and had to undergo repairs in Canada. Two years later, the HMS Daring found itself stranded again, this time in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, and went to Bahrain for repairs. The last incident occurred last November when the destroyer HMS Diamond suffered a collapse of its propellers in the Persian Gulf and was forced to return to Britain. Malfunctions and routine maintenance led to the destroyers spending more time in their home port of Portsmouth than at sea. The destroyer HMS Dragon spent 309 days in port, while HMS Daring remained docked for 232 days and HMS Diamond for 203 days.

Only in 2016 did senior Royal Navy officials publicly acknowledge the serious problem of the destroyers, but owing to delays in tenders and budget-related considerations, repairs will begin only next year. Three new turbines will replace the two old gas turbines of all of each destroyer. Haggart noted that the Type 23 frigates would be able to perform the missions originally planned for the Type 45 destroyers, and that once the repair process has been completed, the destroyers "will be able to undertake their original remit with the utmost confidence in the ship."

The need to apply deep cuts and deal with the personnel issue had an adverse effect on the Royal Navy's flagship, the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean as well. This vessel, which entered service in 1998, was one of the most active vessels of the Royal Navy and took part in the war in Iraq and in the air strikes in Libya; it supported the security effort for the London Olympic Games and delivered humanitarian aid following hurricanes in the Caribbean. Last November, it docked in the port of Haifa following operations in the Mediterranean.

However, in November 2015, one year after completing an upgrade at the cost of tens of millions of pounds, which should have prolonged its service life, the British Ministry of Defense announced that the HMS Ocean would be decommissioned in 2018. Last March, the HMS Ocean retired from RN service and was sold to Brazil for 84.6 million pounds, which would provide some relief for the budgetary predicament.

The main thrust of the criticism around the decommissioning of the HMS Ocean stemmed from the fact that the helicopter carrier had served as the primary platform for amphibious raiding operations. The critics were concerned that at least until the commissioning, about halfway through the next decade, of the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales (which would carry helicopters as well) Britain might lose that critical capability. Haggart wishes to allay those concerns, explaining that the HMS Queen Elizabeth is also undergoing adaptations so that later this year it would possess the ability to launch amphibious operations, mainly in humanitarian aid situations. Additionally, the Albion Class amphibious warfare vessels (landing platform dock) HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are still capable of bridging the helicopter employment gaps. "Maybe not as perfect, but it's about adapting and overcoming," Haggart stresses.

Looking to the East

At the outset of the decade, the Royal Navy issued a document titled "Future Navy Vision: The Royal Navy Today, Tomorrow and towards 2025," which describes the objectives toward the mid-point of the next decade. "As an island nation, our security and prosperity directly stems from our ability to access the sea," wrote the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff at that time, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope. "This is why the Royal Navy's ability to apply maritime power will continue to have such value in meeting the UK's defense and security needs. In an age of uncertainty, the Royal Navy must remain ready to respond to emerging international crises and working with our sister services and alongside allies and partners, provide an enduring maritime presence where our national interests are vulnerable."

Stanhope's statements attain more importance today, when the United Kingdom faces its imminent withdrawal from the European Union next year. The British Government announced it aspires to promote a policy of "Global Britain" – in the context of which it wishes to consolidate Britain's status as a leading international player and develop economic and other connections with numerous countries around the world. For this purpose, the Royal Navy, spearheaded by the aircraft carriers, should constitute one of the primary tools for projecting British power, as in the old days.

The Asia and Pacific region is one of the prominent regions on which the British currently focus. This is reflected in the present deployment of three Royal Navy vessels – the frigates HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland and the amphibious warfare vessel HMS Albion – which passed through Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Indonesia, among other places, for the purpose of training exercises and diplomatic visits.

The three vessels also participate in the enforcement of the sanctions imposed on North Korea, and may also exercise the principle of freedom of navigation by passing through the South China Sea – an area over which the Chinese claim ownership. "Our Armed Forces are at the forefront of Global Britain, and the deployment of HMS Albion, Sutherland and Argyll demonstrates our unwavering commitment to our international responsibilities and to maintaining peace, security, and prosperity in the region," declared Defense Minister Williamson last April.

Conversely, there are voices arguing that the Royal Navy is not currently capable of meeting the ever-increasing challenges, notably the increasing military strength of China and Russia, particularly in view of the uncertainty provided by the Trump administration, even with regard to the relations with Britain. Chris Parry, a former Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy, who was in charge of development, concepts, and doctrine at the Ministry of Defense, published a strongly worded article on the subject last February. In his article, Parry argued that the gaps in training, support, ammunition stockpiles, and manpower "have resulted in a Royal Navy that politicians would scarcely dare put into a fight and which would struggle to win against an opponent of comparable capability."

On the other hand, Haggart, who admits that the Royal Navy faces numerous challenges, notably the budget cuts, refuses to regard the present state of the Navy as a "crisis," and highlights the positive points. "Whatever the requirements, the RN will adapt and overcome, and use what they have to the best of their abilities," he says. "Let’s not forget the UK has been involved in global combat operations of various sorts for nearly 400 years. Few other nations can say this. The Royal Navy has many challenges to overcome as do many other nation’s militaries, but it's in a much better situation and heading than many like to admit or even bother to understand in detail. It's changing times and all the RN does is to be prepared to adapt as it faces new challenges."

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Dr. Haim Iserovich is the foreign affairs correspondent of the newspaper Ma'ariv and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya