“Your Warship is a Decrepit Tramp Steamer, Mr Putin. Let’s Compare it to Mine when I’ve Fetched it from the Gulf.” Pt.2

It’s easy to laugh at Mr. Putin’s superannuated tramp steamer navy, until you remember that things aren’t going much better for his main European opponent, either. Putinbots speak of how the Royal Navy has been cut to the bone, with only a handful of rickety old corvettes, and we would be knocked over instantly by a light tap from the 5″ guns on Peter the Great. We are a shadow of past glory, clinging nostalgically to days gone by as we desperately try to stay relevant in this era of Japanese, Chinese and American commercial imperialism. They’re wrong, but they might not be soon.

A bit of a history buff (noticed?), one of the things that’s always awestruck me about my own country is that, even long past her prime, and despite the best efforts of many politicians from both wings, she remains a key player on the international stage. Almost a century after the beginning of the decline of the Empire (which I place at the 1920 recession), the kingdom that remains is still a G6 nation, still consistently scores top five in navy rankings and top ten in general military lists, still shapes global politics at important summits, and still has the clout to defend an unimportant island 8000 miles away from invasion. Somehow, at some point, the diminution was halted, and Britain retired peacefully from first-rate status without plummeting totally into obscurity, with her nadir firmly before the Empire, and not after it.

The Spanish, in a good position to control the entire known world in 1500, rich off American metals and ruled by total autocracy, could not say the same — nor the Italians, Greeks, Russians, and I would argue the French, though their loss of influence has been much more political than economic or military (or it might just be my God-given francophobia as an Englishman coming out), along with a score of other once-proud, irrelevant civilisations. Germany has chugged along relatively consistently, but then the comparatively short history of that nation has been much more colourful than most, centre of Europe as it is . . .

The Royal Navy, I think, showcases this surprising and oh-so British punch to the face of historical precedent best. As I said, it consistently scores extremely well in global rankings, but perhaps more importantly, it has the proud honour being listed as “blue-water.” In case you’re wondering what blue-water means, it’s a way of classifying power projection, along with brown-water and green-water: brown-water describes forces that can operate in river, jungle or close coastal environments, green-water describes forces that can operate in nearby oceans and open seas (for short times) for defensive purposes, and blue-water describes navies capable of “sustained operation across the deep waters of open oceans” — you might alternatively say a navy capable of mounting long-term expeditions far away from home, or, to put a number on it, able to carry out sustained operations more than 1500 nautical miles away from the coast. If your navy is not blue-water, you don’t get to cross the oceans to interfere in affairs on the other side of the world, and so you don’t get to call yourself important.

A U.S. carrier group. This is the sort of thing you should be imagining with the words “blue-water navy”

Even within the blue-water categorisation there is variation, and the Royal Navy finds itself near the top even here, with the ability to project power not just over a wide area, but globally. We proved this a fair few times, so I don’t know why people continue to refuse to believe it: we crossed 8000 miles to retake the Falklands; we joined the expedition to the Gulf in 1991 (to the eternal relief of the crew of the U.S.S. Missouri); we built a patrol ship specifically to steam around the South Atlantic, making sure 1982 doesn’t get repeated (and environmental conditions don’t get any more hostile than that). If you have a look at a live map of Royal Navy deployments, they’re everywhere; in fact, one of the reasons the Type 23 frigates took so long to wear out and need replacing is because they’ve spent so much of their life chilling in the warmer, calmer waters of the Mediterranean, as opposed to charging around the choppy Atlantic chasing Soviet submarines.

Let’s have a look at the ships Her Majesty currently has:

  • 13 Type 23 “Duke” frigates
  • 6 Type 45 “Daring” destroyers
  • River-class patrol ships
  • 1 helicopter carrier — H.M.S. Ocean
  • Albion-class assault ships (carrying soldiers, vehicles and whatnot for landings)
  • Astute-class attack submarines
  • Trafalgar-class attack submarines
  • Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (carrying the nukes)
  • Some assorted minesweepers, logistics ships and armed dinghies around the naval bases

What does this tell us about the capabilities of the Royal Navy? Not much, actually, because it’s currently in a transitional phase. There’s a few too many of certain classifications and not enough of others, as ships are decommissioned and new ones are built. I’m going to show you two more lists now, to give you a better picture, one detailing the fleet in 2000, and one for the future vision the bosses are dreaming about, likely to be achieved in the mid 2020s:

In 2000:

  • 6 Type 22 “Broadsword” frigates
  • 13 Type 23 “Duke” Frigates
  • 12 Type 42 “Sheffield” destroyers
  • Castle-class patrol ships
  • Fearless-class assault ship — H.M.S. Fearless (carrying soldiers, vehicles and whatnot for landings)
  • 1 helicopter carrier — H.M.S. Ocean
  • Invincible-class aircraft carriers
  • Swiftsure-class attack submarines
  • Trafalgar-class attack submarines
  • Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (carrying the nukes)
  • some assorted minesweepers, logistics ships and armed dinghies around the naval bases

When the future plans are realised:

  • 8 Type 26 frigates
  • 5 Type 31 frigates (at least, and hopefully more)
  • 6 Type 45 “Daring” destroyers
  • River-class patrol ships (and possibly more)
  • Albion-class assault ships (carrying soldiers, vehicles and whatnot for landings)
  • 1 helicopter carrier, H.M.S. Ocean
  • Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers
  • Astute-class attack submarines
  • Dreadnaught-class ballistic missile submarines (carrying the nukes)
  • some assorted minesweepers, logistics ships and armed dinghies around the naval bases

As I hope you can see scanning these three lists, navies are always thinking of replacements, extending lives and drawing up future plans, so it’s futile to try to look at it as though all of the ships will suddenly be scrapped one day and replaced by new ones the next, but broad themes can still be drawn about old, new and mid-life hulls, and there’s a definite vision for the future that started in 2000. Of course, even though the “future ships” are all in that category, there’s going to be a big difference between the Type 45 destroyers (the first of which was commissioned in 2006) and the Dreadnaught-class SSBNs (which haven’t even started construction quite yet) — one design will be middle-aged as the other enters service — but following 2000 it was decided to replace the whole fleet over the next 20 years, so looking at it as it is today isn’t quite right.

You can see a few definite ideas running through the admirals’ heads, can’t you? To start with, the twelve Type 42 destroyers (there were fourteen in total) are being replaced by six Type 45s, and the three Invincible-class carriers are being replaced by two of the Queen Elizabeth-class. The thirteen Type 23 frigates (there were sixteen, actually, but three had yet to be built in 2000 and three were later sold to Chile) are being replaced by eight Type 26 frigates and five of a mysterious new class called “Type 31.” The seven ships of the Trafalgar class are being replaced by seven of the Astute class. The Type 22 and Swiftsure classes are being decommissioned without replacement. In case you were wondering, H.M.S. Ocean was only just entering service in 2000, and the two Albion assault ships followed shortly later, so they’ll be getting on a bit by this stage.

What I really want you to notice is the absolute haemorrhaging of hulls; how fewer ships are you counting? It’s not as bad as it seems, though: it was partially part of the plan.

See, these ships are a hell of a lot bigger than their predecessors. The total tonnage of the six Type-45s is virtually the same as all twelve type 42s, and they also have the advantage of being much more advanced, with revolutionary Aster missiles and the Sampson radar system; the Astute-class submarines are among the best in the world, in my view superior to the American design; both hulls cost well over £1 billion, which, adjusted for inflation, was still unprecedented for the previous generation. And I just beg you to look at the size difference between the Invincible and Queen Elizabeth classes:

H.M.S. Illustrious alongside, well . . .

I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I find it fairly obvious they want to be able to divide the Navy up neatly into three fleets:

Expeditionary Fleet 1:

  • 1 aircraft carrier
  • 2 destroyers
  • 4 frigates (of the Type 26 class)
  • 1 assault ship

Expeditionary Fleet 2:

  • 1 aircraft carrier
  • 2 destroyers
  • 4 frigates (of the type 26 class)
  • 1 assault ship

Home Fleet:

  • 5 frigates (of the type 31 class)
  • 2 destroyers (alternatively you could send out the expeditionary fleets with 3 each)
  • 1 helicopter carrier

This kind of arrangement would be a good confirmation and perhaps even expansion of the U.K.’s status as a blue-water maritime power, and the larger, more capable ships would be a serious improvement on previous generations. The slimming down of the fleet to make it more effective doesn’t necessarily have to mark a deterioration, as long as it leads to improvement for a suited purpose and organisation, such as this. By this stage the helicopter carrier will be old, and it was all but confirmed that the Type 31 frigates will be inferior to the Type 26s, using more off-the-shelf parts and with a much lower displacement and cost, as would befit a home fleet, allowing more effort to be put into the important ships.

Unfortunately, however, I know I’m not living in the real world. These new ships may be considerably larger than their predecessors, but money is still being saved on them at every possible junction.  The Type 45s were all built with mounting points for torpedoes, depth charges, and a far superior CIWS to what was ultimately installed, yet none of those were actually fitted; four of them have Harpoon ship-to-ship missile systems, but only because they were recycled from the last four Type 22s. There were supposed to be eight of them, too: as the design grew more complex the number was cut from twelve to eight, but the next hack down to six was made entirely for budgetary reasons, and leaves us with the bare minimum number of hulls to escort three convoys.

Looking at the plans so far for the Type 26 frigates, I fail to see how they are any more innovative than the Type 23s they replace, so why are we getting less of them? First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones described the Type 31 design as “a much less high-end ship. It is still a complex warship, and it is still able to protect and defend and exert influence around the world, but it is deliberately shaped with lessons from wider industry and off-the-shelf technology to make it much more appealing to operate at a slightly lower end of Royal Navy operations.” He drivelled on to say it is “still a credible frigate, that will sit between the high-end capability delivered by the Type 26 and Type 45, and the constabulary-oriented outputs to be delivered by the five planned River-class Batch 2 OPVs.” Right, so you’ve all but admitted it’s utter crap, but reassured us that it’s still able to move and shoot things? Get real! It might as well be a corvette. David Cameron threw a lifeline with the vague promise that we might buy more of them in the future, but I’ll want at least 1o before I see it as an change instead of a cut. I’ll take five less frigates for ten more of whatever these things are, because I think they’re 50% less effective, and looking at the (vague so far) plans I think that’s generous.

I guess they’re slightly larger, but I remain unconvinced — that’d better be a 5″ gun and not a 4.5″ . . .

And all of this ignores the much larger problem that the Navy will be operating at literally bare minimum hulls. It cannot be cut any more after thisYou cannot remove any more ships. It will not be combat effective. There is no room for failures, refits, losses or trials. What happens when H.M.S. Daring gets hit by an Exocet?

It’s not a frigate. You’re not fooling anyone

While Vlad has had few options besides allowing his forces to decay into hilariousness, we’ve kept ours effective, yet tried our luck by choice trimming them down and down and down, cutting the fat to the bone; the loss of those frigates represents the first time we’ve hit muscle, and we’ve decided to compensate by adding (almost certainly not enough) more mass with those glorified corvettes, all under the false pretence we’re going to the gym.

A not at all irritating silhouette. Don’t let yourself be awed: note that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary logistics and cargo ships are also included, along with the minesweepers and survey ships and, curiously, in the corner, H.M.S. Victory and H.M.S. Bristol . . .

And make no mistake: this is entirely by choice. Of the £772 billion public sector spending in the 2016 Budget, £46 billion is allocated to Defence — 5.9%. If we go back to the 2015 GDP, the figure that year was 1.9% — teetering around NATO’s 2% of GDP minimum recommendation; though the GDP figures this year are hazy, it’s unlikely to be much higher, perhaps 2.2%. If we were take the monstrous step of bringing it up to 3%, we could add somewhere around the region of £20 billion, which would easily pay for the proper number of escorts for the carriers, without us having to invest in those five rowboats with pistols on them we call “frigates.” Hell, if the Army and RAF were willing to give primacy to the Navy, we could probably bring that third home fleet up to the capability of the other two — with a Queen Elizabeth — and they would still benefit from more soldiers and aircraft respectively. In case you think I’m a war-mongering psychopath for advocating this disastrous, imperialist defence policy (A.K.A. spending enough), know that it would still be well under the £102,000,000,000 education budget, and the £240,000,000 of spending on social protection. Heck, if the 2016 spending plan is right, “other” transactions are currently costing us more than defence!public-sector-spending-truly-proper

Why, why, why is this seen as controversial? I remember during the debate for the Trident successor program (though really it was the Vanguard successor program) one of the main arguments I encountered was the project’s “excessive cost” of £200 billion. What most of those people forgot to mention — and in many cases didn’t even realise — was that that is Dreadnaught‘s projected cost over the entirety of its thirty-year lifespan; if you’re going to play that game, over the same period public-sector health spending is £4350 billion. Let’s even the playing field and use the entire defence budget: over thirty years defence currently costs £1380 billion, which is a fair bit less than the £3060 billion spent on education, or the £7200 billion thirty-year social protection budget (as if thirty-year budgets existed). My revision would bring defence up to roughly £1980 billion, which is still only 46% of health.

Is it not important? Is this what we’ve actually come to? Is defending the realm no longer seen as an equal priority with caring for the sick and schooling the young? Why? The world isn’t getting any safer!

In a brilliant example of doublethink, those same people who would rather have some plasters than a new aircraft carrier are the same ones who want us to take a tougher stance against Putin. How are we supposed to do that, exactly? Guilt trip him by reminding him of the nasty things his ancestors did? I want to take a tougher stance against Putin, too — I think what he’s doing in Syria is deplorable — but I also have a functioning brain. You can’t have your cake and eat it, and in this case it’s a very tasty cake, you’re starving and your arms are tired from holding it.

Edit: It’s been pointed out that H.M.S. Ocean is scheduled for decommissioning in 2018. I must have missed the news when it first broke and didn’t think to check when I was writing. I’ve also realised of my own accord that it is highly unlikely both carriers, or even all escorts, will be operated at the same time. The Second Queen Elizabeth was almost going to be mothballed, and H.M.S. Albion and her sister-ship alternate between service and refit. Together, these two mistakes — one honest, one embarrassing — destroy my idea of a three-fleet deployment. Ah well, I knew it was fanciful when I was writing it. Still, it represents a possibility, perhaps in times of war or when spending is seriously needed, and I still consider it the most efficient deployment pattern for the hulls they’re going for, even if it will never need to be used.





7 thoughts on ““Your Warship is a Decrepit Tramp Steamer, Mr Putin. Let’s Compare it to Mine when I’ve Fetched it from the Gulf.” Pt.2

  1. Interesting piece and broadly correct in general terms. (Three fleet plan is not really the case). Good to someone else also make the point that cost of Trident replacement is always being talked about as (inflated) total lifetime cost which is quite ridiculous and a measure not usually applied to any other public spending.

    Lots more about the current state of the royal navy here: http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org


  2. HMS Ocean is to be scrapped (crew needed for HMS Queen Eliz). Type 26 are for anti sub work, Type 31 are for general purpose work. Didn’t read the rest couldn’t follow it.


    • Well spotted with the Ocean; correction made. I defend my distinction between the Type 26s and the Type 31s, though. The Type 23s were supposedly for anti-sub work too, but the design evolved to become much more general-purpose and utilitarian. Unless you can find a way to argue that the Type 31s are more suited to general-purpose work than the Type 26s . . .

      I think the only difference between “general-purpose” and “anti-sub” is the addition of the towed 2087 sonar and various other anti-sub bits of kit. there’s no justification for the Type 31s except budgetary, as they are blatantly inferior regardless of their purpose


  3. Interesting article but a few major errors. We will probably lose HMS Ocean, if not already gone. We will have two carriers but only one will ever be available for use. I believe we should have six destroyers ( with no current offensive capability) but I doubt all six will be built. The number if frigates keeps getting cut, and the new Astute submarines appear to be somewhat lacking in capability, not the Navy’s fault I know. If we will have all the ships listed I would be very glad, but I seriously doubt it, our politicians would rather increase their salary and pension benefits than fund a blue water Navy.


    • Yes. I’m rather embarrassed I missed the bit about keeping Prince of Wales in port and decommissioning Ocean. Someone else pointed this out and I added an EDIT at the bottom. All six destroyers are already built and commissioned though, and I’ve voiced my concerns about the frigates.


  4. Nice article, only what of manpower?
    The Navy may be getting new ships (eventually) but will there be the manpower to crew and support them?

    Naval Service Strength Source: Defence Statistics (Tri-Service) (Dd 1 Jan 2016)
    2015 – 38 120 2016 – 38 140 (wow, an increase of 20 personnel)
    The Maritime Reserve has increased by 380 since Jan 2015.

    There is a current deficit against liability of 1.4% in RN/RM.

    Now anyone can play the numbers game, play around with statistics and the like, but the simple truth is more are leaving than are being replaced and more are requesting to leave before due date.

    This will continue until cost cutting, running on empty, over deployment, and making do is eliminated. There isn’t much of an attraction or long term career prospects to make people WANT to stay. In plain words, All the armed forces have a serious moral problem and the finger of blame can be pointed squarely at the government with their policies of austerity.

    High-tech ships are going to improve things?
    In the end it all boils down to having enough trained motivated personnel.


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