Two-tier, or not two-tier
In the year that marks the 100th anniversary of one of the largest naval battles of all time, the UK Royal Navy finds itself (officially) reduced to a 19-strong fleet of frigates and destroyers.
To put that into context, those cold waters of Jutland waters back in 1916 saw the Royal Navy deploy 149 surface combatants, while the German Navy mustered 38 similarly sized vessels (still twice the number of today’s RN fleet escorts). For comparative purposes, I haven’t included the 60-odd torpedo boats (more or less functioning as destroyers) operated by the German side.
No hands on deck
One of the key problems is that of manpower and the near-crippling shortage of personnel available to serve on UK warships, made even harder by the need to try and not send sailors away for nine months of the year. Such complex vessels require large crews, figures dictated not just by jobs on the ship and shifts, but also necessary redundancy in the event of an emergency.
The Queen Elizabeth class carriers are slated to have a complement, well in excess of 600, while the T23 frigates (upwards of 180) and T45 destroyer (around 190) all ring-fence large amounts of the diminished pool of available souls. The mythical T26 Global Combat Ship is listed as requiring 118 personnel, but I’d rather not cite that as another example in case the whole thing is one of the longest-running practical jokes in history.
For comparison, the maligned Batch 2 River class OPVs (of which five are to be built) need a scant handful (40ish) to keep them running. Not that you can call them surface combatant. Yet.
Much has also been said of the use by the UK of foreign personnel (such as from the US Coast Guard), who are seconded into service to meet skills shortages.
However, as the fleet reduces, the number, size and scope of naval bases used by Royal Navy vessels is expanding, with the news that the Port of Duqm in Oman will host a naval support and maintenance facility, in a joint-venture deal between Babcock and Oman Drydock Company.
The Royal Navy will use the facility according to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. In 2014 HMS Echo visited the port to test its facilities, while international navies (including the RN) regularly make use of ports at Muscat and Salalah in the Sultanate.
Meanwhile, at Mina Salman in Bahrain, the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) is currently undergoing a multi-million pound expansion of its facilities.
The widespread assumption is that one of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers will rotate through the region, releasing the burden placed on the US Navy carrier fleet. Exactly where these 70,000t vessels could be based is unclear as of yet, and will likely be dependent on space at the US Naval Support Activity in Manama, home of the US 5th Fleet.
That said, Duqm is plenty big enough to accommodate such larger requirements, should it be deemed necessary. Demonstrated nicely below, courtesy of the US Navy and the Iwo Jima.
The end game
The next hundred years of the Royal Navy will see it change as much as it has done in the preceding century, certainly in technological capability and possibly in size. It will also go back to the future with its reinvigorated mission East of Suez, a sure sign of NATO and the West’s rearranging of global responsibilities.
In the short term, however, if the UK wants to expand its naval force, future vessels (such as the proposed T31 ‘light-frigate’) will have to be increasingly lean-manned (think complements somewhere between a River and a T26), cheaper to build than current programmes and likely to be a lot less capable in a full-on shooting match.
Interestingly, while navies now routinely label warships of immense size as frigates and destroyers (that would otherwise be classified as cruisers and battleships at Jutland) we might be entering a counter-counter intuitive scenario where smaller and less capable vessels like OPV and corvettes, suddenly find themselves assigned light-frigate sobriquets.