This article is drawn from the Magazine of the Navy League of Australia. An interesting and objective take from our cousins on the sad state of our Royal Navy.
This paper proposes in essence that the Royal Navy cannot be saved in its current form, that the problems described in previous articles in The NAVY Magazine (see e.g. Morant (2006) Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 3-7) and frequently noted in recent years by other, often non-British, publications , are likely to be terminal. Given that the RN is already little better than a token force , manifestly unable to carry out many of the missions expected of it in home waters as well as distant seas , and that UK decision makers are unwilling to face up to the decisions and obligations required of a major maritime power, the best that Great Britain can hope for may be to field a moderately capable North Sea flotilla as part of a combined UK Defence Force.
While noting the ramifications of the Fleet’s transformational shrinkage since the 1982 Falklands war (the RN currently has just 6 destroyers, 13 frigates, seven attack submarines and no fixed wing aircraft; in the 80s it had 36 frigates, 13 destroyers and two small but effective aircraft carriers) such as the fact that it lacks sufficient ships to meet all its standing patrol tasks , this paper argues that even if the RN somehow, through some magical process, were to instantly receive sufficient numbers of modern ships, weapon systems and aircraft to carry its assigned tasks effectively and safely, it would not be able to do so.
This is not simply because the RN now lacks the trained manpower to crew its remaining ships and has no realistic chance of bringing back the experienced personnel it discarded after 2010 or recruiting suitable replacements. It is also because decades of external and internal assaults have done profound damage to the Navy’s core culture. A unique and much-admired institutional ethos formed over and by the centuries, one that that informed and inspired generations of officers and men, has been corrupted and hollowed out over a remarkably short period of time. Institutional cultures are amorphous, subtle things that can be resistant to quantification and empirical study, but there are all too many near-probative manifestations of a profound, negative change in that of the Royal Navy.
THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS
It’s a cultural change that involves and is fostered by defects in leadership. For it is leadership failures that lie at the heart of a succession of RN defeats both institutional and international, suffered at the hands of a variety of enemies ranging from the Iranian Navy to the UK Treasury and the RAF.
The most prominent of these manifestations of cultural decline are the HMS CORNWALL (F99) humiliation in the Gulf in 2007 (and, equally telling, the RN’s response to the debacle), and the extraordinary increase in the rate of major warship accidents from the 1ate 1990s onwards. But there are plenty of other, less dramatic or less publicized indications that a leadership culture that famously prized personal responsibility, initiative, and daring, and simply presumed qualities like patriotism, loyalty to the service and physical and moral courage, does so no longer.
Failures of leadership that would from the 1780s through the 1980s have been seen as manifestations of cowardice and rank incompetence have become so frequent as to be almost routine – as has an institutional instinct to treat successive disasters and humiliations as mere public relations problems to be spun or massaged, rather than opportunities for self-examination and improvement.
This leadership crisis within the Royal Navy has not only contributed to internal demoralization and the collapse of recruitment, it has also rendered the service incapable of defending itself politically against ruinous procurement decisions, crippling and ill-thought out cuts, and the longstanding, irresponsible but sadly successful efforts of the RAF to eliminate the Fleet Air Arm.
It is probably not coincidental that this leadership crisis has coincided with the development of a much-remarked , quasi-comical, Austro-Hungarian top heaviness in the service, with the RN now boasting more than twice as many admirals as fighting ships and at least 13 captains for each frigate and destroyer ‘on the water’.
But more genuinely troubling than the Royal Navy’s apparent surfeit of gold-braid, is the fact that so few in this large pool of under-employed senior officers have the knowledge, experience and in particular the practical engineering skills the Navy actually needs. One of the reasons why the RN’s (deeply problematic) new ship classes are invariably delayed by many years is that the RN long ago lost the last [set of experienced and knowledgeable] officers who had taken new submarines and carriers from blueprint to launch.
As one of several such officers [and senior / junior ratings, including Royal Marines] who emigrated to Australia (much to the benefit of the RAN) told me on reading about the RN’s most recent reported fiasco, namely the failed test launch of a Trident D5 missile  from HMS VENGEANCE (S31), ‘[they] no longer know how to design, engineer, build or crew ships, let alone lead a Navy’.
BEING ECONOMICAL WITH TRUTH AND CULTURE
Increasingly it is only the British Army and Royal Marines that are rated by the UK’s closest military allies. All too often the other two services increasingly resemble public sector bureaucracies like the NHS only with less money and public support. That said, all of the British armed services are increasingly infected with an unsuitable management ethos that draws its language and concepts from the fields of management consultancy and branding. It is unsuitable because it is indifferent or even hostile to traditional military virtues like loyalty, duty and patriotism. (One of the depressing hallmarks of contemporary military culture in all three services is the willingness of senior officers to betray the interests of their service, their men, and arguably the strategic interests of their country, in pursuit of post-career patronage and rewards like peerages and board seats.)
It does not help that, as Standpoint magazine described in ‘Unfit for Purpose’  in 2008, the British Ministry of Defence is now a civilianized, demoralized organization dominated by generalist civil servants who tend to lack not just military experience and technical knowledge but also sympathy with the mission and purpose of the armed forces.
Sadly this is only one source of a profound crisis in morale affecting the British armed services. Others include the inept cuts and procurement decisions made by successive government defence reviews (the worst being those of the Conservative Governments led by John Major and David Cameron ). There is also the official disdain for history and tradition demonstrated by the disposal or sale of landmark properties like Greenwich Royal Naval College and Admiralty Arch (it’s impossible to imagine the US Navy selling off Annapolis to make a quick buck for the Department of Defense). But the precipitate decline in morale probably has more do with the appalling conditions and pay for enlisted personnel that top brass have done so little to improve, the shameful failure of the UK to provide proper care for its wounded veterans  and their families, and also with the astonishing UK government support for dubious legal prosecutions of current and former servicemen. Unfortunately, the implications of collapsing morale seem to be as ill- understood or appreciated by Michael Fallon, the UK’s current Defence Minister, as his predecessors.
There is little consolation in the disturbing indications that the US Navy may be suffering from some analogous afflictions. This is suggested by the catastrophically expensive, ill-conceived and mismanaged development of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) (apparently doomed to be the world’s costliest coast-guard cutters) the problems affecting the ZUMWALT (DDG 1000) destroyer, and above all in the recent Cornwall-like episode  in which two USN riverine boats and their crews were seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. On the other hand, unlike the RN the USN quickly and thoroughly investigated and responded to the incident without any attempt to whitewash command at any level .)
WHAT CORNWALL REVEALED
It is worth revisiting the HMS CORNWALL incident in the Gulf in 2007, not simply because the Royal Navy was defeated in its only serious encounter with a hostile naval force since the Falklands war, but because there is little indication that the RN leadership problems it demonstrated have been confronted let alone solved. It was typical of the almost sleazy way the affair was handled by the RN that the captain of the CORNWALL was quietly fired  a year after the event rather than questioned in a court martial that might have shone a useful light on systemic reasons for the debacle.
Despite efforts by the Royal Navy to massage or even cover up the details of the incident, rumours swept the defence community at the time that the real reason why the CORNWALL’s Lynx helicopter was neither in the area nor armed as it should have been, was because it had spent the day flying around a television crew, one that was doing a story about the RN’s successful gender policies. (It was also widely said that the presence of a female sailor in the boarding party influenced the decision to not even threaten armed resistance to the Iranians).
While the humiliation in the Gulf was depressing enough, the reaction at home was if anything even more alarming. Perhaps the most surprising and dismaying reaction came from Sir Alan West, a hero of the Falklands war and former First Sea Lord. West ardently justified the instant surrender by the British sailors and marines, saying that ‘the RN’s rules of engagement’ which forbade them from opening fire unless fired upon,’ required them not to offer or threaten any resistance to their capture’. (By the same logic, if the Iranian patrol boats had surrounded the CORNWALL itself, its captain would have been bound to surrender the ship.)
West and others were arguably so quick to defend the ROE and so eager to paint a decision that led to global humiliation as wise and inevitable, that they failed to consider that it was extremely unlikely that the Iranians would have dared gun down the RN boarding party. After all, doing so would risk starting a war with a US-led coalition of which the RN vessel was a part, and the commander of the IRGC boats would certainly have been aware of the presence of a USN carrier battle group just a short flying distance away by F/A 18. It would only have been a matter of hours after the (unlikely) massacre of an RN boarding party before all the IRG’s boats were afire or at the bottom of the Gulf.
In the Nelsonian Navy, that is to say the Royal Navy until at least the Falklands War and the early 1990s (including Sierra Leone in 2000) a Lieutenant might well have taken this strategic reality into account as he weighed the option of standing his ground and chancing the lives of his men in a shootout with the Iranians, or inflicting strategic humiliation on his service and his country.
Of course, for many people today it might seem unfair to expect extreme risk-taking courage of a young officer. But such an unfair expectation was at the very heart of British naval culture for a very long time indeed, and it’s remarkable that Sir Alan West – who was made Lord West by Prime Minister Gordon Brown six months after the incident – and the rest of the naval establishment were apparently so blithe about letting that tradition bleed away.
But then their attitude was made even clearer by what happened after the prisoners were returned. Despite what a former British CDS described as ‘fawning, unmilitary behaviour’ while in captivity and being paraded on Iranian TV (one rating wept about the loss of his Ipod), the returning sailors and marines were personally met and greeted as heroes by the then First Sea Lord Sir Jonathon Band.
To put the whole incident in context it is important to remember that when a Royal Australian Navy boarding party found itself in an almost identical situation in the same waters in 2004 , its outnumbered sailors (male and female) refused to surrender, cocked and aimed their individual weapons and the Iranians backed down after extending the confrontation long enough to preserve their dignity.
Note. The full report by Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fulton RM (Rtd.) into the capture of personnel from HMS CORNWALL by Iranian forces in March 2007 and the Board of Inquiry into the capture of six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy sailors by Iranian forces in June 2004 (a completely different incident not to be confused or conflated), have never been released in full, exactly because of the collapse in command and military-fighting ethos identified by Sir Rob in his report, and his scathing remarks about the competence and fitness of RN Senior Officers to lead Royal Marines in combat.
It’s also worth putting in context the extraordinary number of serious accidents involving major RN ships since the beginning of the century. Up and until 2000, when the RN Fleet was three to six times its current size, in peacetime there was approximately one serious ship threatening incident per decade. Despite potential underreporting, between 2000 and 2017 there have been between 7 and 10 such incidents (including the collision of HMS AMBUSH (S120) with a Merchant Ship in the Straits of Gibraltar, in 2016) – on average one such incident occurring every two years. At the same time, the number of ships continued to fall. Such an increase cannot be explained by coincidence, by the technical complexity of modern warships (RN Officers are supposed to have educations commensurate with the challenges presented by their vessels) or even by the severe teething problems afflicting classes like the Astute and the Daring.
THE DEADLY ROLE OF SPIN
Another, less-noted aspect of the overall RN crisis in culture and leadership is the dangerous normalization of dishonest communications, both internally and externally. It is of course understandable that RN spokespeople will loyally support a current government’s policy, and insist that the RN can still ‘meet its operational commitments’, regardless of the facts, and that the service’s public relations staff will try to paint any accident or failure in the best possible light. But when Naval officers at all levels are expected or required to lie to the public and to each other on an increasingly frequent basis and in the normal course of events (ie not as part of an operation to deceive potential enemies) this can have a corrosive effect on morale, and, just as bad, undermine the service’s ability to learn and improve.
For example it is hard to imagine many were reassured by the RN’s blustering official response to the excoriating defence select committee report  of November 2016 and shocked media reactions to the revelation that the Navy was to lose its only offensive, long-range surface capability – the Harpoon missile. This took the form of an open letter  by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones on the RN website.
Sir Philip’s rhetorical broadside reassured naval personnel that while there are ‘challenges’ things are really fine with our ‘first rate’ Navy and its ships. Admiral Jones even tried to spin the retirement of the Harpoon, suggesting disingenuously that its loss would somehow be compensated for by recent experiments with autonomous systems  and planned trials of ‘both an energy weapon and artificial intelligence at sea’. As all of Sir Philip’s readers know perfectly well none of these projects are likely to enable a British frigate or destroyer to win a contest against a pair of enemy missile boats let alone a modern warship.
But then if war should break out in 2018 when the RN is entirely without anti-ship missiles, the only danger Sir Philip is likely to face will be from the widows and orphans of seamen whose lives he and his colleagues have jeopardized by this most foolish and irresponsible of money-saving exercises.
Similarly, when the RN admitted to ‘technical issues’ with HMS DUNCAN (D37) after the powerless Type 45 destroyer had to be towed back into port after only two days at sea, everyone knew that this really meant that this latest catastrophic electrical failure on a T45 had temporarily turned the ship into little more than a £1 billion floating target. When HMS LANCASTER (F229) was mothballed in 2016 because of a shortage of trained crewmembers, the Navy said the Duke class frigate was being put into ‘Operational Readiness’.
Of course it is not just the Royal Navy or the MOD that have relied on spin (and the gullibility, laziness, ignorance and corruption of the UK’s diminished corps of defence journalists) to hide the reality of Britain’s maritime crisis. Like somany parts of the British state that substitute marketing and ‘branding’ for the hard graft of good government, all the public and private institutions responsible for the Royal Navy’s sad transformation into a diminished, impotent but expensive parody of its former self, have put a great deal of energy into crafting dubious but reassuring narratives to disguise their failure. You can see this in branding efforts like the renaming of the Type 26 frigate as the ‘Global Combat Ship’ (GCS). The latter is a classic example of the use of fashionable buzzwords to shut down critical thinking: ‘Global’ is a consultant’s favourite because it sounds modern and cosmopolitan, and ‘combat’ sounds hard-core and battle-ready, but of course all the RN’s blue water ships are ‘global’ and have been since the 18th century, and all warships are by definition ‘combat’ ships.
Unfortunately, renaming the Type 26 the ‘global combat ship’ does not actually make it any more ‘global’ or combat-effective than either its Type 23 predecessors or its foreign competitors. The GCS is merely the latest conservative  and expensive frigate design to come down the BAE- Royal Navy turnpike, one that is as likely to be an export flop as every major British warship design has been since the Leander class frigates of the 1970s.
After all, the ASW version of the Type 26 will in some important ways be less capable than the ships it’s replacing. For one thing it would have a hard time killing the submarines it hunts, as it lacks torpedo tubes and is completely reliant on its helicopter complement for the task. (If the weather is bad or the chopper is down with a mechanical fault, then the Type 26 will have to rely on its quietness to avoid being sunk by the sub it has located.) For another thing, like most recent RN designs the Type 26 has minimal ability to fight other surface ships. (Although equipped with a Mark 41 VLS silo, the RN apparently has no plans to buy anti-ship missiles compatible with the vertical silos.)
Sadly, while foreigners tend not to be deceived by such marketing flim- flam, this kind of branding is extremely effective in Westminster and the feeble remnants of what was once a vital and well informed Defence press corps. The fact that most potential buyers abroad see British naval designs as poor value, and that British naval shipbuilding has been outclassed by Spanish, South Korean, French, and Italian competition, has gone unnoticed by successive British governments (and the public), to the enormous financial benefit of BAE Systems, the company that has been allowed to become a monopoly supplier of the RN’s major warships and indeed the British armed forces as a whole.
Even if the GCS were truly an innovative and impressive design, its prospects would be hobbled by the decision of the Cameron government to go back on its plan to buy 13 of them (replacing 19 Type 22 and 23 frigates). Instead of purchasing eight anti-submarine versions and five general purpose versions, the government is now committed to buying just eight ASW frigates. This is fewer than a traditional ship class and that matters because you need to commission and build at least ten vessels to be able to assess their real abilities (to distinguish good, from poor, from average) and make appropriate improvements.
No one would expect either David Cameron or his chancellor George Osborne (who loathed the forces as atavistic, ‘uncool’ and detrimental to the Tory’s new ‘modernized’ image), to understand why cutting the number of Type 26 frigates would damage its export potential as well as ensuring that the fleet would only ever have four frigates on operations at any one time. But you might have expected at least one of the UK’s abundant admirals to have gone to the mat publicly for a full complement of the ships.
Part II will examine further RN leadership, or the lack thereof, and the decline in British naval design; warship design by committees of public (civil) servants and their accountancy consultancy company bosses, and ‘returning to the offensive’, and touch on unique, British conceived/ designed concepts for versatile modular systems (VMSTM) and WarpodsTM, that could provide for rescaling the RN; its capability, capacity, and purpose.