Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Ministry of Defence (FUS 39)



  The requirement to take up merchant ships from trade varies widely according to the type of operation. This may be achieved by charter on the open market (as had been the case during the Gulf Conflict) or partly by requisition (as had been the case during the Falklands operation). The main function of the Merchant Fleet will be to support and supplement the Royal Navy's own ships; to participate in reinforcement and resupply operations and to transport essential goods and services. The MoD would plan in the first instance to charter shipping on the international market (this provides the greatest range of ships at a competitive price, thus ensuring best value for money for the taxpayer) and use existing crews of the ships that are chartered to meet its operational needs. There may be situations where it would be necessary to use, to some extent, British ships and seafarers to undertake a particular operational task. British owned/British flagged ships may be requisitioned under the Royal Prerogative for defence of the realm. British owned but foreign flagged ships may be requisitioned once emergency legislation is in place. Peacetime requirements are diverse, ranging from chartering in support of current military operations (e.g., Bosnia) to the movement of equipment and personnel for exercises and training and also for a variety of miscellaneous tasks such as towage, movement of fuel, surveying, cable laying, equipment trials and the recovery of lost aircraft. Between 1 January 1998 and 1 January 1999 seventy four (74) charters were placed on the open market; forty one (41) charters were British flagged.

  In 1991 a review was conducted by officials of the then Department of Transport (DOT) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to assess the operational requirements for merchant shipping in the light of the new security environment. This was set against the known availability of merchant vessels on the UK, Crown Dependency and Dependent Territory Registers. The conclusions of the review, announced in the House on the 9 July 1992, was that despite the reducing numbers of ships on the British and Dependent Territories registers there were in general still enough vessels for defence purposes. In these circumstances and against a background of higher priorities within the defence budget it was further concluded that there was no need for special measures.

  The Government reply to the Defence Select Committee's Fifth Report of 1996-97 on HEAVYLIFT, explains that MoD's key concern is the element of militarily useful vessels on the British registers rather than the total fleet size; this element has remained stable during the past year. By way of illustration, the current numbers of ships on the British registers in the over 500 gross ton category (where the most suitable ships for defence purposes are to be found) are attached at Annex A.


  The Strategic Defence Review recognised the need to improve our strategic transport as its top priority and it is therefore intended that six Roll On Roll Off (RORO) container ships be procured, possibly on a Public/Private Partnership basis. These ships, together with the existing and proposed Service assets, will provide the core surface strategic lift requirement for the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF). Any requirement for additional vessels, e.g., limited breakbulk shipping for ammunition and general stores, and for follow on forces will continue to be chartered on the open market as required. But it is important to note that our in-house capability and capacity to project forces strategically will be considerably enhanced.


  The MoD attaches great importance to the RFA. The civilian manned RFA is a member of the Chamber of Shipping. It is one of the largest employers of UK seafarers with some 2,300 officers and ratings. A short paper to inform the Committee of RFA practices, exposing the similarities and differences between the RFA and traditional shipping companies, is attached at Annex B.


  During the course of the 1991 review it became clear that the availability of British seafarers to man these vessels required further work. A study undertaken in 1993 by the MoD and the DoT revealed that the crews required for a purely national operation on the scale of the Falklands conflict (based on some 50 vessels taken up from the British and Dependent Territories registers) would number some 700 officers and 2,500 ratings. The study statistics based on DoT and Chamber of Shipping surveys indicated a total strength of 12,048 British officers and 14,506 ratings on federated and non-federated ships. This indicated that there would be no difficulty in manning strategic chartered or requisitioned ships if that were necessary. The conclusions of this review were announced in the House during the debate on the Defence Estimates on 18 October 1993.

  A second review was commissioned in 1994 by the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee (SDAC), a MoD/DETR/Industry forum chaired by the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS), to establish the qualifications, employment and age profile of British seafarers. The Report concluded that: there were some 13,000 UK officers available; there was a probable maximum of 19,000 UK ratings available; adequate officers and ratings were available at present but this could not be guaranteed in the longer term. It was estimated that there are in excess of 8,000 UK deck and engineer ratings (the most important categories).

  To monitor the situation MoD has now set up a Manpower Working Group (MWG) accountable to the SDAC, with members drawn from MoD/DETR and the Chamber of Shipping. The main area of work completed to date is based on the sponsored research undertaken by London Guildhall University (LGU) to improve our statistical knowledge of UK seafarers. The latest study revealed that the numbers for officer grades are broadly in line with previous estimates and show that there are still sufficient seafarers for defence purposes in the short to medium term. However, the trends are adverse and there is no guarantee in the longer term. The report was published in March 1998 and the findings passed to the Shipping Working Group set up by the Deputy Prime Minister in late 1997 to identify actions, by Government and the wider industry, which would enable the maximum economic and environmental benefit to be obtained from shipping, whilst at the same time encouraging the growth of tonnage under the UK flag. The MoD was represented on the Working Group.


  In addition to this work, the SDAC has sponsored three Scenario Study Days (years 95, 96 and 97) to discuss issues related to the defence requirement for merchant shipping. The general conclusions reached by the 95 and 96 Studies were that given the open market availability of shipping and seafarers on the day, and the assumed threats in theatre, the military demand for that shipping could have been satisfied, but with little if any spare capacity on the market. In the event of a shortfall in the supply of merchant shipping, the requirement would have to be addressed through the use of existing legislation or emergency powers. The 97 Study focused on requisitioning and while military planning must encompass this possibility, it is an unlikely scenario in the current security environment. A further Study Day is planned for May 99 and this will focus on the manpower requirement.


  In summary the requirement to take up merchant ships from trade varies widely according to the type of operation or scenario.There is every reason to believe that our requirements could be met in most cases by chartering on the open market when required. Ships would not necessarily have to be British flagged and crewed. The circumstances in which we would require largely or only British ships with British crews are limited, but there are still enough of the strategic vessels we would require and the crews to man them on the British, UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies Registers. We do not believe that acquisition of British hulls would be an insurmountable problem under emergency powers, when all else has been tried and failed, even in the worse scenarios where we might be acting alone without the support of allies.

  Regular monitoring of the British Fleet and crews for defence purposes continues as part of our normal planing process. Our work with the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee, the Manpower Working Group and the scenario led discussions exercises contribute to this. The refinement of the data and future requirements is flowing from the Strategic Defence Review and work on this is being carried forward by MoD staff through the existing mechanisms.

There are of course potential implications for defence in the health of our merchant navy. Although the DETR report "British Shipping—Chartering a new course" acknowledges the level of defence support available is not a problem at present, it is recognised that trends are adverse and the average age of seafarers is increasing. In essence the MoD would favour any support measures that would attract more militarily useful types of ships under the UK flag, encourage recruitment of British seafarers and maintain the availability of assets and personnel that may be needed in time of crisis.

5 February 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 8 June 1999