Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum by NUMAST


  NUMAST is the trade union and professional organisation representing more than 19,00 shipmasters, officers, cadets and other marine industry staff working at sea and ashore.

  NUMAST has, for many years, voiced considerable concern over the strategic implications of the decline of the UK-flagged merchant fleet and the reduction in the size of the UK maritime skills base. The NUMAST report, Whither the fourth arm?, published in June 2002, detailed these concerns and presented proposals for addressing the points in a positive way.

  We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the inquiry into the "Lessons of Iraq" and in particular the lessons for the future to be drawn from Operation Telic and hope that the committee will consider our concerns with the utmost seriousness.


  The Iraq war witnessed the assembly of Britain's biggest maritime task force for more than 20 years. However it was a task force that placed significant reliance upon foreign, often flag of convenience, ships and foreign seafarers. NUMAST learned that more than half of the 50-plus merchant vessels chartered in support of the military deployment to Iraq were operating under flags of convenience and only eight were under the red ensign.

  NUMAST believes the MoD is ignoring strong strategic, moral and political justifications to do much more to support what has traditionally been known as the "fourth arm" of Britain's defence and we believe it should be a matter of extreme concern that the UK is dependent on such a high proportion of foreign operated tonnage at times of national emergency. The Union is concerned that this increasing reliance upon foreign owned, foreign flagged and foreign crewed shipping by the MoD is a sign of an absence of "joined-up thinking" at a time when the Department for Transport is seeking to revitalise the British merchant fleet and to rebuild the country's maritime skills base.

  NUMAST is a party to the Shipping Task Force, established by the Deputy Prime Minister to progress maritime policy objectives. We have raised our concerns about aspects of the MoD chartering policies on a number of occasions at STF meetings. As a result, it had been agreed to invite a representative of the MoD to discuss these issues with the STF, but it is unfortunate that to date there has not been a positive response to this initiative.

  It is also unfortunate that despite the expenditure of considerable amounts of public money in the chartering of tonnage in support of Operation Telic, the government has used the grounds of commercial confidence to create obstacles to those seeking details of the ownership, registration, manning and operation of the vessels used by the MoD. However, it has been possible to establish that these ships were under an assortment of flags including Malta, St Vincent, Antigua, the Bahamas and Bermuda.

  Similarly, crew nationalities included Russian, Ukrainian, Filipino, Icelandic, Swedish and some British seafarers.

  We believe such statistics confirm the Union's concern that the decline of the UK fleet and the loss of British seafarers have left alarming gaps in our maritime security resources.

  NUMAST is concerned that successive governments have ignored previous warnings about the serious strategic implications arising from such a reliance on foreign merchant ships.


  The reliance upon foreign-owned, flagged and crewed tonnage for Operation Telic fits into an increasingly marked pattern. Barely one-third of the 367 merchant ships chartered by the MoD in the past five years have been British or Isle of Man registered, according to figures revealed in a House of Commons written answer earlier this year. Ships from more than 20 different foreign flags have been used in that period, including tonnage under the Cypriot, St Vincent, Maltese, Romanian and Liberian registers.

  We believe there needs to be considerable debate on the reasons why foreign ships are being used in support of operations and exercises in direct support of British military forces and the circumstances in which the UK would consider the requisition of UK-flagged tonnage.

  NUMAST also believes there needs to be a clear policy on the circumstances in which MoD-chartered ships would be classed as "strategic"—and therefore re-flagged to the red ensign and required to operate, as a minimum, with a British master

  Similarly, NUMAST is concerned about the inadequacy of the existing criteria for determining whether a vessel is of "strategic" importance. We consider the criteria to be too narrow. It also fails to fully reflect the diverse strategic needs and changing operational requirements and should, at a minimum, take more account of the range of vessels that we used in the Falklands conflict (such as product tankers, general cargoships, offshore support vessels, ocean-going roros and stern trawlers.

  We also believe the UK government should study the results of a US report (see further details below) that identified the security threat associated with the use of foreign shipping for defence purposes. We believe that the UK should follow the US example of reviewing the crew lists of chartered foreign ships to check whether any seafarers represent a known security threat.


  The costs of chartering foreign tonnage are a serious issue, deserving considerably more scrutiny than they have to date. In the last Gulf War only eight of the 143 ships used by the MoD were British and a subsequent National Audit Office report confirmed NUMAST's fears that the government had paid a "premium" of between £30-38 million on dry cargo vessel charter costs of £116 million as a result. In the latest Iraq war, there have been market reports suggesting that charter rates for the foreign ships used by the MoD were inflated in the build-up to the Iraq war— by as much as 30% above commercial rates.

  NUMAST also believes there should be further scrutiny of reports suggesting that problems with the availability of merchant shipping may have delayed the military build-up.

  In our correspondence with ministers on these issues, NUMAST has received what we consider to be extremely complacent responses to the problems identified by the Union and such bodies as the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, the National Audit Office, military experts, and by the US authorities. For instance, we were incredulous to be told in one letter earlier this year that the MoD considers there are sufficient militarily useful vessels and seafarers for likely strategic needs. This comes at a time when the UK merchant fleet and the number of British seafarers are both considerably reduced from the time of the Falklands conflict, after which concern was expressed by the Commons Defence Committee on the numbers available.

  Since the time of the Falklands, the number of British seafarers serving in the UK Merchant Navy has declined from more than 57,000 to well under 20,000 and on current trends will almost halve over the next decade. The number of UK owned and registered trading ships of 500gt and above has, over the same period, fallen to one-third the level it was at the time of Falklands.

  NUMAST was also appalled to read a statement in one response from the MoD that it believes there are no security implications arising from the use of non-British registered shipping. We were similarly extremely concerned at the statement that there are no checks on foreign crews on ships taking part in MoD work. When the MoD was questioned further on this issue, it appeared that there was a lack of clarity over the procedures and policies that were being followed in the case of the ships being used for Operation Telic.


  The US General Accounting Office report on combating terrorism, published in October 2002, identified the placing of military equipment outside Department of Defense control as a strategic weakness and warned that the use of foreign shipping for transporting military cargoes increased the risk of equipment being tampered with, seized or destroyed.

  The 35-page report warns that chartering foreign registered or foreign crewed merchant ships for military work is a "significant weakness" in Department of Defense policies.

  According to the report, more than 95% of all equipment and supplies needed for large-scale US military operations goes by sea. However, some 43% of cargoes carried to overseas operations for the DoD during 2001 went on non US ships, most of which were foreign flagged and foreign crewed.

  Although the Military Sealift Command reviews the crew lists of chartered vessels to check whether any seafarers represent known security threat, the GAO said it was concerned that when control of DoD equipment was relinquished to third parties, including foreign nationals, "there may be an increased risk of the equipment being tampered with, seized, or destroyed by individuals or groups whose interests run counter to the United States".

  There could also be a risk of the weapons or equipment being used against military or civilian targets, the report warned.

  The inquiry team said officials from several military commands had also expressed concerns about placing strategic equipment onboard ships outside DoD control and warned of the shortage of "appropriate" US-flagged tonnage for military charters.

  The report urges the DoD to review the security of military cargoes transported on foreign ships and also calls for improved coordination, risk management and comprehensive security plans to tackle further "significant" shortcomings in the protection of some 300 US seaports, 17 of which are designated as "strategic" by the DoD.

  It is important to note that another report, published by the National Defense Transportation Military Sealift Committee in February 2003, concluded that the US Maritime Support Program, providing direct support to maintain a fleet of strategically-useful commercial vessels, was the most economically practical solution for safeguarding a reliable seaborne transport of equipment and supplies. This report was subsequently followed by a decision to extend and expand the MSP beyond 2005.

  NUMAST believes the UK government should give serious consideration to these reports, as their findings are of direct relevance to the UK—particularly given the nature of the strategic relationship between the two countries.


  NUMAST also believes the MoD needs to be more sensitive to the evidence showing that flags of convenience have markedly worse safety and social records than traditional registries such as the UK, with disproportionate rates of ship losses, port state control detentions, and infringements of conventions covering seafarers" social conditions and welfare. There must surely be serious strategic and security objections against dependence on ships whose ownership, registration and crewing lies well outside UK jurisdiction.

  It should be remembered that Canadian military forces had to take action to recover a flag of convenience ship that was being used to transport military equipment and personnel from the Balkans in summer 2000 after the crew refused to sail the vessel to Canada in a protest over pay.

  In this connection, NUMAST believes it is essential that there is detailed scrutiny of reports that almost one-third of 50 merchant ships chartered by the MoD to support the invasion of Iraq have been detained after failing port state control inspections. The investigation published by the Guardian newspaper showed that the ships had been detained on 21 occasions—with defects including lack of fire-fighting equipment, hull damage impairing seaworthiness, inadequate life-saving appliances, and dangerously faulty engines.

  Given that one of the prime reasons for the development of open registries has been their ability to offer shipowners savings through reduced labour costs, NUMAST believes it is essential that the UK is not perpetuating the abusive use of seafarers from developing nations who are employed on unacceptably poor social and labour conditions. In circumstances where public money is being spent on chartered merchant shipping, there should be agreed standards and conditions of employment for the crews of such vessels. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has developed a "matrix" that the MoD will use to underpin such criteria, but NUMAST is concerned that the process of producing this matrix has not been fully inclusive and we need further details and dialogue to be assured that it will set down acceptable standards.


  NUMAST is by no means alone in repeatedly warning about the way in which strategic operations could be delayed as a result of shortages of suitable tonnage: something that the deputy commander of US forces in the last Gulf War acknowledged to have been a problem in ensuring the combat-readiness of troops at the time. We have yet to see a detailed response to reports quoting an Army spokeswoman as saying the loading schedule for the UK military had been pushed back because "ships weren't in place in time'.


  NUMAST considers the Ministry of Defence review of the UK's role in the Iraq war correctly identified the vital role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the new strategic sealift ro-ros in transporting troops and equipment to the Gulf for the war against Iraq.

  The report states that significant logistics demands had been successfully achieved, with a land force of the same scale as that assembled for the 1991 Gulf war being deployed in less than half the time.

  Fourteen RFA ships were engaged in Operation Telic and four new strategic ro-ros shipped some 11% of the total equipment required. There are six ro-ros in the fleet of strategic sealift vessels operated by the AWSR consortium. The last in the series of six ships was delivered in April 2003 and Operation Telic was the first time that these ships were deployed in direct support of active military operations. Their success, and the volume of material they shipped, shows the value of the policy to provide and develop an assured source of UK-crewed strategic sealift support.

  Similarly, RFA ships have been correctly described as "the life-blood of the maritime forces" involved in Operation Telic, supplying equipment, stores, fuel and support to UK and US ships, as well as delivering the first humanitarian aid cargoes to Iraq. NUMAST believes the value of the RFA and strategic sealift ships has been amply demonstrated in their contribution to Operation Telic and deserving of recognition by way of clear commitments to the future of both.

  However, NUMAST also believes the report rightly highlights the fact that the UK needs to charter "substantial" additional shipping to ensure the rapid deployment of its forces and correctly emphasises the need to review how the UK prepares for such operations in complex geo-political situations. The report stated: "It is important to develop a range of planning options to cater for possible uncertainties" and NUMAST believes the government's current policies and practices for the strategic use of commercial shipping do not reflect these very real contingencies. We urge the committee to note the report's comment that: "We will need to keep under review our air and sea transport assets and our ability to secure access to commercial transport in the quantities and timeframes required to meet future expeditionary requirements." We consider the government should take no consolation from the fact that once again the UK has had to rely heavily upon FoCs and foreign seafarers. There are many military scenarios where such tactics cannot be used and we believe the UK must look more closely at the US model of support to provide a guaranteed pool of domestic shipping and seafarers to help meet strategic demands in all circumstances.


  Operation Telic has once again demonstrated the important strategic role of merchant shipping. It has also demonstrated the UK's increasing dependence on foreign-owned, foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed vessels in such circumstances. NUMAST believes this dependence is an issue of serious concern. It is absolutely essential—particularly at a time of intense global instability and insecurity—that ministers take us seriously and respond to the worrying issues raised in our research.

  NUMAST believes it is a matter of immense importance that an island nation with a proud history of maritime expertise has the ability to support its military operations with a domestic fleet of high quality merchant ships, crewed by high quality British seafarers.


  The Defence Requirement for Merchant Shipping and Civil Aircraft—House of Commons Defence Committee Report June 1988.

  Ministry of Defence: Movements of Personnel, Equipment and Stores to and from the Gulf—Committee of Public Accounts Report, May 1994.

  British Merchant Shipping: Supply and Demand in an Emergency—Submission by the Chamber of Shipping to House of Commons Defence Committee, November 1994.

  British Shipping: Merchant Shipping and Defence—General Council of British Shipping, September 1989.

  Combating Terrorism: Actions Needed to Improve Force Protection for DoD Deployments through Domestic Seaports—US General Accounting Office October 2002.

  US National Defense Transportation Association Military Sealift Committee report on the Maritime Security Program—February 2003.

    Letters from Rt Hon Adam Ingram MP to NUMAST—27 January 2003 and 5 March 2003.
    House of Commons Written Answers—7 January 2003, 4 February 2003.
    Independent—9 June1993.
    TradeWinds Today—7 January 2003-11-28.
    TradeWinds International—7 March 2003.
    Reuters—18 December 2002, 4 February 2003.
    Fairplay Daily News—8 January 2003.
    Financial Times—5 February 2003-11-28.
    Lloyd's List—25 July 2002.

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