Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


Principal proposals

37. The principal equipment decisions announced in Future Capabilities which affect the Royal Navy are:

Royal Navy manpower will reduce from around 37,500 to 36,000 by April 2008.

Standing tasks

38. Before March 2004, the Royal Navy's destroyer and frigate flotilla was committed to meeting seven Standing Tasks, each requiring the deployment of one destroyer or frigate and where appropriate supporting elements. Two of these were contributions to Standing NATO Forces Atlantic and Mediterranean. One was escort duties in UK home waters. Of the remaining four, two were committed to Atlantic Patrol Tasks North and South and the final two were deployed east of Suez, the first in the Arabian Gulf and the second in the Indian Ocean and further east.

39. Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord, Chief of the Naval Staff, told us that the Standing Tasks had been reduced from seven to six with the withdrawal of the commitment to the Standing NATO Force Atlantic in March 2004. The commitment to Standing NATO Force Mediterranean continues, but is likely to 'transform into part of the NRF [Nato Response Force]'. Admiral West described the remaining five tasks to the Committee on 24 November 2004:

40. The paying-off of three Type 42 Destroyers and three Type 23 Frigates will require that those six tasks are reduced to four.[27]Admiral West argued that it was in the UK's interests to maintain a global (or at least geographically widely spread) naval presence:

    I think it is very important for the UK to have coverage in these areas because it helps stability. Again, part of the reason that we are wealthy and affluent and doing very well at the moment is that there is this stability and prosperity in the world, and the fact that we have investment abroad, the fact that there is a free flow of trade, the fact that insurance rates are low, it always helps if you have a grey funnel line ship around.[28]

On the other hand in September the Secretary of State told us:

    There is a temptation sometimes, I think, to see the Royal Navy as somehow separate from the kinds of strategic changes that are occurring in the world. When the First Sea Lord talks about reducing commitments, it may well be that he is reducing commitments that in a sense are no longer as relevant. Some of our standing commitments historically, particularly those through NATO for example—NATO also has to change in this environment. We have put a lot of effort, as an important member of NATO, in getting NATO to recognise that some of its traditional commitments and organisation, still largely determined, I think entirely wrongly by the Cold War, need to change. So there are adjustments that are taking place at national level but which also take place internationally and changing the way in which our Royal Navy operates, and our Royal Navy will be engaged in this expeditionary warfare in exactly the way that the Army and the Royal Air Force will be; so it is supporting that expeditionary flexible capability.[29]

41. If it is assumed that protection of UK waters will not be scrapped, two of the five remaining tasks will have to go. Admiral West argued that if the Mediterranean commitment did transform into the NRF, it might not be a standing commitment since 'we will be able to earmark units as necessary to make up a sensible maritime part of the total NRF'.[30] That would mean one cut from either the two ships in the Atlantic or the two east of Suez. Admiral West said that decisions on which standing commitments would be cut 'will be made … probably by the third quarter or something of next year [ie 2005] because that is when, with these timelines, we will have to be making that sort of decision'.[31]

42. We have quoted Admiral West's description of the roles of these four ships. We visited HMS Grafton in May and HMS Marlborough in December 2004 when each was fulfilling the role in the northern waters of the Arabian Gulf as part of a US naval task force.[32] We were told that there is little prospect of the Iraqis themselves acquiring the capabilities to provide for all their naval protection needs. Mr Adam Ingram MP, Minister for the Armed Forces, told us in February 2005, in the context of our Iraq inquiry, that there were 'no plans to change that posture at all for the foreseeable future'.[33]

43. HMS Chatham was fulfilling the role in the Indian Ocean when it was diverted at the end of 2004 to help in the humanitarian relief operation in Sri Lanka following the Asian tsunami. Admiral West described some of the other work which ships in that role have undertaken:

    I have just been to China, for example, and HMS Exeter was up there. This had huge impact on the Chinese. I am sure that her visit this year, after Liverpool's last year during the Sars epidemic, resulted in us getting some huge contracts at the airport there in Shanghai. They were able to talk to me and said how wonderful it was that we had a ship. This defence diplomacy issue is often a singleton type ship, and if you have one of something it does not matter how network enabled you make it because if you have not got it you have not got it.[34]

Thus each of these ships as well as fulfilling its primary task contributes in a range of ways to the promotion and protection of British interests.

44. None of these four commitments in the Atlantic Ocean and east of Suez is a Cold War legacy undertaken on behalf of NATO. It is hard to see which could easily be dropped. Since the decision on which it is to be has not yet been made, it appears that the Government has decided that a specific number of commitments can be cut, without knowing which they will be. But ships are already being withdrawn. The commitments cannot be sustained if the ships are not available. We recommend that MoD announces a timetable for the decision and for withdrawal from the chosen commitments.

45. The reductions in frigate and destroyer numbers are being made now. Contrasting the levels of public awareness of these reductions to those proposed for the Army, Admiral West told us:

    There has not been very much about the real loss of my ships and those have started happening already. This is not something in the future; already Newcastle has gone into port for the last time, and from my perspective these are regiments. Similarly, Glasgow; she had her last visit up to Glasgow and she is paid off. Tomorrow HMS Norfolk pays off. Two of my MCMVs have paid off, but they are not quite at the same level as a regiment.[35]

Littoral focus

46. Alongside the reduction in standing commitments was what Future Capabilities calls 'an increased emphasis on delivering effect onto land at a time and place of our choosing'.[36] In the longer term the two new aircraft carriers equipped with the joint combat aircraft will provide, in MoD's words, a step change in capability in this area. In the meantime the capability will be built around the existing carriers and the Joint Force Harrier. This will be accompanied by an amphibious capability based on the new ships, HMS Albion and Bulwark.

47. As well as these capabilities Delivering Security emphasised proposals for the 'increased use of secure joint sea-based logistics, particularly for operations where Host Nation Support is limited or where, for force protection or political reasons, we would wish to reduce our ashore footprint'.[37] There is, however, no mention of these proposals in Future Capabilities. Admiral West suggested in evidence that these proposals had 'slipped' because of the amounts of money available for ship building. His view was that that slippage was not a problem, and the timescales were still acceptable, since the package was linked to the new carriers.[38]

48. We consider the carrier programme below, but it is worth pointing out that particularly an expeditionary capability needs support. Carriers cannot provide a platform from which aircraft can mount deep offensive air strikes unless those aircraft can be fuelled (and if necessary re-fuelled). Host nation and other ground based support comes in a variety of forms. In Operation Telic, for example, extensive use was made of the facilities in the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus for a wide range of support operations including air-to-air refuelling, but no offensive or combat operations were flown from them. So the lack of secure sea-based logistic support need not undermine the overall capability of the carrier task force to mount offensive expeditionary operations, but it may restrict that capability.

Future Carriers

49. The proposal for two new larger aircraft carriers was a central element of the SDR's plans in 1998 for the development of expeditionary force projection capabilities over the longer term. Since then both our predecessor Committee and we ourselves have taken a close interest in progress with plans for the carriers—which according to the SDR were to be 'developed in detail in the normal way'.[39]

50. Since the SDR the MoD has, as we have noted, revised the Scales of Effort in order to reflect the changing nature of operations under which British forces 'have been effectively conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield to more places more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions'. The emphasis has been 'on multiple concurrent Medium and Small Scale deployments'.[40] Given these changes, and the demonstrated capability of carriers to re-role to troop-carrying, there might have been an argument for reconsidering whether two large carriers still best reflected the Armed Forces needs. Three or more smaller more agile carriers might be a better (and perhaps cheaper) option. We put this to Admiral West who responded:

    The reason that we have arrived at what we have arrived at is because to do the initial strike package, that deep strike package, we have done really quite detailed calculations and we have come out with the figure of 36 joint strike fighters, and that is what has driven the size of it, and that is to be able to deliver the weight of effort that you need for these operations that we are planning in the future. That is the thing that has made us arrive at that size of deck and that size of ship, to enable that to happen. I think it is something like 75 sorties per day over the five-day period or something like that as well.[41]

51. If the MoD remains persuaded that the two carriers will provide an essential capability, that conviction needs to be translated into an effective procurement strategy which will ensure that they are delivered on time, which for the first is 2012 That date was first set in the SDR and it remains the target. Admiral West told us, 'I am still adamant that I want it in 2012'.[42]

52. In a memorandum submitted to us in May 2003, the MoD stated that Main Gate approval for the contract for the carriers was expected in February 2004 and the award of the design and manufacture contract in 'early 2004'.[43] In the event, however, those decisions were both delayed. The Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Bach, told us that the decision to extend the assessment was taken in order to ensure that sufficient progress had been made with de-risking the programme before contracts were approved and that this decision was fully in line with Smart Procurement principles.

53. In our 2004 Defence Procurement report, we supported the emphasis on de-risking the programme before any contract was signed. But we also emphasised the importance of sticking to the overall timetable for bringing the carriers into service. Delaying contracts because important elements of the design are still to be finalised is one thing—and we note Admiral West's comment in November 2004: 'We have 60% design definition now, which is higher than any other project'[44]—but recent press reports have suggested that the delays may be as much to do with disputes between the various parties involved in the project as with the design of the ships themselves.

54. Recent press coverage of the Future Carrier programme has focused on the appointment of the Physical Integrator (PI). In early December 2004, press articles reported that Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton, was likely to be appointed the Physical Integrator. An article in the Sunday Times of 5 December 2004 suggested the appointment of KBR could lead to 1,000 job losses at Rosyth because KBR has previously advocated the assembly of the two ships at Nigg (owned by KBR). Several newspapers ran stories at the end of January 2005 about the Physical Integrator. In the Financial Times on 31 January 2005, it was reported that BAE Systems has threatened to pull out of the project if Halliburton was chosen to manage the carrier programme.

55. The Secretary of State wrote to our Chairman on 7 February 2005 informing him that he was announcing that day the selection of Kellog, Brown and Root Ltd as the 'preferred Physical Integrator for the Future Aircraft Carrier'. MoD will develop the precise role and responsibility of the PI in consultation with all Alliance participants over the coming months. The selection of the preferred PI followed a competitive exercise. Subject to value for money, the carriers are expected to be built by a combination of four shipyards—BAE SYSTEMS Naval Ships at Govan, VT at Portsmouth, Swan Hunter on Tyneside and Babcock BES at Rosyth. Decisions relating to the build strategy will be taken by the PI and the Alliance as a whole—'with the customer i.e. the Ministry of Defence retaining a final veto'. 'The MoD, as client, will retain the right to have the final say on all work allocation and selection decisions'.[45] The intention now is that the PI should take the lead in the development of an 'optimum shipbuild strategy' which in turn will inform the main investment decision which is expected to be taken in the second half of 2005.[46] MoD remains committed to the target in-service dates of 2012 and 2015.

56. We welcome this announcement as an indication that progress is being made with the procurement strategy for the future carriers. We emphasise again the importance of de-risking the project ahead of final contracts being signed. But it is equally important, particularly where the contractual arrangements are as complicated as in this case, that the responsibilities for the various elements of the programme are clearly defined and allocated.

Air defence

57. The last Sea Harrier FA2 squadron will be paid off in 2006. This, according to Admiral West, will leave a gap in naval air defence capabilities until the introduction of the Type 45 Destroyers and their PAAMs missile systems.[47] We examined the proposed withdrawal of the Sea Harrier in our Major Projects Report of 2002. It is important to note that Sea Harrier's air defence capabilities are principally effective against other aircraft. MoD believes that in the future British ships will be more likely to face the threat of sea-skimming missiles than hostile aircraft. Admiral West described the Type 45, equipped with PAAMs, as 'the only anti-air warfare ship in the world which is capable of shooting down the highest threat missile which the Russians produced, and they have already sold to India and I think will go to China'.[48]

58. Nonetheless the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier before the introduction of the Type 45 will lead to a capability gap. As Admiral West told us:

    We will… be taking risks in that gap period in certain types of operations; and I would not be too happy being in a very high air threat.[49]

59. The in-service date of the first Type 45 has now slipped from 2007 to May 2009. The remaining seven will then be delivered in the following years. Thus the air defence gap is set to extend well into the next decade. Although this gap will limit the ability of the versatile and expeditionary naval force envisaged in Future Capabilities to operate without host nation support to provide shore-based air defence cover, it would not, in Admiral West's view, mean that such operations could not be conducted ('The Navy never says it cannot do it'). They would, however, be high risk and other means would have to be employed to reduce the threat:

    Is there a way of making sure they cannot use any of these airfields? Are we able to use special forces? Are we able to use TACTOMS for instance? So you can get round these things.[50]


60. Admiral West's concern that in certain operations the Navy would be exposed to significant risk points up a concern that crosses all three Services but is particularly acute in the Navy. The paring down of numbers of equipments on the grounds of increased capability and in some cases of reduced maintenance requirements can seriously reduce the Armed Forces' resilience to attrition. Admiral West told us that the decision to buy eight (rather than the originally planned twelve) Type 45s meant that 'we have no attrition buy for these'.[51] Drawing on his own experience as commander of the frigate HMS Ardent when it was sunk during the Falklands campaign, he told us:

    I think it is 12 destroyers and frigates for a large-scale operation. I have only been involved in what I might call one large maritime operation—that was fighting in the Falkland Islands—and there were 23 destroyers and frigates involved, of which four were sunk, one of which was my ship, and eight were badly damaged. I do have a worry about that resilience, which is a point you raised. So that again is a reason why I am nervous.[52]

61. There is little evidence in Future Capabilities that MoD has factored the risks of attrition into its calculations for a number of key future equipment programmes, particularly in the maritime environment.


62. One capability which is well able to operate despite a high air warfare threat is the nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN). Admiral West described them as 'in war-fighting… they are the tops really, they are fantastic'.[53] But they also have an important role in other circumstances:

    …they can carry special forces, they can insert them and no one ever know they have been there and get them back again, they can carry out SIGINTs in places where people have not a clue that is going on, and we have some really good coups, in terms of anti-terrorist stuff because of that.[54]

63. The existing fleet, however, is ageing, and its replacement—the Astute class—has been subject to substantial, and well-documented, delays and cost overruns. Future Capabilities states:

    We judge in the light of the reduced threat that an attack submarine fleet of 8 SSNs will be sufficient to meet the full range of tasks.[55]

Admiral West did not seem so sure:

    I think the figure from the SDR was 10 SSNs. We went from 12 to 10. From that ten, how many of those on average am I able to guarantee running? The figure is probably about six. My worry with going down to eight was: how many of those can I guarantee running? As I say, they are getting older and how can I be sure that I will have the numbers I need for the sorts of operations that are laid down in the Defence Planning Guide, and that requires actually six SSNs, five or six, depending on circumstances, and with eight of these old, ageing ones I am concerned.[56]

These are strong words from the man responsible for ensuring that operational commanders have the naval forces they require. The attack submarine fleet is planned to reduce to eight vessels by the end of 2008. The first Astute is currently due to be delivered to the Royal Navy in 2009, but will then need to be worked up before it can be deployed. We believe that Admiral West's concerns must be addressed. If there is a risk of further delays to the bringing into operational service of the Astute submarines, serious consideration should be given to postponing the withdrawal from service of HMS Superb and Trafalgar.

26   Q 510 Back

27   Q 511 Back

28   Q 512 Back

29   Q 71 Back

30   Q 515 Back

31   Q 514 Back

32   Other Coalition nations (notably Australia) are also represented in the task force. Back

33   HC 65-v, Q 552 Back

34   Q 504 Back

35   Q 504 Back

36   Cm 6269, p 7 Back

37   Cm 6041-I, p 12 Back

38   Q 560 and 538 Back

39   Cm 3999, p 29 Back

40   Cm 6041-II, p 7 Back

41   Q 533 Back

42   Q 538 Back

43   Defence Procurement, Eight Report of Session 2002-03, HC 694, Ev 69 Back

44   Q 534 Back

45   Ev 214 Back

46   Ev 179 Back

47   Q 540 Back

48   Q 522 Back

49   Q 540 Back

50   Q 541 Back

51   Q 520 Back

52   Q 520 Back

53   Q 549 Back

54   Q 549 Back

55   Cm 6269, p 7 Back

56   Q 548 Back

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