Thoughts on the Fleet Ready Escort

HMS Somerset of the Royal Navy. Type 23 frigat...

A Type 23 Frigate, often on Fleet Ready Escort (Image via Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot in the papers recently about the fact that the Royal Navy has not had a Frigate or Destroyer designated as the Fleet Ready Escort for the past four weeks or so. But what exactly is the Fleet Ready Escort? It is usually a Frigate or Destroyer, maintained at high-readiness in UK waters to respond to events anywhere in the world. The idea presumably being that if a crisis kicks off somewhere, we can at least get ONE ship there quickly, and the most utilitarian of ships at that. If we need to augment the deployment, add ships, roulement, etc, then we can deal with that in time. FRE could be referred to as the first domino.

A clear example of this is the manner in which during the Callaghan Government of the late 1970’s, a Frigate was despatched. A Submarine and RFA soon followed. Sending a Frigate might be largely symbolic in a lot of cases, given the time that it will take to actually reach a crisis zone. But it is a statement of intent, that we can and will respond. If it is commonly known that we have no means of response, then rogue elements around the world know that they can act with impunity. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if they can read Janes and see that our ability to respond is somewhere between unlikely and impossible, it must have at least crossed Argentina’s mind that if the Royal Navy does not have one Frigate spare in British waters, how the hell could it send a Task Force 8,000 miles south?

Therefore, that the Royal Navy has been without an FRE for any length of time is a cause of concern. It certainly is an indication that the fleet is far too stretched to fulfil all of its commitments adequately. Defending the realm and responding to the Government’s Foreign policy needs are surely the primary role of the Royal Navy? If they cannot be met, then why not? It’s hardly rocket science, but you can’t keep cutting ships without affecting capability. One expects that if something happened that required a response we would have to scrape the barrell and pull a ship out of refit, or off of exercises. We could probably cope, but ‘cope’ is not a very confidence-inspiring word.

One aspect in which I do think the role of FRE has been overstated is that of terrorism in UK waters. With the best will in the world, enough has been written here and elsewhere online to show that against seaborne terrorist tactics, such as small boats, Frigates and Destroyers are far from ideal. In any case, if you are looking to respond AFTER a terrorist incident, then it is already too late – the perpetrators will either have made away, or been vaporised along with their explosive-packed RIB. Smaller patrol craft, such as those employed by the SBS, would be far more suitable.

Neither is there any credible need to have a warship available to defend British waters in the conventional sense. All of our neighbours in Europe are friendly, and there are no antagonists anywhere near our seaboards who are likely to send a Battle Group up the western approaches any time soon. In any case, one expects if they did, we would know about it with plenty of notice. We are living in a different world from that of Jutland or Operation SeaLion.

In a similar manner to the FRE, the Army usually has an infantry Battalion on short notice to go anywhere in the world, and the RAF has assets on high-readiness, in particular fighters to intercept aircraft nosing into our airspace. When it comes down to it, all British servicemen and and defence materiel are on some level of readiness to go anywhere in the world should it be deemed necessary. If one ship is at high-readiness, what are the rest of them at? In the same manner, I guess, we have got used to roulements, with ships/units etc only being deployed for around 6 months at a time. This is obviously a ‘luxury’ or peacetime punctuated by low-intensity operations, whereas during total war, everyone is in the front line for the duration.

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10 Comments

Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Thoughts on the Fleet Ready Escort

  1. John Erickson

    Why, when you mention the Fleet Ready Escort, am I picturing a couple sailors pelting down the M1 in an old Ford? :D
    It seems a bit odd to have only one ship in the “rapid response” role. (So says the Yank, backed by his huge Navy. ;) ) Seriously, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have a small task force, a frigate or two plus some way to deliver a small contingent of Marines plus a support vessel? I would think that having such small task forces at several points around the globe (perhaps in co-operation with NATO and/or The Commonwealth?) would provide better response times and abilities.
    Or is my large Navy showing again?

    • James Daly

      Its a reality of only having 19 escort vessels. As we have noted before, if you can get a third of your total fleet available at any one time you’re doing well, what with refits, working up and shaking down, FOST, etc. When you add to that standing commitments – South Atlantic, Gulf, Indian Ocean, thats almost all of the available ships taken up. Even when you consider that some standing tasks such as the West Indies patrol are fulfiled by RFA’s now, thats a very poor show.

      It goes to show what we’ve said all along – hull numbers DO matter. Ships can only be in one place at any one time. I’ve never had any time for this argument that it doesn’t matter that we have less ships, because the ones we have are more capable. If theres a crisis in the South Atlantic, having a rolls royce of a ship in the Middle East is an irrelevance, if thats the only one available.

      • x

        It is always sobering to remember how small a percentage of the fleet went south in ’82. Further the “reserve” fleet meant that ships like the Tribals could be reactivated and put back into service.

        I

        • James Daly

          And we still fulfiled standing commitments too, such as the Armilla patrol and NATO commitments. Now we can’t even do that properly. Surely there has to be a point where we simply can’t cut any more? At some point we will feel the consequences, whether its tomorrow or in ten years time, we will pay the price for short sightedness.

          I guess the shrinking of the escort fleet is like the review of BAOR’s 4th Division I found on BBC iplayer – we can barely get a Division into action, let alone have a whole one lined up on an exercise range for review.

  2. The Fleet Ready Escort is there to provide an ability to react to unexpected events – such as intercepting a vessel carry drugs, or supporting an operation against a vesel with suspected terrorist involvement – and the FRE has been involved in both over the last ten years.

  3. Well, the First Sea Lord DID say this would happen.

  4. IS CMD as clever as he likes to think?

    • James Daly

      Whats the phrase I’m looking for… rich as croesus, thick as shit? I remember when I used to assume that politicians were the most intelligent people in society. Now, being older and wiser (ahem), I realise that having gone to Eton and Oxford does not necessarily mean you are intellectually gifted.

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