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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have seen that Prime Ministerial Papers relating to John Nott‘s 1981 cuts to the British Armed Forces were made available to the public on New Years Day, under the 30 year rule. As I am sure you are aware I have long had a strong interest in British Military History in the post war period, and especially in the 1982 Falklands War.

The 1982 war is irrevocably tied up with the Defence cuts of 1981, steered by the Defence Secretary of the time, John Nott. The cuts – which proposed to do away with aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance – are thought to have spurred the Argentine military junta into action. Ironically, if only they had waited another six months the Royal Navy would never have been able to respond. And not only that, but thousands of Dockyard workers who had redundancy notices hanging over their heads were critical in getting the task force ready to sail.

Clearly, if we are looking for lessons of how to do Defence cuts in challenging economic times, the Nott cuts are a valuable example. The file runs to 200+ pages, and consists of ministerial notes, correspondence, memos and speeches. Many of them have handwriting scribbled on, including in the hand of Mrs T herself. I have had a cursory glance through them, and whilst the general thrust is already well known, the files do demonstrate just how far the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach (above), went to try to protect the Navy. He took the very unusual step of asking to see the Prime Minister personally on the issue. Although each of the three service chiefs have the prerogative to see the PM, in practice 99% of the time they raise queries through the Chief of the Defence Staff or the Defence Secretary. Of course, we now know that in that fateful meeting in the House of Commons in April 1982, Leach claimed one of the greatest ‘told you so’s of modern history.

What is new about these documents is the depth they go into in explaining the thinking, the rationale between cutting the Royal Navy, whilst enhancing the RAF and maintaining the Army at the status quo. It is an interesting case study of the defence priorities that Britain had in 1981, and there are also some insights into procurement, costs, and the inventory of equipment that the armed forces had at the time.

I’m going to have a look through them and post up some snippets and my analysis. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning

So, we’ve looked at the various elements that might constitute a re-run of the 1982 Falklands War – the political dimension; the naval war (Aircraft carriers, naval aviation, amphibious warfare, escorts, logistics, submarines); the air war; and the land battle.

I think the key points to emerge are as follows:

  • Lack of carrier-borne air cover MIGHT not preclude a succesful task force, but it would be useful
  • We have JUST enough amphibious capability to effect a landing if need be
  • We have some very high quality Destroyers and Frigates, but nowhere near enough of them
  • We are perilously short of auxiliaries, and would need much assistance from the Merchant Navy
  • Our submarines are very capable, but far too few
  • The four Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be crucial
  • Any landing force would be battle-hardened, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Argentines forces, although more professional, are outclassed equipment wise

As we can see, there are a lot of ‘might’, ‘just’. Which is hardly ideal when planning to embark on a military operation. The theme that seems to emerge is that the British Armed Forces – in terms of inventory and personnel – are very high quality, but few in number. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the economic situation – in fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better. And if future defence cuts prune back – salami slice – ship numbers, for example, then we would go beyond the point where an operation ‘might’ be possible, to a point where one would be foolhardy.

Politically, the Falklands/Malvinas issue is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and certainly not after the discovery of natural resouces in the seabed of the South Atlantic. The current Argentine President is continually spouting ‘route-one’ politics, ie fooling the population away from domestic problems by targetting an external bogeyman. The current period of South American love-in has also emboldened Kirchner, it seems. How long this might last is anyones guess, given the fickle nature of Latin American politics.

1982 taught us that signs of weakness, such as cutting vital and sometimes symbolic assets, can be the first domino in causing unsavoury types to play their hand. Any possible savings that might have been gained from retiring HMS Endurance in 1982 were completely dwarfed by the costs – human, financial and materiel – that were incurred after Argentina took it to be a launchpad for war. As such, cost-cutting can be short-sighted – cutting a ship might save a few million, but will it cost us much more in the long run? Defence does give traction on the world stage. It was this lack of co-ordination between defence and diplomacy that caused such problems in 1982.

Is it narrow-minded to think solely about the Falkland Islands? After all, history is full of examples of forces and leaders who prepared to fight the last war, only to find that they were hopelessly stuck in the past. Aside from extremist terrorism, and perhaps Iran in the straights of Hormuz, Argentine threats to the Falklands are the most serious threat to British interests today. And we would be sensible to plan accordingly. All the time the Falkland Islanders wish to remain British, we have a duty to defend them.

Also, we should be aware that any ignominious outcome in the Falklands would have big domestic and international repurcussions. If the Argentines were to reclaim the Falklands, what is to stop the Spanish applying pressure over Gibraltar? We might find that we also put other nations in sticky positions over their far-flung possessions. And for Britain to be defeated by a second-world state would be embarassing to say the least – losing wars and surrendering territories does nothing for your international standing. In 1982 the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact cannot have failed to note that the British Armed Forces punched very hard. Showing that you will not be pushed about will surely make other enemies think twice about having a pop.

In 2012 the Falklands could be defended, and retaken if necessary. Just.

 

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New Royal Navy ice patrol vessel announced

The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Icebreaker MV PolarBjorn (Polar Bear) has been selected to become the Royal Navy’s new ice patrol vessel. PolarBjorn will be re-christened HMS Protector while in Royal Navy service. The last  HMS Protector was also an antarctic patrol vessel.

Heres the spiel from Rieber’s website:

The ‘Polarbjørn’ is purpose-built for undertaking both long duration Antarctic expeditions, and offshore subsea support duties.  With her large public areas and accommodation capacities, helicopter deck and DP2 class, the vessel is well suited for undertaking flotel- and base ship functions on offshore fields and other operations. The vessel’s large deck areas and cargo holds offers ‘unlimited’ storage capacity for ROV and related equipment. The ship’s 50-ton knuckle-boom crane and the A-frame offers efficient solutions for handling equipment over the side and over the stern.

A few facts and figures about Polar Bjorn:

  • 90 metres long
  • 18 metres beam
  • 9.05 metres draught
  • Gross tonnage 4,985 tons, deadweight of 3,700 tons

She is currently owned by Rieber Shipping, and was launched in 2001. Until recently she has been working under a Norwegian flag on the ‘spot’ tendering market in the North Sea and Arctic offshore oil fields. Apparently during 2010 she was only being used 33% of the time due to the economic downturn, so her chartering by the MOD will be welcome to her owners. Official announcements by Defence Minister Lord Astor suggest that she will be leased for three years while HMS Endurance‘s fate is decided, but I would suggest that it is likely that Endurance will be scrapped and PolarBjorn/Protector purchased once the lease runs out. The same happened with HMS Endurance herself.

Amusingly, apparently members of the HMS Protector Association had known about the acquisition since January, but had been sworn to secrecy by the ship’s new CO, Captain Peter Sparkes. The Association’s newsletter also announces that she will be formally commisioned on 23 June 2011 in Portsmouth.

According to some sources she will be arriving in Portsmouth for the first time in April or May. At that point she will undergo a refit to install naval equipment, such as communications and limited weaponry. Apparently her up-front helicopter deck is going to be removed, and a new landing pad installed nearer her stern. This will probably necessitate the removal of some of her crane capability, which she will probably not use fully in RN service in any case. She will also need a hangar, given the manner in which she will operate independently in the ice.

The former ice patrol ship HMS Endurance is being withdrawn from service after suffering serious damage when she flooded in the South Atlantic in 2008. Since then the Offshore patrol vessel HMS Scott has been standing-in in the South Atlantic, but this is far from ideal as she is not an ice-breaker, and takes her away from her other role.

It will be good to see a new ship entering Portsmouth for a change.

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Busy time in Portsmouth Dockyard – for scrap, anyway…

Yesterday’s Portsmouth News highlighted how busy the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth is going to be in the coming months. Not in terms of actual, serving ships, but in terms of rusting hulks that are to sail no more. The disposals section of the MOD must be a lot busier than any other department right now.

HMS Invincible has been rusting in 3 Basin for almost 6 years now, and is due to be towed to Turkey for scrapping soon. Her place will be taken by the soon-to-be decomissioned HMS Ark Royal. Alongside her are several RFA’s. The other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Illustrious, will be gone by 2014. In ‘the trot’ of Fareham Creek right now are the decomissioned Type 42 Destroyers Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton. They are bering hurriedly offered for sale in order to create space for more ships that will be leaving service soon. One more Type 42 – Manchester – is due to leave service in the next year, with the other four remaining ships in the class going by 2014. The four remaining Type 22 Frigates – Cornwall, Campbeltown, Cumberland and Chatham – are all due to decomission and be moved to Portsmouth awaiting disposal. And then we also have the stricken HMS Endurance, very unlikely to ever sail again. And one of the Albion Class ships will be placed at ‘extended readiness’, which may well find the ship in question tied up in Portsmouth, as Pompey seems to be the Navy’s dumping ground of late.

Actually, the ships due for disposal and/or scrapping effectively equate to a whole Naval Task Force – two aircraft carriers, one front line landing ship and one auxiliary landing ship, eight air defence destroyers, four frigates, and several auxiliaries. Thats MORE ships than the UK has contributed to many major conflicts since 1945.

Portsmouth Dockyard will be looking more like a giant version of Pounds Yard soon. A very sad state of affairs.

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A new HMS Protector to replace HMS Endurance

HMS PROTECTOR at anchor

The previous HMS Protector (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Defence have announced that a commercial ice-breaker will be chartered to replace the current HMS Endurance. It is expected that if the charter proves to be succesful she will be purchased and fully commissioned into the Royal Navy. This is no doubt welcome news, particularly given the antics coming out of Buenos Aires recently.

There has been no comfirmation over which ship has been selected. Rumours suggest that a Norwegian vessel working in North America is a favourite, although the MOD has refused to confirm this, stating that the tendering process has not yet been completed. A similar process was followed for the two previous HMS Endurances, which were previously MV Anita Dan and MV Polar Circle respectively.

The MOD have also announced that the new ship will be called HMS Protector. The last HMS Protector was another South Atlantic Patrol Ship, launched in 1936 and decomissioned in 1968. The last two ice patrol ships have been called HMS Endurance, so the naming is a break with recent tradition. And a very eventful tradition at that, with previous HMS Endurance being in the thick of the 1982 Falklands War, and the last Endurance being adopted by the City of Portsmouth and a very visible sign of the UK’s presence in the South Atlantic.

Warship names have always been an emotive issue. There will no doubt be protests that the world will end if the new ship is not called Endurance. Similar calls have been made that one of the new aircraft carriers should be called Ark Royal. Cities have been very precious about having warships named after them – particularly with the decomissioning of the Type 42 ‘City’ Class. One city- Sheffield – even refused to adopt a Type 45 Destroyer as it was called HMS Diamond and not Sheffield. One of the Type 22 Broadsword Frigates was called HMS London after the Lord Mayor of London requested it. How lovely – what if I fancy there being an HMS Daly? Will the Lordships oblige me? Shall we have Warship Factor, a phone-in competition to decide the names of the next class of Type 26 Frigates?

By choosing a new name, but one that has historical connections, the Navy is being very smart. The Royal Navy has a long and rich history, with literally hundreds of proud names to choose from – why use the same names over and over again? It is important to remember that the service is not just about ships but also about men. It really is a case of the King is dead, long live the King.

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Endurance report highlights effects of undermanning

HMS Endurance in Portsmouth Harbour

HMS Endurance in Portsmouth Harbour

The report into the 2008 flooding of HMS Endurance has highlighted the serious effects of undermanning in the Royal Navy. The report can be found here.

On 16 Deceme 2008 HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, suffered serious engine room flooding off the southern tip of Chile that very nearly resulted in the loss of the ship. At the time of the incident the crew were cleaning a seawater inlet strainer. During the operation a remotely operated valve opened, causing flooding.

However, the roots of the incident can be traced back to the decision to deploy Endurance to the South Atlantic for 18 months, in order to save money – the report suggesting that she deploy for such a long stretch identified financial cost as the only caveat. The challenge of meeting such a long deployment was met by implementing a crew rotation described as ‘between managed gapping and a formal three watch system’ – euphemisms for undermanning. As a result at times the ship would be short of key personnel. At the time of the planned 18 month deployment a need was identified for an additional Petty Officer Engineer, but this need was no met due to fleet-wide shortages of this role.

In October 2007 Endurance completed her Operational Sea Training, and apparently performed well. During this period, however, she had not adopted her new manning regime, so the assessment was effectively meaningless. Surely if the ship had been inspected while operating the new manning regime, the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) would have identified problems?

Apparently during the deployment Endurance was producing much less fresh water than was considered normal (one of the ships laundries was closed down, and the crew were told to conserve water) and the engineering department attempted to identify why and rectify the problem. A blocked inlet strainer was identified. However, after cleaning two pipes were re-connected incorrectly.

The panel found that there was not enough expertise onboard regarding the fresh water system, and the Engineering Officer was not sufficiently aware of how the system worked. The panel also found that lack of manpower meant that Senior Ratings who were supposed to be acting in a supervisory role were having to be involved in manual maintenance tasks. This lack of senior ratings also led to poor co-ordination and risk assessment. The recently arrived CO also told the panel that he felt the Engineering Department was ‘set in its ways’ as too many of its personnel had been on Endurance for a long time.

That the ships crew managed to save the ship in such challenging circumstances is testament to their inherent professionalism. It is just a shame that they and HMS Endurance were put in such a position, primarily due to financial constraints. We should remember as well that this is an ice patrol ship operating in peacetime conditions – what sort of conditions are there on Warships, and what effect would this undermanning and cost-cutting have during wartime?

The report did not recommend any charges to be brought against the ships crew. Surely this is a tacit admission that the causes of the incident were based on cost-cutting from above. As a result, 2 years later, Endurance is still laid up in Portsmouth, awaiting a decision on whether she will be repaired or scrapped.

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Navy considering future of HMS Endurance

HMS Endurance

HMS Endurance

The Royal Navy are seriously considering the future of HMS Endurance, Britain’s specialist South Atlantic patrol ship and icebreaker, reports Janes Navy International.

Endurance was seriously damaged by flooding in late 2008, and is currently laid up in Portsmouth while it is decided what to do with her. With the repair bill being estimated at £30m, it is not surprising that the Navy are looking at alternatives. At 19 years old, would it be cost effective to repair her? Or might it be more prudent to replace her with a leased ship?

HMS Scott is currently performing Endurance’s role of patrolling the South Atlantic antarctic area. HMS Clyde is also based semi-permanently in the Falkland Islands, and there is usually a Frigate or Destroyer on station in the South Atlantic too. Whilst it might be argued that cutting Endurance from the fleet would signal to the Argentinians that the UK is not serious about the South Atlantic, even without Endurance we have a much more considerable presence around the Falklands now than we did pre-1982. And, arguably, the Argentines are in no position, politically or militarily, to take any action over the Falklands.

Endurance also carries out scientific surveys in the Antarctic area. Whilst this is no doubt useful and interesting to scientists, is this a priority for the Navy? The British Antarctic Survey has its own research vessel, the James Clark Ross.

Endurance is a special ship, no doubt about it, but in hard times maybe the Navy needs to be looking to cut its cloth.

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