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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Auxiliaries and Merchant vessels

English: NRP Bérrio, fleet support tanker of t...

Image via Wikipedia

In 2009 I looked at the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy. But since then, it has occured to me that their roles are so similar and interlinked that it makes much more sense to look at them in unison.

The RFA of 2012 is woefully small. Even when we consider that the Royal Navy has contracted in size, the RFA has shrunk beyond proportion to that contraction. It can only field:

It should be noted that I have excluded the Bay Class LPD’s, which rightfully belong under ‘Amphibious Warfare’. This is absolutely microscopic when compared to the RFA effort that was required in 1982. In 1982 the RFA utilised:

  • 10 Tankers of four different classes
  • 2 Fort Class replenishment ships
  • 1 Helicopter Support ship
  • 2 Ammunition store ships
  • 1 Ness Class store ship

In addition, the Merchant Navy provided a very sizeable contribution to the logistics effort, and ships taken up from trade and chartered consisted of the following:

  • 9 troopships (to lift two brigades)
  • 4 aircraft/helicopter support ships
  • 1 ammunition ship
  • 1 general transport ship
  • 14 Oil Tankers
  • 1 Water Tanker
  • 2 Ocean going tugs
  • 1 mooring vessel
  • 2 repair ships
  • 3 Refrigerated stores ships
  • 1 hospital ship
  • 2 despatch vessels
  • 1 minesweeper support ship

I have been having a bit of trouble getting access to any kind of information of what ships comprise the Merchant Navy in the present day. Bearing in mind the kind of effort it took to maintain a task force in the South Atlantic 30 years ago, a logistical effort would probably be required on a similar kind of level. If such ships could not be requisitioned from British flagged companies, ships would have to be chartered – at considerable cost. It is surely never ideal to be chartering ships to take to war.

With the shrinking of the RFA, gaps exist for tankers and general store ships. The six Point Class roll-on roll-off ships could provide a very useful capability of lifting vehicles, equipment, stores and possibly aircraft if needed. RFA Argus could be utilised as a helicopter support ship, and given the utility of the repair ship RFA Diligence, it would seem that similar repair support would be invaluable, given that Diligence has also acted very usefully as a depot ship for submarines and minesweepers in the past. Any vessels – perhaps container ships – that could be quickly converted to transport and operate helicopters would be most useful. Liners and medium to large ferries would be needed as troopships, and if Argus was used for helicopter support another option would be needed for providing hospital ship(s).

There is a serious lack of Tankers in the RFA. With only two Wave Class Fleet Tankers, two smaller Rover Class Tankers and one Leaf Class support tanker, the ability to replenish ships at sea is very minimal indeed. Even then, often the Wave Class ships have been sent on patrol duties, intercepting drug smugglers and pirates and the like. Whilst large commercial tankers could be requisitioned or chartered, it remains to be seen how many of them could replenish ships at sea.

Presumably the Task Force would have use of Ascenscion Island as a staging post. The airfield at Wideawake has been used as RAF Ascencion Island since the War as part of the air bridge between the UK and the South Atlantic. Although Ascencion does not have a harbour, it does provide the only sheltered anchorage en-route to the Falklands. The construction of an aiport on Saint Helena, due for completion in 2015, would radically improve transport links with the South Atlantic. Hence Saint Helena could also be used as a logistics hub. I would be very surprised if the MOD has not leaned on DfID to ensure that St Helena Airport is not capable of supporting military operations if necessary.

Histories of the Falklands War suggest that the Ministry of Defence maintains a list of merchant ships suitable for use in the time of war. In 1982, it was found that many of these were light, cross-channel ferries totally unsuitable to sailing 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic. One would hope that the MOD has a similar list maintained in readiness for a future Falklands War, as it looks like any Task Force would be impossible without a significant Merchant Navy contribution. From a logistical sense, getting a Task Force to the South Atlantic and keeping it there would be of prime importance.

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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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Minister meets with RFA union over cuts threat

Defence Minister Kevan Jones is to meet with union leaders regarding the looming review of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, reports the Portsmouth Evening News.

In October RFA personnel were informed that the Ministry of Defence would be conducting a ‘value-for-money’ review, just two years after the last review had supposedly made the RFA safe for 20 years.

The union, Nautilus, have argued that the RFA is being unfairly treated. The MOD in turn has admitted that the review has been prompted by pressure from the Treasury, after being lobbied by private shipping firms who have spare capacity during the recession.

Mr Jones assured Nautilus that the review would be carried out, ‘with no preconceived outcomes.’ Personally I’m not sure how this can be, given the pressure from the Treasury and the over-riding need to cut public spending. And as has been seen in the past, the Government will have no scruples about compromising national interest for private profits. It is highly unlikely that the ‘shipping firms’ in question are truly British in any case, so any business that would be generated for the commercial sector would leave the country anyway.

Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said: ‘We are confident that the RFA can yet again demonstrate its unrivalled efficiency and professionalism, but it is important that the ministers understand our concerns about the dangers of taking a simplistic short-term approach to the way the RFA is operated’.

In times of recession and burgeoning public sector debt, it is inevitable that cuts have to be made. But defence policy should not be driven by private shipping firms with profits in mind. And whilst Defence spending should never be allowed to get out of control, the 1920’s and 1930’s showed the folly of a Treasury driven Defence policy. And the Nott cuts in the early 1980’s, driven by Margaret Thatcher’s desire to slash public spending, very nearly prevented any kind of reaction to the Falklands crisis.

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RFA Vessel off to Haiti

RFA Largs Bay: Haiti bound

RFA Largs Bay: Haiti bound

Hot on the heels of my article on Mulberry Harbour yesterday, the Portsmouth News today that RFA Largs Bay is set to depart for the Carribean to assist in the disaster relief effort.

The 16,000 ton RFA landing ship is normally used for supporting amphibious operations. She will be able to use her flight deck, internal dock, mexefloat pontoons and cargo crane to not only transport important supplies but to act as a platform off the coast. They have a hige vehicle deck which will be ideal for loading supplies. Essentially she will be a smaller version of the Mulberry concept of locating a base close to where assistance is needed. The ability to get cargo onto shore is important – a huge container vessel could transport thousands of tons to the area, but then getting it from ship to shore would be problematic. The other problem seems to be security: a ship based inshore will be ideal in this respect. If several similar ships could be located together, along with pontoons, landing craft and helicopters, the result would essentially be a makeshift port.

I’m a big fan of these incredibly versatile ships. I also think that this kind of operation demonstrates real and genuine international aid, much more positive and constructive than simply handing £bn’s over to states such as India and China who are rich enough to look after themselves. Disaster relief is definitely a positive by-product of having an amphibious warfare capability, and demonstrates how Defence, Foreign Policy and International Aid can and should be closely aligned.

Remember, however, that Largs Bay and her sister ships are part of a service that is under threat of being privatised.

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Falklands then and now: Auxiliaries

One of the biggest, but most overlooked, lessons of the Falklands War was the immense contribution of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Yet, over 25 years later, not only has the RFA been decimated by succesive defence cuts, its very existence is currently under question.

There are wider lessons from military history here. Both Marlborough and Wellington have become known as logistics Generals. In the modern era, Montgomery was known for his penchant for fighting ‘tidy’ battles, and keeping his line of communications in good order. Famously, an inability to supply both Montgomery and Patton led to the allied advance in the late summer of 1944 grinding to a halt. For all the modern technology on offer, we ignore logistics at our peril.

How has it transpired that economic factors have brought about the very real spectre of the Royal Navy’s support and logistics arm being privatised? And what impact does this have on the Royal Navy’s warfighting capability?

The picture in 1982

RFA Olmeda replenishing HMS Invincible in 1985

RFA Olmeda replenishing HMS Invincible in 1985

In 1982 the Royal Fleet Auxiliary consited of 27 ships (6 of them were Round Table Class Landing Ships, which have been included under Amphibious Warfare). A total of 22 of these were deployed to the Falklands, demonstrating the immense effort required to keep the Task Force fighting 8,000 miles from the UK.

Five stores ships were deployed: two of the Fort Austin Class, two of the Regent Class, and Stromness. In addition there were also Five Fleet Tankers deployed – these were especially critical, due to their ability and experience in Replenishing up to 3 ships at once while underway. Also crucial were the Five Leaf Class support tankers, which although designed for transporting fuel between terminals, but could pass fuel to the fleet tankers and other ships at sea if needed. A Helicopter Support Ship, Engadine, was also despatched to the South Atlantic.

These ships were heavily supplemented by a large number of Merchant ships, either Requisitioned or Chartered by the Ministry of Defence. Among them were Oil Tankers, supply ships, and repair ships. Other Merchant ships supported the Amphibious Group as troop ships and transports. I will consider the potential for the use of Merchant vessels in my next instalment.

The picture in 2009

A RAS (replenishment at sea) underway

A RAS (replenishment at sea) underway

The RFA is a much smaller flotilla than in 1982. Although its contribution to the Falklands War was duly noted, in the following years its vessels have been succesively cut or simply not replaced.

The RFA in 2009 consists of 17 vessels, 4 of these being the Bay Class Landing Ships. In essence, there are 13 supply ships available to support the Royal Navy’s operations worldwide. The two Wave Class fast fleet tankers entered service in 2003. There are also two ageing ships of the Rover Class remaining, and 3 equally old ships of the Leaf Class of Support tankers. In terms of supply ships the two Fort Grange class ships are still in service, and the two ships of the Fort Victoria class entered service in 1993. RFA Argus, the former Contender Bezant, was acquired by the RFA after the Falklands to provide aviation training, and can also operate as an aircraft transport. MV Stena Inspector, which saw action in the Falklands, was purchased in 1983 as a Forward Repair ship and renamed RFA Diligence. She has also operated as a mothership for minesweepers.

In terms of numbers the RFA has dwindled since 1982. When we consider that many of the ships quoted above will be in refit, or on operations around the world, the picture is even more stark. Frequently RFA vessels are called upon to perform patrol tasks that would normally be allocated to Frigates or Destroyers, such is the shortage of escort vessels in the Royal Navy. Recently one of the Wave Class tankers was roundly criticised for not taking on pirates in the Gulf of Aden: yet it seems to have occured to no-one that she shouldnt be expected to fight pirates in the first place.

Currently, HMS Gold Rover is in the South Atlantic, and RFA Wave Knight and RFA Bayleaf in the Red Sea. Between 2001 and 2006 RFA Diligence spent almost 5 years away from the UK. RFA Fort George has just returned from the North Atlantic patrol, and RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Fort Austin are undergoing refit. As with any ships, once operations, refits and training are taken into account, the ‘bottom line’ number of hulls is much less.

In Conclusion:

Clearly, putting together a fleet of RFA vessels to support any task force to the South Atlantic, as in 1982, would be a thankless task. This is perhaps the one critical element of the British armed forces that would make an such an operation impossible. Put simply, the Royal Navy could not supply and maintain a large task force far from home, without friendly support.

Worryingly, the forecast is not any better. Reportedly the MOD is reviewing the RFA, supposedly under the banner of ‘cost-effectiveness’. However, it is strongly rumoured that the Commercial shipping industry has been lobbying for the task of supplying the Royal Navy. This might save costs and give trade to the private sector, but can the Royal Navy be effectively supported by what would be foreign flagged, non-military standard vessels? I strongly suspect not.

With a lack of dedicated military support vessels, what support could be expected from the Merchant Navy? I plan to examine this in the next instalment. But after even some cursory research, I feel that the picture will not be any brighter.

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RFA privatisation ‘a done deal’ according to Union

The rumoured privatisation of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is said to be a done deal, according to Union officials quoted in todays Independent.

The RFA employs 2,000 people and runs 16 ships, supporting the Royal Navy’s operations around the globe. The move could result in British sailors being replaced with cheap labour from countries such as the Phillipines, and even fears that new RFA ships could be built in India and China, hitting British shipbuilding hard.

Ministerial sources say that the MoD is struggling with severe cash-flow problems because of Afghanistan and has asked the head of every department to identify 10 per cent cuts – adding up to £200m – by Christmas. One sources spoke of “blind panic” in the MoD, such is the scale of the cash crisis. “Wherever they can save money, it’s forget about the long term.”

The RMT leader, Bob Crow, said a loophole in the minimum-wage legislation exempted shipping. “The RFA is mainly a British crew,” he said. “But this is purely a cost-saving exercise. The only way they could save large sums of money is by cutting the cost of the staff. So the people who supply the fleet with fuel and munitions would be casual labour, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see the inherent security risks in that. It could also mean that new ships are built in India or China, rather than British shipyards. We will use every tool in our possession to fight this.”

John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, predicted there would be a backbench rebellion over plans to privatise the RFA. “There will be a lot of anger. It is lunatic in the extreme at this point in time – who in their right minds would make us vulnerable in this way? It’s extraordinary. There would be a rebellion of backbench MPs. It comes close to a general election and covers a lot of concerns – from security to the principle of privatisation,” he said.

An MoD spokeswoman said: “The ministry is looking at ways we can improve efficiency across defence. We are considering a number of options how we achieve this, and trade unions are fully engaged in the process. No decision has yet been made.”

Now, from my cynical point of view, when a Government spokesperson says ‘no decision has yet been made’, that lets the cat out of the bag. Improving efficiency? If it wasnt so serious it would be hilarious. Also, it merely confirms that the Ministry of Defence is run by accountants.

Sadly there are also bigger issues at hand. The Royal Navy simply has to get better at fighting its own corner. In many respects it is still the ‘silent service’ when it comes to standing up for itself. And where do we stand on future projects? Its all very well planning for new Aircraft Carriers, but if we are so hard-up we have to privatise our support services? Also, the Royal Air Force has to look at itself. How useful are those 200 odd Europfighters compared to 16 Auxiliary vessels?

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Petition to save the RFA

Save the RFA

Save the RFA

There is a petition on the 10 Downing Street website to save the RFA from looming defence cuts.

Here is the text uploaded by the person who started the petition:

“The RFA have supplied our Royal Navy (and allies) for over a century – they carry everything from ammunition to troops – oil to foodstuff and become RN Reserve in the theatre of war. They assist in anti drug running and preventing piracy. The RFA is manned by highly trained, professional, civilian crews committed to the defence of this country – prepared to take up arms to do so. Given the Queen’s Colours last year for their tremendous yet often unnoticed achievements, we should not forget many RFA members have died in the defence of the UK. We do not want the security of our RN or the UK compromised by replacing RFA ships and crews with a private company and who knows who – with access to who knows what! They are the very backbone to the RN – without the RFA they would go nowhere! We do not need this risk to the defence of the realm and the people within it!”

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