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
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
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.
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.