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.