Thu, 22 April 2021

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Royal Navy is ‘overstretched and undermanned’

Royal Navy is ‘overstretched and undermanned’
4 min read

The SNP’s spokesperson for Defence Procurement writes that the Government’s shipbuilding strategy is now long overdue and notes the Royal Navy also faces a recruitment crisis.

It’s the year of the Royal Navy and earlier this Summer I watched the largest warship ever built in the UK, HMS Queen Elizabeth, slowly manoeuvre her way out of the dockyard in my constituency where she had been built. This represented the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication from the men & women at Rosyth, and signalled the aspirations for what sort of Royal Navy we could expect in the future. Similarly, the long-awaited cutting of steel and announcement that it would be HMS Glasgow to be the first of the new City Class frigates pointed to a momentous year for the Senior Service.

Yet the announcement in January that this would be the year of the Navy was met with a raising of the eyebrows from most experienced Navy-watchers, and the feeling that the MoD spin machine was in full flow again. As welcome and exciting as these announcements and milestones were, there were also fears that it could be a real year to forget.

The Navy has a historic low of 17 usable frigates and destroyers, with lesser ships taking on vital roles normally undertaken by these workhorses of the fleet. The government’s much vaunted solution for this shortfall, the Type 31e general purpose frigate is an unknown quantity, with no agreement on what it will look like, raising the possibility that the fleet could shrink even further if there is no like for like replacement of the ageing Type 23 fleet from 2023 onwards. On the Dreadnought front, recent internal reports suggest the programme is beset with technical issues and the Secretary of State should get ready to throw £10bn contingency fund at the problems barely a year into the formal programme. The UK obsession with nuclear weapons is already skewing budgets across all three services, these problems only make matter worse.

As a recruitment crisis begins to bite, the withdrawal of 42 Royal Marines Commando leads to fears that it foreshadows a further degradation in the force, as the need to crew the Queen Elizabeth Carriers brings difficult questions onto the desk of the First Sea Lord. Does the Navy have the personnel, trained at appropriate skill levels to deliver for the nation, if and when required? Would he, for example, have full confidence in deploying both carriers simultaneously with an effective carrier strike group?

Some of answers to these pressing questions were expected to be found in the Shipbuilding Strategy, initially announced in January 2016, and publication expected along with the Autumn Statement. In expectation, the Defence Select Committee, of which I was a member, published a report detailing a set of challenges for the MoD – challenges they decided to respond to by quietly postponing publication of the strategy, for which, almost a year on we are still waiting to see. The Secretary of State must appreciate that time is one thing the Royal Navy does not have on its side.

And of course, these decisions will be made with the dismal backdrop of Brexit, as the MoD spin machine cranks up a gear again to trumpet the possibilities offered by this Brave New Global Britain. Strangely though, they were silent on the subject of the celebratory jamborees noted by the Singapore and New Zealand Navies early this year, and attended by naval ships from around the Commonwealth and the rest of the World. 

Not from Britain though. The overstretched, undermanned Navy couldn’t attend events that one would have normally expected to be prime advertising for the Global Britain – quite the metaphor for this Year of the Navy.


Douglas Chapman is the SNP’s spokesperson for Defence Procurement & SNP representative to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He is the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife.

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