Make Do and Mend in the Royal Navy

An interesting pair of posts popped up in my reader almost simultaneously. The first is from Naval Gazing, on the logistics workup early on in the Falklands War:

In a meeting on March 31st, two days before the invasion, the Defense Secretary, John Nott, suggested that it would take five months to muster a task force … The First Sea Lord, Admiral Henry Leach, disagreed. He not only convinced Prime Minister Thatcher that it was possible to recapture the islands, but also promised that he could have a task force ready to go within a week.

This was an incredible claim. Britain had only two carriers, the WWII-vintage HMS Hermes and the new HMS Invincible. They had recently returned from a major exercise, and Hermes was in week two of a six-week stint in the yards, while Invincible’s crew was on leave. One of the two British LPDs, HMS Intrepid, was only weeks away from decommissioning, and her crew had already been dispersed throughout the fleet. All available personnel were immediately put to work, buttoning up Hermes and loading the ships due to go south.

This was a herculean task … Everything for the campaign had to be aboard before they left – food, fuel, and the thousands of items of supplies that make a modern war machine run. … The situation was so desperate that cleanup of the the pile of discarded packing material on the wharves didn’t start for two weeks … Finally, on April 5th, Hermes and Invincible cast off. Hermes’ deck was crowded with Harriers and Sea Kings as she made her way past the cheering spectators. This was not primarily for the spectacle. There was nowhere to put them belowdecks, as the hangar was being used to sort supplies, which had been coming aboard until the gangplanks were withdrawn, and the island had been cloaked in scaffolding a bare day before.

…Perhaps the most impressive case is that of RFA Stromness. She had been placed in reserve before the crisis, and on April 2nd, she was in dock, completely destored and with only a care and maintenance crew aboard. On April 7th, she sailed for Ascension, fully stored, with 358 Marines and a month’s worth of rations for 7,500 men. Much of this work, particularly at Chatham and Gibraltar, was performed by men who had already received their redundancy notices in preparation for the closure of the yards.

In other words, from near-nothingness, the Royal Navy was able to equip and sail a sizable out-of-area naval task force 5,000 miles down the Atlantic in 1982.

The other piece was from “Humphrey” of Thin Pinstriped Line, on “The Utter Pointlessness of Reserve Fleets“:

Forcing a policy of keeping ships in reserve raises difficult questions about how they are supplied, and whether to run on contracts and stores of equipment to be held in readiness to put on them. Were you to reactivate a Type 23, then there will probably be no spare parts in the chain to fit to her. When these parts include minor systems like missile launchers and fire control radars, you quickly realise that a reactivated frigate will be practically defenceless…

For the MOD keeping a reserve force of older Type 23s raises difficult questions … As the Type 23 force reduces, finding spare parts to keep them ready for sea is going to be harder and harder. Reactivating them will require spending money the MOD hasn’t got now on the off chance that they may be needed for sea later.

The problem of material becomes even more challenging when you consider how you maintain enough stocks of munitions and IT systems for a reactivation. Modern munitions are incredibly complex pieces of machinery, designed to do a very specific role and requiring a lot of time and effort to design and support them.

In the 1970s it was significantly easier to bring a ship out of reserve into service when the main armament of many of the Standby Squadron ships was usually some form of light gun (4.5” down to 20mm) and the RN still had a substantial stores depot network filled with legacy equipment, often dating back to well before WW2. For example it was a relatively easy matter to add on additional 40mm Bofors mounts that were manufactured during WW2 to ships going to the Falklands conflict.

Today modern RN does not have stores depots full of legacy weapons. The munitions stockpile does not have vast depots filled with equipment dumped and forgotten about for decades that can be pulled out in a crisis.. There are not random crates of long forgotten dusty VLS seawolf missiles lurking in the back of a tunnel in Copenacre. Modern missiles require care and maintenance, which in turn needs a complex supply chain and support contracts to keep going

Similarly, unlike in the 1960s and 70s where ships were fundamentally very similar to their WW2 era counterparts, modern vessels are built around computer networks and combat systems. These require regular maintenance and upgrading to ensure they are credible. Any ship in reserve is going to either require a lot of work to bring them up to speed and make them compatible with the rest of the Fleet, or it will be required to sail without the essential equipment able to help it fight.

Obviously technology has come a ways since the 1980s, but this seems like more of a surrender than continued development would necessarily warrant. Perhaps the difference here lies in the degree of capability the UK might potentially seek to get out of any mothballed surface combatants – while the Type 21s and County-class destroyers of the Falklands-era Royal Navy were designed with relatively rudimentary guided munitions platforms (and digital CICs), it was only their successors that were designed around VLS tubes, ASM countermeasures, and ASMs of their own.

The older ships revived for the sake of the Falklands crisis were clearly no match for the majority of modern platforms in 2018. Nevertheless, in a high-intensity conflict against a relatively low-tech adversary, it might be worth considering whether the juice is indeed never worth the squeeze, or if, in fact, some additional degree of lower-end capability is still a net and worthwhile gain. Humphrey himself looked at the Type 22 frigates on the eve of their premature scrapping and concluded that the challenges associated in preserving any ability to restore them were overwhelming.

This is, of course, a separate issue from the Royal Navy’s struggles with adequate manning, but that is even more pressing, and I’m not sure what the solution to that – is barring any significant changes to UK defense spending and indeed, overall economic performance, not to mention global threat perceptions.