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Sir John Parker, chairman of the independent review into a National Ship Building Strategy for the UK, gave evidence to parliament’s Defence Committee yesterday about its results – with RUSI’s previous related commentary here.
Listening to the evidence, what became clear was that Sir John was well-selected to put together this review.
As an engineer and businessman, his experience to date placed him in an exceptional position to make judgements about any future government plan for, what he described, as a national infrastructure project.
What he was not able to do was to place his recommendations and comments in the context of warfare and the needs of sailors who may be faced with combat against an enemy who fights against him, and his ships.
As such, it is hard to see how his plans, based purely on ship numbers and cost, have any bearing on the requirement for the Royal Navy to provide security.
The strength of Sir John’s evidence was in his understanding of the numbers –costs, platforms, workforce and the market place.
His business and engineering background brought strengths to the review in terms of conceptualising how the ship building industry in Britain might deliver the ambition laid down in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
But it is only a ‘might’, since the British government must still plan, design and build a replacement warship that meets the shortfall in numbers between the eight Type 26 frigates (to be delivered between 2023 and 2034), and the thirteen Type 23 frigates that leave service between 2023 and 2035.
Sir John recommends a cheap and cheerful corvette designed for overseas sales to fill that void: the Type 31e would be suitable for constabulary duties against drug smugglers and counter migration patrols but little else.
It is this appreciation, merging the engineering and business requirements highlighted by Sir John with the resources of the government that must include the needs of combat into the simple commercial wrap that has been provided thus far.
A resurgent Russia, an unapologetic and belligerent China and a strident Iran are all challenging the world order at sea with sophisticated and well-armed ships and submarines. Meeting these with off-shore patrol vessels and under equipped corvettes hardly seems prudent.
Here, the most worrying statements made by Sir John in front of MPs earlier come to the fore. According to Sir John, both the First and Second Sea Lords, along with other senior leaders from the Royal Navy agreed to his plan to build warships for functionality (that is, speed, size and numbers), without considering the needs of combat.
This is, surely, a re-run of the decision-making that led to the procurement of Snatch Land Rovers for the British Army. It is certainly a vehicle that suited constabulary duties in Northern Ireland exceptionally well, but it was not good for Iraq, where it did not protect British servicemen and caused many deaths and injuries to British servicemen in Iraq.
In advocating a cheap and cheerful Royal Navy, Sir John does a disservice to the British sailors who face daily tests by well-armed adversaries around the world.
One wonders whether Sir John would be content to sail into harms way in one of his new T31e light corvettes designed for constabulary duties.
Would such vessels really be able to defeat an unmanned explosive craft in the Gulf of Aden (like the Royal Saudi Navy did recently), counter a anti-ship cruise missile strike (as the US Navy did last month in the Red Sea), face down Iranian challenges to innocent passage through the Straits of Hormuz or meet the new Chinese corvette and survive?
Engineering and business knowledge is all very well, but when it comes to meeting challenges to British security and trade, it might be more useful to have a warship not a cruise ship.
Banner image: Type-45 destroyer HMS Defender conducting joint military training in the Indian Ocean with the French ship FS Provence. The Type 45 destroyer, also known as the D or Daring class, is an advanced class of guided missile destroyers built for the Royal Navy. Courtesy of Royal Navy.