Britain’s Royal Navy no longer rules the waves, thanks to ‘pathetically low’ number of ships, MPs warn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 9:51pm

The Royal Navy once helped the United Kingdom rule the waves, as the lyrics of Rule Britannia would have it.

But no more, unless the government steps up plans to modernise the country’s struggling fleet, MPs have warned.

According to the defence select committee, the UK already has a “woefully low” number of vessels available and uncertainty remains over plans to replace ageing frigates that are due to be decommissioned by 2035.

The parliamentary committee’s chair, Julian Lewis, said the Ministry of Defence risked leaving the country with fewer than 19 frigates and destroyers, which he said “was already a pathetically low total”. The MPs said that dropping below that number even for a short time would be “completely unacceptable” and leave the UK vulnerable to threats from sources, including Russia and the Middle East, as well as unprepared to deal with conflicts in the South and East China Seas and to meet its Nato obligations.

“The United Kingdom will then lack the maritime strength to deal with the threats we face right now, let alone in the future. We are putting the MoD on notice that it must not let this happen,” said Lewis, announcing the release of the committee’s report on Monday.

In all, 13 frigates are due to leave the service at a rate of one a year between 2023 and 2035. And the MPs said they had “serious concerns” about the funding and timetable of the fleet that will replace them.

They also attacked the MoD for the “extraordinary mistakes” in the design of Type 45 destroyers after it emerged they had faulty engines. The MPs accused the ministry and contractors of a “serious failing” for under-testing the system, which is unable to operate continuously in warm waters, and warned the problems had “potentially dangerous” consequences.

“It is astonishing that the specification for the Type 45 did not include the requirement for the ships to operate at full capacity – and for sustained periods – in hot regions such as the Gulf,” the committee said.

“The UK’s enduring presence in the Gulf should have made it a key requirement for the engines. The fact that it was not was an inexcusable failing and one which must not be repeated,” it added. “Failure to guarantee this would put the personnel and ships of the Royal Navy in danger.”

Two new classes of frigate, the Type 26 global combat ship and the Type 31 general purpose frigate, are planned to modernise the fleet.

“As an island nation, the importance of the Royal Navy to UK defence must not be underestimated,” the committee said. “Our starting point in this report is our conviction that the current number of frigates, destroyers and personnel inadequately reflects the potential threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK and its interests overseas.”

Lewis added that the numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels have been “severely in decline” in recent decades. “The fleet is now way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it, if the international scene continues to deteriorate. What remains of our surface fleet now faces a prolonged period of uncertainty, as the frigate class is replaced in its entirety and all our destroyers undergo urgent, major remedial work on their unreliable engines.”

An MoD spokesman said: “We are investing in a growing Royal Navy by building two aircraft carriers, the new Type 26 global combat ship, Dreadnought and Astute class submarines, and offshore patrols vessels.”

The spokesman also said the Type 45 was a “hugely capable” ship.

“We’re committed to improving the Type 45’s power and propulsion system through a series of machinery upgrades during planned maintenance, and this work is progressing well.”