During an address to the Royal United Service Institute’s conference on sea warfare, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson warned Britain must build up its military to counter Russian aggression.
“We’re rapidly having to come to terms with this new age of warfare. Look at Russia’s resurgence under President Putin. Its submarine activity has increased 10-fold in the North Atlantic.
That’s not all. In 2010, the Royal Navy had to respond once to a Russian Navy ship approaching UK territorial waters. Last year we had to respond 33 times.
It goes to show the increasing aggression, the increasing assertiveness of Russia, and how we have to ensure we give the right support to our Royal Navy in order to give them the tools to do the job and keep Britain safe.”
Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the former head of the Royal navy, also said in November that the British navy’s antisubmarine-warfare capability was “inadequate” and the force was struggling with its duties amid relatively fewer hulls and capability cuts left, right and centre.
Ministers often spoke in Parliament last year of “a growing Royal Navy” but official figures appear to disagree with those claims. According to the the UK Armed Forces Equipment and Formations document released by the Government detailing statistics on vessels, land equipment and aircraft of the armed forces. It states:
“At 1 April 2017 there were 73 vessels in the UK Armed Forces: 64 vessels in the Royal Navy and nine in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). This is a reduction of three vessels since 2016 following the withdrawal of three RFA vessels: two Small Fleet Tankers and one Forward Repair Ship (RFA Diligence).“
It gets a little muddier though as Guto Bebb, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, recently responded to a written question in Parliament, outlining the fleet size.
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This would appear to show a sharp decrease in hulls since 2013 and in the period when claims of “a growing Royal Navy” were shouted from the rooftops however Bebb added that current planning will see the number of hulls in the fleet increase:
“On current planning assumptions the number of Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary surface vessels in the next five years is:
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All this does however is highlight that the fleet size is only playing catch-up with where it was five years ago and even then, isn’t going to surpass the 2013 figure.
Mark Lancaster, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, said:
“For the first time in a generation, the Royal Navy is actually growing. It grew in manpower last year and will continue to grow over the next couple of years, and not just in manpower—the size of its surface fleet is also growing. The latest of the offshore patrol vessels arrived in Portsmouth only this weekend.”
According to the Defence Select Committee, the UK has a “woefully low” number of vessels. Chair of the committee Dr Julian Lewis advised earlier in the year that the Government risked leaving the country with fewer than 19 frigates and destroyers.
“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.”
At the conference, Williamson also cautioned against reducing defence spending any further:
“You do not want to be in a position where your only deterrence against threat and against aggressors is a nuclear deterrence. We have got to talk about deterrence being full-spectrum, right across the board.
It is sometimes difficult to explain to people that actually investing in our armed forces is all about making sure that things do not happen. It is about aircraft carriers, it is about a presence in the Pacific, it is a presence in the North Atlantic, it is a presence in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf with conventional frigates and destroyers that are able to say that Britain is interested, Britain cares, Britain will protect our interests and our values.
If we do not have that conventional deterrence and the ability to deter through conventional forces, then what we will find ourselves in is a place that none of us wish to be in and having to turn to the greatest deterrence of them all.”