HMS Severn (1700 tonnes) has just set off across the Atlantic to take over the duty of the “Atlantic Patrol North” which is normally the task of a Frigate or Destroyer and it is an unusual departure for an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) to undertake the role, even if it is to be patrolling the calmer waters of the Caribbean.
The RN has a “peacetime” task of Caribbean Patrol as part of an agreement with the USA, the Netherlands and France in which warships are provided during the hurricane season to standby for disaster relief; there is a further arrangement with US Coastguard (USCG) to combat drug smuggling - HMS Argyll has had considerable success in this activity recently. Further, the RN has a responsibility to visit the Overseas Territories and Commonwealth nations in the Caribbean as part of “security and reassurance”, for want of a better phrase. Lastly, there is a need to foster good relations with other countries in the Caribbean, South and Central America and, of course, the USA. This is achieved by small scale exercises, port visits in which British industry uses the ships to display their wares, and more formal visits in support of diplomacy.
These tasks are not new, save combatting drug smuggling which has increased dramatically in importance in recent years. In the 1970s the RN maintained a West Indies Squadron of up to four frigates based at HMS Malabar, Ireland Island, Bermuda. Four frigates would now represent one fifth of the RN's Destroyer and Frigate numbers. In 1975 it was about one twentieth.
The RN's world-wide peacetime tasking, set by the Government, has remained unchanged; what has changed dramatically is the number of vessels available to carry it out. As the deployment of the OPV indicates, the Navy's commitment to achieve what the Government requires is constant, so a vessel has to be found to do a job to which the UK, with the USCG, is heavily committed. This means that the RN “robs Peter to pay Paul” and the usual task to which the OPV is committed (e.g.: Fishery Protection, patrolling the Oil Rigs, Search and Rescue, pollution monitoring and UK port visits) will not be undertaken. However it will be an exciting trip for the ship's company, and rather challenging - given the North Atlantic weather in winter.
All the Armed Forces are desperately short of equipment with which to carry out their assigned tasks, but the RN has been particularly badly hit by the need to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide ground and air forces there (including the Royal Marines and Naval Air Squadrons) with the equipment they needed. Harold Wilson's government, after “withdrawal from East of Suez” (never quite achieved) in 1971 stated that the RN needed 74 Frigates and Destroyers to carry out its assigned tasks. This number has been steadily reduced; to about 48 post the Falklands War; 36 in the early days of the Blair Administration and now 19 is considered adequate (by whom and why?). 19 ships means a maximum 14 available at best, allowing for maintenance and refit cycles. The “assigned tasks” remain the same if not greater in number; ships cannot be in four places at once.
The number of roles and tasks haven't changed, just there are insufficient tools with which to do them. Worse, in 1982 there were over 15 shipbuilding yards in the UK that built for the Royal Navy, now there are but four, two on the Clyde, one at Barrow-in-Furness and one at Appledore. The latter has recently completed a contract for a very fine and capable 2,000 tonne patrol ship (small frigate or corvette) for the Irish Navy at a cost of £41m. If the Government does not place orders for warships and auxiliaries the shipyards go to the wall (e.g.: Vosper Thornycroft, Swan Hunter, Cammell Laird, Harland & Wolf etc). The last frigate commissioned into the Royal Navy was HMS St Albans in 2002 - the next will be delivered in about 2020, an inexcusable gap of 18 years.
Another River Class Offshore Patrol Vessel, HMS Tyne, recently met a Russian Naval Squadron and escorted it through the English Channel.
Graham Edmonds and David Wedgwood