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At a time of tension around the world, the Royal Navy is thinly spread in meeting its commitments, experts tell Sky News

By Alistair Bunkall, Defence and Security Correspondent

Sky News – 27 July 2019

The size of the Royal Navy's fleet of warships has been described as "pathetic" by the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee. It comes as pressure mounts on the new Prime Minister to spend more on Britain's Armed Forces.

Delivering a sober warning about the UK's ability to deal with a crisis, Dr Julian Lewis told Sky News:

"All the Armed Forces are under-resourced financially.

"And that means we're incapable of putting together a range of options to defend ourselves, which is fine as long as there is no threat and is potentially disastrous if a conflict arises as most conflicts do — unexpectedly and unpredictably."

The deepening situation in the Gulf has highlighted a lack of major warships in the Navy's fleet, a situation brought about by years of successive budget cuts. HMS Montrose is the lone frigate helping escort British-flagged commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz off Iran. She will soon be joined by HMS Duncan, a destroyer, but they will only overlap for a few weeks before Montrose heads into port for repairs.

Although the Royal Navy will soon have two new aircraft carriers, it has been without the capability for many years and the vast cost of building them has had consequences elsewhere.

"In order to allow for the carriers being provided for, it was agreed that we would reduce our frigates and destroyers from 35 ships to 32,"

explained Dr Lewis.

"It was never envisaged at the time of the aircraft carriers being conceived of, that we would go down to the present pathetic total of 13 frigates and six destroyers.

"What Boris Johnson needs to do is to recognise that if defence is the first duty of government then we've got to get back to the levels not that we spent in the 1980s, but the levels that we spent as a proportion of GDP in the 1990s."

He is not the only one to highlight the problem. Before Jeremy Hunt left office as Foreign Secretary, he said he would spend more money on the Royal Navy if he was elected Prime Minister.

Although comparisons to the Falklands-era fleet are unfair and don't take into account advances in technology, the size of the Royal Navy has shrunk considerably over the decades. In 1982, the UK had 43 frigates and 12 destroyers; it now has 13 and six respectively.

Likewise the number of submarines has been reduced from 16 to 10 and although HMS Queen Elizabeth is well into her sea trials programme, she is not yet operational, leaving the Navy without an aircraft carrier.

Dr Lewis's assessment has been supported by a former senior commander, Rear Admiral Alex Burton. Rear Admiral Burton, who commanded UK maritime forces, praised the work being done by HMS Montrose, saying she had achieved "extraordinary feats" in hot tough conditions but said it

"would be ideal to have more warships accompany those (commercial) ships going through the Straits".

He said:

"That aspiration, that commitment can't be delivered quickly. And it is unfortunate that successive defence reviews and successive budgetary constraints have both reduced the support programme for the Royal Navy and I would say for all three services.

"Successive budgets and successive defence reviews have hollowed the support programme and also reduced our commitment to building new ships and that's why we've ended up in this position now and that's what needs to be reversed. There are lots of points of tension around the world at the moment that require deterrence, that require reassurance, and it would be fair to say that the Royal Navy is thinly spread in meeting those commitments."