THE government’s defence secretary insists the Royal Navy can cope and is more powerful than ever – despite fierce criticism over the ‘woeful’ number of ships available to defend the nation.
In a sit-down interview with The News, Michael Fallon shrugged off concerns about the lack of a plan to bolster the fleet, and honour a pledge to replace Type 23 frigates with modern vessels.
Sir Michael said the size of the navy was ‘increasing’ – celebrating the imminent arrival to Portsmouth of the navy’s largest ever carriers – but admitted boosting the existing number of frigates and destroyers remained a Whitehall ‘ambition’ and wasn’t set in stone.
Sir Michael said: ‘We are increasing the size of the navy, but it’s not just the numbers that matter. It’s the power of these ships.
‘There were more frigates and destroyers many years ago, but they were nowhere near as powerful. These, now, are some of the most advanced warships in the world, capable of fighting different battles.
‘A modern destroyer, is much more powerful than any of the ships that were with Lord West in the Falklands. These destroyers and frigates, they can fight better, and pack more punch then those smaller ships of 30 or 40 years ago.
‘And there will be two new carriers, which will be the biggest warships ever built in Britain.’
When asked if he would give a firm commitment to increase the size of the fleet and ensure the Type 23 frigate replacement plan goes ahead, Mr Fallon said: ‘Our ambition is to have a fleet, which is bigger than the current fleet of 19.
‘But it’s not just about frigates and destroyers.
‘We are building submarines, and we are preparing for the arrival of the carriers.’
When told there are calls for more hulls around the world, Mr Fallon said: ‘We need a mix – the biggest warships ever built, our Type 45 destroyers, our anti-submarines.
‘The navy now is being asked to do all sorts of things.’
It comes as damning report by MPs hit out at the number of warships available and urged the MoD to ‘come clean’ over what is being done to replace 13 ageing Type 23 Frigates, while maintaining the ‘dwindling’ number of escort ships needed to protect the carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Former head of the navy, Lord West, still has major concerns.
He said: ‘No matter how good a ship is, one ship can only be in one place.
‘Numbers have strength in themselves.
‘The other thing is, in war, you lose ships.
‘And we have got to have [capacity] so we can lose some ships, and I am very concerned our numbers now have dwindled right down.
‘We have 19 frigates and ships, two are tied up against the wall because of lack of manpower.
‘Six destroyers need work done to their intercoolers – they need to do it and get this work done.
‘Essentially, we have six of our 19 we can’t rely on in a hot war.’
Lord West added: ‘My message to Mr Fallon is, we need a proper, drumbeat of frigate orders to replace the Type 23s and we need more escort ships in our navy.
‘You can have the most advanced ship in the world, but it’s not going to do all the things around the world we need to do.’
It comes after one of the Royal Navy’s cutting-edge Type 45 destroyers, HMS Duncan, had to be towed back to its Plymouth port just two days after setting off to take part in Nato exercises due to technical difficulties.
Retired Lieutenant Commander Mike Critchley, of Gosport, warned all of the navy’s cash and personnel were ‘being gobbled up’ by the new carriers.
Lt Critchley said: ‘The government always comes up with this; that the next frigate or destroyer being built is the most powerful.
‘But it can only be in one place at one time.
‘The navy is shrinking, because the government is not prepared to spend money on it. It’s a deliberate act of the government, to put all of its eggs in one basket, with these two carriers, which will gobble up cash and personnel.
‘It’s a pretty sad situation.
‘We live in an island nation, and import 95 per cent of our raw materials by sea, and that should be a high priority for any government.
‘But it’s not. An A-level student can see, that the navy over the years, has got smaller and smaller.’
Senior Tory Mr Fallon spoke during a visit to Portsmouth naval base to learn more about the work being done to facilitate the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which he only confirmed would be in spring next year.