Wednesday, 18 October 2017

In perspective: the loss of HMS Sheffield

35 years on from the sinking of HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile, the full and un-redacted Board of Inquiry (BOI) findings have been made public. A heavy-handed piece by Ian Cobain in the Guardian heaps blame on the ship’s operations team and implies results of the inquiry was subject to a sinister cover up .

Mr Cobain’s article is reasonably well researched but the bare facts need to be seen in their full context before making accusations. Unless you were aboard HMS Sheffield between 14.00 and 14.04 on 4th May 1982, you can never know precisely what happened or what it felt like to be on the spot. Despite the supposedly reliable evidence of the board of enquiry now available, we should exercise caution when passing quick judgments on the actions of men on the frontline 35 years ago. Theoretically, the statements of fact recorded during the BOI should be accurate, but years later some of its contents are still contested by those who were there. What is certain is that there were failures at many levels that led to the destruction of Sheffield. Who should be blamed and to whether blame should be apportioned at all is a complex matter.

Something wrong with our bloody ships

In 1982 the RN was primarily an anti-submarine navy, much of its institutional focus was on the threat posed by the Soviets and in particular their submarines. The RN did, however, still regularly deploy outside of the NATO areas, HMS Sheffield had just spent 6 months in the Persian Gulf when she was sent to the Falklands. The ASW focus had resulted in a navy that retained a broad spectrum of capability, but the heavy investment in its critical nuclear submarines had contributed to a surface fleet that was inadequately armed and equipped.

The Type 42 destroyer was designed as an air defence ship and built to a tight budget resulting in a slightly compromised platform. The main Sea Dart system was usually very effective against medium and high altitude targets but the fire control radars did not have the ability to successfully track low-level targets. Although the sea-skimming missile threat was well understood and the RN possessed their own ship-launched Exocets, the entire Royal Navy fleet of the time lacked effective Close In Weapons Systems (CIWS). (The only exception were the new Type 22 frigates armed with very effective Sea Wolf). This was a glaring institutional failure that is hard to explain, especially as the Soviets had many potent anti-ship missiles. Space and funding constraints would not allow the fitting of the Sea Wolf missile on the Type 42 and the only back-up weapons were 2 manually-aimed 20mm Oerlikon cannons, dating from WWII. The Sea Dart was not always reliable and it seems extraordinary that a cheap second line of defence consisting of several modern 20 or 30mm cannon mounts had not been fitted. The Sheffield also lacked basic electronic jammers that could confuse missile radars. The best option would have been the Phalanx CIWS that had been in development since 1973 and was proven in service with the US Navy by 1980. Phalanx is entirely automated and would almost certainly have saved the Sheffield. It was hurriedly purchased by the RN and subsequently fitted to many surface ships, it is still in service today.

The only other potential defence against Exocet was the chaff launcher which fired clouds of aluminium strips that create false radar echoes to lure the missile away from the ship. Chaff was successfully and liberally used by the task force later in the war but relied on alert reactions, perfect timing and ship handling to place the ship away from the chaff cloud as it floated downwind.

There also existed many shortcomings in warship design and equipment fit that were quickly exposed by the Exocet strike. The use of formica panels were a hazard that created lethal flying shrapnel shards when subject to blast. Some escape hatches were found to be too small for men dressed in breathing apparatus. The Rover portable fire pumps were unreliable and there was inadequate fire-fighting equipment held onboard most ships. There was insufficient attention to the dangers of smoke in the design of ventilation and provision of fire curtains. Standard issue nylon clothing was found to have melted in contact with fire, severely exacerbating burns. The ship contained PVC cable insulation and foam furnishings that gave off toxic fumes in a fire.

No single individual can be held accountable for these decisions which are typical of a long period in a peacetime mentality where painful lessons learned in past conflicts fade from consciousness and funding pressures result in corners being cut.


The BOI implied that despite the inadequacy of the ship’s equipment, Sheffield could have saved herself by being better prepared. It is clear the operations room was not functioning well when the missile was detected, 30 seconds before impact, but part of this was unfortunate timing.

The Captain was resting in his cabin at the time and “The anti-air warfare officer had left the ship’s operations room and was having a coffee in the wardroom while his assistant had left to visit the heads”. No one can be on duty 24/7 and everyone had to pace themselves and take breaks. Fatigue was a particular problem for commanders in the Falklands who could not fully relax for weeks on end. The timing of these absences was exceptionally unlucky but not an indicator of slackness. When hit, Sheffield was not at actions stations which requires the entire crew to be closed up, but in defence watches where half the crew are on watch while the other half rest.

The BOI did find that the Principal Warfare Officer did not react as he should have and the AA Officer was absent from the ops room for too long. Sister ship, HMS Glasgow detected the aircraft and Exocets and reacted better. In a further stroke of bad luck, at the exact moment of the attack, Sheffield was making a transmission on her SATCOM which blinded her UAA1, a masthead sensor which could detect electronic emissions from aircraft and missiles, further reducing potential warning time. As the Guardian reported with relish back in 2000, the Entendard aircraft were detected by radar operators on HMS Invincible, a full 19 minutes before the Exocet hit Sheffield. Plagued by a series of false contact reports in the preceding days, the senior officer on Invincible responsible for air defence of the whole task force classified the contact as “spurious” and no warnings were issued. It was not just a few men on Sheffield who were on a steep learning curve in the early part of the war.

The Guardian quotes the BOI as saying some of the crew were “bored and a little frustrated by inactivity”. This has been selectively quoted by the Guardian article – the BOI actually says in the preceding sentence “the atmosphere on board was tense but there was no evidence of complacency.” The easy victory at South Georgia and the simple sinking of the cruiser Belgrano had given rise to a perception back in the UK that the war would be “a walk-over”. This was not that case amongst the task force as is clear from the biography of Admiral Sandy Woodward. Sheffield’s CO, Captain Sam Salt was an experienced officer and a seasoned submariner. He was perhaps more concerned with the submarine threat over the air threat but this is was partly due to faulty intelligence assessments and confusion among some officers about whether the Argentine airforce was capable of air-air refuelling required to get within range. Virtually every personal account of the Falklands war notes the poor quality of intelligence about the Argentine intentions and order of battle that was provided to the task force from London.

The BOI reports that when the incoming missiles came into view, officers on the bridge were “mesmerised” by the sight and failed to broadcast a warning to the ship’s company. This is not consistent with accounts of survivors who say that Sub Lieutenant Clark who was on the bridge, saw the incoming Exocet and shouted “missile attack, hit the deck!” over the main broadcast.

In keeping with history

Conflicts throughout history are littered with examples of mistakes, particularly at the start of hostilities. The loss of HMS Sheffield was a horrible shock to the RN and was news around the world. But lessons were learned and procedures are changed rapidly. The painful experience gained probably saved others, it was no coincidence that later in the conflict HMS Glamorgan survived an Exocet hit. The ship was alert, detected the missile and made a pre-planned turn that prevented the missile from penetrating the hull and main missile magazine.


Admiral John Fieldhouse who commanded the Taskforce from Northwood and later became First Sea Lord, decided not to court-martial officers on Sheffield who were implicated by the board of enquiry. Fieldhouse was noted for his humanity and was one of the most outstanding officers the RN has had since WWII. There are those who would like to portray this as a “cover up” but people who may have made fatal mistakes in combat have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. There are men that are still suffering today from the effects of what they experienced onboard HMS Sheffield and many of the veterans are angry about the release of the BOI and the Guardian article which they call “misrepresentative” and an “insult to the heroes of that day”. The Guardian article also hardly mentions the many outstanding acts of courage by the ship’s company in trying to save their ship after she was hit, some of which are recorded in the BOI report.

Having won the war, it made more sense to focus on how things could be done better in future than hand out punishments for failure. Undoubtedly mistakes and errors made during the conflict were kept in-house. Some of those who suffered loss or injury may want to see specific individuals named and punished but as discussed, it was a collective failure. Airing the dirty washing in public may have achieved little, added to the suffering of the bereaved and detracted from what was an incredible achievement overall. Sister ship HMS Coventry was sunk later in the conflict despite being alert and ready. In every armed conflict mistakes are made, usually, it costs lives but this is the terrible nature of warfare. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but is it not a luxury anyone has in the moment. The RN did conduct extensive analysis what happened and the lessons from the Falklands led to drastic changes to warship design, training and concept of operations. Many of these lessons are still kept alive in the RN today, particularly by the globally-renowned Flag Officer Sea Training organisation.

Responsibility starts at the top

The Falklands War was ultimately a triumph for Mrs Thatcher, standing against tyranny and holding her nerve while others would have given in. However, it could be argued that it was the actions of her government that created the conditions for the war in the first place. John Nott’s 1981 Defence white paper planned to axe South Atlantic Patrol ship HMS Endurance, together with the Navy’s aircraft carriers and amphibious capability and was perceived as a green light by the Argentines. Numerous officers and diplomats had tried to warn the Foreign Office of exactly what could happen if British resolve to defend the Falklands was seen to be waning. The men who died on HMS Sheffield might perhaps still be with us if the Thatcher government had not planned those defence cuts.

The principal of armed deterrence remains every bit as relevant. Spending on a properly equipped navy now may ultimately save bloodshed and far greater loss in a future conflict. This principle was ultimately proven in the peaceful victory of the Cold War and politicians of today would do well to consider this.



from Save the Royal Navy

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

New Long Read – Anglo Engineering Concepts Vehicle Proposal

A proposal from Anglo Engineering Concepts to meet British Army vehicle capability gaps and drive down support costs by adopting system engineering thinking and a design language that places the designer close to the user. Anglo Engineering Concepts is run by an experienced design engineer that previously worked as one of the three design engineers ...

The post New Long Read – Anglo Engineering Concepts Vehicle Proposal appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Saturday, 7 October 2017

What have the Royal Marines ever done for us?

In case anyone in government is unclear about why the Royal Marines are so valuable to the defence of our national interests and are arguably the UK’s best fighting formation, here’s a very brief overview of their actions since WWII.

  • 1948 –3 Commando Brigade RM covers withdrawal of British troops from Palestine. 40 Commando RM last British unit to leave.
  • 1950-1952 – 3 Commando Brigade RM deploys to Malaya for counter terrorist operations. Brigade wins forty awards for gallantry (not including sixty-eight mention in despatches), and suffers thirty-three dead.
  • 1950-52 – 41 (Independent) Commando RM, deploys to Korea, in addition to carrying out twenty-one raids on the coast behind enemy lines, the Commando took part in the 1st Marine Division USMC action at the Chosin and Hagaru including the epic march to the sea. 31 KIA in Korea.
  • 1953-1954 – 3 Commando Brigade deploys to Suez Canal Zone and conducts counter-insurgency operations.
  • 1955 -1959, 40 and 45 Commandos RM, alternate on operations in Cyprus during EOKA campaign. 42 Commando deployed in UK.
  • 1956 – 3 Commando Brigade RM (including 42 Commando) spearhead amphibious assault at Suez, 6 November 1956. 45 Commando carries out the first ever helicopter assault in an amphibious operation in the world.
  • 1960 – 1967 – 45 Commando RM deploys to Aden.
  • 1961 – 42 Commando lands from the LPH Bulwark into Kuwait to forestall Iraqi invasion under President Kasim of Iraq. 45 Commando RM flown to Kuwait by RAF to join 42 Commando.
  • 1962 – 40 and 42 Commandos operations in Brunei, including Limbang operation by L Company 42 Commando.
  • 1963-1966 – 40 and 42 Commandos on anti-terrorist and incursion operations in Borneo and Malaysia.
  • 1964 – Mutiny by army in Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) 41 and 45 Commandos deploy to Tanganyika. 45 Commando by helicopter launched from carrier HMS Centaur (CVA not an LPH so a swift re-roling required by ships company into ad hoc LPH).  Mutiny suppressed.
  • 1964-1967 – 45 Commando deployed on operations in the Radfan, and in Aden city.
  • 1967 – 45 Commando second last British unit to withdraw from Aden and returns UK, covered by 42 Commando who are last out and withdraw in LPH Albion. 40 Commando embarked in LPH Bulwark covers from seaward ready to reinforce.  40 Commando remains offshore as part of task group which includes two CVA ready to go back in and evacuate British civilians.
  • 1965-1975 – RM Officers on loan service with Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces on operations in the Dhofar region of Oman.
  • 1967 – 40 Commando deploys to Hong Kong for Internal Security duties (rioting as part of Mao’s ‘red book’ revolution)
  • 1969 –2004 – In 1969, 42 Commando first RM Commando to deploy to Northern Ireland. Thereafter, for next 35 years RM Commandos take their turns on operations in the Province until 2004.
  • 1974 – Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 40 Commando deployed to protect Greek zone. Subsequently 41 Commando deployed on UN operations.
  • 1982 – 3 Commando Brigade spearheads recapture of the Falkland Islands.
  • 1983 – 40 Commando deploys to Cyprus for UN Tour of duty.
  • 1990-1991 SBS operations in Iraq. 3 Commando Brigade on Operation Haven in Northern Iraq.
  • 2000 – 42 Commando deploys to Sierra Leone. HQ 3 Commando Brigade and 45 Commando to Kosovo.
  • 2002 –. SBS first Allied troops to land in Afghanistan, and seize landing zone for US Special Forces. 45 Commando operations in Afghanistan. 40 Commando deploy to Afghanistan in Special Forces Support role (SSFG). 42  Commando in Northern Ireland.
  • 2003 – Op Telic, invasion of Iraq. 3 Commando Brigade amphibious ops and advance to Basra.
  • 2004 – 40 Commando operational tour in Iraq.
  • 2006 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 5 in Helmand Afghanistan.
  • 2007 – 40 Commando Op HERRICK 7 Afghanistan. RM Armoured Support Group (Vikings) in support of army units in Afganistan.
  • 2008 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 9 Afghanistan.
  • 2010 – 40 Commando Op HERRICK 12 Afghanistan.
  • 2011 – 3 Commando Brigade (less 40 Commando) Op HERRICK 14 Afghanistan.

In the 12 years of the Afghanistan Campaign, the Royal Marines were awarded 206 gallantry and meritorious service awards, 13% of the total, including 25% of the CGC and MC awards. In doing so suffering 61 KIA and 256 seriously wounded. During every tour the Royal Marines have been in the ‘hot spots’, no other regiment has done more in the campaign.


Drawn up by Julian Thompson from information in A Short History of the Royal Marines, published by the Royal Marines Historical Society. (Any errors are the fault of Julian Thompson and not the Royal Marines Historical Society). The latest edition is Fourth Revised Edition 2013, the first edition was printed 2003; an indication of how busy the Corps has been recently.   Issued to all young officers and recruits under training. Copies available from: RM Historical Society, RM Museum, Eastney, Southsea, Hands PO4 9PX,


from Save the Royal Navy

Friday, 6 October 2017

Further cuts to the fleet in “the year of the Royal Navy” ?

Recent headlines about possible further body-blows to the Royal Navy are an indication that the terrible state of Ministry of Defence finances is starting to bite. Here we look at what could be cut, what could be the impact on RN capability and the potential political fall out.

The defence review that is not a defence review

The Cabinet Office led by Mark Sedwill, National Security Adviser, is currently conducting a “Strategic Defence and Security Review Implementation” it is supposed to be looking at how the decisions made in 2015 fit with the current global security environment. In reality, it is an exercise in desperately trying to find ways to reduce a £20 Billion gap between the funding the MoD will receive and the money it is committed to spending over the next 10 years.

The Defence Secretary has demanded each of the three armed services offer up “efficiencies”, ie. capabilities that could be cut in order to make savings. The RN is in a slightly different position to the other two services because the majority of its programmes are large and politically untouchable. Of its three core elements, the Continuous At Sea Deterrent, (CASD), Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and Amphibious Capability, the Royal Marines and amphibious ships have always been most vulnerable to the axe. Trident renewal is thankfully non-negotiable and there is too much political, industrial and economic capital tied up in the carrier programme, (including F-35 and the new frigates).

Take your pick from our menu of cuts

To maintain its operations and existing equipment plan, the RN is now short of between £350 – 500 Million a year. It has already agreed on the early retirement of 2 minehunters, HMS Atherstone and Quorn, but there are very few other options available for cutting. There are plenty of rumours and speculation about what may be cut next. Thankfully it has been confirmed that a Daily Mail report HMS Scott was to be axed is false. She does have serious engine problems but there is a plan in place for her to be upgraded and retained. HMS Scott does not just conduct hydrographic surveys, but also generates oceanographic information which is key to the operation of the nuclear deterrent and anti-submarine warfare.

Further cuts of some kind are almost certainly coming, although no definite decisions have been made. A reduction of 200 Royal Marines to release funds for more sailors has already been agreed and Marine training has already been considerably scaled down. The Times reports that 1,000 Royal Marines could go and both LPDs HMS Albion and Bulwark could also be axed, almost removing the RN’s amphibious capability entirely. The RN has already been operating with just a single LPD, one in mothballs or refit while the other is active. HMS Bulwark worked very hard during her last period in service but it now in mothballs, while Albion has just emerged from a two-year £90 million refit. These ships have proved to be very versatile platforms that have conducted all sorts of operations beyond just training for amphibious warfare. It should also be remembered that the loss of HMS Ocean combined with the loss of HMS Albion and Bulwark would call into question the future of Devonport naval base and could create a political storm in Plymouth and the South West.

The exact nature of how we may conduct amphibious warfare in future is open to discussion as many consider assaulting the beach in small boats from an LPD in a vulnerable position, close to shore is now just too dangerous. Some argue we should conduct assault by aircraft alone, preferably expensive V-22 Ospreys flying in fast from the ship well out to sea. Unfortunately, there is still a need to get heavy equipment ashore that cannot go by air. Provision of logistic support for troops by air alone for a sustained period is not realistic. Even the recent relief effort, Operation Ruman in the Caribbean has proved again the need for afloat ship-shore capability. This debate over what is called “assured access” is complex but not an excuse to get rid of HMS Albion and Bulwark. Once a ship is gone it is also very difficult for the RN to argue for a replacement (See also the case for keeping HMS Ocean in reserve).

Blame it on the carriers – simplistic scapegoating

Many critics try to blame budget problems on the RN leadership for choosing to build aircraft carriers. This is a completely backwards way to view such a cornerstone conventional capability and which was part of a prudent strategy started in 1998 to build a balanced fleet. The cost of the CEPP is considerable but in fact, it is not the biggest item on the MoD books, the Army will have the largest share of the 2016-26 equipment budget. The RN recognises that without carriers it is a second division navy, its ships and those it maybe protecting are inherently vulnerable without organic air cover. As we have discussed frequently, the strike carrier also has vast utility beyond protecting amphibious operations. Cuts to either the carriers or amphibious capability would be strategic nonsense. Carriers are needed to protect and participate in landing operations and we need both as they compliment each other. Will Taylor has written an excellent piece on the utility and value for money that amphibious capability delivers.

Wildcat Helicopter

Axing 28 brand new Wildcat helicopters would be an extraordinary step and a sign of desperation.

The Times also reports that the RN’s Wildcat helicopters are being considered for sale. Such a move would leave the RN’s escorts ships short of a key weapon. The Wildcat carries the new Sea Venom and Martlet missiles, the only anti-ship missile that will be fielded by the RN between 2020-30. The torpedoes dropped by Wildcat may also be the only means to prosecute submarines. The 30 Merlins HM2 helicopters are already grossly over-worked and have too many tasks.

The Trident solution?

We applaud government commitment to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, the cornerstone upon which UK security rests but how it is funded is contentious. In 2010 the chancellor George Osborne managed to move the full cost of Trident into the core MoD budget this was the start of another wave of problems. Although the defence secretary at the time Liam Fox protested, Osborne got his way. At the time this bombshell was almost overlooked by many overshadowed by the carnage of the 2010 SDSR, but as the costs of the Dreadnought submarine programme ramp up in the next decade, this is a big underlying pressure driving cuts. A radical solution would be to return the costs of CASD to Treasury reserve where it used to be. This could be implemented over a period of years so the Treasury could adjust. This would be a fair and sensible solution as Trident is a political and national security overhead that quite reasonably should be treated as being outside the conventional defence budget. Defence campaigners might have more success arguing for this large single and easily-understood measure than uncoordinated one-off campaigns to save specific units, ships or establishments.

Admiral, it’s entirely up to you which of your arms you must to cut off

The devolved budget system has the enormous political advantage that cuts can be portrayed as the choice of the service. This allows the underfunding to downplayed and cuts portrayed and merely the service making sensible choices to “live within its means”. The First Sea Lord is accused by some of “not defending his service”. This is disingenuous as no one wants to cut capability and officers do not have the luxury of publicly criticising Ministers or demanding new money. Instead, he should be commended for trying to maintain morale and momentum while being failed by his political masters.

Fundamentally the problems come down to a lack of money for defence. Although the defence budget is rising by 0.5% above inflation this is not nearly enough to compensate for the long-term underfunding and mistakes of the past or the rising costs of virtually everything. There may have been colossal waste and mistakes in the past but that does not solve the problems of today. The Defence Secretary recently showed a little backbone for the first time and admitted that the target of 2% of GDP on defence may not be enough and “we should do better”. Whether he has the guile or ability to actually obtain more money in a divided cabinet and a weak government remains to be seen. While there is certainly a case for overseas development aid, an obvious solution would be to divert funding from DFID’s generous budget to the MoD, which is often involved with aid operations anyway.

At a time when the world is more dangerous than ever, Trump expects Europe to pay its way and Brexit Britain must look outward, cuts to strength are the opposite of what we should be doing.

Paying the political price

Having nailed his colours to the mast by calling 2017 “the Year of the Royal Navy”, Michale Fallon would be in an awkward position if the year ends with him disposing of high profile ships or a big swathe of naval strength. This is not just a numbers game or pieces on a chess board but the future security of a nation. David Cameron has admitted that one of his biggest regrets from his time as Prime Minister was his decision to cut the aircraft carriers in 2010. Mrs May and Mr Fallon should be mindful that axing the Royal Navy’s amphibious capability could be a mistake of a similar magnitude they could come to sorely regret. If new money is not found for defence quickly, then the 2017 “review” could be seen as undoing the positive aspects of the 2015 SDSR and a failure comparable to the 2010 debacle.


from Save the Royal Navy

Saturday, 30 September 2017

An ode to efficiencies

Who will notice another minehunter gone?
Sandown and Bridport, sold for a song.
Bicester and Berkeley, Inverness, too
When we’re short of a quid what must we do?
Pick on the humble MCMV, axe little ships nobody sees.

Cottesmore and Dulverton didn’t survive, another little cost-cutting drive.
Walney retired – still in her prime, rots in the basin with the passing of time.
Cromer and Brecon don’t sail anymore, expensive classrooms tied to the shore.

Now Atherstone and Quorn to be lost from the fleet, a sacrifice to the balance sheet.
Three more will go in a year or two, nicely settled in the defence review.
Years ago we used to have Tons, there were plenty of sweepers way back then.
But look forward to the future, we’ll make do with ten.
Maybe the mine threat just went away or the ocean was bigger back in the day?

Gaps in the fleet, fitted-for-but-not-with, doing more with less and a half-empty mess.
Salami-sliced down to the bone, just think about carriers, try not to moan.
We need more efficiencies, you’ll understand.
Another young officer without a command, but jam tomorrow is promised and planned.

Don’t get confused by the number of ships,
Read my press release and read my lips.
We’re growing the Navy, repeat after me,
No, we’re not making cuts, only ‘adjustments’ you see.

from Save the Royal Navy

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

British Army Medium Weight Capability

In the late Nineties, the British Army concluded it needed to develop and field a Medium Weight Capability that would enable it to arrive quicker than a heavy force, but have greater resilience and combat power than a light force. The concept of what constituted this Medium Weight Capability has evolved through many iterations since ...

The post British Army Medium Weight Capability appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence