'Dangerously weak' Royal Navy 'needs at least ten more frigates'
THE "dangerously weak" Royal Navy will put trade routes at risk from pirates and terrorists unless the Government buys more frigates, a think tank has warned.
The Royal United Services Institute said ships in the current fleet were near the end of their useful life and at least ten more frigates were needed.
The warning comes as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reviews its future military requirements and looks to cut costs as part of the Government's drive to tackle the budget deficit.
Devonport Naval Base, which is likely to come under close scrutiny during the review, is home to a flotilla of 14 frigates and destroyers which spend months at a time battling pirates and drug smugglers.
The institute's report said the average age of surface combatant ships was forecast to rise from 15 years in 2012 to 21 years in 2021. HMS Chatham, one of Plymouth's 11 frigates, has been in service for 23 years.
In the report, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham and Professor Gwyn Prins argued that a strong Navy deterred pirates, terrorists and non-friendly governments from disrupting trade routes by quietly patrolling the seas.
It pointed out that 95 per cent of British trade by volume and 90 per cent by value was carried out by sea.
But the Navy's policing role risked being undermined if it did not receive extra funding, they argued. The article added that it would be a "grave failure" if the review "attended principally – or worse, exclusively" to the financial squeeze from the Government and political pressure over Afghanistan.
"No one associates the full supermarket shelves, the availability of a range of other goods and the supply of fuels to power our homes, cars and industry with the free flow of sea trade."
The report said future orders should be "seriously cost-constrained" so ships were more basic and more could be bought. The MoD has said one of its long-term aims will be to use less specialised, cheaper ships that are easier to sell abroad.
The Government has said only maintaining the Trident nuclear deterrent will be spared from the defence review.
Former naval officer Lewis Page said it was a mistake for the service to be "institutionally wedded" to buying more frigates. "Nowadays we have helicopters, and whenever a frigate does anything useful, which is quite rare, it is usually its helicopter that did it."