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A time to reflect – a Commodore's thoughts on the RFA as he heads into retirement

11 December 2020

Commodore Duncan Lamb, the outgoing head of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, talks to Helen Kelly about his five years at the helm of the Royal Navy's civilian support service and what might come next

Speaking with Nautilus member Duncan Lamb via a well-known video conferencing platform during the second UK lockdown feels very much of the times.

The former Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Commodore is on the line from the front room of his family home in Scotland, and there are pictures of his grown-up children on the wall. We joke about our 'new reality' and the perils of discovering your laundry on show during video calls – our personal lives are now more on display than ever before.

Mr Lamb has only recently returned to the family home, having spent the past five years at RFA headquarters on Whale Island, Portsmouth, on England's south coast. He's keeping busy with some light refurbishment, mainly painting and decorating, as he gets used to a quieter pace of life.  

But politics has a way of reaching even the farthest-flung places, and while the Mr Lamb is clearly speaking in a personal capacity, he also has long experience with the political world. We are speaking less than 24 hours after two big announcements from Westminster: Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing £16 billion in funding for the armed forces, quickly followed by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak warning of a public sector pay freeze of up to three years.

It's relevant because RFA funding and pay were two of the thorniest issues Mr Lamb had to face as Commodore.

He reckons these conflicting positions go to the heart of the dichotomy the country is facing during the pandemic. 'There's a genuine recognition from the Prime Minister that defence has perhaps languished in terms of departmental spending, and now we're seeing the benefits of that. But by the same token, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that financially the country is not in a good place,' he says.

'Having said that, I think there's a genuine reawakening of the UK as a maritime force, and not just from a defence perspective. That benefits the Royal Navy, and anything that benefits the Navy benefits the RFA as well.'

Commodore Lamb has long campaigned for three new Solid Support Ships to bolster the RFA's ageing fleet, some of which is simply 'not up to the job'.

'There's absolutely no doubt that to deliver a carrier strike in the way the government envisions we need Solid Support Ships,' he says.

That's where politics comes back into it, with an ongoing debate over a build strategy and whether there should be an international build competition as the UK did with the Tide Class Tankers, whether they should be UK-built in entirety, or a balance of the two.

It is a highly-charged argument, and one that might rumble on for some time, with the Johnson government highlighting shipbuilding as a key post-Brexit growth industry.

Commodore Lamb is in favour of modern naval vessel production that closely mimics modern car production, with manufactured components from all over the world being assembled in complex supply chains that seek to minimise costs and maximise speed to market. Excluding that international element will drive costs up significantly, he says.

Fair Pay for RFA

Commodore Lamb inherited a pay freeze in his first year in the top job – imposed during seven years of austerity. The 2018 pay negotiations were particularly tough, with the RFA coming off poorly in comparison with the mainstream Civil Service, a factor which spurred the RFA's RMT Union members to carry out the organisation's first industrial action for many years, under the banner of 'Fair Pay for RFA' and demonstration outside the houses of parliament.

Nautilus is the recognised union for RFA officers and did not take part in the formal industrial action. The Union's strategy was to actively negotiate with the RFA for a pay rise and to take the campaign alongside other unions to Westminster. Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and a meeting was held with Tobias Ellwood MP from the Ministry of Defence in which RFA members' frustrations were made clear.

The result of that meeting was a better understanding of the RFA's importance to the nation and a commitment from the Minister to support its case in Parliament. Subsequent pay deals for Nautilus RFA members have been well above inflation with a 3.6% overall uplift in 2019 and another 2.5% in 2020.

Mr Lamb is quick to point out that the RFA does not operate in a vacuum, and that wider societal pressures will come into play. 'A pay freeze will be difficult, but I think all of us working in the public sector need to be aware of the trauma the private sector is going through now,' he says.

He indicates that there are ways to bolster compensation for RFA employees, such as improved access to training, leave allowances and pensions contributions.

Job security and diversity of employment feature high on the list of benefits, with the RFA prioritising apprenticeships and cadetships. The RFA is currently looking to increase its cadet intake, which could prove useful for trainees in terms of guaranteed seatime.

'I think we've set our stall out quite plainly, in terms of maintaining employment and looking after our people during this unprecedented time,' he says.

The need to quarantine before joining ship in the pandemic has exposed some gaps in officer levels, and the RFA is working to find quality candidates from ex-Royal Navy and Merchant Navy backgrounds to bolster numbers.  

The RFA has suffered some crew change delays and tours of duty have been extended, but Mr Lamb is at pains to point at that it's not the three-, four- or five-month extensions we're hearing about in the Merchant Navy.

One eye on the future

Commodore Lamb was known for his modernising streak when in the job, being open to ideas of broadening the RFA's scope. For example, he could see the benefits of merging with government-run maritime services such as the Border Force. While that didn't come to pass, he encouraged RFA officer secondments to UK Border Force vessels to boost their experience in the field.

He worries that over the longer term the RFA has lost some of the diversity that it used to have as a service, and which broadened the experience of RFA officers. The RFA used to operate a strategic roll-on roll-off service, commercially operated with the same number of people that any commercial operator would use. It also operated a Landing Ship Logistics (LSL) fleet to support amphibious warfare missions. These vessel types offered 'small ship' experience.

By morphing into what he describes as a frontline, high tempo, big platform organisation, the RFA is now experiencing some challenges in retaining people long enough to get them to the top of the pile. Changes to the UK pension age and rules on retirement add complexity to the situation.

For someone who can see opportunities to modernise, a lack of change can be frustrating, and I get the feeling talking to Commodore Lamb that he had to learn to temper his expectations along the way. He describes one of the hard lessons learned after five years in the top job – that if you can just get one good idea over the line in that time that you're doing well.

Easier, perhaps, is supporting industry initiatives that align with similar needs within the RFA, such as the Maritime UK Women in Maritime Charter, which seeks to even up the gender balance in the maritime workforce. Ethnic diversity is also an issue.

Commodore Lamb reckons it's a matter of organisational survival. 'We are hugely underrepresented in both those areas,' he says. 'We must tap into those groups of people [women and people from ethnic minorities]. And we must do better than we're doing now. As head of service, it was clear to me that it wasn't diverse enough, so anything that I could do to enhance that, I would.'

The RFA has increased its recruitment and retention of women, and its workforce is currently 7% female, which compares to 14% female in the Royal Navy and 2% female in the Merchant Navy.

Another system Mr Lamb inherited in 2015 was a more transparent promotion pathway for officers which sought to do away with the old system of rewarding loyalty over success. While that has levelled the playing field, it can lead to frustrations over access to training and gaining the right experience. By the time an officer gets near the top, it gets very competitive and they may have to wait longer for their first vessel command than Royal Navy and Merchant Navy colleagues.

The flip side, he says, is that by the time a first officer makes captain, they know their business inside out.

'That's quite important, given the unique role that we have. You know, manoeuvring a 30,000 tonne vessel alongside an aircraft carrier of 60,000 tonnes is not for the faint hearted. So, when people get up to the top of the shop, they do have to have that experience behind them.'

He is at pains to describe what he sees as a great deal of opportunity in the RFA, which still pays for officer training and gives employees time off to complete it.

An easy retirement

As our interview comes to an end, Mr Lamb's attention is once again returned to his home making. Having spent 30 years living away from Scotland, he's determined to enjoy it now, and he's not really in the market for taking on any new roles in retirement. 'I've really enjoyed the novelty of not having deadlines and being able to choose what I want to do when I get up in the morning.'

And yet, for a man who's used to blocks of leave that could run to four or five months at a time, it may be that by January, when all the painting and decorating is done, he may just be looking for something to keep him busy. There are some charitable endeavours in the works and some opportunities to support the Honourable Company of Master Mariners (HCMM).

'I just I don't see myself in another one-star post. We'll see what happens in the new year.'


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