NSS/SDSR 2015: The Maritime Issues

DR TIM BENBOW

The Strategic Defence and Security Review presented a mixed picture for maritime capabilities. On balance, those at the top of the Royal Navy are likely to be raising a glass to toast the result… but the glass is perhaps only half full. Moreover (and I am trying to keep my cliché count to a reasonable minimum), the devil will lie in the detail, as further announcements fill in some of the broad headlines, and detailed policies are devised to achieve some of the aspirations and to address some of the problems that were not tackled.

The Review contained much that was positive from a maritime perspective – not least, looking in broader terms, it was the first defence review since the Second World War that did not cut the Navy. Some of the welcome announcements, or perhaps implications of the Review document for the Navy, include three new stores ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and the apparent intent to continue with the whole planned programme of seven Astute-class submarines. There was no mention of a replacement LPH (farewell, Ocean), although one of the carriers will be modified to enhance its amphibious capabilities (para.4.47). The list of the constituent parts of the impressive ‘Joint Force 2025’ includes two LPD: it would be nice to believe that this was not just padding and that it really does mean a reversal of the decision in the last review to have one of Albion and Bulwark at lower readiness; restoring the amphibious capability in this way would fit well with the aspiration for an enhanced expeditionary force. There was also one brief statement that has not yet attracted much comment but is something to keep an eye on, in the form of an increased UK interest in ballistic missile defence: ‘We will also investigate further the potential of the Type 45 Destroyers to operate in a BMD role.’(para.4.16).

There were three big announcements affecting naval capabilities that have understandably dominated the early reactions to the Review.

First, the widely expected return of a maritime patrol aircraft – one of the more controversial cuts of the 2010 review – was confirmed. Contrary to some expectations that the Review would merely announce a competition for this capability, further drawing out the process and potentially allowing defence industrial considerations to trump military capability (opinions will differ over whether this is a good thing or not), the review specified that nine Boeing P8 Poseidon aircraft would be bought. At least this should draw a veil over recurring recent headlines about US / French / Canadian aircraft having to be called in to hunt Russian submarines in British waters.

Second, the Review announced an acceleration in the acquisition of F35 Lighting II aircraft, so that there will be twice as many in service in 2023 as previously planned. This will give the two carriers (it had been confirmed beforehand that the second would be brought into service, not launched and then mothballed as previously intended) a stronger air group albeit considerably less than they could operate. Interestingly, most of the media comment has described these as ‘RAF’ aircraft, whereas many (ideally most) will be operated by the Fleet Air Arm – the proportion allocated to each Service is one of those devilish details to come. Another, of course, is whether all the promised 138 F35s will be the ‘B’ short take-off and vertical landing variant suitable for operation from the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (which would maximise the commonality of the UK aircraft fleet as well as the country’s expeditionary firepower), or whether a proportion will be the conventional ‘A’ variant that some in the RAF would like, albeit at the price of increasing the number of aircraft types operated (the principle that was cited to justify scrapping the Harriers in the 2010 review). There was no mention of unmanned strike aircraft for operation from the carriers, though this is a logical direction for the future. The Review document did hail collaboration with France in carriers (para. 5.35) and also in developing an Unmanned Combat Air System (para.4.50); bringing these two together would be interesting.

Third, the review stated that only eight of the fully-capable ‘Type 26’ frigates, optimised for anti-submarine warfare, will be bought (and at a worryingly slow pace). On the other hand, the review also pledged, ‘We will maintain our fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers’; indeed, this number will actually be increased… albeit not until the 2030s. Given the hints leaked before the announcement that the force would fall below 19 (only a cynic would see this as classic ‘Yes, Minister’-style expectation management), this was a relief. The circle will be squared by having the 13 Type 23s replaced by eight Type 26 and, initially, five of a new, less sophisticated and hence cheaper, more flexible, general purpose frigate. The government hopes (though similar aspirations have often been dashed in the past) that such a vessel might attract export orders. The appropriate balance between quality and quantity has been debated for some time and while the concept of a more affordable, more flexible (perhaps modular?) frigate is attractive, the key will be whether it will have the capabilities it will need rather than being stripped down into a ‘snatch corvette’ in a forlorn hope of attracting overseas orders. There is something of the ‘jam tomorrow, something less appetising today’ in the announced plans for the frigate/destroyer force but if the numbers, steady and then increasing, are held to, the future pay-off will be worthwhile.

Perhaps the main disappointment, and certainly the dog that did not bark as loudly as some were hoping, is the vexed issue of manpower. The Navy needs an increase in personnel to be able to man its current and planned platforms, and while an increase was announced (700 for the Navy and RAF combined, of which briefings suggest 450 will be for the Navy) it is a small proportion of the existing shortfall. Further, some of the spending commitments are to be paid for by heavy cuts in the civilians employed by the Ministry of Defence, most of whom are not the ‘pen pushers’ beloved of tabloid editors, but rather provide vital support for the Services; previous savings were taken by shifting uniformed positions into civilian ones, which will leave gaps if the latter are further chopped. The tendency to dismiss support (exemplified in the tired ‘teeth versus tail’ distinction, which might be better rendered as ‘teeth and spine’ or perhaps ‘teeth and gums’) is regrettable and stores up problems for the future. Resolving the manpower challenge (in terms of totals, with particular difficulties in some key branches) is the principal headache for the Navy at the moment. The risk is that the impressive headline force will in practice be much smaller, as holes can only be filled by leaving ships tied up alongside for extended periods.

The Review contained much to celebrate from a maritime point of view. The details must now be refined, the promises kept to (not least avoiding further accountancy tricks over what can be shoved in to defence spending to meet the ‘two per cent’ target) and the challenges tackled. New MPA and faster delivery of F35 to allow more on the carriers are welcome; the promised eight Type 26 must be accompanied by five (and then more) of a capable, albeit cheaper frigate. Maritime UAVs and BMD are areas to watch. The main disappointment was the failure to tackle the manpower crisis resulting from previous reductions; in this respect, the Review was only the beginning. So, two cheers, if not all three.

Tim Benbow is Director of the Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre, and Deputy Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies.

Image: Royal Navy Sailor with the Type-22 Frigate HMS Cumberland, via Flickr.

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