New Money for the Royal Navy: So What?

Professor Greg Kennedy, Director, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies

The announcement of the biggest investment in the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces in almost forty years by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has prompted much speculation about what the Royal Navy will be able to do with this new-found largesse. While many knowledgeable observers of the Royal Navy’s financial woes over the years would assume that much of this money will be spent to make more shallow the Navy’s spending black hole, particularly on nuclear propulsion and weapons systems, it appears that such may not be the case.

There is a stated commitment to improving the diminished surface warfare capability of the Fleet. The orders for 8 Type 26 and 5 Type 31 frigates appear to be confirmed, and a substantial commitment to the desperately needed Future Solid Support ships to enable the Carrier Strike Group to do what a Carrier Strike Group is supposed to do reinforces the belief that this Government is dedicated to producing a viable, visible and capable Carrier Strike capability that has global reach and sustainment.

Enough F-35 Lighting aircraft to make the Carrier Strike Group credible, as opposed to ceremonial – which is the case now – are needed. There is also s need for an organic air-to-air refuelling capability (such as the V-22 Osprey Aerial Refuelling variant) to ensure that the F-35s have the full range of tactical capabilities expected of them in the Strike role. not only by the Royal Navy but also by allied powers and especially by the United States.

 Overseas basing, to support the hard power element of a ‘Global Britain’, as well as domestic spending to help regenerate the UK’s COVID-ravaged domestic economy will all be beneficial to the overall strategic needs of the Government. New naval vessels will also support trade and economic growth through various forms of signalling, alliance reassuring and cash injections into high-skill job sectors. This extra-funding for the Navy will, therefore, allow both domestic and external strategic requirements for stability, confidence and resilience to be achieved. What is less well-known is what the mysterious Type 32 investment is all about.

Without confirmed sources of information to work from, there is still the opportunity to make some informed deductions about the Type 32 programme. Despite it being designated with a Type number and being referred to as a frigate, it is unlikely that what will be produced will, in reality, be a frigate: so it is a frigate that is not a frigate. The original Type 31, an export model warship that was to re-energize the UK’s warship exporting market but which was never a very popular item for many in the Royal Navy’s surface warfare club due to its limited technological and performance capabilities, is unlikely to be invested in as a Batch 2 or derivative version with the government’s latest new money.

As the Type 26 has proven to be a more popular version in the export market there is little need to continue to pour more financing into the Type 31 concept and platform. What is more likely is that the ‘mysterious’ Type 32 will end up being an “innovation show piece”, somewhere along the lines of the Littoral Combat Ship or Future Surface Combatant idea, incorporating Stealth technologies and other cutting-edge innovation features. This also speaks to the RN’s stated desire to work more closely with the United States Navy in future design and procurement, making interchangeability a key element moving forward in this relationship.

The Type 32 would serve this purpose, thereby giving a critical reality to the signalling of the intimate nature of RN-USN/UK-USA strategic relations to both nation’s domestic audiences, allies and potential opponents. The impact of the UK government’s new money should, therefore, be seen not just in terms of hulls and kit procured, but also in terms of domestic and external strategic objectives to be achieved. Moreover, the investment will make the Royal Navy – the most critical element of the UK’s Armed Forces in terms of the country’s future prosperity and global security standing – better prepared to help deliver a complex mix of strategic and operational effects that are required to help rebuild the UK’s post-COVID, post-BREXIT economic and international standing.

5 thoughts on “New Money for the Royal Navy: So What?

  1. I like the concept of a frigate that is not a frigate. I agree that the T32 will not be a beefed up T31 or a GP T26 but something diffrent. When looking at future needs of the RN MCM come to mind as does a ship able to deploy small Commando operations Littoral . I came to the conclusion that a multi role combat ship (Mothership/Base ship) is what is needed. Possibly a starting point could be the Damen Crossover combining feature from the fast combat and assault variants. This would give the RN a ship that can operate as a frigate in the Anti Air, Anti Ship, Anti Sub roles, operate as a small assault base ship with upto 120 Royal Marines or function as a Autonomous Mother Ship for MCM assets. Around 6,000 tons and 28-30 knots these would be useful platforms. Use some of the concepts from Damen Enforcer on the Crossover would increase the size to 9/10,000 tons but would give the ability for such ships to either carry four helicopters and operate as a base ship. A 10-15,000 ton Enforcer can carry 500+ Marines with the stores and supplies needed. If the RN version carried only 120 then the extra space could be used in many diffrent ways. For example enhanced workshops for ships on overseas deployemnt, or recreation areas for crews on long term deployments etc. Five such ships would bring the frigate fleet upto 24 ships but they could also replace some of the Hunts and Sandowns, variations of these Crossovers/Enforcers could also replace the Bays and Albions. We do in the UK need to be more inventive with our ship designs, we don’t have the money to build designated types yet at the same time we have a world wide responsibility. With that in mind it is one of the reasons that I have argued for several years that the RN should replace the Albions with either a Canberra type or the Dokdo type, ships that can operate in the assault role, convoy escort role (with F35Bs), ASW role (with F35Bs) and heavy humanitarian aid roles where the hanger and vehicle decks can be converted to hospitals. Many years ago when I was overseas and the British government said that they will build two new carriers I argued that they should have twin hangers an upper and lower and a well deck. By shuting the well deck down they would operate as carriers, with the well deck open they would be large Amphib platforms where the lower hanger would be the vehicle deck.
    What I disagree with is the UK government forcing the RN to have single ship deployments. Possibly an idea would be to build not five but six T31s Batch 1s and 3 T31s Batch 2s. The batch 2 is fully equipped, a 5 inch gun, 24-48 Sea Ceptors, 16-32 Mk41 VLS and Towed Array Sonar. These would operate as independent surface action groups, 2 Batch 1s for every one Batch 2. Two action groups could be at sea and one undergoing refit and repair. Now you could put a Crossover and or a Canberra together and you have a potent battle group able to carry out every task needed.
    So people are going to shout cost money money etc. Lets look at the proposal, 10 Crossover/Enforcer ships £5 billion, 2 Canberras £2 billion or 2 Dokdo’s £600 million, an extra T31 Batch 1 £250 million, 3 T31s Batch 2 £1.5 billion total cost £9 billion that includes some extras. What does this mean platforms that can bring an extra 50 helicopters to sea, and extra 16 F35Bs to sea 14 extra frigate capabile ships to sea, 13 extra Towed array sonars to sea, the ability to land 2 armoured battlegroups over the beach and 1500 Royal Marines in Commando style raids. Not to forget the possibility of ASW Helicopter platform, escort carriers, escort ships and surface action groups. Would the British Army like to have the possibility of landing 2 armoured battlegroups with air support any where in the world, yeep its a good force muliplyier. The last thing an enemy wants is a few thousand men with MBTs landing behind their front lines.
    When thinking about that capability most countries would think twice about being silly, the only two countries that the RN could not take on on a one for one base is the US and China, but even China would think twice. When I think that 38% of this cost is a tax return to the treasury it seems to me to be a good investment. Not only that but there is extra advantagies, this project would be a 160,000 tons of new ship build not including the present build or the planned build which includes the FSS ships, T31, T26 Batch 2s, this would create about 20,000 new jobs in ship building and a further 80,000 jobs in supply. Not only that but think of the housing market, going down the pub buying white goods, house extensions. When people have got work they spend money when there is more need to supply the money spenders more people need to be employed. Then comes a hidden possibility, if UK shipyards become more effective possibly they would get overseas contracts meaning an even better return on investment.
    So with my £6 billion real cost I have increased the RN from 19 to 29 FFGs/ DDGs, increased the over the beach ability from 1000 men to 3500 men and created about 150,000 new jobs which pay tax. If this could be seen as a ten year building program in real cost it would be about £600 million per year. We spent more than that on PPE that was the wrong type!
    Ok so that is spend, now how to save, and how to save with my fleet I will not include subs as I have not spoken about them. My flett would be as follows:
    2x QE
    2x Canberra
    6xT45s
    8xT26
    6xT31 batch 1
    3xT31 batch 2
    10x Crossover+

    So I will make an assumption 1 QE and 1 Canberra will be at sea the other undergoing refit, repair or standby. I propose that the groups operate together as a team when you go in for refit and repair you do it together. So the QE would have 2 T45s and 3 T26s, they work together, they refit together and laid up together. The same for the Canberra’s, they would have 3 Crossovers as escort forming a Amphib Battle group giving a armoured battle group and 360 Marines for the assault. Remember I said the Crossovers should have Anti air, anti ship and anti sub ability. Then comes the T31s they should have a Crossover for each of the surface action groups, with two at sea and one undergoing refit it would mean that the RN could have a t sea 1 Carrier battle group, one Amphibious Battle group, and Two surface action groups. So what does that mean well ,for the two groups you need three crews. not the two crews for each ship as we have now.
    So what we in the Uk need to do is to make the best of what we have, what we could have, our investment and our assets. We need ships that can fight in a multi role enviroment to be able to go into harms way and to make others think twice before they engage. The UK and the RN is no longer the superpower of the seas, that has gone to the US and possibly China, but what we could build is a von Tirpitz fleet, a fleet powerful enough that if you engage the damage to the enemy will be so great that any other nation could mop it up. The Risiko fleet concept. Could my suggestion cause that situation yes, all it would need on top of it is some investment into subs, here I suggest a 1+2 system for every SSBN we have two SSNs for every SSN we have two air independent SSs so for the four SSBNs that means eight SSNs and 16 SS AIPs that is an extra £7 billion or £4.5 billion real cost.
    So for a ten year project I have a real cost of £10.5 billion or £1.25 billion per year, increased the surface fleet by 14 combat vessels the sub fleet by 17 employment by 140,000 in build and supply lines . These numbers sound huge but it is less than £1 per person per month, get a coffee for that price.

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  2. For many years I have believed that the navy should be the most critical element of the UK’s Armed Forces. I would place the airforce second. However, post the collapse of the Soviet Union the role of the army in Northern Ireland, Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq twice has required a substantial force. The run down of all services, the impact of modern technology on fighting and the problems of cyber warfare all mean that the UK does need to review commitments and the way the country will wage war. The way the country will wage war is of course dependent on how others will wage war. It is also where we will wage war. Given the changing circumstances I would like to see the ministry of defence being just that – a ministry of defence with the armed forces being part.The future Chief of the Defence Staff could be a civilian from outside the armed forces. Defence needs to be seen as a whole and not in parts. There is also the question of what we are defending from who and how we are being attacked. I have strayed from the question of extra funding for the navy but a rethink of the strategic overview is needed. Perhaps the future defence review will address these matters and perhpas aircraft carriers will have a role.

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  3. Although I agree in general with your comments some issues needs to be looked at. The first of these is to ask the question, Why does a country need a navy? Does the US, Russia or China need a navy, not really, unless it for coastal defence. These countries are to big to invade, even if you do how will you police them. So any nation with the idea of invading or attacking them is just down right stupid. They are or could be self suporting in the basic needs of the country. So for them a Blue Water navy is or can be seen as an offensive platform. Then you have countries such as Germany France etc, countries that have a coast line but land borders, do they need a navy,? Well unless that country has gone to war with all of its bordering nations then it could still get basic resources over a land border. It is nice to have but is not essential to ifs survival. Then you have Island nations such as the UK or Japan, do they need a navy? Yes for its very survival, if sea lanes are blocked the population of Island nations will starve. You do not even need to invade them, an example could be Japan in 1945, did the US need to use the atom bomb? No, if they had given the blockade another six-twelve months the country would have surrendered due to starvation.
    Navy’s in the use of an Island nation is defence, where in the use of nations such as the US offence due to the needs of the nation. That is the main diffrence. The issue with the RN or for that matter of any nations military navy is that it is an enabler. In the case of the RN by defending the sea lanes so that the country can survive then it enables the country to continue the fight. It enables air and land forces to go onto the offensive. If the RN was defeted in battle the country looses the control of the sea lanes thereby loosing the conflict. If the US Navy lost the battle or for that matter Russia or China then you still have the issue of taking the air and land battle to them, and as I said to invade them, stupid.
    So yes the UK does need to look at future aspects of conflict, it will possibly be more AI orientated, attacks on communication infrastructure or satalite infrastructure can and will disable a nations health, utilities etc without firing a shot. The basic requirements of a strong navy for Island nations is as important today as it was 100 years ago, possibly more important. In the period of WW2 the UK could produce about 50% of its food requirements today its much less. I totally agree that the MoD should not just be about the armed forces but should include GCHQ, border patrol, Cyber defence etc and it should operate as one.

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  4. It’s odd how that word ” defence ” has been misused? “Ministry of Defence” is politically more digestible for the public with its implication that there will be no ‘offensive’ action however justified ? ” Strike Group ” doesn’t sound defensive does it? The question of military action has at its heart foreign policy therefore these functions of government cannot ever be separated. During a senior officers’ war course in the late 1970’s it was thought that all the possible scenarios of trouble world-wide had been amply covered but history since proved this completely wrong as nothing that was thought might have happened did while all that has was not foreseen at all; a long list of events starting with the Falkllands war. So what does this mean for the RN? Does it build for the defence of the UK and allies or for interventions anywhere dependent on circumstances which from experience cannot be foretold ? Do we want to be able to act independently to a limited extent or not? Realistically we actually cannot be sure ? What we do know is that half a capability is a false investment and which is what the RN has suffered from in recent years, inadequately armed ships and too few of what we do have. Any potential conventional enemy has to reflect what dire harm he might receive in return for his offence even if he believes he can win.

    A necessary increase in frigate/destroyer numbers has been obvious for much too long even without the contingencies of loss or damage being seriously considered. The increases in expenditure are welcome but are only the minimum that an enemy will respect. Some euphoria perhaps but still’ jam tomorrow ‘.

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