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.