Updated: Jan 19
Over the last year the UK government has outlined the most dramatic shift in its maritime defence spending since the end of the Cold War. With grand objectives being outlined by the Ministry of Defence and Downing Street, are these ambitions achievable by the 2030’s or are the rising number of commitments overwhelming the capacity of the fleet?
Stating in 2020 that his target is for the UK to become the “foremost naval power in Europe”, Boris Johnson has made clear of his intention to expand the Royal Navy’s capabilities in the coming decades. Whilst this could just be one aspect of the government’s vision of a truly Global Britain, it does not appear to be a theatrical sound bite but a serious change in step from the policies of successive parliaments. It signifies the first time since the end of the Cold War that the Royal Navy shall grow in numbers, increasing the amount of large surface combatants and becoming more active globally.
The March 2021 Defence Command Paper, “Defence in a competitive age”, highlighted the ambition of ensuring that the future Royal Navy shall maintain a “constant global presence, with more ships, submarines, sailors and marines deployed on an enduring basis”, seemingly putting money where the governments mouth is. Subsequently, this has committed the MOD to large scale modernisation and an expansion of current capabilities.#
This includes: maintaining over 20 frigates and destroyers (the most numerous large warships in the fleet), with new Type 26, 31 and 32 frigates being constructed to replace at least 13 legacy vessels; constructing Multi-Role Support Ships to provide greater littoral strike potential (amphibious landing platforms for costal assault); a further three Fleet Solid Support Ships to supply vessels while on active deployment; and a modernisation of nuclear forces with four new Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines. Overall, this aims to equate to over £1.7 billion in shipbuilding annually, showing a substantial ongoing investment. But what are all these new ships for?
The Former head of the Royal Navy and now Chief of the Defence staff (the professional head of the armed forces), Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, explained that the navy shall have “a posture that is more pro-active, forward deployed and has persistent presence around the world” allowing it to “intervene worldwide at a time and place of political choice, without the permission of any other country.” This signifies a change in strategy for naval planners within the UK, outlining in The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, “Global Britain in a competitive age”, that areas of operation shall be further afield than traditional security concerns; allowing an Indo-Pacific tilt that protects economic, security and social interests threatened by systemic competition within the region. Consequently, this suggests that the UK aims to utilise its navy by deploying its ships globally, maintaining a presence so it is able to respond to security challenges wherever they may be, and reacting quickly without needing to send equipment from British waters.
On the 1st April 2021 the Royal Navy and supporting Royal Fleet Auxiliary operated a fleet of 66 and 13 vessels respectively, including 19 escort ships (destroyers and frigates). These operate as the main workhorse of the fleet, in support of more specialised vessels, such as aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships, whilst also operating independently around the globe. The current government plan would see the number of these vessels increase by five going into the 2030’s but this does not sound like a significant increase in comparison to the expansion of expected responsibilities set upon the Royal Navy by UK policy makers. Whilst operating as the UK’s primary maritime defence, contributing towards NATO’s collective deterrence and maintaining guard ships around British Overseas Territories; the navy must now carry out large fleet deployments, like those seen during Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) last year and also forward deploy ships semi-permanently around the globe to meet the objectives of “A Global Navy for Global Britain”.
This is something that the House of Commons Defence Committee investigated in its report, “We’re going to need a bigger Navy” published in December 2021, which acknowledges the importance of placing the navy at the centre of the UK’s security posture. Alternatively, the committee goes on to recommend that the Royal Navy does not possess enough equipment to support the ambitions of The Integrated Review, requiring the growth in numbers of major surface combatants to double, whilst the resource budget should also account for expansions in personnel and support vessels commensurately.
Whereas policy makers have argued that availability in current equipment shall be increased, this cannot realistically expand the impact of the navy to any sizeable extent. Using the logic of maintaining four ballistic missile submarines at all times to ensure that one is permanently on patrol, maintenance and training will always remain to be a consideration for naval planners. It would therefore be important to acknowledge that the five further escort ships proposed would easily be accounted for when planning for basic tasks; most likely replacing the five forward deployed Batch II River Class patrol ships that are stationed in strategically vital locations globally. Subsequently, alongside the current missions already undertaken by the fleet, the Royal Navy cannot be expected to dramatically increase its global impact in a continually growing hostile international environment. Specifically, these measures also come at a time when potentially threatening states, such as China and Russia, are expanding or drastically modernising their naval arsenals.
This draws to the argument that the governments investment into the Royal Navy, although a refreshing step towards advancement, does not match the inexorably rising number of commitments expected of it. Although it is not for this article to suggest the specific numbers or measures to meet these ambitions, further increases in capability are clearly needed. Whether these goals are met by increasing the size of the fleet or further utilisation of technology to increase the applications of specific classes of ships, through measures such as modularisation or automation; the UK government should invest more into the future Royal Navy so that it is capable of defending all of Global Britain’s interests.
Stephen is a recent postgraduate student of International Relations, with a strong interest in defence policy.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.