Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy Contents


Our inquiry

1.The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015), published in November 2015, set out the structure of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet. In it, the Government committed to maintaining at least 19 frigates and destroyers by replacing the thirteen Type 23 frigates with eight Type 26 Global Combat Ships (GCS) and initially five “lighter, flexible” General Purpose Frigates (GPFF).1 SDSR 2015 also announced a commitment to build an additional two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), and stated that, by the 2030s, there could be a “further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers”.2

2.The SDSR also confirmed the Government’s intention to publish a National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), which would “lay the foundations for a modern and efficient sector capable of meeting the country’s future defence and security needs”.3 The Strategy, designed by Sir John Parker, chairman of Anglo American, will be published alongside the 2016 Autumn Statement,4 and at its heart will be the acquisition of the Type 26 GCS.

3.This Report first comments on the current and planned future capacity of the Royal Navy. It then considers the programmes for the Type 26 and the GPFF frigates and the impact of their respective timetables on maintaining the current totals of frigates and destroyers in the surface fleet. The Report also examines the failings of the propulsion system of the Type 45 destroyers and the effect of delays to the Type 26 programme on the skills base in the shipbuilding industry.

4.We held two evidence sessions, hearing from a range of witnesses including former First Sea Lords, academics, representatives of industry and the Ministry of Defence. We thank all those who provided their time and expertise to this inquiry.

The capacity of the Royal Navy and the current global threats

5.The Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 noted that the Royal Navy delivers the UK’s nuclear deterrent, projects our maritime power and provides world-class amphibious forces.5 Given that the UK is an island nation, the importance of these tasks cannot be overstated. Indeed, our first Report of this Parliament, Flexible response? An SDSR checklist of potential threats and vulnerabilities highlighted several potential threats which would require a response delivered entirely or in great part by the Royal Navy, including:

In relation to those threats, the Report also highlighted a number of vulnerabilities which the SDSR had to address, which included:

6.The importance of the Royal Navy to UK defence and security was described, succinctly, by Admiral Lord West, former First Sea Lord:

I believe Britain still is a global nation. We have huge amounts of imports and exports by sea. […] We need global stability, and historically the Navy has provided that. We have whittled the numbers down now, I believe, to an extent where that is at risk, which is not good for Britain, for British people globally, or for the world.7

7.A credible Navy is also essential for force projection. As Peter Roberts, Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and Maritime Studies at RUSI, told us, both the political rhetoric and the threat posed to the UK are similar to those of the 1980s. But, by contrast, the size and structure of the Royal Navy reflects the geopolitical thinking of the early 2000s, which he warned “ignores the real increase and reality” of the dangers we currently face.8 The maritime threat to the UK was highlighted in our Report, Russia: Implications for UK defence and security which stated that “Russian warships have been observed close to British waters and Russian submarines have attempted to record the ‘acoustic signature’ of Vanguard class submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles”.9 More recently, on 21 October 2016, a Russian carrier group sailed through the North Sea and up the English Channel en route to the Middle East. Although the MoD confirmed that it was “man-marked every step of the way” by UK and NATO warships, it was a stark reminder why the UK needs enough surface ships to present a credible response. As the BBC commented at the time:

This is not just about boosting Russian firepower in Syria. If that was the case, it would be easier for Moscow to deploy more bombers to its airbase in Syria near Latakia.

Sending a large Russian flotilla through the North Sea and the English Channel sends a clear message to the West: anything you can do, we can do just as well—or even better.10

8.Despite the continuing importance of the Royal Navy to UK defence and security, successive Governments have shrunk the Navy to dangerously low levels. In 1980, the Navy had 13 destroyers and 53 frigates. By 1990, this had fallen to 13 destroyers and 35 frigates. Numbers had been reduced to 11 destroyers and 21 frigates by 2000; and to 6 destroyers and 17 frigates by 2010. Today the figure stands at 6 destroyers and 13 frigates: although with HMS Dauntless being redesignated as a ‘harbour training and accommodation ship’, and HMS Lancaster put into a state of ‘extended readiness’, the fully operational number is actually 5 destroyers and 12 frigates. 11 The long-term and drastic decline in the strength of the Royal Navy can be seen clearly in the table at Appendix 1.

9.The Government takes the view that the current number of 19 frigates and destroyers is sufficient for the Navy to carry out its tasks. However, Admiral Lord West told us that the “detailed assessment” undertaken in the SDR of 1998 concluded that the Royal Navy required no fewer than 30 destroyers and frigates. “I still believe that is roughly the number we need”, he stated.12 In similar vein, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, also a former First Sea Lord, told us that the SDSR of 2010 had identified a figure of 23 as the minimum number required and asserted that this remained the case today.13 Without giving a figure, Peter Roberts agreed that 19 destroyers and frigates was “insufficient”.14

10.The Royal Navy has a number of standing commitments, which are set out in Appendix 3. In addition to the protection of UK and home waters, they include commitments in the North and South Atlantic, the Falkland Islands, the Gulf and contributions to the four Standing NATO Naval Task Groups. A number of these tasks are undertaken by OPVs, but together the UK’s commitments represent a significant undertaking with only 19 frigates and destroyers. It is a matter to which we will return when we come to consider the impact of SDSR 2015 on the Royal Navy. That said, we are currently of the opinion that the Royal Navy requires an increase in the number of frigates, destroyers and personnel if these standing commitments are to remain sustainable.

11.As an island nation, the importance of the Royal Navy to UK defence must not be underestimated. Our starting point in this Report is our conviction that the current number of frigates, destroyers and personnel inadequately reflects the potential threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK and its interests overseas.

1 Strategic Defence and Security Review, para 4.47 Cm 9161 November 2015

2 Strategic Defence and Security Review, para 4.47 Cm 9161 November 2015

3 Strategic Defence and Security Review, para 6.55 Cm 9161 November 2015

4 Budget 2016, HC 901, para 2.284

5 Strategic Defence and Security Review, para 4.47 Cm 9161 November 2015

6 Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2015–16, Flexible response? An SDSR checklist of potential threats and vulnerabilities, HC 493.

7 Q1 [Lord West]

8 Q2 [Mr Roberts]

9 Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, Russia: Implications for UK defence and security, HC 107, para 91.

11 HC Deb 8 June 2016 (40030)

12 Q2 [Lord West]

13 Q2 [Sir Mark Stanhope]

14 Q10 [Mr Roberts]

17 November 2016