“We’re going to need a bigger Navy” – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Defence Committee

Related inquiry: The Navy: purpose and procurement

Date Published: 14 December 2021

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The next decade is one of significant risk. Everyone from the National Security Adviser to the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service agrees that the international security environment is becoming more unstable. This instability is clear in the maritime domain, particularly with the rise of more assertive state adversaries, grey zone warfare and technological risk. At the same time the Royal Navy is being asked to take on increasing responsibilities, including taking the lead for Defence on the Government’s persistent engagement policy and Indo-Pacific tilt. What is needed is a realist assessment of capability against government ambition.

However, despite these threats, spending on the Navy and rest of Defence has been capped. Increased defence spending is required to address the numerous issues identified with the Navy’s current and future capabilities in this report. Funding is urgently needed to plug the delays and gaps the Navy faces in key capabilities in the next decade.

Government’s failure to fund the ha’porth of tar the Royal Navy needs has literally spoiled the ships. The fleet suffers from well documented problems with several key assets:

  • Budget cuts have delayed crucial procurement programmes. The Type 23 frigates and Trafalgar class submarines should have been replaced years ago, and it is becoming increasingly challenging and expensive to maintain aging vessels. The Navy has also taken too long to rectify major problems with vessels. One notable example is the issue with the Type 45 destroyers’ propulsion system: the six vessels are not scheduled to be fixed until 2028, and there are already signs that this target may be slipping. As a result of these failures too many of our high-end warships spend too much of their time unavailable for operations.
  • The latest Spending Review has tightened the Navy’s budget for operations and maintenance still further. Once inflation is accounted for the funding available actually falls. This is likely to lead to a reduction on operations and maintenance and the spectacle of yet more ships sitting in port, failing to deter our increasingly emboldened adversaries.
  • When ships do get to sea they act like porcupines - well defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities. This is a result of decisions by successive Governments to limit budgets and prioritise defensive capabilities. What offensive capabilities these ships do have will be reduced even further in three years’ time when the Government retires the Harpoon anti-ship missile without a planned replacement. More money must be found to upgrade the Navy’s lethality and allow our ships to take the fight to the enemy.
  • Harpoon is only one example of the Government prioritising the budget over the strategic situation by cutting key capabilities in the next few years without proper replacements. The Navy will lose medical facilities when RFA Argus retires in 2024. Under current plans the fleet is also likely to spend several years unable to deliver support shipping and logistics or to monitor critical national infrastructure against interference by hostile states.
  • The fleet is increasingly reliant on allies for many capabilities, with a limited scope for sovereign action. The Government needs to be honest about the extent of its sovereign capability and must do more at the political level to ensure the Navy can rely on support from allies.

These significant challenges have not prevented the Navy delivering significant successes, most notably the commissioning of the two aircraft carriers and the 2021 carrier strike group deployment to the Indo-Pacific. However, they do raise concerns about the Navy’s ability to deliver the crucial transformations it has planned. To retain a leading edge over adversaries, the Navy must introduce the Naval Strike Network, which is intended to allow information to be shared across the fleet, but which is still ill defined, despite related systems being supposed to enter service in the middle of this decade. This is a crucial omission.

Towards the end of the decade in 2027–28 the Navy will begin transitioning multiple classes of vessel simultaneously. Crucially these plans must be delivered on schedule in order for the Navy to exit the period of risk that budgetary restrictions have placed it in. However, they face many structural and project-specific risks, and the Ministry of Defence’s track record on delivery is far from good.

Whenever we have investigated a failure, we have heard the customary mantra that “lessons have been learned”. Not only do we seriously doubt that this is the case, these projects are too important to the Navy’s credibility and the UK’s security to be treated as a learning opportunity. These projects therefore need greater scrutiny from Parliament and external stakeholders, and this requires the Government to be honest about its intentions and publish shipbuilding delivery plans.

In short, over the next five years or so, at least until the new classes of surface escorts come on stream, the Royal Navy will be asked to do even more with even less. This is a clear risk, which those beyond these shores can calculate just as readily as we can.

As we look to the future, the Navy’s fleet is too small and too specialised to meet the demands that will be placed on it over the next two decades. The escort fleet needs to double in size by acquiring more low-end capability to carry out low end tasks, alongside ships capable of carrying out the Navy’s high-end warfighting commitments. Attack submarine numbers should also grow to reflect the growing importance of the subsurface domain. Funding, personnel and support shipping must grow commensurately.

To deliver these new ships, the UK requires a strong domestic shipbuilding capability. Many current issues are the result of previous Governments refusing to accept the consistent recommendations that have been given by a variety of experts for the last fifteen years: provide a steady pipeline of work for British shipyards, prioritise building vessels in the UK, work collaboratively with industry, and promote exports. So far, the Government has not fully committed to following this advice: the refresh of the National Shipbuilding Strategy must change this. Properly supported, the UK’s shipbuilding industry must be able to deliver the new technologies that future vessels will need: modularity that can immediately add new capabilities to vessels and keep them upgraded with the latest equipment, autonomous vehicles that will expand the range and opportunity for a vessel to see or strike an adversary, and distributed operations that allow the whole fleet to share information and coordinate action. This will require significant investment in yard modernisation.