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:
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.