The Royal Navy’s future is looking bright, but let’s not count the chickens just yet…
It’s fair to say that of all the branches of HM Armed Forces, the Royal Navy has the most reason to be hopeful at the start of 2021.
With Wildcat and the various new anti-ship missiles now well into operational service, the UK Carrier Strike Group 21 having departed on the first combat deployment yesterday and the revelations of the overdue Integrated Defence Review indicating that the Navy will grow in the coming years (unlike the RAF and Army), it’s hard not to be overjoyed for the UK’s oldest Armed Forces branch.
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The DefenceGeek is a self-proclaimed #avgeek with an involvement in the RAF and MoD since 2013. Although his day job is not defence-related, his knowledge and passion for the topic and Open Sources Intelligence (OSINT) has led to almost 4,000 followers on Twitter and he assists the UK Defence Journal team as the server Administrator and developer for the UK Defence Community Discord server.
But as with all promises of hope and good news, it’s probably worth not getting too excited just yet. Yes, the Integrated Review has promised that the UK surface combatant numbers will increase again (eventually becoming 6x Type 45 Destroyers, 8x Type 26 Frigates, 5x Type 31 Frigates and an unknown number of Type 32 Frigates), but promises can be broken, and at the moment the Type 32 Frigate is not technically confirmed in budget plans – it was merely announced by PM Boris Johnson.
Those paying attention to the announcements will have noticed that mention of the plans for a new class of ‘Littoral Strike Ship’ disappeared and instead funding to modify an existing Bay-class vessel seemingly replaced the concept.
This may have been due to recognition that the budget for a new class of amphibious vessel doesn’t presently exist, bear in mind that funding for new classes is currently heavily directed towards the Type 31 Frigates, SSN(R) replacement for the Astute-class and the Dreadnought-class SSBN projects (not to mention the upcoming unmanned mine-warfare vessels).
The issue with this is that the lack of funding isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and with HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark due to leave service in 2033-34, the Royal Navy is going to need a replacement for these two ships. We could potentially see an announcement of a 4-ship class to replace the Albion, Bulwark and incorporate the Littoral Strike Ship plan, but for the time being this is just speculation.
We also have to bear in mind the announcement of the Type 83 Destroyer. The last 80-series ship class was the Type 82 Destroyer, of which only one ended up being built (HMS Bristol). The 80-series designation indicates a destroyer class larger than the standard, which when we bear in mind the Type 45s displace over 8,000 tons, suggests that the Type 83s could potentially be cruiser-sized vessels.
One would hope that we’ll see one Type 83 replacement for each Type 45 built, for a total of 6 ships; however, there was meant to have been 12 Type 45s to replace the Type 42s on a one-for-one basis, and given the £1bn unit cost of a Type 45 and the promises of all the technological and weaponry advances of the Type 83, these ships could prove to be so expensive that we see the Destroyer fleet cut further, maybe even cancelling out most of the surface combatant number increase brought about by the Type 31 and 32 Frigates.
The other major issue facing the Royal Navy at the moment is the status of the UK’s F-35B purchases. Originally the UK committed to the idea of buying 138 aircraft, and placed an initial order for 48 jets a few years ago. At the time of writing, half of this initial order has been fulfilled, with 3 aircraft based in the US for testing, 8 onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) as she deploys for CSG21 (also known as Op FORTIS) and the remainder being based at RAF Marham for pilot training.
The 1st Sea Lord has indicated that the purchase will be expanded to “60-80 jets” which will be a necessary increase, but again this is technically unconfirmed and either way suggests a huge drop in the originally planned order (worth remembering this wouldn’t be the first time. The UK was due to have 232 Eurofighter Typhoons but later cut this order back to 160).
The Integrated Review says that the cut in F-35 orders will help fund Project Tempest, which aims to replace the Typhoon in the 2030s-2040s timeframe, but so far as we know at the moment, the Tempest will not be a STOVL (short-take-off and vertical landing) airframe unlike the F-35B, meaning the Navy will have to keep the F-35B and find it’s own replacement for that airframe in the 2050s-2060s.
In short, although the Royal Navy may have seemed to come off better from the Integrated Review, we will have to wait and see how much of the promises made in the Integrated Review come true.
One would hope most of it will, but if the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews were anything to go by, come 2025/2026 we’ll be seeing cuts again as funding priorities change yet again…
So let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.