|The UK's Queen Elizabeth-class future aircraft carrier|
Tantalising glimpses of the future Royal Navy have been detectable in recent weeks. In one of the most uncertain periods in the history of Britain’s Senior Service, there are reasons for cautious optimism. These tentative auguries are a mix of tangible progress, strategic rationale, media hearsay, and an intangible sense that the political winds could be shifting.
One of the better decisions in 2010’s Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) was to commit to future reviews at even, five-year intervals. Each review plans ten years ahead: hence 2010’s “Future Force 2020”. What we are seeing now is a glimpse at what SDSR 2015 might bring, at which point 2020’s force composition will be much clearer.
The SDSR left the Royal Navy at an unprecedented nadir. For the first time since the dawn of airpower at sea, the Senior Service confronted its inability to project carrier strike air power capability for a whole decade. The shock of losing Ark Royal and the Harriers is still being felt. Just as damaging, the workhorses of the fleet - its frigates and destroyers - dropped to an anorexic 19. Good news has been sorely needed since then.
Pieces coming together
The future aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is taking shape remarkably quickly. Vast steel jigsaw pieces, loaded onto barges from shipyards across the UK, are coming together with pleasing synchronicity. Suddenly the future flat-top looks a lot more tangible in the present.
As each block departs its yard for assembly, the process repeats itself for the second ship: HMS Prince of Wales. The future of that ship is still in doubt, but there are recent grounds for cautious optimism.
The first reason concerns the government’s recently announced U-turn on which version of the F-35 Lightening II stealthy jet fighter to operate from the ships. Reversing the SDSR commitment to the conventional F-35C variant, going instead with the previous government’s preference for the STOVL ‘jump-jet’ F-35B, is subject to innumerable costs, benefits, pros and cons.
The estimated £1bn cost of redesigning just one of the carriers with CATOBAR ‘cats and traps’ to use the F-35C was directly linked to the SDSR’s decision to leave the future of the second ship in jeapardy: threatening to sell one carrier or to keep it mothballed indefinitely.
|Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II|
Mothballing a 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier would be a gross political embarrassment for which ever government sits in Westminster in five years time, not to mention a tragic waste of a state-of-the-art asset, not to mention flushing away money and effort already spent.
However, instead of carrying out an expensive conversion of one ship, leaving its sister mothballed and unconverted to operate the planes, May’s U-turn back to the F-35B leaves both ships in their original STOVL configuration, perfectly suited for F-35B operations, increasing the political odds that both will be commissioned into the fleet. Indeed, according to whatever source is behind this newspaper article, the government is already thinking along these lines.
Balancing the books
Managing the money is crucial to keeping hopes on track. The coalition government’s fiscal commitment to cutting its way out of the UK’s budget deficit is undimmed. However, a major milestone came when defence secretary Philip Hammond announced on May 14 that the Ministry of Defence had (gasp) finally managed to balance its books, for which the F-35 decision represented “the last big piece in the jigsaw".
Balancing the books ends the MoD’s £38bn ($61bn) black hole created by ten year’s of overheating defence expenditure while fighting two major wars. Back in the black, the MoD has found some leeway by regaining the Treasury’s trust.
Adding detail, Peter Luff, defence equipment minister, revealed that the next decade’s £160bn defence budget will be more flexible than previous budgets. It includes a £4bn contingency fund for cost overruns, which could end the farce of delaying projects because of unforeseen costs on other contracts.
Revealingly, there is now an £8bn "headroom" to fund a "priority list of equipment not in the core programme". Bingo. The existence of this fund vastly increases the likelihood of the Navy getting its fill, including the second carrier and other wish list items.
While the politicians bask in putting the MoD’s house in order, much of the credit for this “headroom” should go to Lord Levene, who published his Defence Reform report in June 2011. The former Lloyd’s of London chairman devoted his energies to sorting out the MoD’s disastrous fiscal housekeeping in late 2010, to considerable effect.
Want of frigates
“Was I to die at this moment, want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart.” So remarked Nelson in 1798 as he scoured the Mediterranean in search of his French quarry.
The quote echoes today. Frigates are still the fleet's workhorses. Several commentators have noted that the Navy is stretched almost to breaking point, with no reserve to cope with any serious ship losses in a war situation, such as those sustained in 1982. Commitments to anti-piracy operations are not being continuously met as previously.
A restlessly active 2011 sat awkwardly with 2010’s cuts. Ships scraped together for use off Libya, such as type-42 destroyer HMS Liverpool and type-22 frigate HMS Cumberland, were already slated for decommissioning. Several have already gone, now that the fleet is reduced to just 19 destroyers and frigates. The fleet is forward-deployed, but 2011 took this to an unsustainable level.
The new type-45 destroyers are expensive ships at over £1bn each. They were reduced to 6 in 2008 from an original order of 12. It is now extremely unlikely more will be built. The type-45s are dedicated to air and missile defence, at which they are the likely the most advanced destroyers in the world.
The place of the precious type-45s will be escorting the carriers and amphibious platforms at the centre of the task force. Frigates, not destroyers, will provide the numbers and ubiquitous platforms necessary to rebuild the Royal Navy’s fleet.
|Type-26 global combat ship concept|
The type-26 frigate, or “global combat ship” to use current style, is still at the design stage. The precise details or their weapons and equipment will be ironed out later, allowing greater flexibility. These ships, variously equipped, will provide the best value for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-piracy patrols, operating UAVs, special forces and a whole host of roles.
“Right now there’s an 80-strong team of naval and civilian engineers working on the designs in Bristol,” says the ‘future ships’ section of Royal Navy’s website. “By the mid-2030s the Type 26 will be the backbone and workhorses of the Royal Navy.”
The first ship is supposed to be ready by 2021. Costs are being kept down to make these ships considerably cheaper at around £300m each. We can presume this has already been budgeted for without troubling the excess funds. However, the number of type-26 ships to be ordered by the MoD is still to be determined.
The number of type-26 frigates to build will be one of the main talking points of SDSR 2015, when the decision for the initial order must be taken. It is known that the absolute baseline is a one-for-one swap for the current generation of 13 type-23 vessels. Eight would be fitted for ASW, and five for more generic duties.
My money is on several more being built, perhaps around eighteen, as a belated acknowledgement of the unsustainable strain put on existing commitments by the cuts of 2010 and immediate uptick in activity, mostly attributable to the Libya operation, in 2011. Eighteen type-26 ships would mean a total of 24 frigates and destroyers, giving the fleet the means to carry out the government’s aims.
Before it gets these ships, the Royal Navy will of course face the usual rounds of competition. In 2010 it took a body blow over the Harriers. The RAF, the navy’s sparring partner in 2010, remains a dark horse, but the ambitions of the diminished RAF could be contained within the naval airpower possibilities afforded from the new carriers.
The spread of defence news coverage advantageously reflects the Royal Navy's role in events. Diplomatic friction over the Falklands, Iranian sabre rattling in the Strait of Hormuz, providing security for the London Olympics, piracy off the Horn of Africa, last year's Libyan operation, even the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations; all these featured the Royal Navy, front and centre.
By contrast, the Army’s short-term wish list will soon expire. Government has indicated its unwillingness to repeat British engagement in ground wars or insurgencies like those waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops won’t quit Afghanistan until 2015 but the country has long lost its stomach for costly expeditionary adventures.
Naval power provides Britain’s island nation with a means few can match for projecting military power, exerting diplomatic influence, and protecting economic and trade interests, in many cases by deterrence alone, without any of the blood losses associated with “going kinetic”.