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The future has arrived

Part of the UK Carrier Strike Group, including American and Dutch warships, assembling for the first time during Group Exercise 2020 in the North Sea.

The Royal Navy

Iain Ballantyne outlines how the Royal Navy is already going full steam ahead into the future as it operates in an increasingly dangerous world

The Royal Navy is out there doing business in great waters, demonstrating the shape of things to come from the British fleet, across a range of operations in various parts of the world.

The headline event in autumn 2020 was the debut of the UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG), which assembled for the first time to stage an impressive display in the North Sea. The boss of the CSG, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, hailed a new era in operations: ‘The UK Carrier Strike Group is the embodiment of British maritime power and sits at the heart of a modernised and emboldened Royal Navy.’

A heavily-armed retinue accompanied Portsmouth-based carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, including Type 45 destroyers HMS Diamond and HMS Defender and Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Northumberland, supported by US Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen. There were also suggestions of a British nuclear-powered attack submarine working with an American counterpart to provide invisible protection somewhere beneath the waves.

Ensuring that the impressive assembly of UK and NATO surface warships could stay at sea were the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) fleet support vessels RFA Tideforce and RFA Fort Victoria. The CSG later participated in a wide-ranging multi-national Joint Warrior exercise in rough seas off northern Britain.

Aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth were 15 stealthy, F-35B strike jets and four Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron (820 NAS). The jets belonged to the UK’s joint RAF-Royal Navy 617 Squadron and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) of the US Marine Corps.

It all came as the Royal Navy prepares for next year’s first operational deployment of the Queen Elizabeth in Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG-21). Venturing east of Suez (and likely into the South China Sea), it will again see a combined UK-USMC air wing embarked aboard Queen Elizabeth.

Experimental response group

The destroyer HMS Dragon in Odessa, Ukraine, during the Littoral Response Group (Experimentation) deployment.
The destroyer HMS Dragon in Odessa, Ukraine, during the Littoral Response Group (Experimentation) deployment. Photo: Crown copyright • LPhot Hutchins/Royal Navy

Other important developments on the front line reveal how the future Royal Navy is shaping up fast (bar any drastic U-turns in the defence review, whose results were still awaited as this publication went to press). These included the cutting-edge LRG (X) – Littoral Response Group (Experimentation) – deploying from Devonport to the Mediterranean and then into the Black Sea.

The group’s three months of autumn operations signalled the UK’s determination to support NATO allies who feel threatened by an increasingly aggressive Russia. which routinely harasses Alliance units in the Black Sea with aircraft sorties, and closely monitors NATO movements with its Crimea-based warships.

LRG (X) offered a range of options should the UK or NATO require them. Hosting the headquarters and staff of Commodore Rob Pedre, Commander Littoral Strike Group (LSG), was the amphibious assault command ship HMS Albion, escorted by the destroyer HMS Dragon, supplemented by the auxiliary landing vessel RFA Lyme Bay. The highly versatile Albion and Lyme Bay accommodated specialist units of 47 Commando Royal Marines, along with green berets from 42 Cdo and 40 Cdo, plus intelligence experts of 30 Cdo Information Exploitation Group. To add mobility and reconnaissance reach were Wildcat helicopters from 847 NAS and 815 NAS.

Such deployments are a key element not only in the evolution of how the amphibious ships work but also in shaping the Future Commando Force. The latter aims to develop the Royal Marines into a raiding and strike force using ships as sea bases – a process described by the Ministry of Defence as the ‘most significant transformation and rebranding [for the RMs] since WW2.’

In March 2020, to prepare for the autumn deployment of the LRG(X), RN sailors and Royal Marines undertook Exercise Autonomous Advance Force in waters off Norway. With industry partners present, the four-day exercise trialled an array of cutting-edge equipment, including a Mast 13 unmanned boat and a Remus unmanned sub-surface drone, controlled from HMS Albion. It was also the first time an Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) had been operated from Albion. Another first was achieved by 700X NAS, which deployed the Puma Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) from a landing craft.

New patrol ships worldwide

The new River Class Offshore Patrol Vessel HMS Forth at Mare Harbour in the Falkland Islands, early in 2020.
The new River Class Offshore Patrol Vessel HMS Forth at Mare Harbour in the Falkland Islands, early in 2020. Photo: Crown copyright • Cpl Andy Ferguson/RAF

The future Royal Navy is also at work in the form of five new River Class (Batch 2) Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). Specially constructed for constabulary missions, they are lightly armed but have a range of sensors including the same Combat Management System 1 (CMS-1) as the much bigger Type 45 destroyers and Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. They can also embark up to 50 troops and act as a floating base for helicopters.

The Royal Navy’s intention with the new OPVs is to keep them on station in their operational theatres for extended periods, with HMS Forth already on deployment around the Falkland Islands, HMS Medway in the Caribbean and HMS Trent in the Mediterranean. In this way they will safeguard UK interests, and citizens at home and abroad, while working on joint missions with allies.

Meanwhile, in a Clyde shipyard, work on the first City Class (Type 26) frigate is well advanced. Eight of these new Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) frigates will replace some of the Royal Navy’s extant Type 23s. Eight of the latter are ASW configured, with all thirteen Type 23s set to reach the end of their service lives by the mid-2030s. The more lightly armed Type 31 general-purpose frigate is due to replace the current five non-ASW Type 23s.

Multi-dimensional operations

Any navy that aspires to tackle missions effectively on, over or under the sea in the future will have to operate drones as well as ships and manned aircraft.

While HMS Anson, the Royal Navy’s fifth Astute Class nuclear-powered attack submarine, is being built at Barrow-in-Furness, a contract for a large, 30-metres-long, Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV), with a range of up to 3,000 miles, has been awarded. Revealing this development, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin, explained: ‘I am really excited by the possibilities that this offers to increase our reach and lethality, improve our efficiency and reduce the number of people we have to put in harm’s way.’ He added: ‘The world is changing at a startling rate, and technology and innovation are moving faster than they ever have before. We need to remain ahead of our adversaries. This is why the Royal Navy is currently undergoing a period of transformation.’

Potential threats

The threats the Royal Navy is tasked with meeting are rapidly expanding, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Put simply, the Royal Navy of today and tomorrow must expect to work in an increasingly dangerous world. In the Middle East, Iran poses a complex maritime challenge, with its multiple subsonic Anti-ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM), a nascent Anti-ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) threat and formidable mine warfare capability. It also has explosive-laden unmanned surface vehicles, and operates submarines. However, the most pressing threat to the Royal Navy, and the UK more broadly, is from the ships and submarines of the Russian Navy along with the bombers and strike aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces. These are augmented by special forces’ operations, and cyber warfare and mine warfare capabilities. The Russian armed forces operate an extensive arsenal of advanced Anti-ship Missiles (ASM), including subsonic low-observable and supersonic cruise missiles – a sophisticated multi-directional threat.

Likewise, during the next decade, China’s ability to project maritime power globally will grow substantially. By the mid 2020s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is likely to commission its first 80,000 tons displacement, catapult-equipped aircraft carrier. Such a vessel will lead a globally-deployable battle group including cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines, with commensurate logistical support ships. China is also developing and deploying a potent mix of air, ground- and sea-launched ASCMs and has an array of ASBMs. From western China, the 4,000 km-range DF-26 ASBM can theoretically threaten maritime targets in the Indian Ocean and the far eastern Mediterranean.

It is unlikely the Royal Navy would find itself at war with China in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, as Chinese national power and global influence grows, the possibility that a clash could erupt between a US-led coalition and a Chinese ally – drawing in Beijing’s forces – cannot be dismissed. The post-Cold War assumption of unassailable US sea control no longer applies. Therefore, the requirements of operating in a highly dynamic strategic environment against a wide range of threats need to be considered. Most importantly, the Royal Navy – if it is to protect and project British interests globally as government policy dictates – must be properly equipped and supported.

Elements of this article originally appeared in the monthly naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review and its sister publication, The WARSHIPS IFR Guide to the Royal Navy 2020 (both published by Tandy Media). Iain Ballantyne is the founding and current Editor of those publications. For more information visit or Additional material courtesy of Dr James Bosbotinis