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Charting a course for the Navy’s future

Geopolitics and the Royal Navy

Iain Ballantyne considers the sea of troubles upon which the Royal Navy must sail, and looks at projected developments in the fleet

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – with war still raging, and direct threats of nuclear attack on Britain and its NATO allies to try and deter assistance to Kyiv – what the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, thinks (and how he sees things shaping up) is of vital interest.

Equally compelling is his perspective on that other great threat, namely China, which has the world’s largest navy – if not yet its most powerful – and global ambitions, including major power projection via its maritime forces.

The damaged Nord Stream pipeline
Seen from a Danish military aircraft, gas escaping from the damaged Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic as a result of what is widely assumed to have been Russian sabotage. The incident was a pointed reminder of the need to defend vital subsea cables and pipelines, and of the difficulty of doing so. Photo:

In his speech at the Council on Geostrategy conference in August, Key pointed out that Vladimir Putin ‘has, through his actions, created a new Iron Curtain, from the Baltic to the Black Sea’. Key also stressed that Alliance nations must ‘meet their NATO spending targets as a matter of urgency’.

While describing Russia as ‘the clear and present danger’, Key explained that a wary eye must also be kept on China because it will pose ‘the greater long-term challenge.’ He warned against complacency about the massive economic and military power of China: ‘If the West is learning lessons from Ukraine, we should be in no doubt; so is the Chinese Communist Party. And for us, having potentially overestimated some of Moscow’s military capabilities, we must be wary of underestimating those of Beijing.’ He added: ‘All of us recognise that China is a nation with big ambitions. From the Belt and Road initiative to the String of Pearls, from “island building” in the South China Sea to designs on Taiwan.’

Of course, other threats to the security of the UK and its allies remain, from terrorist organisations to the nuclear-armed rogue regime of North Korea, along with the activities of drug cartels. And the consequences of global heating.

Key also pointed out during his speech that we are living in an era ‘when the geopolitical landscape is changing before our eyes’. He went on: ‘We’re seeing increased state-on-state tensions, and transnational issues like the pandemic and climate change which are driving us to adapt.’

Key explained that the world is witnessing ‘ever-increasing movement of people, goods and data across and under the seas. Almost half of our food and gas reaches us by sea; 97 per cent of global communications are transmitted by undersea cables. And this is driving a huge investment in the maritime environment: global merchant shipping tonnage has almost quadrupled since 1990, as over 90 per cent of the world’s goods move by sea and increasing amounts of our power, domestic power is being generated offshore.’

Meeting the challenge

This, then, raises the question of what the UK government – and by extension the Royal Navy – is doing materially in order to respond to all of the above. According to Key it is ‘making unprecedented investment, increasing tonnage and modernisation across the Fleet’.

Admiral Key at BAE Systems’ Govan shipyard with members of the crew of HMS Glasgow, the first Type 26 frigate, currently under construction there. Photo: John Linton Photography / BAE Systems

Part of that comes in the shape of new and flexible Inspiration Class (Type 31) frigates, and in early 2022 Key went to see the construction of the first of those vessels at Rosyth Dockyard. While there, he outlined his vision for the RN up to 2035 for an audience of defence and shipbuilding industry leaders.

He stated that in addition to the threats posed by Russia and China and other hostile nations, the pace of technological change is such that ‘what was once a very steep difference between state and non-state actors is now much more flat’. It means that ‘standing still risks immediate obsolescence … And we need to be ready to fight now not just in the traditional domains of maritime and land but also cyber and space’.

That in turn poses the question of how exactly the Royal Navy will ensure that from now until 2035 it can keep pace, and even stay ahead of the threats in an increasingly turbulent world. ‘It’s about changing the way we think, of utilising the [UK’s] maritime [forces] as an instrument of national power,’ said Key. ‘It’s about packing more punch, more lethality … into our ships, submarines and aircraft.’

As a sign of the latter, in the autumn of 2022 the Royal Navy revealed that after trials in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, two new weapons to arm the Fleet Air Arm’s Wildcat helicopters are now ready for operations. The Martlet and Sea Venom are air-to-surface anti-ship missiles introduced under the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon programme. Meanwhile, on the horizon are even more ambitious missiles; Key explained that the UK is accepting the challenge ‘to become a global leader in hypersonic weapons.’ He said the Royal Navy is also seeking to ‘blend crewed and uncrewed systems [drones] while operating both F-35 [strike jets] and drones from the same flight-deck.’ Key said that what lies ahead is ‘a future where the Royal Marine Commandos will operate from our multi-role support ships and ashore in small groups, delivering training and support to teams afloat in the Littoral Response Groups and also delivering … support to maritime operations. And it’s a future where we will regain and retain operational advantage in the underwater domain.’

A vital element of the future fleet – acting as platforms for drones and commando forces, while also armed with cutting-edge sensors and weapons systems – will be the major surface warships.

The Royal Navy is set to see an increase from 18 to 24 frigates and destroyers by the early 2030s. The City Class (Type 26) frigate will begin to replace the eight anti-submarine warfare Duke Class (Type 23) frigates from 2027.

The five general-purpose Type 23s are being replaced by the Type 31. Meanwhile, a future Type 32 frigate was officially announced in November 2020 as part of a government defence investment pledge. There will also be a Type 83 destroyer to replace the Daring Class (Type 45) destroyers, though that is some way down the line.

Described by the Royal Navy as ‘the world’s most advanced hunter-killer submarine’, HMS Anson, the fifth of the Astute Class, was commissioned at Barrow-in-Furness in August 2022. Photo: Crown copyright / OGL

The same applies to a replacement for the Astute Class attack submarines, the fifth of which, HMS Anson, was recently commissioned into the Royal Navy. The future British submarine – or SSNR, as it is currently known – may even have some bearing on the new Australian nuclear-powered submarine that is to be built under the AUKUS treaty. Sailors from the Royal Australian Navy are to train in the Anson as they get used to being under way on nuclear power, a part of the process of preparing to take the first AUKUS boat to sea in the 2040s.

When Australian officials attended the commissioning of Anson at Barrow-in-Furness, they were also shown the work in progress on the first Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines that are to enter service with the Royal Navy in the 2030s. They will take over the task of continuous-at-sea deterrent (CAD) for the UK and its NATO allies. Like the Vanguard Class submarines of today, the Dreadnoughts will be the ultimate strategic guarantee of UK security against the clear and present danger posed by Russia’s (and other states’) nuclear threats.

Conventional strategic deterrence

Setting aside the First Sea Lord’s crystal ball, when it comes to the present day the ultimate demonstration of Britain’s return to the front rank of maritime powers was surely the 2021 first operational deployment by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The view from HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Flight Control Centre of the American carrier USS Carl Vinson and other warships in the Bay of Bengal in October 2021. Carrier Strike Group 2021 centred on the British carrier, included US and Dutch warships, and also undertook joint exercises with the navies of France, Italy, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, as well as the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force. Photo: Public Domain – USN

It was at the heart of a UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG) comprising nine British and allied naval vessels, with more than 30 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and some 4,000 personnel.

The CSG engaged in a seven-month mission, conducting operations and exercises in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region, and interacting with more than one fifth of the world’s nations.

During the CSG’s time in the eastern Mediterranean Queen Elizabeth launched F-35B jets on air strikes against terrorist targets in the Middle East. It was the first time such a mission had been launched from a British aircraft carrier since the 1990s.

Underlying the CSG’s headline-grabbing deployment was a renovated ambition by the Royal Navy to secure the free movement of trade on the world’s oceans by showing the White Ensign on the high seas.

As Queen Elizabeth completed its global deployment the second new UK carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, was working up to carry out front line operations. In early 2022 it deployed as a NATO flagship.

The activities of the carriers showed that at a time of profound strategic significance for the Royal Navy they could offer Britain a reinvigorated level of power projection and conventional deterrence that has not been available to the UK for a generation.

Elements of this article originally appeared in the monthly naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review (published by Tandy Media). Iain Ballantyne is its founding and current editor.