Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015

Dec 24, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  17 Comments

Type 45 Destroyer and T class submarine

2013 was another busy year for the Royal Navy diligently serving UK interests around the world with its usual can-do attitude, despite its over-stretched resources. Notable maritime security successes include a dramatic reduction in Piracy around Somalia and significant drug-busts involving HMS Lancaster in the Caribbean. The annual deployment of the “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) on the exercise “Cougar 13” again proved its worth, not only as a great training exercise but by having RN assets deployed and able to respond to events. The RFTG was on standby for action in Syria, had David Cameron got his way and pursued a military option for intervention in this vile civil war. Fortunately sense prevailed and the UK has not become embroiled. In the end the RN’s main contribution was HMS Dragon returning early from her Gulf deployment to bolster the air defences of Cyprus in case of Syrian attacks. An RN warship will be escorting cargo ships carrying decomissioned Syrian chemical weapons that will be destroyed at UK facilities next year. The Cougar group continued as planned into the Persian Gulf making the largest RN presence there for sometime. The Gulf look set to become increasingly a ‘centre of gravity’ for UK forces in future.

The tensions with Spain over Gibraltar have been further ratcheted up this year with more frequent and serious incursions into Gibraltar’s waters. The two boats of the RN Gibraltar squadron have been at full stretch, walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope at times. This lingering issue looks likely to fester and there are increasing calls for a more heavyweight and long-term RN presence around Gib.

The design of the Type 26 frigate is reaching maturity and orders for some long-lead items were placed this year. The Trident submarine replacement programme is well on track with further contacts placed. Every contract will make it harder to cancel this vital project, should the political winds change. The last Type 42 destroyer, HMS Edinburgh decommissioned this year, marking the end of an era. A heavy burden now falls on the 6 Type 45s that replaced them and the final ship, HMS Duncan, commissioned this year. Lets hope the Type 45s prove to be mechanically reliable and able to maintain the high operational tempo that will be required.

As predicted, the Government casually allowed BAE Systems to shut their Portsmouth ship building yard. This is both a political fudge and strategic folly which the Royal Navy will suffer from and the nation may well regret. There does seem hope the yard may survive in another form and we will be observing and commenting on this next year. Part of the closure is tied up with the looming spectre of Scottish Independence referendum (in Sept 2014). Should Scotland decide to break away from the UK, the Royal Navy will probably be the single British institution to suffer the most. Independence is a grave threat to the RN and security for the whole UK and we hope it is avoided at all costs.

‘Operation Patwin’ saw the Royal Navy respond rapidly to the crisis in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. HMS Daring happened to be in the Far East on a rare RN deployment to the area and was quickly on the scene to help. HMS Illustrious made a 10-day dash from the Horn of Africa and her helicopters proved very useful in the aid effort. Both ships will be amongst the 20 naval vessels away from the UK over the holiday season, 6 of which will be at sea on Christmas Day. Our best wishes go to the approximately 3,400 sailors and marines on duty somewhere in the world this Christmas.

2014 and hopes for SDSR 2015

The decommissioning of HMS Illustrious in 2014 will mark the beginning of a particularly dark period for the RN in terms of frontline strength, with no new warships due to join the fleet until HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. There also follow several years of trails and work up before she is fully operational. The RFA fleet will also shrink even further before the first of the new ‘MARS’ tankers arrive in 2016. While it is lean times for now, the defence review (SDSR) due in 2015 may offer some hope that things may get a little better. With a small improvement in the economic situation, the MoD budget “under control” and the costs of the Afghanistan operations fading, there will be no excuses for further cuts and a strong case for addressing some of the many serious gaps in UK defence. A realistic and affordable wish list for the Royal Navy could look something like this

  • The retention of both aircraft carriers – Reversing the ludicrous decision to sell or mothball HMS Prince of Wales must be top of the list. This will only cost around £70M per year and would make the carrier project far more credible and flexible. As the French have discovered, having a single carrier leaves you gambling it will be available when needed.
  • RN manpower will need to be increased, at least by a small amount, if both Carriers are retained. Furthermore the carriers planned complement is an extremely lean 679. It is likely that experience will show the ships company will need to be increased to operate effectively and safely for extended periods. Of course having made 5,000 RN people redundant in 2010, it is slightly embarrassing for this government to have to now address the problems that has caused.
  • The leasing or purchase of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft preferably the Boeing P8 Poseidon. History, if not logic, will probably dictate they will be operated by the RAF but the important thing is the UK restores this capability as a matter of urgency.
  • The ‘Crowsnet’ project  to provide Airborne Earing Warning radar coverage for the needs to be brought forward so the carriers go to sea with this key capability from day one. We will probably have to accept that this will be based on the Merlin helicopter (ideally adapted Mk1 airframes currently in storage) as the affordable option. A solution based on the V-22 Osprey would be more capable but far more expensive and Hawkeye is of course not possible.
  • Fitting of Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) to the Type 45s and increasing both submarine and ship-launched stocks of this missile. Tomahawk should have been fitted to the Type 45s from the start but retrofitting it is a matter of urgency for this most critical of all UK weapons. Only RN submarines can fire TLAM at present and the commitment to keep one East of Suez puts huge pressure on the tiny submarine force. In time we expect to see the Type 45 and the Type 26 carrying TLAM and providing great flexibility and a very useful deterrent capability.
  • Fitting of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to the Type 45s, Type 26s and the carriers. This electronic sharing of data between ships would help mitigate for the RN’s lack of hulls, increase effectiveness of naval task groups and make operations with our key ally, the US Navy much easier.
  • Start work on MHPC project to replace minehunters and survey ships and commit to funding and in service dates. This project, if imaginative and properly managed (famous last words) could be very affordable by using modular systems and reliant on long range UUVs for mine hunting and disposal.
  • Aviation training ship with an excellent medical facility, RFA Argus needs replacing – this could be done cheaply, possibly with another merchant ship conversion. We would also like a dedicated hospital ship paid for from the Overseas Development budget mainly for humanitarian missions but available to support military operations.
  • The order for 3 new OPVs to be built in Glasgow seems mainly to be a political decision to keep the Scottish yards in work between the carriers and the Type 26. Obviously any new ships are good news but they will have little impact on RN strength if they are just replacements for the existing 3 River class OPVs used for UK territorial waters patrols. The relatively new River class should be retained and the 3 new OPVs could then provide a valuable addition to the RN surface fleet and could be deployed overseas.
  • A ‘big ticket’ item which we assume is already at least in the MoD’s long-term plan is the Type 26 frigate. We demand a cast-iron commitment to build at least 13 Frigates. Ordering them in just 1 or 2 batches would help keep costs down, allow the RN and industry to plan and give the project credibility which may encourage export orders.
  • Finally on the list would be development of a long-term coherent foreign policy and defence strategy, ideally with cross-party support and stating what our forces will be expected to do and most importantly, what they will not be expected to do. From that could be developed a coherent industrial strategy … but maybe to desire such common sense from our politicians is to depart from what is realistic to the realms of fantasy…


  • In view of the worsening situation in the Ukraine, can we be assured there will be a freeze on paying off HMS Illustrious?
    Unlike normal MOD practice, the least must be that she is held in Active Reserve.
    Can someone who matters ask this in the HoC?

  • As a serving member of the RN it is very depressing being cut back like this. Every day I see not just experienced guys leaving because they are sick to death of the bad treatment and annual increase in tempo to meet commitments with a smaller force, but the young lads coming through see this and head for the door. We are already cut too far and heading down a very slippery slope. prime Minister has his priorities wrong and no appreciation of what the RN does for us as an island nation. Very very demoralising situation to be in.

  • I often have thought if Admiral Sir Henry Leech had been in charge at the beginning of Libya Campaign then he would have ordered HMS Ark Royal with the Harriers to sea and then informed the Cabinet of his decision. Imagine how that would have informed the current debate.

    Leaving that aside we need to focus on the critical arguments.

    1. Explain that the Navy composes only 36% of the UK’s Armed Forces which is totally at odds with our allies ( US and France it is 55%, Canada and Australia at 45%) and our status as a Maritime nation.

    2. Carrier sustainment (2 ships) with 48 x F35B tied to them. This allows us to exert the Global influence desired by UK Govt at cheapest cost to UK taxpayer. The UK’s unique capability remains is long range force projection and this, not an armoured division, is vital fo our relationship with US and other non European Allies and supports the US AFPAC focus. This reinforces the need for a Carrier Battlegroup which can surge support where and when required without costly permant oversas basing.

    3. A Carrier BG must have sufficent capable ships and boats to be effective with a full suite of capability.

    4. MHPC/OPVs Lesser permanent martitime tasks can be completed by an increased number of less complex platforms (HMS Black Swan corvettes with Multi Mission modules) to provide enduring presence globally and increase UK’s soft power.

    • In so many ways the other constituent parts of the Armed forces ‘are all dressed up with nowhere to go’. This is a point well made.

      I am glad that the Army are deploying their attack helicopters at sea and that the RAF are going to be getting their planes wet with salt water on HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

      All the UKs F35′s must be to the maritime standard. Any other specification is folly.

  • Excellent review, although I served in the RN in the 50′s & 60′s when we had a glut of ships left over from WW2, it is so sad to see our navy being
    cut to its present size. Hope I live to see both new carriers commissioned with full crews and all 13 new type 26 Frigates built. Pity the MOD reduced the type 45 Destroyers from 12 to 6.

  • Thanks for the comments and feedback. Since writing this article my low level of optimism for SSDR 2015 has fallen even further. Obviously it it rather dependent on when and who wins the next general election, but the current Govt has already committed to ring-fencing the NHS and Education budgets while looking for further savings of £35Bn per year. Welfare will be there main area for them left to cut but Welfare changes are far more politically difficult than making defence cuts. Just maintaining the budget at the current level will seem like and achievement so don’t expect to see too many of the wishes listed above being delivered.
    There are lots of other things that could be added to the list and the choices are always a balance between what is affordable, what seems like an immediate priority and what maybe best value and most use in the log-run.

  • I fear hoping for 13 Type 26 frigates is way too optimistic. I have heard that 8 is a more likely number. This would at least keep our navy in the top 30 in the world which sadly is all we can aspire to now.
    It brings a tear to my eye when I think how our fleet will soon be weaker than Holland, Belgium and presumably at this rate Luxembourg.

    • The irony is that 13 ships, ordered together for delivery in stages, need not be much more expensive than eight ships ordered in ones and twos with gaps between production. There are lots of fixed costs like initial design and then there are lots of volume savings. Plus it is reasonable to expect a shipyard to take a lower profit on certain business stretching out over a number of years. Thus the marginal cost of the extra five ships need not be very much at all. Good argument for building 20 of course!

  • Good review & good to see people taking time to read it & make some informed comments. Whilst peoples priorities/preferences may differ slightly, most of these are common to all & we can only hope that those that make the decisions will come to the same conclusions and be given the budget to implement these. Keep up the good work !

  • What I would like to see looked at in 2014 is a ABM capability for the new frigates , the carriers going to sea with the full compliment of F-35Bs(if it survives the problems the JSF program is undergoing) and all under the command and control of the RN not the raf. Restoration of maritime aircraft patrols. If cost is a issue why not some low houred P-3 Orion airframes currently in mothballs? More Astute class boats.With the sub as the weapon of choice for varous regimes the more the better. More assault ships for the Royal Marine and the SA80/M16 rifles they use being replaced with the Heckler and Koch HK 417 7.62mm rifle.

    • I would like to see the QE and POW fitted with arrester wires even if catapults are beyond us.

    • Added to this I would think a new enlarged fleet of oilers would be a good move also as I heard the ‘Lusty’ nearly ran out of fuel while at sea.

  • This is an excellent summary. How lamentable that our politicians, who want to strut the world stage on every occasion it seems, are seemingly unaware how precarious is our real position in the world.
    If I were a senior minister I would be unable to sleep at night knowing how irresponsibly our naval strength has been allowed to atrophy.
    Was it not only last week that a Russian aircraft carrier approached our coast undetected until spotted by local fishing boats?
    I am ashamed at the military ignorance, risk taking and hubris of the UK political establishment. That is the real bottom line.

  • “Whereas any European power has to support a vast army first of all, we in this fortunate, happy island, relieved by our insular position of a double burden, may turn our undivided efforts and attention to the Fleet. Why should we sacrifice a game in which we are sure to win to play a game in which we are bound to lose?” Churchill.

  • A great summary. The reversal of the mothballing of the second carrier is absolutely the most important decision. Lets hope they maintain or increase the number of Frigates after the reduction in numbers of the Destroyers.

    With a developed country which is forever getting richer, it has never made any sense to me why the armed forces are continually reduced when time after time, they continually excel. It’s not that we can’t afford them, we very easily can, the government just chooses not to.

    With ever increasing instability around the world and the resurgent threat from Russia and China combined with reductions or at least a re-focus from the USA, we should be looking to increase the size and scope of the forces particularly for the Royal Navy which always has such long lead-times with capital projects.

    If Putin says we are an irrelevant small country, who can blame him with the state of our forces as they are.

  • Committing to operating both LPDs should be near the top – eg bringing Albion out of reserve immediately.

    Brining forward orders for the Mars Solid Suppor Ship would also be worthwhile – they are designed to work with the carriers and will help bring personnel numbers down.

    Not sure how essential fitting Tomahawk to T45 is at the moment. Would be better to press for an eighth Astute class SSN.

  • I am angry when see cuts in the military, in particular the Royal Navy. We are an Island and need a seaborne presence to protect us. Take this a step further our commonwealth also expect to be supported and protected. We have got to stop the reduction in the size of the Navy. We can not allow our experienced sailors to leave. We can not allow the size of the Navy to reduce, quite the opposite we need to increase the size. The current fleet are struggling under pressure of responsibilities., which need to continue. Once lost the ship building, the ships, the people will take a generation now to turn around. We see in the dying shipbuilding industry, that in future our warships will built overseas. We are currently struggling with Gibraltar, and a daily incident with Spanish incursions. Argentina are just waiting for the UK to reduce the fleet even more, before they take action against the Islands again. We cannot mount a Fleet to protect the Islands. Libya could have been supported better with an aircraft carrier off the coast. Instead we had to fly RAF planes from the UK. Big concern about the size of the submarine fleet. These submarines hide the threat below the surface, again very proven asset to have, for intelligence, Tomahawk and having that threat. Cougar 13 a statement to the world that we can deploy a fleet, albeit just about. How much longer could this go on, with the current cuts. Cougar 13 also provided an asset to assist the Phillipines, what a great asset. The struggling Frigate in the Caribbean, albeit most of the time a RFA, needs to continue for assistance to overseas commonwealth countries, more importantly the asset to stop drugs coming to the UK.
    We can not be dependant on other countries, we must stay strong with a military able to protect our interests over the world. More importantly we see China and Russia increasing their naval fleets, we need to be aware and have a capable Navy, with sufficient ships, and not struggling. How disappointing when we lost the 4 Type 22 frigates, who were very capable base, and still young hulls, sadly now scrap. I do hope that which ever government is in power realise that we need a Navy, somehow I will not hold my breath.

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