British Seapower: A New Approach

This is a guest post by Louis Forde – a history graduate from KCL, due to begin studying for a Masters in September. His primary area of research focusses on British colonialism and it’s relationship with the Royal Navy.

British defence policy, much less the Royal Navy, is at a historic crossroads. Military commanders are being forced to make the decisions which their predecessors continually put off. Should the United Kingdom remain a global military power with armed forces capable of intervening in conflicts thousands of miles away from home? Or perhaps a more pragmatic approach, tempered by the politics of austerity, which focusses on regional defence. Whatever decision prevails, no doubt guided by the swing of the Treasury’s axe, the demands placed upon the Royal Navy will not decrease. After all, naval forces are the first line of defence for an island nation.

At a glance, the standing commitments demanded of the Royal Navy are substantial. Patrols in the Atlantic are complemented by increasing responsibilities East of Suez. Residual duties such as Fisheries Protection, training and the commitments that result from the United Kingdom’s NATO membership add to this burden. The pool of assets with which the Royal Navy is expected to fulfil these duties has shrunk continuously throughout the past decade due to fiscal retrenchment at home. To navalists, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review stands out with particular poignance. The Royal Navy lost as many warships as it did during the Falklands War. However, in reality the review merely confirmed a long-established pattern of decline.

There is a temptation to embrace defence cuts as an irrefutable fact of life, and settle for the United Kingdom playing a lesser role in global affairs. However, this view ails to the defeatism widespread throughout political discourses and fails to recognise Britain for what it remains against the odds: a global power with global interests to defend. Inevitably, naval forces will assume a paramount role in this great mission. On the other hand naval commanders must face reality. At a time when funds are scarce, the large fleet escorts that the Royal Navy is in dire need of will not be granted by an Exchequer beneath the direction of a Chancellor who has proven himself more than willing to degrade the country’s defensive capabilities in the name of austerity.

The inevitable question which poses itself is “what now?”. Whilst it is likely that the funds needed to purchase frigates and destroyers will not be forthcoming in the course of the next parliament, the British economy is strengthening and steadily climbing out of the pit into which it fell in 2008. In coming years, small additions to the Royal Navy’s budget might not be such a flight of fantasy as they are now. Particularly in the Conservative back benches, there are many MP’s who have watched aghast as the United Kingdom’s military capabilities have been whittled down. In the depths of economic depression this was marginally acceptable; a necessary sacrifice made in pursuit of the greater good. Soon it will be thoroughly unacceptable.

In May 2012 the Joint Chiefs of Staff debuted a concept known as the Black Swan Class sloop-of-war; a light and modifiable corvette-type vessel. A brief wave of excitement and interest followed suit, however this was short-lived.

Black Swan Concept

3,150 tonnes, 95 meters and £65 million. The Black Swan was a modular design, including; a mission bay for UAVs, USVs and UUVs

It is a shame that the concept seems to have been consigned to a dusty shelf in the bowels of Whitehall. It offered a sober and pragmatic vision that would alleviate many of the pressures which the Royal Navy is currently subject to.

A small, (relatively) cheap and customisable platform would allow the Royal Navy to fulfil its residual duties whilst relieving the frigate and destroyer fleet.

Day by day, the commissioning of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers looms nearer. Consequently, it is becoming even more important that these decisions are made post-haste. It is unnecessary to repeat what many readers will already know; aircraft carriers are expensive assets which can only operate effectively when protected by an extensive ring of defences. This will have to become the foremost mission of the escort fleet, lest a £6.2 billion investment is left to decay in port or worse still the lives of some 1,500 men and women are to be put in jeopardy. As such the Royal Navy will have to renege on some of its most crucial commitments to the detriment of its allies, further alienating the opinion of generals and politicians in Washington who are increasingly questioning the worth of the Special Relationship as the British government pares its defences down to the bone.

Although the Black Swan class ‘sloop-of-war’ does not provide a long-term solution to the Royal Navy’s operational and structural problems, it would relieve the pressure placed on the fleets limited resources, particularly when HMS Queen Elizabeth commissions in 2020.

Such vessels would be able to fulfil patrol duties and flying-the-flag missions in regions such as the Persian Gulf, relieving the frigate and destroyer fleet for expeditionary and carrier-escort operations. Of course, there are political drawbacks to the construction of such vessels. In no way do they represent a suitable replacement for the fleet escorts which the Royal Navy has lost in the succession of defence reviews over the past decade. Meanwhile, one can imagine the political class focussing future procurement programs on the acquisition of such vessels in the name of building “capable, adaptable and flexible” armed forces (In layman’s English, budget cuts).

Herein is an obstacle that will likely prevent the Black Swan Class from moving beyond the conceptual stages of its design. Since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Royal Navy has been extremely realistic in its procurement ambitions. Recognising the critical shortage of funds as well as the constraints placed upon manpower and industrial capacity, Admirals have lobbied the political leadership to guarantee the construction of thirteen Type 26 Frigates which will eventually replace the same number of Type 23 vessels. For the reasons outlined above, the purchase of additional Type 26 hulls is extremely unlikely, if not completely impossible. Consequently it is looking increasingly likely that the escort fleet will remain at its present level (13 frigates plus 6 destroyers) into the 2020s and beyond.

Logically it follows that if the Royal Navy is unable to secure funding for more than thirteen frigates, then a smaller and cheaper vessel like the Black Swan class would help compensate for the shortfall in hull numbers. The politics and culture of Osbourne’s Exchequer mean that such considerations are thoroughly pointless. Military expenditure is assessed on a basis of cost. Officials in the treasury either fail or refuse to understand the differences in capability between a Corvette and a Frigate.

If Admirals were to push for the construction of vessels such as the Black Swan class it would likely come at the expense of Type 26 vessels, further jeopardising the Royal Navy’s ability to fulfil its operational requirements. However, the RN’s key weaknesses must be redressed quickly and such an attitude imperils the defence of the realm.

This years’ Strategic Defence Review will provide the government with an opportunity to reflect upon the geopolitical upheavals which have shaped the international landscape since 2010. The hatchet job defence review which was conducted by the Coalition at that time was an exercise in cost cutting. Naively, Dr. Fox and his compatriots assumed that the United Kingdom would benefit from a period of relative peace and stability which would diminish the need for large armed forces to secure the nation’s interests. A resurgent Russia coupled with an invigorated and brutal radical Islam, vehemently opposed to the core principles of Western civilisation, have proven these assumptions to be what many expected: total folly. In light of this, it is imperative that government makes a genuine investment in the armed forces which goes some way to repairing 2010’s damage.

David Cameron enjoys waxing lyrical about how his government is committed to the armed forces and the future of the Royal Navy. It is high time he put his money where his mouth is. The construction of an adaptable and flexible platform will assist the RN in taking a cautious first step back from the brink, thus ensuring that the fleet can continuously rise up and meet the call of duty.