Royal Navy emerges stronger from initial defence review announcements

In a bullish statement to the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister promised extra defence spending to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe”. Here we analyse the first outcomes to emerge from the Integrated Review of foreign, defence, development and security policy.

Promises

It is rare to hear a senior politician articulate that their first duty is to defend UK citizens but Boris Johnson certainly said all the right things during his speech, promising that “the defence of the realm must come first”. He had clearly been taking wise counsel and recognised the UK economy’s total dependence on open shipping lanes, a functioning internet, safe air corridors, reliable undersea cables, and tranquillity in distant straits. Leaving defence to our allies would be abdicating responsibility and he promised and “once in a generation modernisation of the armed forces”. This will go down well in the US and likely to be welcomed by the new American president. By remaining the preeminent naval power in the region, this also gives the UK an important role in post-Brexit European security.

The Integrated Review (IR) has taken a convoluted path since it began as the ‘Modernising Defence Review’ in 2018. The political turbulence caused by Brexit and the financial implications of a global pandemic has not helped the process but the headline increase in funding must be welcomed. Despite what the Labour leader Kier Starmer called a “spending announcement without strategy”, Johnson could justifiably be optimistic, announcing that over the next 4 years  the armed forces will receive an extra £16.5 billion. This is well beyond the Tory manifesto promise to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation each year.


The Institute of Fiscal Studies says spending will rise 4.2% per year above inflation, and by 2024-25 will be £7 billion higher in real terms than today although this should be seen in the context of huge historical decline. As a share of GDP, spending on defence has fallen from almost 8% in the mid-1950s, to around 2% today.

The new cash represents an increase of 10-15% on the current annual MoD budget of £41.5 billion and is the largest increase since the Cold War. There is currently an annual shortfall of around £2Bn in the existing Equipment Plan so this will plug the hole and provide another £2Bn per year ‘headroom’ for other things. The industrial benefits of defence spending were highlighted, with the PM claiming that at least 10,000 new jobs would be created each year. Importantly at least £1.5Bn has been allocated for further defence research and development with likely spin-off benefits for the civilian sector.

Questions

The opposition leader cautiously welcomed the announcement but challenged the PM on a key question. How would this be paid for? It is unclear whether borrowing, new taxation or cuts to other departments would generate the funding required but unlike the 2015 review, this does not appear to be dependent on the MoD achieving wildly optimistic savings from its own budget. Whatever happens, there will be a very significant public debt burden for years to come. The COVID furlough scheme alone is costing around £14bn every single month, seen in that context and extra £4Bn a year on defence is pretty modest and much of it is returned to Treasury anyway.

There is also significant controversy about the overseas aid budget, with many assuming this will be reduced to fund defence. This is a complex issue. An over-simplistic view that we should end overseas aid entirely is unhelpful. For one of the richest nations to invest in disease-prevention and help people out of poverty is both morally right and likely to reduce conflict, terrorism and mass migration. Whether we are spending aid money wisely and if the MoD should receive more funding for the aid work it already does, is a more complex matter. As General Matthis told Donald Trump: “the less you spend on aid, the more I have to spend on bullets”.

New empires

In a recognition of a problem that has plagued defence for the last few decades, the PM says “We have a chance to break free from the vicious circle, whereby we ordered ever-decreasing numbers of ever more expensive items of military hardware, squandering billions along the way.”, noting that “prizes will go to the swiftest and most agile nations, not necessarily the biggest.”. Investment in emerging technology, changing the mindset, accelerating procurement process, and the new training and doctrines to go with them is long overdue.


There will be at least 3 new organisations created to address critical developments in technology; The Artificial Intelligence Agency, a new National Cyber Force and RAF Space Command. Due to the secretive and unseen nature of the cyber domain, it is difficult for those outside government to assess the capabilities or success of any new agency but cyber defence is becoming ever-more important to the safety of UK citizens. Space is critical for military intelligence-gathering and communications and cannot be ignored while adversaries are increasingly trying to contest this domain. New constructs may, however, come with the danger of more ‘brass hats’ and bureaucracy when exiting organisations may already have the capacity. Just how much of the additional defence funding will be absorbed by these creations is unclear.

Although the Dragonfire Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) Capability Demonstrator Programme (CDP) is apparently experiencing technical challenges, the PM referenced lasers specifically and said the UK would continue to invest in them.

Future fleet

The announcements were primarily about funding decisions and the general direction that the IR will take. Publication of a much more detailed document can be expected in January 2021. For the second time this year, the PM promised a “renaissance of British shipbuilding” that will provide jobs in Glasgow, Rosyth, Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead. It is hard to disagree with his assertion that “If there was one policy which strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy.”

From the information issued to the national media by Number 10, it can be assumed that existing shipbuilding programme remains on track with the Type 26, Type 31 frigate and submarine projects continuing as planned. In addition, the competition to construct two, possibly three, Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships will begin shortly.

A new multi-role research vessel will be procured. This is not a direct replacement for HMS Scott and the concept is still being developed. The vessel is likely to be dedicated to the protection of undersea cables as well as hydrography and oceanography work. Such a vessel is likely to deploy UUVs or mini-submarines as well as side-scan sonars. Whether it will be an RN, RFA or government-owned vessel has yet to be decided. She will almost certainly be built in the UK and with the experience gained building RRS Sir David Attenborough, it would be a good fit for Cammell Laird.

There are a variety of other surface fleet issues that the IR will need to address. Will the LPDs be retained, axed or replaced? will the Littoral Strike Ships be purchased? and will the minehunters be replaced with new vessels?

What is a Type 32 frigate?

The stand-out announcement from an RN perspective is the intention to build ‘Type 32 frigates’. Details are very limited but official sources say that this is a proposal for another general-purpose frigate and will follow on from the Type 31 programme. It could be based on an export variant of Type 31 but that is just one option. It could utilise another hull entirely and it would appear that at this early stage, the MoD does not want to guarantee Babcock they are the only contender.

The RN has an aspiration for escort fleet of 24 frigates & destroyers and another five Type 32 or ‘Type 31 Batch IIs’ could be the way to achieve this. With all 5 type 31s due in service by 2030, it makes sense to consider the shape of the fleet beyond a 10-year horizon. The lack of personnel that has so hampered the RN since 2010 should start to ease towards the end of the 2020s. Both the Type 26 and Type 31 have substantially smaller crews than the existing Type 23s, with further automation of warships inevitable.

Going places

Any concerns that one of the aircraft carriers would be sold or mothballed finally can be laid to rest. From 2023 it is planned that the UK will have a Carrier Strike Group routinely deployed or available at high readiness. The PM finally confirmed that the maiden deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the CSG next year will include journeying to East Asia as well as the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The intention to permanently forward-deploy more naval assets was also reaffirmed.

Amongst a much-criticised cabinet of Ministers, The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace is proving to be one of the best in the job for a long time. The First Sea Lord has also succeeded in making the case for greater investment in the RN and laying the foundations for genuine transformation and modernisation. The IR does not promise a vastly bigger fleet or plug every capability gap but does put the RN on a more firm footing that does not rely on cuts. There are still many hurdles to overcome and the scale of economic recovery will ultimately determine if promises can be kept. Expect to see the RN invest further in autonomous and uncrewed systems but whether the LPDs and minehunters will have to be traded for this new vision remains to be seen. In broad terms, this is a good day at the office for the RN and the outcome of the IR appears to be far better than seemed likely just a few months ago.