SDSR 2015 – putting the Royal Navy back on course

Judgement on the SDSR announcements made today will very much depend on the lens through which you view it. There maybe plenty of room for improvement, but taken in the context of austerity and the ‘rock bottom’ 2010 review, today’s announcements can be seen as broadly very good news for the RN. It must not be forgotten that the UK still has huge public debt, the annual interest on which is nearly equivalent to the whole defence budget. Many government departments are facing major cuts while the MoD has at last seen a small increase and finally achieved some semblance of financial stability.

For the RN leadership there can be some quiet satisfaction in achieving key objectives. The cornerstone aircraft carrier and Trident successor projects remain  firmly on track. In a tight fiscal environment something quite special has been pulled off, some of the SDSR 2010 damage is being put right.

Trident successor submarines
The procurement cost of the Trident successor submarines is now realistically costed at £31Bn with a healthy £10Bn put aside to cover contingencies. This is an encouraging sign of better management. Rather than over-optimistic estimates storing up problems for the future, sufficient funds are in place. It is also good to see a sensible plan for 4 boats, not the 3 boat compromise so many have argued for. Final Parliamentary approval for the project should be forthcoming in the next few months but watch for growing anti-Trident rhetoric from the usual suspects.

A credible carrier air group
The order for 42 F35Bs is a vote of confidence in the carrier project and allows for a baseline air group of 24 aircraft that will silence the ill-informed critics whining about “building aircraft carriers with no aircraft”. There are many aspects of the carrier project that can be criticised but lets get them into commission and make the case for upgrades in future.

8 x Type 26 frigates and an escort fleet of ‘at least ’19 ships
Although desirable, it was always unlikely there would be a single order for 13 Type 26 frigates. Warships are ordered (and paid for) in batches. An order for 8 ships is a very large batch by post-war standards. However there is some uncertainly about what could follow.

“We will also launch a concept study and then design and build a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigates so that by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers.”

Recent plans suggested the final 5 Type 26s would be a general purpose variant optimised for their export potential but there is now a suggestion of some thing completely different. Corvette was a ‘dirty word’ in RN circles until recently but could we be seeing a re-birth of the Black Swan ‘sloop of war’? (Update- this is not the case, the RN does not plan to build corvettes – see later post) There is a real aspiration that cheaper ships offer the opportunity to grow escort hull numbers beyond 19, but the quality and quantity of these vessels will be controversial. The spectre of the Type 45 which went from a requirement for 12 ships down to 6 ships actually built, still casts something of a shadow.

6 x offshore patrol vessels
The 3 batch II ‘River’ Class OPVs currently being built on the Clyde, mainly as a job creation scheme until the Type 26 Frigate work begins, will be supplemented by an order for further 2 vessels. Assuming the 3 Batch I OPVs are retired and Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde is retained, the RN will eventually have a fleet of 6 helicopter-capable OPVs

A modest manpower increase
The RN had already wisely decided to re-balance manpower slightly, reducing officer numbers by 300 to be replaced by 600 ratings. David Cameron actually mentioned an extra 400 RN personnel, but either way this is a very modest increase and the RN may still need to argue for more.

9 x Boeing Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft
Buying the P-8 is a most welcome decision. Although inevitably to be operated by the RAF for reasons of historical precedence, they will from a critical part of our maritime defences, providing greater security for our ballistic missile submarines. 9 aircraft is the bare minimum needed to form a credible squadron but the aircraft is the best choice, given the available options. In this rare case government is to be commended for finally prioritising the needs of the frontline ahead of what might be deemed best for domestic industry. Spending several £billion in the United States because British industry has failed to deliver is the right decision. Complex decisions about the integration of UK weapons and sensors remain, but it is a fine platform to work with.

3 x Solid support ships
The RFA will get replacements for the ageing solid stores ships Fort Rosalie, Fort Austin and the more modern, general purpose Fort Victoria. However there is no mention of replacements for RFA Argus or Diligence.

Upgrades to the Type 45 must wait
It had been hoped that funds would be found to fit 2 8-cell Mk41 VLS to the Type 45s which would allow them to carry various weapons including Tomahawk land attack missiles and SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles. Although this will have to wait, there will be a machinery improvement package that should finally cure their propulsion problems. 

Amphibious capability – as you were
As expected no replacement for HMS Ocean, which will retire around 2018-19 has been forthcoming and the operational aircraft carrier will have to double as a helicopter assault ship. HMS Albion and Bulwark will be retained but with one operational at a time. The Royal Marines and 3 Commando Brigade appear to be in tact with rumours of an Army take over unfounded.

No immediate cuts to the existing fleet
The existing fleet is survives unscathed with the threat of further ships cut or going into reserve or proving to be unfounded. This alone is an achievement, for many years the RN has been forced to prematurely retire assets in return for the promise of new vessels in the future. There will be a reduction in minehunters from 15 down to 12 but it is unclear when this will happen. Salami slicing the RN’s excellent mine warfare capability has been going on for decades but perhaps this will be slightly offset by investment in unmanned mine hunting technology.


Snapshot of the future RN from the official SDSR Document

Caveats and concerns

Despite the good news there are many caveats and areas for concern. This generation of politicians has managed to create such low expectations for defence that it is easy to exceed them and appear upbeat. The world is a far more unstable and dangerous place than in 2010 and the threat of Russia in particular is undeniable. To fully address these threats, small adjustments to the defence budget, even if going in the right direction, will not be enough. It will require a significant change in mind-set and outlook that the public and most politicians in the UK and Europe seem unwilling to make.

Spending something around 2% of GDP on defence will never provide sufficient resources needed address decades of neglect and decline. For all of the today’s positive news, UK defence spending still drifting towards a record low.

By the late 2020s the RN’s capital ships will comprise 2 aircraft carriers, about 19 surface escorts and 7 attack submarines. However modern these vessels will be, numbers remain wholly inadequate.

It is all very well to make promises about future equipment but as we can see in the last five years, events can quickly overtake planning and assumptions. In the approximately 7 years between now and when HMS Queen Elizabeth and her air group become fully operational, it is safe to predict the world will witness major geo-political changes and probably experience further economic turmoil. Despite the many positive aspects of SDSR 2015, there is an alarming lack of urgency in delivery schedules, a lack of numbers, and a lack of strength in depth across the whole of the UK armed forces.

The answers to many complex defence issues can’t all be delivered in a single Parliamentary statement so expect to see much more detail emerge in the coming months. The devil in the details will reveal more about whether these promises can really be delivered and the if right choices have been made.

Despite the considerable concerns and uncertainties, this Defence Review is the first in many years that is not about cuts and more about future investment. The 23rd November 2015 can be remembered as a good day at the office for the Royal Navy.