SDSR 2020 – which direction for the Royal Navy?

The new government elected in December 2019 has promised “the biggest review of our defence, security and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War”. In this speculative piece, we examine some of the threats and opportunities for the RN in the coming 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

There is always a concern that politically-driven defence reviews are just a means to present further cuts as a strategy but there are some encouraging signs this time. RUSI analysis suggests that if the increased budget allocation agreed for 2020-21 is used as the baseline, and the 0.5% annual increase promised in the Tory manifesto is honoured, then the scale of MoD financial problems might be manageable. No one really expects a major increase in defence funding, even if objective analysis of growing threats indicates it’s needed. At least 2020 is unlikely to be a repeat of the 2010 review that was essentially a cost-cutting exercise with little regard for strategy or long-term consequences. The 2015 SDSR was more positive but effectively made unfunded promises, some of which the new review will have to confront. There are financial ‘unknowns’ which may impact on the review including the disputed extent of the EP ‘black hole’ which ranges between £7 – 15 billion, depending on who you listen to. There is uncertainty over FOREX fluctuations and extent of inflation and cost over-runs induced by delays in multiple defence procurement projects.


Framed by Brexit, this review is likely to give particular consideration to UK defence relationships in the wider world. Washington would take a very dim view of anything resembling defence cuts. Trump has consistently demanded that Europeans pay for their own defence and as Britain seeks a new trade deal with the US, it is important to be seen as a reliable ally.

The new government is considering merging the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is some opposition to this measure but a more flexible aid policy may be good news for the RN as it could release more funds for Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief operations and equipment.

A continental or maritime focus?

If the SDSR is to be credible, it should be founded on a grand strategy that defines what the UK wants to be in the world, foreign policy should dictate defence policy. The broad consensus seems to be that the UK is a medium-sized power that wants to be engaged around the world, able to protect its interests and uphold international law in coalition with others. There is an argument that says UK defence has a very broad spectrum of capabilities but lacks depth and mass in any single domain. Perhaps the time has come to focus on its strengths.

There are some urging the UK to return to its Cold War continental strategy that is primarily focused on the Army defending mainland Europe. Despite Brexit, the security of the continent is still Britain’s concern and the deployment of more troops would help reassure our former EU partners. Unfortunately is rather difficult to justify when the leading nations are mostly failing to properly resource their own armies. To further complicate matters, just as the UK is leaving the EU, Brussels is attempting to create its own defence command structures that duplicate or even undermine NATO.

Many of the Army’s vehicles, artillery pieces and tanks are in a poor state and in need of replacement programmes, some of which have been started. Aside from the cost of equipment, expanding the Army significantly would run up against a serious recruitment problem. It is hard to see how it could grow numbers by tens of thousands in the current climate and there is no longer the political will or public appetite for the deployment of British troops on foreign soil in large numbers. Perhaps an Army configured for lighter footprint operations, supporting special forces, urban and littoral warfare is a better and more affordable fit. In an ideal world, it would certainly be reassuring to have a strong Army which is an important dimension of our conventional deterrence and can react to the unexpected. But enormous expenditure to re-constitute a new British Army of the Rhine or the Baltic States at the expense of naval strength would appear to be the wrong choice for a maritime nation that is looking beyond Europe.

A maritime-based strategy supports NATO by securing its lines of supply to Europe but is more flexible, expeditionary and global. Naval forces exert influence without the heavy political commitment of putting troops on the ground. The navy also provides a sustained and scaleable presence in the Middle East and potentially reassuring support for our allies and partners in Asia-Pacific which have assumed greater importance post-Brexit. Of more direct concern, Britain twice came close to starvation by naval blockade in the 20th Century. As an island nation entirely dependent on the sea, strong naval forces to keep the sea lanes open must always be a priority and is not an ‘optional extra’ in the same way as choosing to have a large Army. Developments in weaponry, IT and communications do not invalidate the lessons from history or change geography.


Throwing baby out with the bathwater

The pace of change is likely to be a major theme for the review which promises a “huge technological upgrade of security forces to keep Britain safe and strengthen NATO.” There are plenty of advocates arguing we focus more effort on unmanned systems, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, AI and cyber warfare. They are correct but these visionaries often go too far and advocate we dispense with conventional capability entirely. Close advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings has claimed aircraft carriers are expensive, outdated and vulnerable. The fleet certainly has weaknesses but whatever the shape of a future conflict, men and materials will have to cross the oceans in ships and must be protected. The answer is not to cower and retreat from the seas but to enhance the fleet to leverage these new technologies. The aircraft carriers are prime platforms for launching UAVs and have space and capacity to absorb all kinds of new sensors and weapons in the future. Unmanned systems should be seen as an extension of the frigate, the submarine or aircraft carrier which will carry them into battle. In general autonomous systems, cannot substitute for a ship or submarine that can reach two-thirds of the globe, and operate for months at a time in all weathers.

Axing the carriers which are just about to deliver on the huge investment made in them would be a form of madness. Although running costs are substantial we have already paid for their construction costs and we have either bought or are contacted to buy the fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Far better to make the best of assets already in play than waste £billions on lurching off in a new direction. Disposal of the carriers would be entirely at odds with Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit vision which he described as “reshaping Britain’s global profile and identity as a great global player.” The carriers are critical hard and soft power assets that will help shape international perceptions about UK. Throwing them away would send all the wrong messages about Britain’s desire for international engagement.

While making the case for the aircraft carriers the RN should emphasis that they are a joint asset. Beyond their mission to protect the fleet, they help the RAF project air power and may help protect and sustain the Army in the field. At least on paper, all three services support Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP). It will be interesting to see just how committed they remain if faced with pressure on their individual budgets. Wholehearted support from all three services for CEPP would make it extremely difficult for Cummings and friends to dispose of them.

The future of HMS Albion and Bulwark is uncertain as the RN and Royal Marines reconsider their doctrine for Littoral Manoeuvre. Accepting the vulnerability of stationary ships and slow landing craft, it is clear the next generation of amphibious vessels may be quite different. What must be avoided in the rush to modernise is dispensing with the LPDs before replacement vessels and ship-shore connectors are ready to replace them.


It is a similar story for the minehunters. Future mine warfare will rely to a much greater extent on autonomous systems as the human is increasingly removed from the minefield. However, the small autonomous systems will still need a platform to deploy and support them around the globe. The days of expensive specialist GRP minehunters may be coming to an end but ‘motherships’ of some form will still be needed. It should also be remembered that the minehunters fulfil important secondary roles – surveillance, training and provide increasingly scarce command experience for junior officers.

HMS Monmouth laid up in Devonport awaiting her life extension refit that would see her serve until at least 2026. As one of the oldest frigates, she might be a candidate for scrapping early to save the cost of refit. (Photo: Andy Amor, January 2020)

Sacrificial lambs

Since late 2015 the RN has been forced to keep at least two escorts unmanned and in very low readiness, essentially because there is not enough trained manpower available while simultaneously generating ships companies for the aircraft carriers. If the 19 escorts available can never all be manned then there is an argument that the RN should consider axing two or three of the Type 23 frigates that have not yet had life extension refits. This would make savings that could be diverted elsewhere.

Accepting a supposedly temporary reduction in escort fleet numbers would be risky. Most importantly it removes the option for increasing the fleet in time of crisis. It would take time but in extremis vessels in low readiness could be brought forward and be manned by reservists and by redeploying regulars from shore jobs. The ‘fleet in being’ is a deterrent worth preserving, even the accelerated Type 31 programme will take about 4 years to deliver a ship. Historically, once a baseline figure has been reached this gradually becomes seen as the ‘acceptable norm’. In the 1980s there was great controversy about escort numbers falling below 50, the 1998 SDSR committed to 32 escorts and by 2010 the arbitrary figure of 19 had become ‘the requirement’. On a trajectory that is inexorably downward, it would be unwise to allow further erosion of the force even if there might be a logical case for accepting reductions in the short term. Cheap to run OPVs that do a fine job of maritime security in low threat environments cannot be rapidly reconfigured for war in the way that a frigate can.

It’s uncomfortable to countenance any reduction in hull numbers but if sacrifices really must be offered up to the God of parsimony, the auxiliaries of the ‘Merseyside navy’ are perhaps the best place to start. The RN can probably make do with 5 fleet tankers and RFA Wave Ruler has been inactive alongside in Liverpool for several years. As a relatively modern vessel, she would probably attract foreign buyers. RFA Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin have provided sterling service for more than 40 years but they have also been laid up in Birkenhead for some time as crews cannot be found. These veterans could be scrapped on condition that the Fleet Solid Support ship project is funded and restarted as a matter of urgency. These actions would obviously not impact the budget significantly but there is little else that could be sensibly cut. It is a sign of desperation that axing frigates is the only realistic alternative.

Any government expectation that the MoD can just ‘do more with less’ should be resisted as a flawed peacetime mindset that could lead to rapid defeat in a future conflict. The 2015 review was partly based on assumptions that the EP could be funded by internal MoD efficiencies. In practice, this proved very difficult and the bottom of the barrel has truly been scraped. Much of defence procurement is inefficient, slow and in dire need of reform but it will not be easy and will take a decade, even if there is the will. Eliminating waste is vital but there is hypocrisy in using it to justify withholding more resources. The NHS continues to exhibit colossal inefficiency while still receiving generous funding increases yet the MoD is told it must address its “wasteful practices” before it may have more money. Fundamentally the RN and its advocates should be fighting for more resources for a bigger and better-equipped navy, starting with a commitment to extending Type 31 frigate production beyond 5 ships.