The case for a 21st Century Royal Navy Home Fleet

John Dunbar argues a re-branded Royal Navy Home Fleet would be understood both politically and publicly and would provide a much stronger basis to argue for the necessary resources to bolster protection of UK waters and economic interests.

Throughout history, the role of the home fleet has evolved in response to the political and military context. During the Napoleonic wars, the Home fleet blockaded the French Navy and provided a counterpoint to their Fleet In Being – in two world wars the Home fleet fulfilled the same role against the German high Sea Fleet and the Italian Navy, as well as managing active operations throughout the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. This is not a proposal rooted in nostalgia for the multiple fleets of our imperial past, rather a suggestion that appropriate assets be put under a more recognisable umbrella for UK maritime security.

Today, British Maritime Doctrine currently splits the warships and capabilities of the Royal Navy into three key elements. The Committed Force encompasses any Royal Navy assets allocated to meet core security and deployment commitments; The Responsive force, capable of responding to the full range of threats or eventualities for which the British Military should be prepared, and which for the navy includes a Rapid Reaction Task Force and a brigade of Royal Marines; and the Adaptive Force incorporating those elements winding down from or working up for deployment or in refit.

All very logical in and of itself. However, reductions in the surface fleet mean that in reality, most ships are either in the Committed or Adaptive Force, with precious little in the way of responsive resources available once standing commitments have been met. The Navy has done exceptionally well to adapt to plug gaps by clever deploying of surface escorts and with RFA and survey ships utilised in full to ensure that the UK continues to play an active and valued role in Europe and East of Suez.

Unfortunately, the inherent deficits in the size of the surface fleet have been made more apparent by the relatively swift shift in the geopolitical order. Russian Submarine activity increased significantly in UK waters, most noticeably off the North West coast of Scotland. The now permanent militarisation of the Eastern Mediterranean means the UK can expect a much higher level of Russian Naval traffic as ships and submarines transit to and fro between Russia’s Baltic, northern and Mediterranean fleets.

Growing Russian naval activity means the RN, already stretched by overseas deployments, now faces increasing demands to be more present in UK waters

Whether there is genuine Russian intent to hunt down the British Nuclear Deterrent or to threaten the UK more directly, remains unknown, but failing to address these threats in a proportionate and effective manner makes the UK a hostage to fortune – history tells us that appeasement rarely works in the favour of the appeaser.

The Navy faces many challenges in addressing these issues. Even with the small increase in the long-term defence budget, financial constraints are ever pressing, and any growth in surface escort numbers is unlikely until 2025. Press reaction to all 6 Type 45s being alongside at the same time last summer suggests a PR battle to understand the value of the navy in UK waters also needs to be won, particularly if additional funding is to be provided.

A modern day home fleet

The role of a modern day home fleet will be very different to its antecedents. In the absence of active and open conflict, the UK must observe international law, making maritime transit for other navies through both economic exclusion zones and territorial waters acceptable providing that maritime law is properly observed. Unlike many previous eras, the UK does not face the threat of imminent invasion or attack by a grand fleet.

The UK does remain reliant on overseas trade, and increasingly on undersea pipelines carrying fuel, power and telecommunications between the UK, Europe and the US. Whilst much of the UK’s critical infrastructure, including power generation, is based on the coast or offshore, these are all vulnerable to attack by actors ranging from terrorists to other nation states.

The key objectives for a new Home Fleet could be;

  • Establishing a dominant surveillance capability in UK territorial waters and Exclusive Economic zone, both above and below the surface.
  • Maintaining a credible capability against surface incursions to deter aggression.
  • Maintaining a credible capability to respond to submarine threats to UK infrastructure and the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Focusing on the first objective (surveillance) will enable effective deployment of scarce high-end capabilities to best effect to deliver against the other objectives.

The reintroduction of Maritime Patrol capability through the purchase of the Poseidon P-8 will eventually address the most glaring omissions in UK capability. Unfortunately only 9 Poseidons on order and only 3 of them are expected to be in service by 2020. The RAF is also keen to exploit their overland capabilities in addition to their primary maritime role, so the P-8 fleet will be stretched.

The shortage of surface escorts means that typically a maximum of two frigate or destroyers will be available in UK waters at a given time. UK territorial waters cover around 3,230 Km2 and the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) amounts to nearly 300 million Km2. Clearly far more resources are required to patrol this important space.

And whilst the best way to kill or track a submarine is with another submarine, the UK’s fleet of 7 nuclear attack submarines is insufficient in size – with one SSN deployed to protect the Navy’s new aircraft carriers, one east of Suez and a third protecting the continuous at sea deterrent, there is precious little availability to monitor the movements of other sub-surface threats.

Short term fixes

There are no zero-cost solutions to close these capability gaps, but there are a number of ways that capability could be improved relatively quickly, and sustained over the next decade.

The Navy has 12 Merlin HM1 helicopters in dry store – these are capable anti-submarine platforms and could be reactivated to provide a significant boost to maritime surveillance of UK waters without the need to be upgraded to HM2 standards (though this would be desirable).

Working in consort with the new Batch 2 River Class OPV’s (which can support helicopter operations for short durations at distance from shore) and alongside Poseidon MPA from 2020 onwards, a dedicated UK based Merlin HM1 squadron would significantly narrow existing shortfalls in surveillance, anti-shipping and anti-submarine capability. In an ideal world and if manpower could be found, these would be based on HMS Ocean which would remain in service until 2030 as the flagship of the Home Fleet and as an anti-submarine / helicopter assault ship. This would also improve the availability of Merlin throughout the fleet which may prove particularly important given the need for airborne early warning and anti-submarine protection of the new carriers as they come into service in 2018.

To close remaining gaps in persistent surveillance capability, Batch 1 River OPV’s should be retained in service and utilised as platforms for unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, and with a view to being used as platforms for future investment in unmanned underwater surveillance vehicles for which they are ideally suited as mother ships in UK waters. Exploring the use of containerised towed array sonars may prove the quickest way to support the work of the limited number of Type 23 frigates available in UK waters in improving detection of submarines.

As well a fixing the glaring lack of RN anti-ship missiles, in the medium term, serious consideration needs to be given to reintroducing maritime strike missiles into the RAF inventory on fast jets as well as on Poseidon. The pragmatic choice would be to equip (Poseidon, Typhoon and Type 23 / 45) with a new purchase of Harpoon Block II, rather than investing large sums in alternative systems that will probably be replaced by FCASW within a decade of coming into service.

Perhaps the most important decisions relate to the protection of the UK’s underwater infrastructure. Investment in unmanned underwater surveillance technology should become a priority. There is also a clear and sound case to be made for the development of a fleet of between six and nine Diesel Electric / AIP submarines to provide enhanced surveillance and deterrence and to provide enhanced protection of the UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.


Utilising existing assets and investing in emerging technologies could deliver significant improvements to UK maritime security. This would involve retaining Batch 1 OPV’s and HMS Ocean in service, reactivating the remaining mothballed Merlin Helicopters and investing in unmanned technologies in the short to medium term. Sensible but urgent decisions are also needed on a replacement anti-shipping missile between 2018 and 2020.

Additional money will still be required to deliver these capability improvements but at only a fraction of the cost of ideal alternatives (i.e. more frigates, submarines and dedicated Maritime Patrol Aircraft already being in service). The concept of the Home Fleet is one which is easy to understand both politically and publicly and would provide a much stronger basis to argue for necessary resources to bolster protection of UK waters and economic interests. It would also send a clear and important message to other nations of the UK’s intention to defend its national interest.

Main Image: Fleet Ready Escort, HMS St Albans shadows Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov through the English Channel, 25th January 2017. © Crown copyright