The Royal Navy prepares its case for surviving the coming defence review

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced in Parliament on June 8 that the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will report “towards the end of this year.” Taking the name of this exercise at face value, an extreme optimist might expect the defence needs of Britain will be carefully considered, and priorities adjusted in accordance with a grand strategy…

There are many commentators and analysts who rightly suggest the SDSR is an opportunity for some major gaps in UK defence to be addressed. The shopping list for the RN typically includes:

  • Manpower increases
  • A commitment to more than 13 Type 26 frigates
  • Conventional AIP/diesel submarines purchased from abroad
  • Additional OPVs or corvettes
  • The purchase of the French Mistral Helicopter Landing ships built for Russia to replace HMS Ocean
  • Anti-ballistic missile capability and Tomahawk land attack missile upgrades for the Type 45 destroyers
  • A squadron of maritime patrol aircraft

All very sensible and all badly needed to plug the serious gaps in capability. Unfortunately this shopping list is almost entirely wishful thinking. It is only the lack of maritime patrol aircraft which has generated enough media coverage and resulting political capital that is likely to be addressed at all. With a government committed to cuts to public spending at any price, funding will actually be falling. Despite the hollow claims of ministers, government will be quite unable to square the circle of adequately addressing new threats while cutting expenditure. Almost immediately after the election, the Treasury instructed the MoD to find £500 million in savings as a ‘light appetiser’ before the ‘main course’ of cuts to come in the SDSR.

If you are Admiral Zambellas and the Navy Board contemplating the forthcoming review, just keeping existing assets and the equipment programme in tact will be an achievement.

This does not mean that naval advocates should not continue to make the case, highlight the glaring issues and sound warnings as to the consequences. But ‘special pleading’ or campaigns to save a specific vessel, unit or establishment are likely to fall on deaf ears. What is needed is a ‘Road to Damascus’ strategic enlightenment at the most senior levels. The Prime Minister and Cabinet need to fully understand the real dangers the UK faces and to put an end to raids on the defence budget to fund health, welfare and defecit reduction. What politicians may perceive as a relatively minor matter of financial management and the careful presentation of its consequences, may in fact be a life and death issue for the nation’s future.

In broad terms the Navy would be perfectly correct to bluntly inform ministers that if the RN is cut any more it will not be able to discharge the duties demanded of it. However in order to have an impact, the navy’s case to ministers needs to be refined and nuanced. In the past it has not always been properly equipped with the right arguments to fight its corner in the bloody Whitehall battles. This time the RN is determined to develop a powerful case to shield it from the worst cuts.

How will the RN present its case to government?


The graphic above losely depicts how the RN now defines itself and the key strategic outputs it provides. Click here to view larger version (PDF Format)

The three core imperatives

There are three ‘core imperatives’ at the heart of RN operations. Of the three imperatives, two are capabilities that have been specifically mandated by Government. The first and most solidly politically underpinned is the provision on the nation’s Continuous At Sea (nuclear) Deterrent. The second is Continuous Carrier Capability. In October 2014 David Cameron very publicly re-committed to the retention of the second aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales and by implication, having a carrier available at all times. Although strong rumours remain that PoW maybe sold to another nation, this government has staked a great deal on the carrier programme which it always points to as evidence of its commitment to defence. The third core element is Continuous Amphibious Readiness. Although not mandated in such clear terms, our amphibious capability has been highly valued ever since its near-demise prior to the Falklands war.

To deliver these three imperatives not only requires the obvious main assets, Trident submarines, two carriers and the amphibious vessels, but a large supporting cast of suitably qualified and experienced people, equipment and infrastructure.

The main thrust of the RN argument against cuts to any of its assets will be that the three imperatives cannot be considered credible or delivered successfully without all their supporting elements.

Although highly flexible, the RN’s fighting strength is constructed with interlocking pieces that are all needed, working together to provide the major strategic outputs government demands.

The crux of the argument is credibility. Already the hollowing out of the last 25 years and gapping of capabilities leaves aspects of RN credibility paper-thin. The RN leadership is working incredibly hard to live within an inadequate budget, cope with a lack of manpower while facing growing threats from adversaries and demands from government. As a result, it is easy to point to weaknesses in the order of battle and in the design and equipment of vessels. The design of the aircraft carrier and possible failings of their spectacularly controversial F35B aircraft are especially obvious targets for critics. Any further economies, cuts or deliberate delays to these fragile programmes would render them farcical. Despite its many flaws the carrier project must go forward, their delivery and successful operation is a central pillar in the RN’s future, they have great potential and can be upgraded over time.

Even with 13 Type 26 frigates that RN planning assumptions are based upon, it will struggle to provide sufficient escorts for the aircraft carrier. At a time of rapidly evolving threats to surface ships, the number and quality of escorts is even more critical. A likely reduction in commitment to significantly less than 13 frigates would be indefensible.

Minehunters have always provided a convenient politically low-profile traget for successive rounds of cuts but without the lowly Minehunter, the mighty carriers or SSBNs may not even be able to leave port. The same goes for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships that give the RN a global reach. Each element, whatever size, plays its part in the three core functions and simply cannot be ‘salami sliced’ any further.

The amphibious capability lacks the same political mandate and looks the most likely to be targeted for cuts. The much-loved Royal Marines with an established public brand will probably survive but their main transport, in the form of HMS Albion or Bulwark and the Bay class landing ships look especially vulnerable. It is quite possible these vessels could be sold or ‘mothballed’ permanently with the RN’s entire amphibious capability resting with the available aircraft carrier. (HMS Ocean will go in 2018 anyway and there are no plans to replace her). As HMS Bulwark has recently demonstrated, these are particularly flexible and useful assets with many nations building or aspiring to acquire new vessels of this type.

There is already grave concern in Washington about the UK’s continual defence cuts. It would be particularly unfortunate to axe the amphibious capability at a time when the US has just announced a plan to have its marines deployed on RN and NATO ships, both to strengthen it’s allies and mitigate for lack of USN vessels.

Let us hope the RN’s otherwise strong and well developed case for continued investment proves to be largely resistant to the axemen of the Treasury.