2020 has been a memorable year for everyone, mainly for the wrong reasons but the Royal Navy has quietly triumphed in adversity. While existential threats continue to grow and the near term still looks difficult, the Naval Service can perhaps look forward more positively to the future than at the start of the year.
Broadly speaking the RN managed to sustain almost normal frontline operations, despite the additional pressures and demands placed on its people by COVID-19. This has come at the cost of considerable sacrifice by sailors who have had to be ‘bubbled’ as a ship’s company for long periods and unable to go ashore, even when alongside in homeport. One of the major attractions of a naval career is to visit foreign ports, but for most of 2020, this opportunity has been denied when deploying overseas. Being confined on board with limited opportunities to let off steam is tough for the sailors and presents leadership challenges to maintain morale. The full extent of confirmed COVID cases in the Navy has not been made public but it is known HMS Richmond, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Vengeance suffered outbreaks as well as cases at shore establishments HMS Raleigh and HMNB Clyde.
RN personnel have also been mobilised in various roles supporting the COVID-Response Force involved in assisting the NHS with logistics, testing and the vaccination programme.
The sharp end
Although tensions in the Gulf remain high, the RN was not involved in direct confrontation with Iranian vessels as it was in 2019. On the surface, it would seem the RN has had fewer tense situations to deal with this year. A hectic programme of officially-denied cyber attacks by Russia and China on the UK and NATO partners continues unabated and COVID did not prevent the Russians from sending increased numbers of vessels close to the UK. It can be presumed there was submarine activity to match. Official channels have reported separate Russian warship monitoring activities on an almost monthly basis throughout 2020. RN presence in the Asia-Pacific was more low key than the previous two years but HMS Enterprise spent around 6 months in the region, presumably tasked to gather hydrographic data, prior to increased RN activity in these waters planned for 2021.
Although submarines have operated in the Arctic and the Barents Sea for many years, the RN publicised 3 separate surface ship operations involving HMS Kent, Sutherland and Lancaster venturing into the area this year. Conducted in cooperation with the US Navy and Norwegian Navy, these FONOPS provide a reminder to the Russians that NATO can operate in the waters they regard as ‘their back yard’ in the same way that they send vessels to operate close to our coasts.
Carrier Strike – two steps forward, one step back
HMS Queen Elizabeth spent two important periods at sea this year. Firstly passing FOST inspection in May and then went straight onto exercise Crimson Ocean in June. UK aircraft made a total of 1,610 aircraft launch and recoveries from the ship. For the first time, operational flying exercises were conducted in preparation for the more demanding GROUPEX in the Autumn. In September the full CSG assembled for the first time in the North Sea. The multi-national group worked up together prior to joining the more complex exercise Joint Warrior. The group included nine ships, 15 F-35B jets, 11 helicopters and 3,000 personnel from the UK, US and the Netherlands, with the USMC VFMA-211 sending 10 aircraft. Post-exercise reports indicate the programme was a great success and builds confidence ahead of operational deployment next year.
The positive strides made by the CSG were rather marred by a serious flood on board HMS Prince of Wales while alongside in Portsmouth during October. A significant internal leak damaged the high voltage electrical systems and repairs will cost £3.3M. Remedial work on the High-Pressure Salt Water systems on both aircraft carriers to prevent further floods is costing £2.2M. HMS Prince of Wales will miss at least two planned periods at sea conducting FOST activities and helicopter training. Her Westlant 21 trip to the US has also been abandoned, saving £2M but also delaying F-35 developmental flying.
The future shape of the RN’s amphibious forces remains uncertain and will not be properly resolved until the Integrated Review document is published in early 2021. It should become clear if the LPDs will survive and if the Littoral Strike Ships will become a reality. In the meantime the Royal Marines have been working hard throughout 2020, spending an increasing proportion of their time at sea but also developing the Future Commando Force concept. The Marines have been trialling assorted new technologies designed to give them the edge on the battlefield. Besides receiving new uniforms, new kit under developments includes a variety of unmanned systems for surveillance, logistics and weapon delivery. Essentially, the RMs are in a process of evolving away from being an elite infantry formation back towards their roots as commandos, conducting raiding missions from the sea.
Humanitarian operations continue to be a big part of the Navy’s work and 2020 was no exception. The RN has been the main contributor to Operation Broadshare, the UK forces effort to assist British Overseas Territories coping with the pandemic. RFA Argus was deployed in the Caribbean, supporting HMS Medway, ready to provide disaster relief capability in during the hurricane season. As well as conducting highly successful anti-narcotics patrols, Argus was called upon to provide aviation support to the US operation providing relief to Honduras after the north of the country was struck by hurricanes Eta and Iota. RFA Argus again proved her versatility and value for money but no direct replacement has been announced. It is possible that by building three Fleet Solid Support ships with enhanced aviation facilities, one of the FSS could be earmarked to provide much of the unique capability delivered by Argus.
Kit on the way
An improvement in the human resources situation may be the single biggest reason for optimism, but the RN can also look forward to the best procurement programme of any of the three services. Besides the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates being built in Scotland, it was announced Type 31 will be followed by the Type 32 which should drive an increase total frigate numbers in the 2030s. Two hydrographic vessels will be purchased to replace HMS Scott, but with additional capabilities to monitor and protect undersea cables. The FSS competition will resume in 2021 and the Intermediate Surface to Surface weapon (I-SSGW) competition should deliver a result next year. In 2020 the Wildcat and Martlet missile combination was proved and initial operating capability will be achieved in the next few months. The RN began trials of Manta, its first XLUUV in April and an unmanned mine hunting system is now on order.
The 4th Astute-class submarine (effectively a batch II boat) HMS Audacious, finally left the shipyard to begin a lengthy introduction into service. Boat 5 HMS Anson was formally named and will be rolled out and put in the water in 2021. Details of RN submarine operations in 2020 were minimal as ever but it was confirmed a boat participated in exercise Crimson Ocean and COMUKCSG and a Submarine Advisory Team (SAT) exercised control of an SSN defending the carrier and conducted a simulated TLAM firing.
The current government is embracing the naval case with more enthusiasm than any we have seen for several decades. This is welcome and quite a turnaround, although there is still much to be done to repair decades of under-resourcing. Unfortunately, even now when there is greater political will to build up naval strength, UK industry has been so hollowed out by the past cycle of feast and famine, it can only deliver new vessels relatively slowly. The substantial new funds for defence will help plug many gaps but its benefits are not being felt yet. In the short-term, the curse of the in-year budget cycle has forced the RN to suspend training for 2,700 of its reservists for 6 months in order to save £7M.
For the RN, and for the UK as a whole, the bigger concerns are now much more existential, especially the rapidly evolving Chinese and Russian and threat. Depending on which economist you listen to, the £3 trillion national debt and damage to the economy left by COVID is entirely manageable or will result in a 5-10 year depression. The promise to build a stronger navy as part of a stimulus to the economy makes sense but it remains to be seen how the public finances will fare in post-Brexit and post-Covid turbulence and if the promises on shipbuilding can be delivered. Assuming COVID is controlled and vaccines can be rapidly and safely rolled out, by mid-2021 the picture should be a lot brighter. The RN will deliver its landmark carrier strike group deployment in May 2021, marking the point at which the post-2010 era of naval decline truly ended.