2021 can be seen as another broadly positive year for the RN with the Integrated Review the maiden operational deployment of the carrier strike group the dominant stories.
The global scene
More widely, 2021 was another annus horribilis with the pandemic continuing to impact almost every aspect of human activity. Besides the fatalities, suffering and disruption to life, the NAO puts the cost of COVID to the UK alone at £370Bn so far, (the approximate equivalent of the entire defence budget for almost 10 years). The bill has mostly been financed by debt with financial implications to be faced up to in future.
The botched withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, for which President Biden must take most of the responsibility also casts a long shadow. British forces deployed there over a twenty-year period can hold their heads up, having acquitted themselves with courage and fortitude, including during the hasty evacuation operation, run by Admiral Ben Key (subsequently appointed as the new First Sea Lord). Op Herrick, was not just an Army show, the RN played a major part in the effort, in particular the Royal Marines who made the biggest contribution in relation to their size of any UK formation. Besides the agonies and turmoil inflicted on the people of Afghanistan, those that lost loved ones in combat and those still bearing the scars of battle can be forgiven for asking “what was the point?” The consequences of this political and military failure have yet to be fully realised but repetitional damage to the US and NATO of this defeat will be lasting.
China’s massive military expansion programme goes on unabated while the CPC claims it is only interested in peace. The anti-Taiwan rhetoric has increased with the growing threat of invasion having the potential to trigger a conflict on a global scale. The announcement of the Australia-UK-US arrangement which came rather out of the blue in September is just one of the consequences of China’s assertiveness. The AUKUS agreement to co-operate more closely on defence matters makes sense from a strategic perspective and is broadly good news for the UK and the RN. The endeavour to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia will be a very long term project and there are questions about its viability, given the limits to UK and US industrial capacity and many other hurdles to overcome.
HMS Defender hit the headlines in June while making innocent passage through the territorial waters of occupied Crimea, legal under international law. The operation was designed to make a point to Russia and they reacted furiously, firing warning shots and claiming to have “bombed” the ship. Putin has shown increasing signs of unjustified paranoia that Russia is being ‘encircled’ by NATO and western aligned nations that oppose his demands for a ‘sphere of influence’. A massive build-up of Russian armour of the borders of Ukraine suggests that another invasion in 2022 is a possibility. NATO forces will not be sent to fight directly for Ukraine but Britain is deepening its defence relationship with the threatened nation including a £1Bn loan to build fast attack craft and naval infrastructure.
2021 was the year that saw all five of the new batch II OPVs in commission and based overseas. HMS Forth is in her second year as the Falkland Island patrol vessel, conducting patrols to South Georgia and making a long trip to the remote island of Tristan da Cunha to deliver vaccines. HMS Medway is also in her second year in the Caribbean offering support to UK overseas territories and conducting anti-narcotics patrols and was joined in June by RFA Wave Knight with her embarked Wildcat helicopter. Wave Knight delivered aid to volcano-hit St Vincent, provided aviation support to US relief efforts after the Haiti earthquake and was involved with operations that intercepted 2½ tonnes of cocaine in five busts during the autumn.
HMS Trent arrived in Gibraltar in April and has conducted patrols in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and recently in the Gulf of Guinea. HMS Tamar and HMS Spey sailed from Portsmouth in September, arriving in Hawaii before Christmas for long term basing in the Asia Pacific. The presence of OPVs will not make any significant contribution to the balance of military power in the region but the ships will help sustain the defence engagement, diplomacy and activities in support of UK trade conducted by the more transient CSG deployment.
Holding the line in Europe
In March HMS Lancaster, HMS Westminster and RFA Tiderace deployed to the Baltic Sea, leading a task group of warships from the Joint Expeditionary Force. The JEF is a framework of 8 nations, primarily intended to provide a deterrent against Russian aggression in the Baltic region. HMS Albion, the flagship for the newly re-branded Littoral Response Group (North) was subsequently sent with RFA Mounts Bay and Marines of 45 and 30 Cdo and for 3 months in the Baltic and Norway between April – June 2021 as the RN continues to develop the LRG and Future Commando Force concepts. Overlapping with the CSG deployment, the LRG(N) demonstrated the RN could get two significant groups to sea at once although HMS Lancaster and Northumberland could only be spared as escorts for part of the time.
Beyond the headline deployments, the RN continued to deliver its core functions. HMS Westminster has spent 9 of the last 12 months mostly assigned to Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) or Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) duties. This is a small part of the ongoing and largely unreported battle to monitor Russian submarine and occasional surface ship activity that has been increasing in intensity over the last few years. Protecting the nuclear deterrent from sustained efforts by the Russians to detect them remain a key operational task that involves frigates, Merlin helicopters and the SSNs. The shadow war with the Russian fleet in a vast area that covers the North Atlantic, North Sea, GIUK gap and into the Arctic Circle is largely ignored by the UK media but is more central to UK security than operations in the Middle East or the Indo-Pacific.
The Integrated Review
In November 2020 the Prime Minister promised to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe” and significantly increased the defence budget for the first time in a generation (at least partially filling the colossal hole in funding for the 10-year MoD equipment plan). This helped ensure the Integrated Review that finally emerged blinking into the daylight in March 2021 did not contain any big shocks or drastic cuts for the RN. The IR confirmed the existing naval construction programme as well as further moves towards modernisation and transformation. Strategically and industrially, maritime was front and centre, in line with the government’s “Global Britain” and “Levelling up” agendas. While the IR was mostly well-received, the subsequent Defence Command Paper which was supposed to provide more specific details seemed hastily cobbled together and lacked clarity. (There are 14 articles covering the issues related to IR here)
When the dust settled it was clear the RN will benefit from receiving 7 separate classes of ships and submarines in the next decade or so. The programme apparently includes; 4 x Dreadnought SSBNs, 4 remaining Astute SSNs, 8 x Type 26 frigates, 5 x Type 31 frigates (and then Type 32 ) 1 x Multi-Role Ocean Support Ship (MROSS) and up to 6 Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS).
Plans for the future fleet look good in the brochure but in the next 5-10 years the RN enters a period of risk. There will be no new frigates becoming operational before 2027 and we must rely on the upgraded, but ageing Type 23s. The Type 45 destroyers continue to demonstrate their fragility which will persist until they have completed the engine upgrade project. The very welcome programme to add Sea Ceptor to the six destroyers will not be completed until 2032. The critically important SSN force will remain at 6 boats with the extension on service of HMS Talent and Triumph and will not rise to 7 until the commissioning of the last Astute class, HMS Agincourt around 2027.
It would appear budget pressures have ended the plan to replace Harpoon with an Interim Surface to Surface Weapon ( I-SSGW) and the RN will become the world’s only major navy without a heavyweight anti-ship missile in service, until 2028 at least. The December 2021 HCDSC report on the state of the navy described the fleet as being “like porcupines — well-defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities. This is a result of decisions by successive governments to limit budgets and prioritise defensive capabilities”. There is a good deal of truth in this, although assessing the strength of a fleet is more complex than just counting missile numbers. It is easy to overlook anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, sensor fusion, command and control capabilities, training standards and other less obvious strengths in favour of things that go bang. Nevertheless, the RN does need far greater offensive punch and will have to wait several years before this will be increased in any meaningful way.
Carrier Strike landmarks
The UK Carrier Strike Group declared Initial Operating Capability in January 2021, and at one point both carriers were at sea operating F-35s. This represents the culmination of a 20-year acquisition project but is not a case of ‘job done’. As the RN transitions to a carrier-centric navy, it faces an uphill battle both to maintain a credible escort group while delivering other mandated tasks and to find the resources to maximise the potential of the platforms. The number of F-35Bs that will be bought by the UK, beyond the 48 contracted for delivery by 2026, was not clarified by the IR and the integration of the Meteor and SPEAR-3 missiles on the aircraft are still some years away. The MoD seems far from certain of what the total cost of purchasing and, more importantly sustaining the Lightning Force in service will be. There are also ambitious plans to adapt the carriers to operate uncrewed aircraft as ‘loyal wingman’ to supplement the F-35 as well as migrate from Merlin-based Crowsnest to a UAV-based ASaC solution by 2029.