Last week Government finally published the Defence Command Paper (delayed since mid-June) which was supposed to provide more precise detail about the structure and future of the armed forces following the aspirations of the Integrated Review (Refresh) launched in March. Here we take an overview of what the DCP23 says, or does not say, about the future of the Royal Navy.
Avoiding the hard truths
The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt confirmed on 15th March that the Defence Budget will rise by £11bn over 5 years. More immediately, an extra £5bn will be available to the MoD over the next two years. £3bn of this will be spent to support the defence nuclear enterprise and enable the AUKUS Submarine delivery programme. The remaining funds will be spent on replenishing ammunition – primarily NLAWS, artillery rounds and other Army munitions depleted by the war in Ukraine but this will not be of much benefit to the RN’s similarly thin naval munition stocks. Unfortunately despite this ‘new’ funding, it falls well short of the £8Bn the Defence Secretary has stated is needed just to mitigate the effects of inflation.
DCP23 avoids explaining how this shortage of funding will affect the frontline by totally failing to commit to specifics about the force. Instead, it tries to make a virtue of this, promising in the preamble that “there are deliberately no new commitments on platforms at all – because on that we stand by what we published in 2021.” This would be tolerable if the 2021 DCP had itself been more specific, not to mention that in the intervening period, there has been a war in Europe and inflation has jumped to a 40-year high.
Wallace also said of DCP23 “In this document you won’t find a shiny new announcement, comms-led policy driving, unsustainable force designs or any major new platforms for military enthusiasts to put up on their charts on their bedroom wall”. This kind of sneering at those engaged with defence matters is a disgrace and has no place in an open democracy. There is little enough interest amongst the general public and attacking those working to raise awareness about the parlous state of the forces is counterproductive to the efforts to argue for more funding.
Ben Wallace had already tendered his resignation as Defence Secretary before DCP23 was published, hardly a ringing endorsement of the compromises made by the MoD from its political master. This may be a little unfair to a man who by the low standards of recent years, has proved a committed and reasonably effective minister. Even before the war in Ukraine, he was the first to secure any real increase in defence spending in a generation and has attempted to grip some difficult issues as well and being one of the staunchest of Kyiv’s allies. By surviving in post for 4 years, he at least provided stability. The revolving door of ministers who have barely gripped their brief before they move is one of the many obstacles to structural reform that defence needs. The current government seems to be drifting towards the general election next year where most predict it will be roundly defeated. The departure of Wallace leaves the MoD in a holding pattern, pending the election likely followed by another Comprehensive Spending Review and possible SDR in 2025.
The force may be measured to some extent by ‘capabilities and not platforms’. The FMAF and FADS concepts are examples of ‘systems of systems’ that are not just centred on a single warship. These developments may make quantifying the strength of a navy increasingly complicated but there will always be a need for ‘old fashioned’ ships and submarines that are globally deployable and can operate in the harsh ocean environment. In the US there is a hot political debate about how many warships the Navy should have but there are no smoke-and-mirrors games that pretend the numbers do not matter any more thanks to broader technological developments or ‘multi-domain integration’.
The absolute low point in the document is the claim that: “our mass comes not just from the ships, tanks and planes in our inventory but from the innovative systems we wrap around them and the cunning of those that operate them.” This is pure self-deception as “mass” in a military context simply means the number of tangible fighting assets and not the more intangible supports around them. It does not matter how ‘cunning’ you are or how many ‘force multipliers’ you have if there is no actual force to multiply. This kind of flimsy doctrine also flies in the face of lessons from Ukraine that mass and conventional platforms are still core to success, however much drones and other new technologies may help influence the battle.
The sinking of the Russian cruiser RFS Moskva does not imply navies need fewer ships because the side with less mass can have success. If your mass consists of outdated, badly maintained assets with poorly trained crews it will inevitably suffer. But Russia is still the dominant naval force in the Black Sea by virtue of its mass, despite some asymmetric Ukrainian victories.
Filling in the blanks
The total lack of commitment to even an outline order of battle in the DCP23 is the end of accountability. Not for charts on bedroom walls, but for a wide range of internal and external stakeholders and international partners who need some kind of benchmark against which to measure fighting strength and the success or failures of defence policy. From a political perspective, this approach is most convenient as you can’t miss a target you have not set. Wallace has talked of honesty in defence but if for example, you want to know how many frigates the RN has right now, official sources would be vague or misleading. The Navy’s website cannot even decide how many frigates are in commission – listing both 12 and 13 on the same page. In fact, the true number is 11 with at least one of those still technically in commission but unlikely to go to sea again.
Despite the weakness of the 2021 DCP, it is possible to piece together the approximate future shape of the RN using previous official statements on individual programmes or industrial contracts and by leaning on the work of independent journalists. The 2023 DCP was a missed opportunity to honestly clarify the force that is aspired to, ideally indicating which major projects are funded or not. Looking to the future, while there is a solid programme of frigate and submarine construction there is no world on both Type 32 frigates or the Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) promised in the 2021 DCP.
DCP23 promises to: “create a Defence Global Response Force (GRF), bringing together our deployed and high-readiness forces, and drawing on capabilities from across Defence in all domains. It will be optimised for rapid, global effect to respond to crisis, project force and campaign constantly.” This will obviously not involve any new assets and is just a re-branding of existing high-readiness forces. After all the whole point of the armed forces has always been to ‘respond to crises’ and the RN is already globally-deployed and ‘campaigning’, however thinly spread.
Whether the GRF has any real implications for the RN is unclear but the Littoral Strike Group concept is still in its infancy. RFA Argus is due to sail to the Gulf in the Autumn and will likely be based in Duqm, Oman forward-deployed as the centrepiece of the LRG (South) but there is precious little else to support her. HMS Albion recently conducted a successful Baltic deployment engaging with the JEF nations including Sweden and Finland but the LRG (North) is not a permanent presence. The Bay-class auxiliaries and LPDs are all due out of service between 2031-34. Putting off a decision on MRSS until 2025 will create another pressurised programme that must deliver promptly or risk leaving gaps in the fleet (as is the case with Type 26/31 and FSS).
DCP23 states that: “The Euro-Atlantic will remain our clear priority and will continue to receive more investment and attract more activity than any other region.” It is clear that despite the much-hyped “Indo-Pacific Tilt”, this has had only a modest impact on defence commitments. The Russian threat rightly dominated the IR in 2021 and has become more serious in 2023. For the RN the light-touch, defence engagement-focused basing of two OPVs in the Pacific region is great value for money but has limited military importance. Two Carrier Strike Group deployments in 4 years is just manageable, although the AUKUS plan to base an SSN in Australia and Japanese participation in the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) are more significant.
The DCP may have a gaping hole at its centre but does have some very encouraging aspects. Most notably is the focus on people which is the first item in the document – a sign that the forces personnel crisis is being taken more seriously. There will be greater employment flexibility, allowing for ‘zig-zag careers’ so service personnel can move more quickly into and out of civilian jobs before rejoining the military. Fully implementing the recommendations from the Haythornthwaite Review of Armed Forces Incentivisation (HRAFI) will be a challenge for an organisation with an engrained culture of strict hierarchies based solely on promotion from the lowest rank.
There are signs that the decades-old problems in procurement are at least being acknowledged and efforts are being made to address the speed of programme delivery. There have been many attempts at reform over the years but none have really succeeded. Rapidly evolving technology and threat environment mean there is simply no option but for Defence to dramatically improve on the cumbersome CADMID-based process. DCP23 promises to improve MoD-industry partnerships through ‘agile acquisition’ and to build in more ‘financial headroom’ to respond to changes through spiral development. The paper cites ASW Spearhead, NavyX and Maritime Offensive Surface Strike as recent good examples of ‘procurement at pace’.
DCP23 optimistically states it will move to a “maximum five-year commitment for acquisition programmes”. It is unclear exactly which aspects of the process this 5-year span covers but at least there is a target for improvement. Critically it also acknowledges the need to build a cadre of professionally-qualified and incentivised SROs that will remain in post across a programme. There are also plans to tackle the bureaucracy and ridiculous, overly risk-averse regulations that frustrate personnel and strangle innovation and progress across defence.
On the strategic front, there is at last some recognition of the threat to the UK mainland and military infrastructure, admitting: “there is no easy sanctuary from long-range precision weapons”. Some small steps to address this are underway with a modest increase in Army ground-based air defence capability, the RAF considering aircraft dispersal options away from its dwindling number of superbases and further work with NATO on Integrated Air and Missile Defence.
Perhaps most critically, despite the war in Ukraine and pressure from an Army-centric mainstream media and a significant number of former soldiers in Parliament, DCP23 does not fall into the trap of promising to expand the Army at the expense of the other services. “Britain does not require the same force posture as continental allies such as Poland and Finland, or even Germany and France. Rightly, these countries have realised that they need to beef up their terrestrial defence forces. Poland will have the largest armoured forces in Europe by 2030. Britain, an insular state located off the coast of the European mainland, armed with a potent nuclear deterrent, does not need to do the same.” (James Rodgers)