On 21 February the MoD published the Defence Equipment Plan (EP) which focuses on procurement for the next decade. Here we take an overview of some of the implications for naval capability.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, arguably the biggest threat to stability in Europe since 1945, has placed an uncomfortable spotlight on the state of UK defence. For too long the politicians and planners have justified today’s weaknesses by promising ‘jam tomorrow’. A perpetual lack of urgency and an expectation that the US will always be on hand to do the heavy lifting has defined defence planning and funding going back decades. Europe now stands on the brink of a crisis that will not wait until today’s Powerpoint presentations are a reality.
The 2021 Integrated Review (IR) presented a very optimistic vision of Global Britain, with forces equipped to respond effectively in a variety of scenarios across the world. The less coherent Defence Command Paper that followed was supposed to define the ORBAT in more detail but left a lot of unanswered questions. The EP now shows in more specific terms how the IR has survived contact with financial realities. Broadly, the increase in spending announced in 2020 has averted catastrophic cuts and financial management has improved marginally but the National Audit Office still assess the EP as still containing many elements that are unaffordable.
As expected, the headline naval commitments remain in place (Dreadnought, Type 26, Type 31, FSS, MROS and MRSS etc). For the Navy there only a few ‘disinvestments’ in the mould of the 2010 SDSR and the outcome of the IR was substantive and mostly positive. Despite this, continued funding shortfalls and industrial constraints will result in significant gaps and delays to programmes. Many projects are being ‘moving to the right’ as the delivery of critical capabilities are either years away, uncertain or even unfunded.
There are other pressures that suggest that EP will be ultimately unworkable. Over the next decade, the MoD must find £3.7Bn of ‘efficiency savings’ that are not supposed to impact the frontline. The NAO suspects the flagship Dreadnought submarine programme may still breach the £31Bn (plus £10Bn contingency) budget allocated to it. It also warns that the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) also has the potential to eat everyone’s lunch, being underfunded by as much as £8.35 billion. Inflation in the wider economy will drive the need to increase forces pay will also eat into the budget along with increasing energy costs. Around 30% of the built defence estate is considered to be below the acceptable standards. A plan to spend £500 million on preventative maintenance during the next decade will not be enough to prevent further deterioration in the estate’s condition.
The missile gap
Industry has been formally notified that the I-SSGW programme to deliver a modest stock of anti-ship missiles to the RN has been abandoned. The already virtually obsolete Harpoon Block 1C will be retired at the end of 2023 without immediate replacement and the RN will have no heavyweight anti-ship missile until the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW / SPEAR-5) programme delivers a replacement. On this point, the EP is rather misleading, promising: “we will buy a highly capable ship to ship missile to replace our current Harpoon missile system which will go out of service in 2023.”
If the FCASW project remains on schedule then, in theory, HMS Glasgow should have an anti-ship and/or land-attack cruise missile to equip her Mk41 VLS in 2028 but the track record for delivery of complex weapons does not suggest this will definitely be the case. The MoD stated vaguely this week that “We are seeking to increase the number of ships fitted with Mk 41 launchers beyond the Type 26, including Type 31 and potential retrofit to existing classes”. Equipping the Type 31s with Mk41 VLS from the outset would be a major step in the right direction, although not part of the current funding allocation or build schedule. (We will consider the upgrade options for the Type 45 destroyers in a future article).
A joint Anglo-French announcement confirmed that FCASW will assess two complementary missile concepts. These will be a subsonic low-observable option and a supersonic, highly manoeuvrable option for use against land-based and maritime threats, hardened targets and air defence systems, at very long ranges in contested environments.
The First Sea Lord, speaking on 11th February, said: “we are setting ourselves a challenge to become a global leader in hypersonic weapons”. This would appear to be something of a stretch unless there is a classified ‘black project’ in an advanced stage, UK hypersonic interests currently comprise a stake in the Thresher research project with the US, FCASW will be high supersonic at best. Meanwhile, the Russian navy has hypersonic weapons at sea right now, even if not yet fully operational.
FASGW(H) Sea Venom has been in development since the late 1990s as the replacement for Sea Skua light anti-ship missile which was retired in 2017. This latest capability gap should be closed soon with IOC due for the middle of this year and FOC in 2023. An ‘interim version’ was deployed with the Carrier Strike Group last year although no images of the weapon were made public. There are still ongoing integration issues that imply further costs and delays.
IOC for the FASGW(L) Martlet missile also carried by the Wildcat was declared in October 2021 although the helicopter is only cleared to carry half of its potential load of 20 missiles operationally. Flight trials, testing and operational evaluation are continuing but like Sea Venom, the EP reports that “ongoing integration and missile qualification challenges continue to drive time and cost growth risk into the programme”.
Carrier strike concerns
The EP does not explicitly state how many F-35B aircraft will be purchased beyond the 48 currently on order but there is £1.2Bn allocated to buy a second tranche. Assuming the flyaway costs remain at around £100M each, this would suggest a modest uplift of 12 additional aircraft, bringing the total up to 60 jets by 2031. (It is unclear if aircraft lost through attrition will also be replaced). Lockheed Martin’s production line is supposed to close around 2035 so a further third tranche of 8-10 aircraft might be possible, depending on FCAS priorities. 70 aircraft would appear to be the very best-case scenario for UK F-35B purchase, half of the 138 promised in 2015.
Carrier strike capability is on track to achieve FOC by December 2023. By the end of 2022, there will be sufficient UK F-35s and trained aircrew to support routine carrier deployments of up to 12 jets. Maintenance and training demands mean this is cannot sustain back-to-back deployments and must be carefully paced. The Lightning Force is still regenerating after CSG21 and it will be instructive to see how many jets can be mustered for operations in response to events in Ukraine. FOC for F-35 is scheduled for 2025, at which point two squadrons of up to 24 jets will be available for planned carrier embarkations.
The planned entry into service date for the SPEAR-3 medium-range stand-off missile of 2025 is likely to slip to 2026 as there are limited resources available for the integration work. To a large extent, MBDA is dependent on Lockheed Martin’s software development prioritisation for integration projects, despite the UK being the sole Tier-1 partner in the F-35 programme. Until the F-35B can carry SPEAR-3, UK carrier strike is somewhat blunted and dependent on dropping laser-guided bombs, typically requiring aircraft to get within lethal range of surface-to-air missile systems.
In 2019 the MoD awarded a demonstration contract for an electronic warfare variant of the SPEAR-3 missile. There is no funded plan to procure SPEAR-EW, even though this is a stated requirement and a credible Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) capability is needed if striking well-defended targets. In the longer term, it is planned that FCASW could be carried (externally) by F-35B, providing a long-range standoff shipping/land-attack capability but this is will not be available before the early 2030s at least.
Integration of the Meteor BVR air-air missile with F-35 is not now anticipated to be completed until 2027 and there is a possibility that integration pressures in the programme may incur further delays because of challenges in the wider F-35 programme. The F-35 can already carry up to 6 very effective AIM-120 AMRAAM but Meteor offers considerably superior range and performance. Meteor, when finally combined with the stealth and sensor capabilities of the F-35 promises to deliver an extremely formidable fighter.
HMS Glasgow was scheduled to be in the water in “late 2021 or early 2022”. (She will be floated off a barge at Glen Mallan before being towed back upriver to Scotstoun for fitting out). The float off has been delayed because the programme has suffered slippages due to COVID and supply chain issues, although the nominal in-service date of 2027, still 5 years away, remains. There have also been forecast cost increases driven by “technical difficulties”, the contract stipulates budget-overruns will be split in a 50:50 ‘pain share’ arrangement between the MoD and BAE Systems.
The NAO says the MoD has decided to place the second Wave Class RFA tanker in “extended readiness” which will save £79M over 10 years. This relatively small saving from deactivating a single ship demonstrates how taut budget planning has become. A shortage of marine engineers may also be behind this decision as well as the attraction of only having to actively support a single tanker type in service. The remaining four modern Tide class vessels can just about meet RN requirements, assuming that at least one is typically in maintenance and one is assigned as FOST tanker on the South coast. However, the decision still represents the loss of yet another hull to the fleet, just as HMS Scott and RFA Argus are also due to retire without replacement in the next couple of years.
RFA Wave Knight was recently deployed in the Caribbean and Gulf demonstrating the excellent helicopter facilities that provide the Waves with considerable utility besides replenishing warships. Placing this kind of vessel in reserve is preferable to scrapping but without a crew and in need of lengthy reactivation refits, reduces the options to respond in the case of a sudden crisis.
Curiously the NAO notes that it would take a considerable amount of time to make them available again and £110 million should be set aside to reactivate the ships between 2028-31, if required. By this time they will be about 30 years old and RFA Wave Ruler has already spent 4 years alongside in Liverpool and been partially STOROBED to supply spare parts for her sister. At the time of writing it is unclear how soon RFA Wave Knight will join Wave Ruler in mothballs.
RFA Argus is currently scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024, by then aged 43 years old. In the long term, her aviation and afloat medical support capabilities will be replaced by one of the six planned Multi-Role Support Ships. The MoD says that in the interim, before MRSS arrives (in the mid-2030s?) “a range of potential options are being explored, including a short extension in service”.
Years of delay and prevarication in placing orders for the Fleet Solid Support Ships leave the CSG reliant on a single ship, RFA Fort Victoria. The order for FSS will not be placed until May 2023 as the bidders need to complete detailed proposals and design work. Construction will have to run smoothly, the first ship needs to be operational by 2028 when Fort Vic will retire. The MoD promises to “manage the transition to ensure that the Carrier Strike Group retains a sovereign core and ability to operate independently”.
The events in Ukraine have been a wake-up call to politicians across Europe about the lack of defensive capability. The dramatic decline German forces is to be reversed, the Chancellor of Europe’s largest economy suddenly announced they will increase spending from about 1.5% to more than 2% of GDP and pledged an immediate €100Bn to strengthen its forces. This is a major Putin own-goal as NATO will be much strengthened, especially if the German Army could be relied upon to be the main buttress in defence of the continent. The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss also said “Britain needs to increase its defence spending and cannot ignore the demand for conventional weapons while focusing on cyberattacks”. Despite controversy about the ‘Pacific Tilt’, the Integrated Review correctly named Russia as the major adversary but the scale of the threat identified in the IR demands far greater resources.
Funding is one part of the answer as well as spending resources more sensibly. An overnight expansion of the RN is not possible, warships take years to build, constrained, in particular, by a finite number of trained sailors, engineers and technical staff. More cash could, however be used to accelerate the construction of existing vessels, add more firepower and move away from a hollow peacetime model of ‘just enough, just in time’ applied to logistic, ammunition and spares support.
Decades of under-investment and a lack of focus on maritime strategy has resulted in a failure to order enough warships, this has thinned out the industrial supply chain to such an extent that even an emergency construction programme would take several years to bear fruit. Other than working existing assets harder, there are very few options for significantly strengthening the RN right now but the crisis should be used as the motivation to inject far greater urgency into future plans.