There is a growing concern about the RN surface fleet’s lack of offensive power. Here we look at what might be done to remedy the situation in the medium-long term.
In December 2021 the House of Commons Defence Select committee published the report ‘We’re going to need a bigger Navy’ following their inquiry into RN purpose and procurement. Their memorable and fair conclusion was that: “When ships do get to sea they act 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. Offensive capabilities will be reduced even further when the Harpoon anti-ship missile is retired without a planned replacement. More money must be found to upgrade the Navy’s lethality and allow our ships to take the fight to the enemy.”
Although lacking mass, in general, the RN has effective air defences in the form of Sea Viper, Sea Ceptor and a mix of CIWS and light weapons. It is also equipped with good sensors and electronic warfare capabilities and is a potent anti-submarine force. In very broad terms, being effective at AAW and ASW has great value in keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) open and allowing the force to operate in theatre but are not the means to really threaten the adversary. It is the ability to sink ships, attack targets on land or mount amphibious operations that gives a navy the offensive edge that will act as a true deterrent.
Defence Minister James Heappy also said recently: “I also want to see the Royal Navy lead the way in lethality… prickly, more lethal naval platforms that pose adversaries challenge at sea and from the sea to land… it is quite interesting when the US and the UK send ships into the Barents Sea it is the American destroyers that attract attention because of their lethality and their ability to project power from the maritime to the land domain”
The RN’s own view may be more nuanced but is in broad agreement. The first design principle in the new Maritime Operating Concept (MOC) is to “focus on offensive warfighting capability able to deter hostile states” and a recognition that potential adversaries are “investing a greater proportion of their defence budgets in offensive as opposed to defensive systems and survivability”.
The value of work done by the RN to improve interoperability and even interchangeably with allies is often underestimated but credibility and political independence is undermined if reliant on others to provide the real firepower. For all the talk of autonomous or uncrewed systems, the first and second generation at least are mostly devoted to ISR. They may carry out dull, dirty and dangerous tasks or form a vital part of the kill chain, but are generally not the tip of the spear itself.
Within its existing budget limitations, the RN is working to achieve marginal gains through improvements in training, accelerating experimentation, embracing divergent thinking, developing different and unexpected ways to fight and make better use of what it already has. More widely, it is trying to move from being a platform-centric navy towards a ‘systems of systems’ approach, where single platforms are no longer the capability focus. It is looking to prioritise autonomy, modularity and data exploitation systems. A data-sharing backbone will link sensors, deciders and effectors, potentially over a wide area. The RN calls this vision a “Distributed Protean Force” (protean meaning something is able to change frequently or easily).
This thinking is laudable and if implemented sensibly, will provide advantage in many scenarios. However, the RN will still need globally deployable, seaworthy and survivable ships and, most importantly, armed with a new generation of weapons (or ‘effectors’) that can destroy substantial targets at long range. The future of platforms is reasonably secure in the shape of the aircraft carriers, Type 26, Type 31, Type 32 and Type 83 programmes but the effectors aspect is very much more uncertain.
There have been some recent positive steps to enhance lethality that should see results by the end of the decade. In a £265M contract delivered over the next five years, the RN’s small stock (thought to be just 65 Block IV rounds) of submarine-launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) will be upgraded to Block V standard improving accuracy and resistance to countermeasures. This relatively expensive upgrade is necessary but for now, the RN’s sole land attack and main anti-ship capability rests with the tiny number of over-worked SSNs.
The MoD has said the Type 26 frigates will be equipped with the (FCASW) from 2028. This would finally give the RN some real offensive power beyond that delivered by submarines or the carriers. The Type 31 frigates will not be delivered with Mk41 VLS but could be retrofitted with up to 32 cells (quad packing Sea Ceptor in some of them). Armed with FCASW, this would make them a much more formidable frigate, able to exert real deterrent effect.
By the early 2030s, the Type 45 destroyers will receive additional Sea Ceptor cells, enhanced Aster 30 missiles and upgrades to the Sampson radar to provide a modest anti-ballistic missile capability. While this is welcome and will further enhance their AAW functions, the Sea Ceptor cells will occupy the upper part of the void space that could have been retrofitted with Mk41 VLS. Therefore the Type 45s will remain high-end defensive assets and unlikely to ever have a land-attack capability before their retirement in the late 2030s.
The UK’s Dragonfire Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) Capability Demonstrator Programme has been underway since 2017 but initial progress was slow. First-generation DEW are essentially defensive for use against small targets such as UAV swarms – the US Navy has already deployed the ODIN laser dazzler system designed to disrupt electronic optical sensors. This will be followed by HELIOS – which has enough power to destroy small targets. Recently there are signs that Dragonfire is progressing and could have “world-beating power and accuracy”. Ultimately DEW have the potential to be scaled up to have counter-hypersonic missile capability or even anti-ship use and are a major reason that new RN warships are being designed with significant spare power generation capacity.
At the lower end of the spectrum, the Bofors 57mm Mk 3 and the BAES 127mm Mk 45 Mod 4 guns that will equip the Type 31 and Type 26 frigates respectively provide the opportunity to use guided and/or extended range munitions. These include the MAD-FIRES round for the 57mm and the OTO Vulcano GLR for the 127mm. These new munitions could provide some improvement in anti-ship and naval gunfire support capability, out of all proportion to their cost and ship footprint. It should be noted the RN has yet to comment on the ammunition types to be selected for these guns.
The primary offensive capability of the surface fleet will obviously be delivered by the aircraft carriers but as discussed previously, the punch and reach of the carrier will be limited for some time. Besides the thorny issues of F-35 numbers available for each deployment, integration of Spear-3 is some way off, there are no existing plans to integrate a stand-off LACM or AShM missile on F-35. Without a plan to buy the Spear-3 EW variant, SEAD capability is very limited and there is no organic air-air refuelling. Some or all of these issues could be mitigated over time with additional investments and the evolution of the Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF). The stealth and sensor fusion capabilities of F-35 pose a formidable threat to adversaries but for the foreseeable future, the aircraft are at risk, required to get very close to their target to deliver laser-guided bombs.
The decision to abandon I-SSGW (harpoon missile replacement) will leave the RN with a heavyweight anti-ship missile gap for at least 5 years. (The Wildcat helicopter-delivered Sea Venom and Martlet missiles provide an effective counter to small combatants or asymmetric threats but cannot be counted as significant offensive weapons in the context of peer adversaries).
The RN decided to take this capability holiday in order to invest more in FCASW and claimed any new missile system would not be operational before 2027. Long lead times and hefty contractor charges for integration with the Type 23’s Combat Management System are plausible. Not ideal but, I-SSGW could have been ‘bolted on’ and controlled using a stand alone console in the ops room instead. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – the Australian Navy will have Block 1A Naval Strike Missiles to replace its Harpoons on its Anzac-class frigates and Hobart-class destroyers within 3 years of placing the order. Claims that I-SSGW would signal a lack of British commitment to FCASW to the French are also disingenuous – this modest procurement would clearly be an interim solution and not remotely capable as the stated ambitions for FCASW.
The recent POLARIS 21 exercise conducted by the French Navy in the Mediterranean attempted to simulate realistic adversary capabilities in a live scenario. The result was 2 frigates sunk and 2 more neutralised within 15 minutes, highlighting the violence of engagements and high intensity of modern naval combat. French analysis also shows the slower but stealthier version FCASW favoured, at least initially by the UK, is much more easily countered than a hypersonic version. Indications are the RN is coming around to the French way of thinking which would help consolidate FCASW development into a single missile.
The FCASW project is the centrepiece of RN ambitions to be a more lethal force in the 2030s. Navigating through the tensions of Anglo-French politics and potentially divergent requirements, MBDA must deliver a weapon that can be air-launched as well as compatible with (Strike length) Sylver and Mk 41 VLS. A hypersonic missile by definition must travel at speeds over Mach 5 where the physics and a very different aerodynamic paradigm are still being understood. The airflow, stability and heat dissipation issues are incredibly complex to solve and it will be a very tall order to have an operational missile by 2028. To meet the needs of the RN, RAF, Marine Nationale and Armée de l’air the weapon will also need to be manufactured in large numbers.
Russia and China are considerably ahead in this particular arms race but there are now 8 publicly-acknowledged hypersonic weapons in development in the US. These programmes can be described as funded, focused and realistic efforts intended to produce prototypes but there are no operational weapons on order as yet. However the timetables for some are very optimistic, for example, the USN hopes to field the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic glide vehicle from its Ohio class SSGNs and/or Zumwalt class destroyers as early as 2025. At 34.5 inches in diameter, CPS is unfortunately too large for the Mk41 VLS.
Despite the best efforts of MBDA, QinetiQ, Dstl and others, the UK will struggle to truly keep up with a new generation of weaponry being developed by China, Russia and the US. Around £2 billion has been allocated by the MoD for research into ‘next generation’ weapons between now and 2026. This is a good investment but is spread across several technological areas, contrast this with the $4.7Bn (£3.8Bn) the US is spending on hypersonic weapon research in FY 2023 alone. The First Sea Lord said in February that the RN is aiming to become “a global leader in hypersonic weapons”. This worthy aspiration is unfortunately very hard to reconcile with the reality of scientific and fiscal resources.
On 5th April the AUKUS partners issued a statement promising they would cooperate in the field of hypersonics, counter-hypersonic, and electronic warfare, cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities. Just how far this cooperation will extend has yet to be seen, but perhaps a deal similar to the 1958 UK–US Mutual Defence Agreement for sharing nuclear technology is needed.
With the US clearly the powerhouse of research and its defence industry aggressively protective of its interests, careful negotiation is required. Ideally, British manufacturers could license the technologies they need, potentially saving years of research. This would be on the proviso that they remain highly classified and British companies could not sell or share systems based on this IP in competition with US industry. The 1958 agreement has stood the test of time, Rolls-Royce continue to build nuclear reactors for Royal Navy submarines based on US designs and British-made nuclear warheads are mounted on US-made Trident missiles.
In summary, RN offensive firepower should increase gradually over the next 10-15 years but without a sense of political urgency to fuel a substantial boost in new funding and deeper assistance from the US, it will be further outpaced by adversaries. You fight with what you have, ambitions for how the force might be equipped by the mid-2030s will count for nothing if called into action in the near future.