The Defence Command Paper (DCP) published on 22nd March outlining the future UK force structure has received a very mixed reception. Here we examine the context of the document and more specifically, some of the positives and negatives for the Royal Navy.
The Integrated Review was generally sound, laying out the growing challenges faced by the UK, outlining how the intended response in a joined-up and coherent way. The scope of the IR was extremely ambitious and there was perhaps a certain inevitability that DCP, which was supposed to provide more detail, would disappoint. The future for the RN looks generally bright and the pre-publication leaks mean there have been no great shocks. Unfortunately, the DCP itself is not merely disappointing, stuffed with buzzwords and meaningless management speak, but is vague and has the feel of being pulled together at the last moment.
On the day of publication, journalists were supposed to have been given copies in the morning, ahead of an online press briefing. In the event, the document was not given out until mid-afternoon, but the midday briefing went ahead. Bizarrely, journalists were invited to submit questions about the DCP for a Q&A before they had been able to see the document.
Most seriously of all, the DCP is deliberately light on facts, failing to define the intended order of battle. The 2015 SDSR had a simple ORBAT for each of the 3 services committing to specific numbers, but this time around such commitments are noticeably absent. For the MoD and politicians, the advantage is you can’t be criticised for failing to reach a target you have not defined. The usually sanguine Pinstripeline blog commented: “This lack of commitment to open government is unprecedented and is disrespectful to the taxpayer, who is the ultimate paymaster for the MOD. The fact that a major department of state is not prepared to tell the public details about how large the armed forces will be, despite the fact that is has previously released this information for many decades is genuinely concerning.”
Reach not mass
The new kids in town, Autonomous Systems, AI, Cyber, Hypersonics and Space cannot be ignored and the UK has little choice but to devote greater resources to these new technologies and threat vectors. There are those that suggest these new developments will allow us to move away from traditional ‘heavy metal’, ‘industrial age’ capabilities. In fact, far from making them obsolete, these new information age developments should mainly be seen as making existing platforms more lethal. The ‘old model’ of sending your troops into combat sustained and supported by the navy and airforce has not been replaced, just expanded with a plethora of new asymmetric and other means to make war. Investment in offensive and defensive cyber, for example, is not a substitute for a substantial army, just another capability conventional forces must have to remain credible.
This presents a problem for every nation in the world, except perhaps for an emerging authoritarian superpower with deep pockets and vast human resources. Defence in the 21st century has become very much more complex and expensive, especially for open democracies. The aspiration of the IR appears to be that the UK can operate across the globe and be credible in every dimension and every domain. The result will be very small amounts of capability in many areas but lacking mass, resilience and decisive advantage in almost every area. The all things to all men approach is superficially appealing, keeping lots of stakeholders happy until actually put to the test in conflict – everywhere and nowhere. The newly minted Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC) optimistically hopes that by working more closely across the 5 domains of Land, Sea, Air, Space and Cyber, this lack of mass can somehow be offset. Assuming the defence budget will not be doubled, only by forming multiple alliances with partner nations, based on deep trust and frequently exercised integration can this approach hope to be much of a deterrent.
An industrial not a military strategy?
The welcome new money for defence provided in the November 2020 Spending Review was never going to be enough to avoid significant cuts. The extra £16.5bn over four years will cover some of the shortfalls in the existing 10-year Defence Equipment Plan but is not enough to sustain a simultaneous major force modernisation.
A RUSI assessment of MoD funding profiles shows that Capital (CDEL) expenditure will rise substantially, but day-to-day expenditure (RDEL) on running the military will actually decrease. Investing in new equipment is politically desirable and the aim of developing UK industry and further harnessing its potential for defence is laudable. But there is a penalty, hollowing out now in return for shiny new kit of the future. The RAF is particularly beholden to the industrial influence of the FCAS programme and is axing swathes of aircraft to bankroll Tempest – a programme that may not deliver operational capability for at least 15 years. The RN is benefiting, although to a lesser extent, from commitment to industry through the national shipbuilding strategy, but has had to make fewer short-term sacrifices to secure its fleet of the future. The Army has been cut the most, perhaps partly because it lacks the same industrial base.
Equal or greater consideration must be applied to our fitness to go to war within a year as is given to the shape of our forces in a decade or two. There is a very difficult balance to be struck between sustaining and growing the domestic defence industry or immediate readiness for conflict.
Despite the headline “RN frigate numbers cut”, the reality is there will actually be improving Frigate and Destroyer availability on the frontline in the next few years. Escort numbers will fall to a total of 17 or even 16 in the next few years but this will not make a great deal of difference to force generation. Most of the Type 23s will have completed LIFEX (although some will have to return for engine upgrades) and as the Type 45s have their propulsion problems cured there will be more ships at readiness. Personnel numbers are rising slowly and the crewing pressures should recede slowly. Assuming the Type 32 programme goes ahead and the frigate construction programme proceeds without major problems, the RN could have 24 escorts by the mid-2030s. There will never be enough frigates or destroyers and aspects of their equipment fit can be argued about, but within the bounds of realistic expectations, the escort programme is in decent shape.
The First Sea Lord recently wrote: “Between 2015 and 2030, the tonnage of the Royal Navy will increase by approximately 50 per cent. Despite a temporary dip to 17 frigates and destroyers, we will provide more ships at sea and available for operations than we did last year and are doing this year”.
The DCP contains a commitment to 3 Fleet Solid Support ships (unsurprisingly to be found in the shipbuilding section, not the ORBAT which confusingly lists “FSS ship”), a positive development as two ships had seemed more likely until recently. The FSS will have good aviation facilities, probably a Chinook-capable flight deck with hangar space for at least two Merlin-sized aircraft. Three ships should offer enough availability to undertake the aviation training functions of RFA Argus, due to be decommissioned in 2024. The FSS will also be of sufficient size to comfortably accommodate a 70-bed medical facility so at least one ship could be equipped to replace RFA argus in the Primary Casualty Receiving role.
The DCP says “The Royal Navy will focus investment on improving the sustainability, lethality and availability of the fleet and delivering a more modern, high tech and automated Navy.” While very non-specific and typically vague there is evidence from the fleet that a genuine modernisation effort is underway, although more slowly than ideal. (See previous article) A range of UUVs, USVs and UAVs have all been trialled, with some purchased, concepts of operations being developed and a few on the cusp of being deployed operationally.
Uncertainty about the future of the Royal Marines continues. At least the DCP is actually specific about Army numbers (down to 72,500 by 2025) but the number of RMs is unclear. The Times recently reported 400 would go, although figures as high as 1,000 have been quoted elsewhere. The operating concepts for the much-trumpeted Future Commando Force (FCF) and the Littoral Response Groups (LRG) have not been clearly articulated, although they obviously involve better-equipped troops but deployed in smaller numbers. The planned structure of 3 Commando Brigade is also opaque and whether they will retain their supporting Artillery, Engineer and Logistic elements is unknown. There has obviously been considerable work done behind the scenes and the reasoning behind this transformation may be sound, but the communications have been poor.
The intention to buy “more than 48” F35s is a relief but there is no firm commitment to total numbers. Informed sources suggest the UK will end up with between 60-80 by the mid-late 2030s. This should eventually provide just about the minimum needed to sustain a carrier air group, with 24 jets embarked routinely. This is short of the QEC carriers intended compliment of 36, but this could be achieved by an emergency surge by taking aircraft and pilots from training squadrons. Like most aspects of UK defence, there will be precious little reserve to replace combat losses or even attrition through occasional training accidents. The F35 was also supposed to replace the land-based RAF Tornado in the ‘Deep Strike’ role and a more modest fleet will force difficult choices about prioritising training and deployment for Carrier Strike or Deep Strike.
Another defence review will be due around 2026, assuming the 5-year cycle is resumed, but there are several significant replacement programmes that will need to be addressed before 2026 if there are not to be losses of capability or major gaps.
The most obvious omission from the DCP is a plan to replace the Merlin helicopters which will begin to reach their maximum number of flying hours by the early 2030s. Arguably the most important ASW asset, besides the SSN, the ‘flying frigate’ is key to protecting the fleet and now has the added responsibility of ASaC duties. Even if autonomous technology is capable of fulfilling this complex role, development work would need to begin soon. A less risky and more affordable solution could be just to re-open the production line and replace Merlins with Merlins. Whether there could be synergy with the RAF Puma replacement project has yet to be seen, but the requirements seem quite divergent.
The DCP contains no mention of a replacement for hydrographic survey vessel HMS Scott due to retire in 2022. The infographic appears to show HMS Echo and Enterprise still in service in 2030, exceeding their 25-year expected service life. Consideration and a budget line for their successors will be needed soon unless the RN is to lose its world-renowned hydrographic capability. Like mine-hunting, autonomous systems may have an increasing role to play in hydrography but ocean-going motherships of some kind are still going to be needed if a global reach is to be retained.
The DCP also suggests the P2000 patrol boats will still be in service in 2030, by then averaging more than 40 years old. This may not be a top priority but they provide an important training function for a navy very short on hull numbers. Their fibreglass hulls may allow them to serve longer than steel ships but they can’t go on forever.
Assumptions about what the world may look like in 2030 could be badly wrong. Political events, conflict and further technological progress may quickly overtake the IR but what can be said with certainty is, the UK will continue to be reliant on its naval forces which will have to hasten the speed at which they adapt to change.