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Many will welcome the Monday’s announcements made on Monday from a maritime perspective, but to do so would be short-sighted – dazzled by an equipment programme that defers capability and takes increased risk in the face of a challenging security environment. The Royal Navy envisioned in the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will be a weaker force, certainly in the short term.
Why numbers matter
Whilst an order of F-35Bs for the new carriers might be welcome, the number of aircraft matters. The F-35 is only a potent weapon system when employed in sufficient numbers to make use of its stealth and shared-sensor packages. Six per vessel was poor, but a shared pool of twenty-four still remains sub-optimal. Whilst the announcement on new supply shipping for the carrier group is welcome, it only goes a small way to making operations viable sometime in the future. As a result, HMS Queen Elizabeth will still have less overall capability thant her French counterpart Charles de Gaulle until sometime after 2025.
Amphibious forces now appear likely to go into decline. Whilst the aspiration for a brigade-strength force remains, it appears that this will become a ‘best effort’, and no readiness profile has been attached to it. This means that HMS Albion can be kept in extended readiness (not be available for operations, but still officially on the books), and HMS Ocean will not be replaced. Such decisions undermine a British ability to conduct expeditionary operations.
For surface combatants, numbers matter – nineteen frigates and destroyers are unable to perform the number of increasing missions set by ministers. The SDSR does provide a glimmer of hope for the future – albeit after most personnel joining the forces now will have retired. This sequencing of new ships means that, for example, the Type 23 frigate HMS Argyll will now be expected to remain in service for more than thirty-five years, when she was designed for fifteen. The Daring class of Type 45 destroyers, with its fragile power system, will have to take up additional duties until the new corvette fleet arrives sometime after the new Type 26 frigates have been delivered.
The challenge will be greater still since Ministry of Defence (MoD) civil and uniformed engineers are finding offers from other sectors more attractive both financially and in terms of recognition. The measures to freeze pay and commitment bonuses contained within the Comprehensive Spending Review provide no solace.
The same considerations are true of the Vanguard submarines, which will require additional work packages to keep them in service to the forty-year point, having been further extended in service with yet more delays to the Successor programme. At least, however, they will have protection from a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft.
The UK ballistic missile defence programme did get a mention, and NATO integration of a new, dedicated, shore-based radar is welcome. The same cannot be said about electronic warfare, under-ice capability, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and the issue of how the navy is to exploit a future of embracing automation and robotics.
People, not platforms
Enablers such as satellite connectivity and cyber are to be better resourced, but their implementation and use is not going to be supported by the people needed to perform these roles. While recognising the criticality of MoD civilian staff, the SDSR also announced – in the very next paragraph – plans to remove one third of them. Cuts to the conditions of service and allowances packages are likely to make it even more difficult to retain the skilled uniform engineers that already represent the greatest vulnerability in achieving presence at sea for both submarines and surface ships.
Here is the nub of the issue with this review: the focus on equipment exposes a deeply held belief that technology and equipment will deter adversaries and provide a competitive edge for naval forces. Yet there is little evidence to support such a theory. It is people, their ideas, knowledge, skills and tenacity that deliver success on operations, not a shrinking number of high-performance platforms. Neither the SDSR nor Comprehensive Spending Review provides any acknowledgment of this fact – and it certainly is not going to be funded.
Peter Roberts is a Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and Maritime Studies at RUSI.