Proponents of a stronger Royal Navy consistently fail to make a coherent case for it, despite SDR98 and SDSR2010 making the point about scale, sovereignty in large scale operations, conflict prevention and the need for change. They complain about Afghanistan and so called worthless interventions but advocate a stronger Royal Navy so we can do just that, but with grey painted toys not green. The world has changed and very few in the naval community seem to want to recognise that, of course the light blue and green community have aspects of exactly the same attitude but this is a series of posts about the Royal Navy.
Instead of adapting, all we hear is complaining, talking about sea blindness, the Falklands and that golden of goldens, we are an island. Actions speak louder than words but what do we see, the same old paradigm of carriers, frigates and destroyers.
Perhaps I was setting myself up for a fall when I moaned about the lack of innovation because the concept of the single task group and the component parts is anything but, its actually an old fashioned concept. There are many interesting concepts in naval design; payload modularity, open source combat management systems, digital keels, the building block approach to construction, stealth, water jet propulsion and many different hull forms to name a small selection, but the name of the game for the single task group is cost control so risky new technology should be de-emphasised.
The current situation where we send frigates to do anti piracy, counter narcotics or standing patrol tasks is wasteful and we are squandering our most expensive asset, we also reduce multi vessel training opportunities because the ships spend most of their time on detached duty. If we want the Royal Navy to have a hard fighting edge we must not neglect individual and collective training.
This proposal would place the majority of surface escorts into a Single Task Group that provides the ability to prosecute a sovereign small scale focussed intervention or contribute to a coalition war fighting operation. It would be held at high readiness, conducting training or engaged on operations.
At the heart of this idea is the recognition that a large scale or hot war is less and less likely, globalisation and economic interdependence means the majority of conflicts will be regional, beyond UK waters and carried out with hybrid forces. Much like the Army has realised that the Russians are not coming through the Fulda Gap so must the Royal Navy recognise a similar situation. Conflict prevention, maritime security, countering asymmetric threats and supporting land based operations are the most likely outcome. I know it is a hackneyed straw man but how many times in the last 30-40 years have we actually used anti submarine, area air defence or anti surface weapons? I don’t want a long list because because of two things, it would not be a long list and that’s not quite the point, ask the same question of mines countermeasures, helicopters, RHIB’s, amphibious forces and you see a different picture.
Yes, we must always maintain an insurance policy against an emergent threat or the unknown but not if this insurance policy means we can’t do the mundane tasks that actually contribute to the hear and now.
It would be easy to argue for 12 Type 45’s, 18 Type 26 and 2 CVF with 36 F35C’s each but that would be preaching to the converted and would result in no RAF and an Army that consists of 2 Battalions and a ceremonial goat (however much that might please the ‘naval crowd’)
We must, however difficult, seek balance, relevance and realism. This leads my thinking at least, to a two tier force structure.
When most people talk about a two tier force they actually mean a 1 tier with extra’s, suggesting that same 30 plus FF/DD and then add another 20 or so armed to the teeth corvettes.
Again, however desirable, this is simply unrealistic
The Single Task Group is the output from this thought process.
It would provide the UK with a highly capable and rounded force that would be available at short notice for contributory coalition operations or sovereign small scale focussed interventions, AS PER THE SDSR.
It is still highly credible but the effect is achieved at a lower cost than with current plans. Some standing commitments would be stopped or resourced in a different manner as per the previous post.
The Task Group would have a number of capability slots that would be filled on a rotational basis.
- 1x Carrier
- 1x LPD
- 2x ASW/ASuW/Land Attack Frigate
- 2x AAW Destroyer
- 2x SSN
- Logistical support and associated minor capabilities
The maximum sized task group we would be able to deploy would be dependent on existing commitments, geographical dispersion, refit schedules and harmony requirements for enduring operations, but would approximate to;
- 1 swing role CVF plus aviation (various)
- 1 LPD plus aviation
- 1-2 LSD(A) plus aviation
- 2-4 Type 45 plus aviation
- 2-4 Type 26 plus aviation
- 2-4 Astute
- Various supporting elements as required (MCM, survey and logistics for example)
Whilst not operating at maximum stretch, the task group would be smaller; with some detached elements committed to FRE and other tasks. The remaining group would be engaged in training, the vital defence diplomacy and building security capacity roles that are so undervalued yet explicitly emphasised in the SDSR.
Yes, I understand the limitations of this configuration and the lack of a split between amphibious and carrier strike but there would be nothing preventing us using the group in one or the other, combining with other nations or splitting in a lower threat environment.
So now we come to the numbers and types game, here are my suggestions for the ultimate end state, achieved over a number of years, moving towards 2020 onwards.
Carrier; one CVF acting as a swing role asset, able to flex between LPH and strike roles, embarking a mix of F35 (Rafales/F18’s in a coalition operation), various helicopters and with accommodation for an embarked force. The second CVF should be retained in extended readiness and not sold so it can be activated to cover surge requirements at some notice or refit periods as required. Anchoring the group, CVF, even with a reduced F35 compliment will be credible and useful.
Maritime Fast Jet Aviation; I still think F35B offers the best combination of cost, flexibility, interoperability and utility but the decision is F35C. I also do not see the point of maintaining an FAA fast jet capability as this seems like unnecessary and costly duplication so I would disband the fast jet elements of the FAA and make the F35 the sole preserve of the RAF. The aircraft could then easily be used across a range of tasks in the most efficient manner possible. No more than 2 operational squadrons plus OCU/OEU. Longer term, make sure any resulting UCAV can be launched and recovered by CVF (please let’s not let this descend into a CVF argument again)
Anti Air Warfare; stay with plans for 6 Type 45 and mature the platform with extra silos, CEC, improved soft kill etc to enhance the AAW role. Fitting it with extra surface attack equipment ‘would be nice’ but we need them to be at the top of their game and not burdened with other expensive enhancements in a resource limited world. Some might think the anti air mission is less likely but given the proliferation of supersonic anti surface missiles and reductions in F35 we neglect this capability at our peril. Continue with development of FLAADS/CAMM and insist on integration with the Slyver silo for fitting to the Type 26′s.
Airborne Early Warning and Control; as the Sea King ASaC Mk7’s go out of service, simply transfer the equipment onto a palletised configuration and use the non HM2 upgraded Merlin’s. The longer term future is likely a data linked network of UAV’s but this is some way off.
Anti Submarine Warfare; another one of those cold war relic capabilities but again, low noise and effective submarines are proliferating and there is also a growing trend in ‘home brew’ semi submersible vessels that are likely to be encountered. The longer term future looks again like a data linked network of UUV/USV’s but the current king of the hill is the 2087 equipped Type 23. As these go out of service they are planned to be replaced by the Type 26. Simply put, I would cancel the Type 26 and evolve a Batch 2 Type 45 to fulfil this role. The Type 45 is large, has an Integrated Electric Propulsion system and plenty of growth potential. There are a number of compromises in using the Type 45 hull but in the context of this proposal, worth accepting for commonality and cost benefits. Jed has a post in the queue for this (even though we often disagree, great minds do sometimes think alike!) Total numbers should not exceed 6, equipped with the 6 Sonar 2087 sets from the Type 23’s. In light of this proposal the existing plans for 30 Merlin HM2’s look excessive so a quantity review might reduce these. Ruthless commonality, yet again, should be the driver for cost reduction and operational efficiency.
Anti Surface; Transfer the Harpoon launchers from the Type 23’s and fit to the Batch 2 Type 45’s. Continue development of the FASGW or Sea Skua replacement and the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) for deployment on helicopters and surface craft to counter small, rapidly manoeuvring targets.
Land Attack; in addition to the Tomahawk equipped Astute submarines the Type 45 and Batch 2 Type 45’s would be fitted with the 4.5” guns transferred from the Type 23’s. These might be semi unique to the Royal Navy and without the commonality or guided munitions benefits of the more common 127mm or even modified 155mm systems, but they are adequate for now. Evaluate the cost benefits of commonality with the Army’s 155mm ammunition and compare it with an off the shelf purchase of the Oto Melara 127mm with Vulcano ammunition, for deployment in the medium term. A containerised GMLRS may also be a realistic option for precision land attack and more easily deployed on lower value vessels that can more easily be deployed into the littoral environment.
Helicopters; ideally, I would like to see Merlin and Wildcat replaced with a single type, NH90 or Blackhawk/Seahawk but recognise that however desirable from a commonality and capability perspective, is unlikely. Heavy lift would be provided by CH53K that can operate equally well in the land or maritime environment, replacing Chinook, again, however desirable, most unlikely, so, we are left with Wildcat and Merlin. Apart from a numbers review, no change to existing plans.
Amphibious; retain a single LPD and the three LSD(A)’s. Continue Investment in fast landing craft and if economically viable, improve aviation capabilities of the LSD(A) and LPD. Pretty much as per current plans, the LPD in extended readiness would provide refit cover and surge.
Other Capability Areas; Invest in a small number of off the shelf UAV’s, either the Scan Eagle or Camcopter, operate these as a standalone capability but also ensure they can, long term, integrate with the Watchkeeper/DABINETT/SOLOMON infrastructure.
Subsurface; Carry on with plans for a single class of 7 Astute SSN’s, they provide a hard core capability that is equally powerful and flexible.
Nuclear; in line with previous posts on the subject, the sixth and seventh Astute, with an additional 2, would be a stretched variant, equipped with a modular vertical launch silo that can be used for Tomahawk, special forces, USV’s or the Trident replacement missile.
The future RN core combat fleet would therefore consist of
- 1x CVF plus 1 in extended readiness
- 1x LPD plus 1 in extended readiness
- 6x Type 45 AAW Destroyer
- 6x Type 26 (Batch 2 T45) Frigate
- 6x SSN plus 4 dual role nuclear SSGN/SSBN
- Assorted RFA support and logistics
Depending on requirements, the Single Task Group would link up with the Forward Presence Squadrons for defence diplomacy and training, conduct training in home waters or be on operations.
Resilience would be afforded by the non tasked assets if we use the conservative and sustainable 3 to 1 availability ratio
These reductions provide the Royal Navy with three things; long term financial credibility with the Treasury, a higher readiness core and resources to fund other areas.
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