A guest post from Repulse
In this post, I would like to pose the question – “what is (and should be) the RN’s global peacetime role?” This is the role outside of the defence of the United Kingdom (and dependencies) and the ability to project power through expeditionary warfare.
It seems to be an area that is poorly understood (or undervalued) by both the government, the public, and dare I say, even amongst the senior people with the MOD and Royal Navy, yet it is the one that actually keeps the RN relevant to modern day Britain.
Everyone is familiar with Libya, Iraq and even Sierra Leone style expeditionary operations, and even the nuclear deterrent – but what is it that the RN does / should be doing on a day to day basis? How do these capabilities translate into equipment requirements?
Whilst, national defence is a requirement for all armed forces in the world, and the ability to project power as needed is the stamp of global / regional power, in a complex world of increased day to day instability I’d argue that this day to day peacetime role is as important for the Royal Navy than either of these two, as it is the ‘back-bone’ of the navy’s role and relevance.
Before you can start to discuss what the RN’s global peacetime role is, we need to look at the role of the Royal Navy as a whole.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and demise of the threat from hostile submarines streaming through the Iceland / Greenland gap and running amok in the North Atlantic, the Royal Navy has struggled to clarify its role in the modern world; not only to the decision makers, but also within the organization and the public as a whole. Some could even argue that this role has been in doubt since the collapse of the empire.
The recent SDSR has actually made things more unclear than before, with the government championing the importance of certain naval capabilities (carrier strike and amphibious assault) on one hand but cutting them with the other, to satisfy short term financial constraints with the backdrop of a costly land campaign in Afghanistan.
Whilst, there are a number of roles the Royal Navy (and also the UK military as a whole) could fulfill, beyond the responsibility to defend the UK (and territories) they can probably be refined down to three options:
- Regional+ – close integration with European allies with operational capability focused primarily on the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, but with the limited ability to jointly project power beyond this region.
- Junior US partner – close integration with the US, focused on deploying specialist skills and a small number of highly capable assets globally that compliment the USNs (and their other primary partners).
- Global contributor – working closely and building partnerships with allied navies on a global basis (including Europe and the US) at a lower capability level, but retaining the ability to project independent expeditionary power (on an exceptional and limited basis) as and when required.
Currently, I feel the government is trying to do all three (though probably less of the 3rd point). Whilst this on paper seems to be pragmatic, with the current and foreseeable budgetary / political tensions the reality is that it is means that the UK performs all three of them badly. Therefore, the time has come to decide on which one the UK should follow (an East of Suez moment). Trying to do all three not only leads to an unbalanced patch work military, but also a misplaced over reliance on other nations goodwill and alignment of strategic aims.
I would argue that with Europe in a downward spiral of internal strife and isolationism, and the US becoming increasingly less interested by the monogamous UK “Special Relationship” (concentrating on building new alliances), the time has come for the UK to focus on where it has historically been comfortable as a “global contributor” to world stability. This is not to hark back to when Britannia ruled the waves and imperialism; it is a pragmatic hardnosed view that the UK’s interests are global and complex, yet our national influence is limited.
To allow the UK to retain the ability to project limited expeditionary power, I think it is reasonable to say that the RN needs the ability to deploy and sustain a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), an Amphibious Response Group (ARG) or a combination of both (Response Force Task Group – RFTG) with short notice and without capability gaps (for refit etc) anywhere in the world. I know that some people may argue this, but I have not yet heard a convincing argument for an alternative.
I am not going to expand on this further as this is not a carrier post and the composition of these groups is a great source of debate in itself as we have seen. The reason why I have mentioned it is to help define what the peacetime functions that the RN are and should be performing that outside of this.
For the Royal Navy, I would say the following are the global peace time roles in order of relevance:
- Evacuation of safety of nationals in war zones.
- Maritime intelligence and surveillance.
- Support of special force (SF) operations.
- Contribution to multi-national global stability task forces – covering:
- Protection of SLOCs (including MCM)
- Humanitarian disaster response.
- UK diplomacy (flying the flag and training of UK allies).
I will not go into each in any detail as each probably deserve individual posts in themselves. However, needless to say, these are things that the RN have been doing for a very long time and I cannot see any of them changing or being not required soon.
Next, I would like to discuss the current plans for equipment to fulfill these roles and question if the RN has it right.
Where does the T26 / MHPC programmes fit in?
The publicly stated government aim of the type 26 programme is to replace the current aging Type 23 fleet with a new breed of frigates. Learning from the ‘mistakes’ of the Type 45 programme, the majority of equipment will be taken from the current vessels to minimize the cost and risk of the new build, (hopefully) allowing the current 13 vessels to be replaced on a one to one basis. Various press and official reports have suggested that the target price per vessel varying from £500mn to as little as £250mn – but, recent quotes calling it a £5bn programme.
Of the 13 planned vessels it is expected that 8 will be configured for an ASW role (utilizing the world beating 2087 towed array sonar) and the other 5 configured for a General Purpose (GP) role.
With the backdrop of confusion over the role of the RN, it is hardly surprising that there are significant divisions over the Type 26 programme; especially in the design, cost and lack of confidence in numbers. Various senior members in government and the RN have described the T26 as providing the backbone of the navy for the next 30-40 years. To get this (or substitute) programme wrong could be disastrous for both the navy and the country as a whole for many years to come.
Assuming that the Royal Navy does go down the “global contributor” path, then based on possible similar current Marine Nationale CVBG and RN RFTG escort structures, and the need to have a one T26 based in UK waters (as Fleet Ready Escort and SSBN support), I would argue that all 8 of the planed T26 ASW variants would be tied up covering these duties. This would leave the 5 GP variants available for rotation for other tasking.
Whilst the Mine Counter Measure, Hydrography and Patrol Capability (MHPC) programme has gone quiet recently, it is still the publically stated aim that this will proceed at some point and will replace the current mine countermeasures (MCM) and survey fleet assets. Current, expectations is that the MHPC design will be based on a 3000t vessel similar to the BMT Venator concept. The range would be in the order of 7,000nm with a maximum speed of 25kts, and the vessel would be lightly armed with a small caliber gun and close-range weapons. Planning assumptions are that 8 vessels will be required, though this could be expanded to as many as 12 if the River class is also replaced at a later stage by this class.
Taking 12 MHPCs as the most likely outcome, I think it is likely that only 5 would be realistically available for rotation for other tasking. This assumes, 4 would be required for “River” style EEZ patrolling, 3 for domestic MCM operations and on-call to operate with task groups as required.
Current Peacetime International Fleet
Whilst CVBG and ARG assets will be able to play a limited peace time role – especially flying the flag participating in NATO exercises and global exercises (such as TAURUS 09), the brunt of the work will be need to be shouldered by the rest of the fleet.
Based on the current fleet and expected contributions from the announced future programmes, the asset pool available for global peacetime operations could be:
- 4 Astute SSNs (allowing 1 to 2 to be on station at one time)
- 5 GP T26s (allowing 2 to 3 to be on station at one time)
- 5 MHPCs (allowing up to 3 to be on station at one time).
- 2 Fast Fleet Tankers (on average 1 on station at one time).
- Other RFA vessels (on average 1 on station at one time drawn from RFA Diligence, the 3 Bay Class or RFA Argus)
There is little doubt that the 5 MHPCs available will be busy with the Gulf MCM, MCMFOR and hydrographic survey duties. The latter is particularly important if the UK is to retain the ability to effectively conduct submarine and amphibious operations.
The 1-2 available SSNs will also be fully utilized on maritime intelligence, surveillance and SF duties with the possible odd training exercise.
Recent trends have seen the RN using an RFA as the Caribbean guard ship – this realistically leaves on average 2-3 T26s and 1 Fast Fleet Tanker to cover the rest of the world.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that this means that either the RN’s budget needs to be increased, the government limits its global peacetime ambitions, or it goes down a different equipment procurement route.
Budget increases in this economic environment are not going to happen, so the first option is off the list. Limiting the RN’s peace time role will, in my view, actually devalue the value of the RN and will make it even less relevant to the public (and the world) leading to further cuts and a downward spiral to insignificance. Therefore, the only real option is to re-evaluate the planned equipment procurement programmes to get better (and more appropriate) coverage for the limited budget available.
A proposed global peacetime fleet composition
Reviewing the current equipment plans, the only item that I think is open to question is the Type 26 programme. The Astute SSNs are critically low in numbers already and they already have a place in meeting peacetime roles, so although the price per unit is high it would be foolish to find money from this programme to fund other equipment. Equally, the MHPC numbers is expected to be low and the Survey and MCM capabilities are key to retain the overall abilities of the RN.
Looking at the requirements for national defence and supporting the projection of expeditionary power –it is right to question the construction of the 5 GP T26s. Not doing this, could free up around £1.5bn (assuming £300mn per vessel which is probably the lower end of the expected cost).
£1.5 bn could buy a number of things, for example any one of the following:
- 2 Astute SSNs (one is almost paid for)
- 23 Blackswans
- 15 MHPCs (based on the Venator design)
- 50 SIMMs
However, in my view none of these classes alone can fulfill all the capabilities above and still allow the RN to be a global force. 5 vessels is not enough, and 15-50 “snatch” vessels means that the RN has to deploy first rate assets as soon as it looks like things are going to go “warm” or not deploy at all.
It would be easy to dream up new classes and their associated costs, though firstly they are likely to be wrong and secondly, this is not supposed to be top tier so off the shelf is good enough.
A single ‘fits-all’ vessel design, whilst theoretically attractive, is not I believe realistic as the capability / cost equation means that either the ship is useless in hostile environments or costs the same as the T26 we are trying to find an alternative to.
Could mission plug-and-play modules help here? Possibly, but where is the money to build these modules? I would argue that the funds required would probably mean only a handful of hulls, if any, would actually hit the water at all.
So how many classes are required? I propose a mixture of 2 classes;
- A large multi-role vessel (MRV):
- Size @10,000 t
- Slow (<20kts)
- Range @10,000nm
- Light self defence armament
- Good aviation capacity (hanger for 3-4 Merlins sized helos)
- Capacity to accommodate comfortably a company of RMs and equipment.
- Capability to act as a mothership to small boats / RHIBs (not necessarily via a rear dock though).
- A small corvette:
- Size < 1,000 t
- Fast >35 kts (at a sprint)
- Range @2-3,000nm
- Offensive weaponry including limited ASuW, AAW and ASW capability
- Small flight deck, but no requirement for a hanger
- Stealth capability
The MRV could be the mainstay of the RN global presence, capable of long patrols and equipped as standard with one or two Merlins / Lynxs depending on the perceived threat level and regional need. Additionally, embarked would be a small RM detachment with RHIBs or other assault craft. This class would be able to handle all peacetime roles in low threat environments unescorted.
The purpose of the small fast corvette is to be able to reach trouble spots quickly and be able to ride shot gun to a MRV if the environment has the potential to get hostile (e.g. like in the UK national evacuation from Lebanon in 2006). These ships would be based in say Gibraltar and Diego Garcia so would be able to get to any MRV operating region within a week with a combination of resupply from RFA tankers or other UK naval supply bases.
In terms of numbers, I believe the Royal Navy should have one MRV on station within one weeks of sailing time of anywhere they would be needed – also, with a couple of back-ups to cover maintenance periods etc. This means at least 8.
In terms of corvettes, ideally there would need to be one available to be dispatched at all times in both Gibraltar and Diego Garcia at any time (say 3 in each in total) – therefore, requiring at least 6 vessels.
So, this is when we get to the fantasy fleet bit – for the MRV I would suggest a properly managed NZ Canterbury class (£80mn per unit) and for the fast corvette, I would proposal Visby style warships (£120mn per unit).
What would you propose?