- Relative economic decline (latest GNP and GDP tables)
- Move from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world
- US strategic pivot
UK territorial integrity – The majority of the threat is apparent in other domains: cyber warfare, terrorism, organised crime, energy security, immigration and rogue aircraft. Combating these threats are police and security service roles; using high-end RN capabilities is akin to using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Everyone involved feels like they’ve done a good job but it is not defence, and certainly not cost-effective defence. The exceptions are very unlikely: shore bombardment and submarine interdiction of shipping. Both of these can more cheaply be dealt with by land based aircraft but would likely require RN support. Surface ships could easily be found and sunk using AWACS or drones/airships and Typhoon/JSF. The Merlin ASW helicopter is thought to be highly proficient and a large purchase of these would be very versatile in that they could be deployed from coastal bases, cheap multi-role vessels or even merchant shipping with containerised support facilities.
Regional Power – Lets be honest with ourselves, this is what we can afford, even though it’s less than what we want to do in the world. With the US pivot to the Pacific and IndianOceans, the US needs the European navies to do the leg work in their own backyard. Through standing NATO task groups, the European navies can easily provide enough mine sweepers, frigates, destroyers, helicopter carriers, strike aircraft, amphibious landing ships, and replenishment ships to deal with European crises from the Balkans to north Africa. What is lacking is the will of all members to put their capabilities into the fight (especially the Germans) and the willingness to rely on joint task forces in the event of a crisis. For example, the UK could specialise in SSNs (where it has a lead in Europe) and disinvest in CVFs; while the French could provide the standing carrier commitment (disinvesting in SSNs and enhancing its CVF capability). The Scandinavian, Iberian, Italian and French navies all have plenty to contribute to a standing naval presence, especially in the corvette and frigate class of vessel. These forces, as well as other regional forces, should be corseted by US support in the super-high-end capabilities such as satellite surveillance and drones, and the developments of new technology such as fleet drones and energy weapons. The UK is likely to be the lead (or co-lead with France) nation in any such activity and this should be its future focus.
British Overseas Territories – the RN has a responsibility to protect BOTs (Falklands, Gibraltar, Cyprus Sovereign Areas, Diego Garcia, AscensionIslands) but only the Falklands needs defending. A minimal air superiority capability (half a dozen JSF or Typhoon, ideally with some AWACS) and SSNs (1-2 astute, with TLAM to strike the Argentina mainland) will deter any aggression from a democratic Argentina. A similar deployable force, held in reserve could easily secure other BOTs if they came under threat, which is very unlikely. There is no requirement to retake these territories, as they would thus be suitably defended.
International obligations and coalitions – Whenever we act out of area, this is almost always going to be as part of a coalition, either UN, NATO or US led. The exceptions will be defending BOTs (completely manageable with current resources) or taking on a very small conflict (e.g. Sierra Leone). The UK will never again take on a medium or large sized power on its own. Therefore there is no need to have the capability to win an air superiority battle; the UK contribution could be its air warfare destroyers, alongside a US, French or even Brazilian or Indian carrier strike capability. Therefore we do not need the full spectrum of blue water capabilities. Tackling piracy off the Somali coast is a police action; it does not require a billion pound air defence destroyer or even a relatively cheap frigate. It could just as easily be done by coast guard type vessels, helicopters located aboard RFA ships or even on convoyed cargo ships. If (or is it when?) the US decides enough is enough with some the dwindling number of crackpot regimes (Iran is probably first on the list) then we should assist in whatever token capacity we can. If there’s capacity we warm up our resting Astute, Type 45s and assault ships and take part in a non-enduring intervention. All these platforms would be useful but carrier strike is a luxury we can do without.
The competition – Those nations developing blue-water naval capabilities are all democracies. This poses an excellent opportunity for the United States to devolve (and corset) sea lane security and patrolling to regional naval partnerships: Brazil and south Africa in the South Atlantic; Australia in the south Pacific; Japan and South Korea in the north Pacific and Sea of Japan; India and South Africa in the Indian Ocean; and European NATO in the north Atlantic, North Sea, Baltic Sea and Mediterranean. There is one obvious exception: China. China is a pure realpolitik power, but based on the importance of trade to its economic development (and therefore internal stability) it has the most to lose from the closure of sea lanes, and is likely to enhance sea governance rather than interfere with it.
The true wild cards are China-Taiwan, NKorea-SKorea and Iran. If these confrontations turn hot, should and could the UK participate? There seems little strategic gain in the UK becoming involved in China-Taiwan or NKorea-SKorea, yet maybe it’s inevitable given our dependence on the US strategic umbrella or US forces being engaged and our duties under NATO. In the case of Iran, we obviously are due to our dependence on fossil fuels; so probably, probably and definitely. Therefore, what useful role would the UK play? It is unlikely that the US would need more than twelve carrier battle groups to take on any of these powers, therefore the UK contribution should be token, along with other US partners – maybe a flotilla consisting of some Type 45s and SSNs in support of the US task groups, but definitely not boots on the ground. Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be the last enduring commitments of ground troops for at least two decades (until the collective mindset forgets the hard won lesson of both campaigns)
- Double the SSN fleet as the primary means of deterrence and surface / land attack; including the carriage of nuclear tipped cruise missiles.
- Develop the exceptionally capable Type 45s into multi-role warships by cannibalising the frigate fleet for their CIWS, anti-ship missiles and land attack missiles. Fit Merlin with AEW equipment from retiring Sea Kings to provide extra area capability to Type 45s. Deployments of such high-end platforms to be rare in order to maintain capability for as long as possible.
- Double the Merlin ASW helicopter fleet to fly off convoyed shipping or multi-role platforms. ASW no longer to be delivered by specialist ASW frigates.
- A fleet of cheap multi-purpose support ships, on the lines of the Spanish ???? able to simultaneously launch by helicopter and assault craft a division of troops; or deliver humanitarian assistance; or launch patrol UAVs; or launch MCM UUVs; or provide logistics, flag and intelligence support to a flotilla of small patrol vessels; or host the whole Merlin ASW fleet.
- Develop a UUV MCM capability deliverable from cheap multi-role ships.
- Fit the CAC system for inter-operability with US naval forces.
- Fleet of small patrol boats operated by the new British Maritime Police to conduct all police actions (anti-piracy and counter-narcotics).
- Forward deployment – deterrence task force based out of the Falklands; North Sea and Mediterranean NATO task forces based out of Plymouth and Gibraltar, MCMs based in Bahrain.
- SSBNs to be withdrawn as soon as nuclear tipped cruise missiles are available for astute.
- MCM vessels supplanted by MCM UUVs.
- All frigates, no type 26 replacement.
- Wildcat – anti-ship role to be delivered by Harpoon (Type 45) and Spearfish (Astute), or further Merlin order.
- Carrier strike – sell or convert to multi-role vessel, halve JSF fleet to just the RAF order (or retrofit Typhoon and do away with JSF altogether).
- Counter-narcotics and counter-piracy – these are police actions and should be delivered with helicopters or low end patrol craft.
- Flying the flag and defence diplomacy – not required given NATO and US strategic umbrella.
- Worldwide sea lane security and ‘patrolling’- US devolve and corset to regional partners. The UK to maintain a European theatre perspective only.