Priorities and Options for SDSR 2015 – Navy Command


The entrance into service of two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will mark a huge increase in the capability of the Royal Navy.  At 65,500 tonnes they are easily the largest military vessels to have been built in the UK.

Two new aircraft carriers will dramatically increase the capability of the Royal Navy.

Under normal circumstances the Navy would operate only one carrier at a time but with judicious planning of the refit and maintenance cycle there is the potential to have both ships available at times of heightened tension and any conflict.

In peacetime the active carrier would operate one Naval Air Squadron of F-35B Lightning II swing-role aircraft specialising in the fleet defence and anti-shipping role.  These would be supplemented by two RAF Squadrons in heightened situations which would specialise in operating against land targets with a secondary anti-shipping role.

If the budget for new aircraft is restricted the second carrier could operate primarily in an ASW or amphibious role with helicopters.  It would still operate one Naval Air Squadron for fleet defence/anti-shipping but otherwise it would have a full complement of up to 30 maritime or attack and transport helicopters.

RFA Argus will reach the end of its life in the early 2020’s and could be replaced by a helicopter carrier such as HMS Ocean which is capable of carrying up to eighteen maritime or transport helicopters and 800 Royal Marines.  It would need to be refitted to be capable of operating as a primary casualty receiving ship.  In peacetime it would also be the aviation training ship.

The greatest threat to the Royal Navy’s major surface vessels comes from missiles, whether they are launched from aircraft, submarines or other warships.  The Sea Ceptor short-range surface-to-air missile has been developed to counter this threat.  Six launchers each equipped with quad packed Sea Ceptor SAMs should be installed on both QE carriers, RFA Ocean and the five major amphibious ships.

The combination of operating the second QE carrier primarily with helicopters and replacing RFA Argus with RFA Ocean would considerably increase the fleet’s maximum helicopter operating capacity.  Advantage of this should be taken by ensuring that as a minimum the option to convert a further eight Merlin HM1s to HM2 standard is taken up.

Naval Command will need to maximise the flexibility of its 38 Merlin maritime helicopters to meet all of its operational requirements.  Every Merlin HM2 is being upgraded to be compatible with the ten new AEW Crowsnest radars so that they can be adapted very quickly to provide advanced early warning radar to the fleet.  In addition each Merlin should be able to carry up to four Sea Venom anti-shipping missiles so that it can also operate in an ASuW role.

Merlin Mk2 Helicopter

The Merlin HMA2 is an extremely versatile helicopter that could operate in ASW, AEW and ASuW roles.

The remaining fleet of seven attack submarines, six destroyers, thirteen frigates and four offshore patrol vessels is sufficient to provide escort for two carrier groups plus one amphibious group and patrol the routes to the Faslane Trident SSBN base but they can only provide a limited anti-submarine capability.  It is not sufficient to cover all of the sea around the UK which can only be done more comprehensively by land based aircraft.

The Royal Navy will also need to maximise the flexibility of its major surface ships.  As part of this all six Type 45 destroyers need to be fitted with twelve additional multi-purpose launchers – eight could be allocated to Harpoon anti-shipping missiles and four to quad packed Sea Ceptor short-range SAMs.  This would both supplement the already impressive air defences of these destroyers and give them a much needed anti-shipping capability.

The most significant new piece of naval equipment to be ordered in the near future is the Type 26 Global Combat Ship that will replace the existing frigate fleet.  All of them would carry 48 Sea Ceptor SAMs, eight TLAM cruise missiles and eight Harpoon anti-shipping missiles.  Eight of these frigates could specialise in an ASW role with a towed array sonar system and be equipped with eight VL-ASROC anti-submarine missiles.  Five others could operate in a general purpose role with eight Aster 30 long-range surface-to-air missiles to improve area air defence.

Type 26 Frigate

The Type 26 frigate will be a powerful addition to the surface fleet.

There needs to be a major increase in the order for Sea Ceptor SAMs as well as additional orders of Aster 30 long-range SAMs and TLAM cruise missiles plus a completely new order for the VL-ASROC anti-submarine missile.

Air defences can be further improved by upgrading the Aster 30 long-range surface-to-air missile to give it an effective ABM role.

The Royal Navy needs to prioritise training with other European carrier groups – such as the French in the Norwegian Sea and the French, Italians and Spanish in the Mediterranean.

Similarly the Royal Marines and the amphibious group should be prioritising training with French amphibious forces and the Norwegian Army in the north and with French, Italian and Spanish amphibious groups in the Mediterranean.

The scenario analyses have been developed to show the minimum number of warships, submarines, aircraft and helicopters required to fulfil each task and this has informed Option 1 below.  Both Options 1 and 2 are based on the same personnel requirements as Future Force 2020.  Each additional Option offers enhanced capabilities but at extra cost and increased numbers of personnel.  These Naval Options are designed to be consistent with the respective Air Force Options.

Naval Option 1


  • 4 Trident SSBNs
  • 2 QE carriers – one carrying mostly F-35Bs and one carrying mostly helicopters
  • 64 F-35Bs in 4 Squadrons – 2 fleet air defence/anti-shipping and 2 CAS/SEAD/land strike
  • RFA Ocean as a helicopter carrier/training ship/primary casualty receiving ship
  • 2 amphibious transport docks
  • 3 landing ships
  • 8 Wildcat AH1s in 1 Marines Squadron
  • 25 Merlin HC4s in 2 Squadrons
  • 7 Astute attack submarines
  • 6 Type 45 destroyers
  • 13 Type 23 being replaced by Type 26 frigates
  • 4 offshore patrol vessels
  • 38 Merlin HMA2s in 4 Squadrons and
  • 28 Wildcat HMA2s in 2 Squadrons.

Significant extra costs are involved with refitting RFA Ocean and upgrading an additional 8 Merlin HMA2s.

Naval Option 2

As Option 1, but with the ability to operate 6 F-35B Squadrons between both QE class aircraft carriers.

Naval Command would commission a new 25,000 tonne helicopter carrier (LHD), similar to the French Mistral or Spanish Juan Carlos (to replace RFA Argus instead of refurbishing HMS Ocean) and upgrading 8 Merlin HMA2s.

Naval Option 3

In addition to Option 2, the Royal Navy could retain the use of the three River class 1 offshore patrol vessels.  In peacetime the River 1s would solely operate in UK waters but this would free up the larger River 2s to operate in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea and so relieve the destroyer/frigate force.  To maximise the effectiveness of the helicopter fleet Naval Command could upgrade a further two additional Merlin HMA2s.

This Option would require ordering a new helicopter carrier and upgrading 10 Merlin HMA2s.

Naval Option 4

As Option 3, but instead of retaining the River 1 OPVs the Royal Navy could refit and then retain three of the existing Type 23 frigates.  As there is definitely some spare helicopter capacity Naval Command could enhance its capabilities by establishing a fifth Merlin HMA2 Squadron and ordering ten new Merlin HMA2s.

This Option would require ordering a new helicopter carrier and 8 new Merlin HMA2s while refitting three Type 23 frigates as well as upgrading 10 Merlin HMA2s.


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The rest of the series

1 – Introduction

2 – Defence of the UK

3 – Other Sovereign Territories

4 – NATO

5 – A Southern or Middle Eastern Threat

6 – An Eastern and Northern Threat

7 – Global Intervention

8 – Land Command 2025; Appendix 1 – Army 2025

9 – Naval Command 2025; Appendix 2 – Royal Navy 2025

10 – Air Command 2025; Appendix 3 – RAF 2025

11 – Conclusion – The Options for Change; Appendix 4 – An Abundance of Riches: MoD Procurement 2015-25

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