LONDON — Britain’s parliamentary Defence Committee has fired a broadside at the government, raising significant concerns about the future size and capabilities of the Royal Navy in a report released Dec. 14.
Too few surface ships and submarines, limited offensive capabilities, a lack of clarity around F-35 fighter jet numbers, budget restrictions, and delayed procurement are among a list of shortcomings identified by the report, titled “We’re going to need a bigger Navy.”
The list doesn’t end there. The report also points to issues with the speed of maintenance, the need to prioritize the British shipbuilding industry, the limited ability to operate without the support of allies and the axing of support ships without a plan for replacement.
Problems related to capabilities and fleet size were brought into focus by a government review published earlier this year. That document sees the Royal Navy becoming a vital tool in Britain’s strategy of tilting more toward the Indo-Pacific region on defense, security and trade, while retaining its commitments to NATO and elsewhere.
“Overall our Navy needs more ships, armed with more lethal weapons and the most up-to-date technology,” committee Chair Tobias Ellwood said in a statement.
Howard Wheeldon, a consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, welcomed the report but said the prospect of additional funding for the Royal Navy looks poor.
“If what the Defence Select Committee is calling for is ever to see the light of day, the need has to first be agreed by those charged with responsibility at [the Ministry of] Defence headquarters and then agreed by the Treasury and Cabinet Office. The prospect of all those moves occurring appears very unlikely,” he said.
For Ellwood’s part, he reckons the “next 10 years will prove a test for our naval fleet.”
“The U.K. is faced with an increasingly hostile and unpredictable international environment, but the government is still reducing funding, retiring capability and asking the Navy to rely on increasingly elderly vessels for the next five years until new ships come in,” he said.
But it’s not just the number of ships with which the committee takes issue. The lack of lethality on existing ships is also a significant problem, according to lawmakers.
“When ships do get to sea, they act like porcupines — well defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities. This is a result of decisions by successive governments to limit budgets and prioritize defensive capabilities,” the report said. “What offensive capabilities these ships do have will be reduced even further in three years’ time when the government retires the Harpoon anti-ship missile without a planned replacement. More money must be found to upgrade the Navy’s lethality and allow our ships to take the fight to the enemy.
“The department must deliver the funding to swiftly end the spectacle of space on highly capable vessels being used to carry nothing but air. This should include consideration of the threats and the opportunities posed by hypersonic missiles.”
The committee did, however, find the Royal Navy still packs a formidable punch and remains one of the most capable naval forces in the world.
But, its members added, the service faces a bumpy road in the next decade, as it’s expected to take on more responsibilities as the government’s “tool of choice” to deliver its new strategy of persistent engagement in key areas of the globe, as well as raising the importance of the Indo-Pacific region.
The report said the service cannot fulfill the full ambition of the Integrated Review with its current fleet. It called for the escort fleet to double in size by acquiring more low-end capability like the Type 31 and Type 32 for low-end tasks, and said the government should increase the size of the attack submarine fleet.
It’s not all bad news, though. The panel acknowledged that the government can point to the major boost in naval capabilities resulting from a successful first operational deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which led a strike group to the Far East.
The success of the deployment was marred only by a British F-35 crashing into the sea after it failed to take off from the ship in the Eastern Mediterranean. The carrier docked at Portsmouth, its home base, last week.
As it completed its voyage, the Royal Navy tweeted that the ship and its sister carrier HMS Prince of Wales will both deploy with NATO and other international partners next year.
Britain has a sizable shipbuilding program underway that covers the procurement of five Type 31 general-purpose frigates from Babcock International and eight BAE Systems-made Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates.
BAE has a contract with the U.K. for three Type 26s, and the country is expected to order another five. Australia and Canada have also each ordered the vessel type.
However, the orders replace aging Type 23 frigates and are not by themselves going to increase the surface fleet numbers beyond 19.
Including six Type 45 destroyers, the current major surface combatant fleet size stands at a historic low of 18, and a number of those are in upkeep or overhaul.
The MoD has identified the greater availability of ships for operations a major plank of its strategy of squeezing in more time at sea from major surface combatants in order to bridge the numbers gap.
The report is skeptical the strategy will work.
“The budget for operations and maintenance is tight and will likely lead to yet more ships sitting in port, failing to deter our increasingly emboldened adversaries,” the committee wrote. “A large part of the government’s plan to address this relies on increasing availability, as well as through the Type 32 program. We are not convinced that increased availability can produce enough vessels to be relied upon in an emergency.
“Even for newer ships, maintenance projects take too long. At one point in July 2021 only one of six Type 45 destroyers was not undergoing maintenance: three vessels were in refit; one was in planned maintenance; and one was ‘experiencing technical issues’ (in layman’s English, it broke down).”
Destroyer and frigate numbers will be restored to 19 once the new Type 26 and Type 31 frigates enter service toward the end of the decade. The government has talked about increasing the overall size of the fleet, but there are questions around timing and funding.
Among other ships in the pipeline, the competition for the much delayed requirement for three fleet solid support ships is underway.
Further out, early work is looking at a general-purpose frigate known as the Type 32 and a Type 83 anti-air destroyer to replace the six Type 45s currently in service.
The timing of the build program brings risks of its own, said the committee, as the Royal Navy’s schedule is to introduce three new classes of vessels simultaneously: Types 26, Type 31 and the fleet solid support ship.
“These projects must all be delivered on schedule in order to exit the period of risk that budgetary restrictions have placed the Navy in. However, they face many structural and project-specific risks, and the MoD’s track record on delivery is far from good,” the report said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.