LONDON – Twelve weeks into his new job as the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Ben Key has laid out his vision of what capabilities Britain’s future maritime force will need, touting new technology development as key for making the fleet more lethal.
Key used a visit to the Babcock shipyard at Rosyth, Scotland, currently assembling the first of at least five Type 31 general-purpose frigates for the Royal Navy, to describe where he sees the sea service going by 2035.
More lethality, hypersonic weapons, blending unmanned and manned aircraft working from the same flight deck, a renaissance in commando operations, and regaining advantage below the waves – all those mission got a name check by Key.
“We are setting ourselves a challenge to become a global leader in hypersonic weapons. A future where we’ll become more adaptive in how we use our platforms, high-end war fighting, command and control … highly lethal, highly reassuring and highly adaptable,” he told an audience of industry executives and Royal Navy officers during a visit to the yard Feb 11.
Pointing out the major recapitalization of the Russian fleet in recent times, Key acknowledged there may be some catching-up to do with Moscow’s growing submarine threat.
“It’s a future where we will regain and retain operational advantage in the underwater domain,” he said.
Nick Childs, the senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London, said Key’s remarks “underscore the fact there is a huge change program under way in the Royal Navy, including in terms of much-needed new platforms.”
Aside from the Type 31 program led by Babcock at Rosyth, a few miles away on the river Clyde BAE Systems is building the first three of eight planned Type 26 anti-submarine frigates.
A Type 32 frigate fleet is also in the early stages of design. At the moment, the fielding time and number of warships planned is unclear.
The British also have begun looking at design options of a Type 83 destroyer expected to start replacing the Type 45 destroyer in the last 2030s.
Key “acknowledges that it is going to be a challenge delivering on these and the multiple other important capability enhancements that are being promised,” said Childs.
The changes and growth come at a time when maritime power is very much back in fashion.
“I do genuinely believe we’re experiencing a once-in-a-generation moment where the maritime reasserts itself in a position of geopolitical conscience,” Childs said.
Opponents seem to think so, too. Britain’s naval chief flagged growing Russian and Chinese naval strength as causes for concern, and he also added non-state actors as a growing threat due to their increasing access to rapid and freely available technology.
“We need to acknowledge some hard truths. We have to recognize that if we’re not careful, we will lose our operational advantage,” Key warned.
He also warned the scale of the challenge would be too much to handle for Britain alone.
“We’re not going to do it hull for hull, and we’re not going to do it person to person. But we are going to do with allies. We are going to do it by combining the latest technology. We are going to do it by thinking differently,” he said.
One of the areas the British need to fix is the lack of offensive capabilities on a surface fleet which has had to rely on aging Harpoon missiles or helicopter-borne weapons for its surface-to-surface punch.
That appears to be changing. More lethality now appears to be the order of the day.
Key said the Royal Navy needs to be less wedded to defensive systems and much bolder with the transition to effective offensive systems.
Childs reckons at the heart of this is a “broadly acknowledged issue that the balance between defensive and offensive systems in the Royal Navy needs to be addressed, to put the ‘strike’ fully back into RN capabilities, particularly in terms of advanced stand-off weapons.”
“A major part of this conundrum is not just what level of capability to aspire to, but how quickly and how widely can it be introduced,” said Childs.
Said Key: “To quote my predecessor as First Sea Lord and now chief of Defence Staff, the answer for increasing lethality, is ‘not more people or more cash.’”
Instead, he argued, gaining an advantage “is about up-skilling, it’s about changing the way we think about how we move from traditional means to untraditional, new and innovative methods of achieving the effects we want.”
But, whatever the chief of the Defence Staff, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, says about money not being the answer to greater lethality, the changes will come at a price.
The British defense budget has seen a big hike recently, but resources remain stretched across the military.
Key said to achieve the capability upgrades required the Navy will have to be “willing to dispose of old equipment earlier, and adjusting our programs” to make room for new technology in the fields of hypersonics and directed energy, for example.
That’s a process demonstrated in last year’s integrated review of defense, security and foreign policy where two Type 23 frigates were retired early.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.