- The UK plans boost to its naval fleet with 13 new frigates and four ballistic-missile submarines
- Aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth returning home after strike group deployment in Indo-Pacific.
- The new ships, new weapons, and new missions are part of the plan to be a “Global Britain.”
The UK Royal Navy is undergoing its biggest revamp in a generation. But its new First Sea Lord Vice-Adm. Sir Ben Key will have his work cut out as the country aims to boost its sea power.
Key took the helm of the 30,000-sailor Royal Navy last month, after overseeing the UK’s evacuation effort in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban’s quick military victory over Kabul’s government in August.
New additions to the fleet include five Type 31 frigates, eight Type 26 “submarine hunters” and a four Dreadnought class ballistic submarines, named after the famous World War I battleship. One will be called HMS Dreadnought and the others will be named King George VI, Valiant and Warspite.
These come in addition to two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s largest warship, and HMS Prince of Wales.
The groundwork for the fleet’s modernisation had been laid by Key’s predecessor, Adm. Tony Radakin, who is to become the next chief of the defence staff.
Radakin had pushed hard to speed up procurement procedures and harness the use of artificial intelligence in defence systems. This came amid the recent overhaul of the UK’s defence policy.
But with the Dreadnought project not due for delivery until the 2030s, and the frigates still being built, new security challenges, along with post-Brexit global ambitions, could still see the Royal Navy spread too thin.
“The Royal Navy is in better shape than 10 years ago with two large aircraft carriers, but in the short-term, we are overstretched,” said Pete Sandeman, naval analyst and director of the website Navy Lookout.
“There is a lot of talk about the Indo-Pacific tilt, but we are still up to our neck with the Russians.”
The UK government published its post-Brexit defence strategy, the “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy: Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” last March.
Billed as the biggest review of the UK’s defence and security since the end of the Cold War, it set out the UK’s approach to the expected challenges of the next decade.
The Royal Navy hailed the new strategy as meaning “new ships, more ships, new weapons, new technologies, new missions” to meet the ambitions of “Global Britain.”
The review, however, only named Russia as a specific threat to the UK, disappointing some China hawks in the government who would like to see a stronger British maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
“It was clear about national priorities and regional resource allocation which helps planning — in terms of delivering a joint integrated coherence — it moved strategic thinking forward on those points,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute and an expert in sea power.
It did however describe a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific.” The first deployment of the roughly £3 billion (US$4 billion) HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its strike group to the region this summer was designed to send a strong diplomatic signal of the UK government’s intent. HMS Prince of Wales is also due to become fully operational by next year.
In September, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace officially cut the first steel for the HMS Venturer, the first of five Type 31 frigates to be built in Scotland at a cost of £250 million per vessel. The frigates will serve to detect illegal activities at sea, gather intelligence and provide humanitarian aid, the UK government said.
A month later, the Royal Navy revealed that the first of eight Type 26 frigates, HMS Glasgow, being built in the city of its name, was sufficiently ready to start assigning sailors. The frigates are being billed as the world’s most advanced submarine hunters.
Earlier this month, another £100 million maritime electronic warfare upgrade was announced to boost the navy’s defences as Russia develops more effective electronic weaponry.
Indeed, growing tensions with Russia, from Moscow’s support for Belarus, Russian troop build-up near Ukraine’s border and its 2014 annexing of Crimea, are among top concerns for the UK and Nato.
In June, the UK’s HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer equipped with anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons, undertook a freedom of navigation patrol in the Black Sea, near Crimea. Russia claimed to have fired warning shots near the ship.
The UK said its ship was making innocent passage through Ukraine’s territorial waters.
However, a few days after the incident, secret documents relating to the HMS Defender’s passage were discovered at a bus stop in Kent that apparently revealed the Royal Navy’s plan to test Russia’s reaction.
HMS Defender then sailed to the Philippine Sea, where it joined HMS Queen Elizabeth and its F-35B fighter jets, along with a Dutch frigate and a US destroyer.
—Royal Navy (@RoyalNavy) June 29, 2021
Despite the hype, the Royal Navy strike group’s maiden deployment, which included passage through the South China Sea, occurred without incident.
That was until Wednesday, when one of the carrier’s US$135 million F-35B jets crashed in the Mediterranean Sea during a routine operation on the ship’s return voyage. The pilot ejected safely.
In an interview with Sky News earlier this month, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commanding officer of the UK Carrier Strike Group, said the frigates and helicopters operating with HMS Queen Elizabeth were able to locate Chinese submarines, allowing the UK’s largest warship to steer clear.
“In that sort of cat-and-mouse type game, I am absolutely clear they are turning away at ranges where they are probably using us to facilitate their own training in the same way that we would do it towards them. So it wasn’t causing us a concern,” he said.
The carrier then engaged in a string of multinational exercises, clearly aimed at Beijing — including one with the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Sandeman said despite reports of leaking, the ship has proved remarkably reliable, although it doesn’t yet have enough of its own F-35B jets and is reliant on the United States.
“It’s a good sign we can integrate them (the US jets), but it’s taking a long time to build our own,” he said.
The UK plans to have 48 of the jets by 2025. It had 24 F-35Bs before Wednesday’s crash.
Two offshore patrol ships, HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, left the UK in September on a five-year mission and are now in Hawaii heading out to the Indo-Pacific region where they are expected to venture as far north as the Bering Sea and as far south as New Zealand.
—Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (@smrmoorhouse) November 13, 2021
These ships are more designed to be the UK and Nato’s eyes and ears in the region, designed not for conflict but for anti-narcotic and anti-piracy activities.
“They would not be competent against the Chinese navy by any means,” Kaushal said.
“They can also advise and assist missions but it’s not committing the navy’s higher standard vessels to the region.”
Kaushal said the UK’s naval strategy was more to assist its allies with technological backup, such as the nuclear-powered submarines being built for Australia as part of the new Aukus defence alliance that’s seen as an attempt to contain China.
Even if China was to invade Taiwan, he said it was unlikely the Royal Navy would get involved.
“I don’t imagine us getting involved if Taiwan were to become a hot war.”
“One, the US has no commitment to do so, and second the Royal Navy is not really trained for a Taiwan Strait crisis. I don’t doubt it would support the US diplomatically and financially. But I don’t think it will become a belligerent force.”