Friday, 30 June 2017

Outlook for the Royal Navy in the wake of the 2017 general election

The uninspiring and complacent election campaign run by Theresa May and the Conservative party delivered something of a shock result. Universally expected to increase their number of seats, the Tories lost their Parliamentary majority and are now forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to remain in power.

As expected, defence issues got little attention in the election. Even in the wake of the London Bridge and Manchester terrorist attacks, internal security issues seemed to create little public and media discussion. The main public debate on defence, prior to the election was held at RUSI on 22nd May and was not even attended by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. It was obvious that most of the audience and journalists attending the debate were far better informed on the issues than the floundering politicians on the panel.

Brexit and political uncertainty ahead

The election result leaves a Prime Minister with her authority badly undermined. Only the risk of letting Corbyn into power is preventing the Tories holding a leadership contest at this juncture. After interminable election speeches about “strong and stable government” we have the exact opposite, a situation that impedes prompt decision making and firm action, something that is urgently needed at the MoD. The pressures of Brexit, Tory leadership problems, conflict with the DUP coalition or inadequate working majority could all result in a government collapse. A very unpopular new general election in the coming months could be the result, or a Labour/SNP minority coalition government could be waiting in the wings which would, of course, be very bad news for the RN.

There has been some suggestion that political pressure will force Theresa May to abandon the policies of austerity and debt reduction and put more money into public services. Defence will likely be at the back of the queue should any new money be forthcoming. Assuming the Tories are able to remain in power, we can look forward to them mostly saying the right things, while continuing to underfund and defence with more of the inevitable hollowing-out of capability that results.

It is interesting to note that in the constituencies where the RN has its English bases, the incumbent MP was replaced. Tory Oliver Colville lost to Labour’s Luke Pollard in Plymouth Devonport. Tory Flick Drummond lost to Labour’s Stephen Morgan in Portsmouth South. The SNP’s spokesman on defence, Brendan O Hara, who is MP for the Faslane area had his majority slashed from 8,473 to just 1,328. SNP influence at Westminster was significantly curtailed as Scottish votes moved to the Tories. The Scottish public has grown heartily sick of the SNP’s relentless push for a second independence referendum while failing to address issues they already have responsibility for. This threat to the Union, damage to UK defence and the RN particular, seems to have been averted for now.

Despite Labour losing its third election in a row and having 56 seats less that the Tories, Corbyn’s surprise improvement has even seen hard left elements claiming he should be Prime Minister. There is undoubtedly a renewed vigour within so-called progressive or left-wing politics in the UK and the Conservatives will need to offer a much more positive vision if they are to win the next election. Many more moderate elements of the Labour party are supportive of the navy’s case and assure us they remain committed to Trident. After Corbyn finished promising free stuff to his adoring fans at the Glastonbury Festival (on Armed Forces Day), he reportedly said he “expects to be Prime Minister in six months” and would “scrap Trident as soon as he could”. It is difficult to predict how damaging a Corbyn government could be. The cabinet might consist of an anti-forces, anti-Trident, anti-NATO Marxist clique but the majority of moderate Labour MPs would probably obstruct the more extreme measures. The influence of the trade unions would also be a factor in ensuring naval construction programmes are kept on track.

The DUP – strong on defence

The social policies of the DUP and their links with Ulster Unionist militant groups will keep the party at the centre of controversy. They will be particularly hated by the hard left and Corbyn with his IRA sympathies. Conversely, the DUP is likely to make every effort to keep Tories in power and Corbyn out. Those concerned about defence may have cause to be grateful the DUP has significant influence in government. Of all the party manifestos, theirs offered the best vision and assessment the situation.

“The DUP does not believe that present defence arrangements are adequate enough to cope with the emerging threats in the 21st Century.”

The DUP are firmly behind Trident and NATO, are publicly willing to identify the threat from Russia and understand we can no longer rely so heavily on the United States for our security. They believe another defence review should be conducted which would be “honest about the nature of the threats we face and the consequences of failing to deal with them. Only then can we make the difficult choices about capability and affordability”. It would seem that is there is a “party of defence” then it is the DUP, and the whole of the UK could benefit if they are able to stiffen Tory resolve on this issue.

Getting the frigate programme underway

The Navy board can enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction that HMS Queen Elizabeth successfully put to sea and is beginning the long journey to restoring UK carrier capability. Looking ahead, getting the frigate programme on track must be an immediate concern. Harriet Baldwin, the defence procurement Minister, has indicated the order for first three Type 26 Frigates will be placed before Parliament closes for summer recess on July 20th. The announcement that steel for the first ship has been cut at BAE Systems on the Clyde is expected any day now. The Tory manifesto actually committed the government to a National Shipbuilding Strategy, which is critical to the future Type 31 frigate programme. An announcement on whether the government will fully implement the recommendations of Sir John Parker’s report is eagerly awaited.

For now, it appears it will be business as usual at the MoD. Michael Fallon remains in post and the previously announced procurement programme is officially unchanged. Unfortunately, financial reality is going to catch up with these promises soon. The £10 billion shortfall in MoD funding identified by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee before the election is actually worse than it appears. The MoD’s Senior Civil Servant, Stephen Lovegrove speaking on 27th June talked of £20 Billion of “efficiency savings” the department must find over the next 10 years. The MoD claim this alarming figure is nothing new, but part of their previously agreed framework. Some of the measures to find this money are already in hand, such as the rationalisation of the defence estate which will see the closure of HMS Sultan and RM Stonehouse. Only if Theresa May’s election promise that “defence spending will rise 0.5% every year until 2022” is honoured, will there be any hope of mitigating the devastating effects of this shortfall. The extent of economic turbulence in the wake of Brexit is also a considerable unknown and the outlook for investment in the RN for the medium to long-term is uncertain. What we can be assured of, is that Britain will need its navy more than ever as it cements its new position in an unstable world.


from Save the Royal Navy

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Story of the British Army’s Medium Weight Capability – Crowdsourcing

The last of the long form content articles on Think Defence to get a makeover is the story of ‘Scimitar to FRES to Ajax’ Have decided to broaden the scope to the struggle of the British Army to deliver a medium weight capability, normally, I would just get on with researching and writing, and publish ...

The post The Story of the British Army’s Medium Weight Capability – Crowdsourcing appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Monday, 26 June 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth sails for the first time today. Here’s the plan.

Today at between 14.30 – 15.00, HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to cast off lines ready to depart from the fitting out berth in Rosyth Dockyard to begin sea trials. Taking the ship out of the basin and down the river Forth will be a complex and delicate evolution.

Before HMS Queen Elizabeth can put to sea, she has to have a certificate of seaworthiness. This is a basic safety requirement and ensures the hull is watertight and the propulsion and steering are functioning correctly. Although she has extensive automated centralised safety systems, fire-fighting, escape and lifesaving equipment must all be inspected and proved to be working correctly. The scale of the ship makes such tasks a considerable job, for example, there are 750 watertight doors on the ship, each requiring 3-4 man hours of testing. Checks to obtain sign off on this important paperwork have continued right up to the last minute before sailing. Some parts of the ship were constructed almost 8 years ago (in separate blocks around the UK, before arriving for assembly in Rosyth). For the past weeks, the ship has been a hive of activity as everything is re-checked and tested. Finally, before departure, temporary services such a ventilation, power supplies and lighting used by the building contractors must all be removed along with waste materials, scaffolding and tools.

Through the eye of the needle

A simple simulation showing the approximate plan for departure.

To leave the fitting out basin, the ship must be swung around using tugs and then carefully towed out through the very narrow tidal lock. A high tide is required to give the ship maximum clearance over the lock gates. There will just 50cm between the keel and the gates. This operation will be challenging, has extremely fine tolerances can only be conducted in light winds. The main hull of the QE will fit through the lock with a tiny clearance of just 35cm on either side. The blocks used to build the ship were floated in through this lock but the completed vessel is of course, much longer, heavier and has very large overhanging decks. The operation will call for the use of 11 tugs and considerable time has been spent planning the evolution and rehearsing in a simulator.

Ducking under the bridges

Once out of the basin the ship will go to anchor for several hours, awaiting low tide (just before midnight) which is needed to pass safely under the bridges. She will proceed at no more than 4 knots, any faster and suction effect pulls the ship toward the riverbed, a shallow water phenomenon known as ‘squat’. An extensive survey effort to determine the clearance under the bridges and depth of water has been conducted by an Army and Naval Hydrographic team. (You can read about it in more detail here). Modern laser range-finding methods have been double checked by the captain himself using his own sextant (patented in 1845).

Both road bridge decks flex in the wind and can move up or down by as much as 3 meters, depending on the wind strength and loads. The surveys concluded there is about 2 meters clearance between the highest fixed point on the ship (the main Type 1046 air search radar) and the road bridge decks at low tide. Once past the bridges, QE will anchor downriver in Kirkcaldy Bay for a time. As is standard with all new ships, various checks will be conducted to see how the ship has flexed or settled after being in open water for the first time. The process from leaving the fitting out basin, to anchoring off Kircaldy will take more than 10 hours.

HMS Queen Elizabeth Mast Pivot

The pole mast that carries communication aerials on the aft island was designed with bridges in mind. It is hinged so it can be tilted forward 60ยบ by hydraulic rams.

The narrow lock that the ship must traverse to leave the basin at Rosyth.

The view from basin, looking South East down the Forth estuary towards the three bridges the ship must pass beneath.

Initial sea trials

HMS Queen Elizabeth is not yet commissioned into the Royal Navy, remains the property of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance flying the Blue Ensign until it is agreed she meets specification and is formally handed over. Captain Jerry Kyd has responsibility for the ship but must operate under the direction of the sea trials manager appointed by the builder. The initial trials will be conducted in two phases in the North Sea, mostly between the Moray Firth and Fair Isle. Phase 1 is expected to take around 6 weeks and will concentrate on proving the propulsion, power and auxiliary systems. The ship needs sea room for full power trials and will also be conveniently out of the public gaze, allowing the MoD to control information about her progress.

Another significant milestone will be achieved when the first aircraft to lands on the carrier. A Merlin Mk2 of 820 Naval Air Squadron have this honour, around 4 days after QE puts to sea and will provide the first opportunity to conduct personnel and stores transfers.

When complete, the ship will come alongside in Rosyth for the builders to rectify any issues discovered during trials. Assuming this only takes a few days, QE will depart again for Phase 2, which will focus on proving mission systems, radars and communications. Expected to take around 5 weeks, when phase 2 is complete QE will then set course for Portsmouth to make her grand entrance into her homeport for the first time. The dredging work and construction of the new Princess Royal Jetty is now complete and Portsmouth Naval Base is ready to receive the ship.

The sea trials plan is ‘subject to change’

The ship is essentially a prototype design and going to sea will inevitably throw up a few unexpected issues. The discovery of defects, or perhaps even fewer defects than expected, may result in changes to the program. However, if QE is able to keep to this approximate schedule then she would be expected in Portsmouth in late September or early October. It should be noted the project still remains well on schedule to meet the agreed target of delivering the ship to the RN by the end of 2017

Once home, QE is expected to remain in Portsmouth for around 8 weeks for further defect rectification. It is planned to conduct heavy weather trials in the North Atlantic in the first quarter of 2018 and HMS Queen Elizabeth should achieve Initial Operating Capability by the end of 2020. For more detail on the long-term plans, see the infographic – Timeline for delivering carrier strike


Last time it was done – from the BBC archive, HMS Ark Royal on sea trials in the North Sea, 1985.


from Save the Royal Navy

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Up close with HMS Queen Elizabeth

In this photo-essay, we go aboard the largest warship ever constructed for the Royal Navy as she prepared to leave Rosyth to put to sea for the first time. This is not an exhaustive tour (the ship is made up of over 3,000 compartments) but gives an overview of some key features.

The scale of HMS Queen Elizabeth is obvious as you approach the vessel, but upon stepping aboard, the feeling of size and spaciousness is magnified by the unusually wide and high passageways around the ship. The immediate impression is that she is quite unlike HMS Ocean or her Invincible class predecessors and is very much a ship of the 21st Century. It is clear she is robustly constructed, designed to survive action damage and serve the nation for up to 50 years. Strength, safety and survivability are obvious from the equipment fit, heavy watertight doors and subdivision and designed to mitigate against fire, flood and blast.

Many critics have asked why build such big ships? Not only does this make aircraft operations easier, but spare capacity will allow for easier upgrading to support new generations of aircraft and UAVs in the coming decades. In extremis, large numbers of extra personnel and stores could be embarked.

Great consideration has been given to ergonomics and accessibility to minimise the overall manpower requirements and workload on the crew. For example in older vessels, storing the ship for sea would require most of the ship’s company to form a chain, manually pass boxes and strike them down into storerooms. On the QE, store ship can be done in a harbour with around 20 people thanks to automated lifts and carefully planned access routes. (Additional seamen would be required when conducting a replenishment at sea). Another example is the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (HMWHS) that moves ammunition around the ship and requires only around 30 people to operate.

Hangar and Lifts

The ship has been designed from the outset to embark four squadrons of aircraft. Initially, there will be helicopter squadrons and then a single F-35 squadron. It will be well into the 2030s before the UK has enough F-35s to embark two squadrons (of approximately 12-aircraft each). US Marine Corps aircraft are likely to be frequent visitors and may even embark a full squadron at times. The air management organisation (on 2 deck aft), provides each of the four aircraft squadrons with their own spacious offices and mission planning spaces. There is also a large group briefing room/lecture theatre. The movement of aircrew from their accommodation to briefing rooms and on to their aircraft has been carefully designed to be as quick and easy as possible, in contrast to older carriers.

Control positions

Spacing out the main machinery into two almost separate systems is the primary reason for the unique twin-island design of the QE. This separation requires funnel uptakes that are a distance away from each other. This arrangement makes the ship’s propulsion particularly resistant to action damage. The Flyco is now entirely separate from the bridge and this will take some adjustment for experienced carrier operators who are used to having flying control team close to the navigation team. This also offers additional redundancy, as the aft island could act as an emergency conning position or forward island as Flyco if the other is damaged.

As currently configured, QE has 6 aircraft operating spots (this could be increased if needed in future). With around 45 meters between each spot, this provides a large safety margin. There 3 areas of the flight deck that have been coated with TMS (Thermal Metal Spray). This coating prevents damage to the steel deck plates from the fierce heat of the F-35B jetwash, when landing vertically and conducts the heat away, preventing damage to aircraft tyres.

The F-35 is coated with radar absorbent material which is relatively fragile. The aircraft must be handled more carefully than older generation jets. Some critics have suggested it will degrade rapidly in the harsh marine environment (it is reportedly standing up well to harsh desert wind and sand in the US). The flight deck has blue markings down the aft port side where F-35s can be parked overhanging the deck, although they will be probably kept down in the hangar as much as possible. When on the flight deck, it is planned helicopters will usually be parked on the starboard side, clustered around the islands.

QE is designed to operate up to 40 aircraft in her main Carrier Strike role. When operating in the Littoral Manoeuvre role she can embark a maximum of 43 helicopters. It should be noted that it will be some years before the UK has enough aircraft to send to sea in these numbers. The mix of aircraft types embarked will vary depending on the mission and availability – this is the concept is known as the Tailored Air Group.

Living on board

Without the air group or an embarked military force, the regular ship’s company now amounts to more than 700, of which around 100 are officers. There appears to already have been a small rise in the number of personnel required, beyond the original target of 679. Delivering such a high-profile project as the QE class aircraft carriers in a glare of publicity demands the RN get it absolutely right. Particularly at senior levels, many of those appointed to serve on the QE represent the cream of the RN surface fleet. There is considerable accumulated naval experience and for some this represents the culmination of their career and ambitions. For a few, QE will be their first experience of going to sea, sailors ages range from as young as 17 right up to 58 year old veterans. During this tour the ship was buzzing with activity but talking to members of the ship’s company both junior and senior, there is an assuring sense of calm professionalism and pride.

The crew have been living on board for over a month and this helps build team spirit and an emotional attachment to the ship. The Commanding Officer, Captain Jerry Kyd must establish a positive ethos and reputation that will lay the foundation for potentially 50 years of service to the nation. After completion of the ‘fast cruise’ in early June, the ship’s company continued to conduct drills and tests to build confidence before sailing, even as civilian contractors completed the final work on the ship.

The ship must become a home before it is a warship and the accommodation standards are the best in the Navy. Building on the pattern set by the Type 45 destroyers, junior rates have 6 berth cabins with bunks that are 3 ft wide, an improvement on the narrow beds fitted on older ships. The large single mess squares adopted on the Type 45 destroyers have been adapted slightly as some feel this can be a little impersonal. The junior rates messes on QE are divided into smaller communal areas for relaxing. Good accommodation is an important factor in efficiency and morale. It also aids retention of sailors in a navy short of people, competing with comfortable civilian jobs ashore.

More images at large size available here:

Photo tour

All photos ©copyright 2017.


from Save the Royal Navy

Defence Studies Talk Series

Thought I would use Think Defence for some actual good for once, not just indulging in my bridge and container fetish. Paul Barnes is a serving Warrant Officer in the British Army, highly educated, and one of the few serving soldiers I know that writes on his own blog. Paul has been on a quest ...

The post Defence Studies Talk Series appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

HMS Queen Elizabeth gets ready for departure from Rosyth

HMS Queen Elizabeth is now very close to being ready to leave the fitting out basin in Rosyth for around 10 weeks of sea trials. 

Living on board

The Ship Staff Move on Board (SSMOB) date was achieved on 26th May and her crew have moved from shoreside accommodation are now living on the ship. Living on board allows the ship’s company to become familiar with their new home, socialise together in the mess, personalise cabins and make the living spaces their own. The forward part of the ship is now in full use and comprises of; The forward galley – one of five galleys on board, six chefs serve daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners to the 700 men and women of the Ship’s Company. Medical Complex– or ‘sick bay’ will provide routine patient consultations and clinics, as well as urgent medical treatment, minor operations and dentistry. Living Quarters – The QE class carriers have modern, comfortable accommodation with 1,600 bunks in 470 cabins. Each member of Ship’s Company will be able to use the state of the art facilities on board including a cinema and fitness suite with personnel also having access to e-mail and the internet.

Sailing when conditions are right

The Navy and government is understandably keen to announce the date she will sail, as soon as it is known (after the election). The Aircraft Carrier Alliance who remain the owners of the ship are however, less comfortable to commit publicly to a date. The first possible tidal window when the ship could leave some time between 21st and 24th June but departure at that time is not certain. The weather and especially the wind conditions, will probably be a deciding factor. The decision to sail may only be announced at quite late notice. Media speculation and interest will be considerable and there is pressure to get the ship to sea as soon as possible. However wise heads will ensure it is done safely and at the right moment, even if this means delaying until the next tidal window.

Before any new or recently refitted ship goes to sea, the crew usually conduct a ‘fast cruise’ alongside where everything is operated and tested as if the ship was at sea. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s fast cruise is expected to be run for around 10 days in early June.

No there is not a “morale crisis”

On 6th June The Portsmouth News published an article that claimed that morale on board “was at an all time low” and 21 “depressed” sailors from the ship had “resigned in one week”. One would expect the local paper to be enthusiastically supporting carriers which are of such importance to the city, rather than publishing sensationalist and inaccurate gossip that is detrimental to the reputation of the navy and its centrepiece project.

While some sailors will have resigned while the ship has been alongside, it takes around a year for them to leave and the numbers leaving are below the 4.7% average VO (Voluntary Outflow) across the fleet as a whole. It is true the RN does have a shortage of manpower and the carriers are part of the issue but a lack of manpower will not prevent the sailing and commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Her Captain Jerry Kyd should be congratulated for maintaining high morale of the crew working on a ship during its construction, mostly living away from their families in Scotland for an extended period. There is of course, considerable anticipation amongst the ship’s company as the time for her go to sea gets closer, resignations are very unlikely to increase in the near future.

Latest imagery

This video from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance shows the ship’s company moving on board.


The flight deck finally emerges from the scafolding and painting tents

A rating inspects her bunk space for the first time

Looking forward to going to sea on the Royal Navy’s Largest ever ship


from Save the Royal Navy

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Think Defence – June 2017 Update

To repeat myself from earlier updates, Think Defence was never going away, but it was changing, so stopping short blog posts and concentrating on the longer form content was that change. The first part of that change has now more or less completed; the old long form content has either been refreshed and updated, or ...

The post Think Defence – June 2017 Update appeared first on Think Defence.

from Think Defence

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Should the RN consider buying conventional submarines, even at the expense of frigates?

The 2015 Defence Review promised the UK would build a new ‘cheaper and simpler’ frigate to complement the more expensive Type 26. This Type 31 frigate offers the attractive possibility that the total number of Royal Navy warships could be increased, albeit after 2030. Threats to surface ships continue to proliferate, adding to the challenge of making the Type 31 a credible warship. Meanwhile, the undeniably potent RN submarine fleet is far too small. Here we ask if the RN should prioritise expanding its submarine force with the same enthusiasm it applies to frigates.

The predominant concern in recent discussions about the strength of the RN has been around the need for more frigates. There is no argument that surface escort numbers are at a very low level indeed. If current programmes run on time, the Royal Navy will need to manage with 19 frigates and destroyers until 2030 at the earliest. We have written previously about the value of investment in capability of OPV’s to ensure warships deploy in combat roles rather than undertake constabulary and humanitarian missions, and this will hold true for at least the next 14 years – retaining Batch 1 OPV’s in service would be helpful in this respect, particularly given incoming pressures on Royal Navy to patrol the UK EEZ post-Brexit.

It is also clear that in the interim, the Royal Navy will need to invest in weapons and emerging technologies to maximise capabilities of Type 45 and Type 23. A replacement for Harpoon, installing Mk 41 VLs on T45 and expanding use of unmanned platforms are medium term aspirations. Beyond that, directed energy weapons, advanced decoys, and torpedo defence measures will be needed for the surface ship to survive in the ever-more demanding naval environment of the future. As ever in discussions about future equipment, ensuring there is sufficient trained manpower available both in the short and long-term is critically important.

Setting aside what happens in the immediate future, the Royal Navy would ideally want to have at least 24 surface combatants to meet standing deployments and provide sufficient numbers to independently sustain a carrier task group without partner nation support. This is still well below the size of the fleets of the past, but there is an acceptance that modern surface combatants have become increasingly expensive to build, and numbers have to be constrained. The French Navy is planning just 15 frigates and destroyers of varying capability as the core of its future surface fleet.

The reasons behind increasing cost are relatively clear – the modern frigate needs to have a broad spectrum of offensive capability, as well as being able to self-protect against sophisticated electronic and cyber warfare, complex anti-shipping missiles (including hypersonic and potentially ballistic weapons) and the enduring threat of the submarine. In a future conflict, the absence of any these capabilities will leave any surface combatant extremely vulnerable.

Speaking up for the silent service

Lurking on the margins of the debate about surface combatant numbers is the painful truth that the surface fleet is fairing relatively well compared to the submarine service. Whilst the Astute class submarines entering into service are extremely capable, only seven are planned and these will be spread thin especially when assigned to support future carrier task group operations, conduct independent patrols and protect the deterrent submarines. Procuring additional SSN’s seems unlikely, not least because they are ferociously expensive. The latest boat, HMS Audacious is priced at a staggering £1,492m.

There are alternatives. The development of advanced diesel-electric hunter-killer submarines (SSK) such as the German Type 212 enables extended periods of submersion of up to three weeks. Battery technology continues to improve it could even supplant the complex Air Independent Propulsion(AIP) systems currently required. Whilst lacking the global reach of an SSN, at around £500 million the initial outlay is marginally more than the likely cost of a Type 31 frigate, but with much lower through-life costs, with a typical complement of 30, compared with around 100+ for a frigate.

Although more limited in some aspects of capability than a frigate modern SSK’s enjoy a number of advantages over surface combatants not least that they are extremely hard to detect and as a result very hard to destroy. They have also proven highly effective – in an exercise in 2013 the U-32 eluded the entire anti-submarine warfare capability of a US carrier group and succeeded in firing dummy torpedoes, effectively sinking the carrier.

As a result SSK’s continue to pose a threat to opposing naval forces which need to commit significant resources to anti-submarine warfare, and are increasingly capable of deploying a broader range of technologies including mast mounted UAV’s, guns (for patrol or constabulary duties), alongside anti-shipping, surface to air and land attack missiles. Smaller and more agile, SSK ideally suited for operations in shallower littoral waters – close into shore to deploy special forces, or in the Gulf, for example – where SSN’s may be less effective. For the RN, a small fleet of SSKs would be invaluable for operations around the UK and in European waters, providing the first line of defence against foreign submarines, providing a step-change in UK ASW capability. More boats would reduce the enormous pressure on the undersized submarine force and release the SSNs for global deployment. Small conventional boats are far better suited for training, particularly for officers to gain command experience before graduating to the SSNs and SSBNs. At present, the RN must either conduct training using its precious and very expensive SSNs or rely on sending personnel to train on allied submarines. The surface fleet would also benefit from greater ASW training opportunities and a different kind of opponent.

Constraints on submarine construction capacity

The Barrow shipyard, the UK’s only submarine construction facility, will be busy completing Astutes and then Dreadnought SSBN orders into the late 2030’s. Delays in Dreadnought procurement mean that some of the Astute SSN’s currently entering service may need to be decommissioned before manufacturing capability is free to build their replacement. Assuming the Astute boats do not need mid-life reactor refuelling, as was the intention at the start of the project, HMS Astute’s reactor will reach the end of its life and she will need replacing by the next generation SSN by 2035 at the latest.

Including an advanced SSK building programme in the National Ship Building Strategy for the 2030’s onwards could deliver continuity in submarine design capability beyond completion of the Dreadnought programme and provide a bridge in manufacturing and capability until the Astute replacement is available.

The SSNs must remain the RN’s priority but design and procurement for SSKs would need to start sometime around 2022 and could help to significantly de-risk pressures on the Astute replacement, as well as offering a much-needed boost in submarine numbers from 2030 onwards. Expanding manufacturing capability to build smaller non-nuclear submarines also appears a more affordable option than significantly increasing the rate of SSN construction and could one day offer export potential.

Royal Navy Submarine construction Schedule

The infographic above illustrates the approximate decommissioning, construction and replacement schedule for the Royal Navy’s submarines (Click here for larger version), together with a proposal to acquire SSKs.

The funding the build-up of additional skilled manpower together with expanded facilities to build conventional submarines in the UK would be a very significant challenge. Although potentially politically unattractive, purchasing the hulls and propulsions systems directly ‘off the shelf’, constructed in Germany which has years of specialist SSK design & manufacturing experience, would be a considerably quicker and cheaper alternative. (France, Sweden and Japan also have SSK design and build capability that could be considered). This would go aginst the long-standing government policy of not building fighting vessels abroad but they could at least be fitted out in the UK with RN standard weapons and electronics. Alternatively, an existing SSK design could be licenced from abroad and technical experts brought to the UK to assist with the project.

Choices, choices…

Any expansion in RN warship numbers is a long way off, and sustaining or improving the capability of current and planned vessels, and supporting the necessary manpower to make them useful must remain a priority.

Looking beyond 2030, the Royal Navy needs to ensure the best balance in terms of overall capability to project power and defend the UK’s interests at sea. Frigates will remain essential for sea control purposes and as escorts for capital ships, but ‘wont of frigates’ must not be the only consideration in deciding on the overall shape of the fleet.

If the Royal Navy can cope with 19 surface combatants over the next 13 years (which it will have to do in even the best-case ship building scenario) it may do well to consider investing more heavily in expanding the submarine service which offers a different but equally effective way to project power. A mixed hunter-killer fleet of twelve or more SSN and SSK, alongside around twenty frigates and destroyers, looks a far more balanced proposition, and potentially better value for money, than increasing frigate numbers alone.

The benefits of additional submarines are considerable. Even if some funds were diverted from frigate construction, it should be recognised that building, manning and generating a new infrastructure to support advanced SSKs presents a difficult, but not insurmountable task that would need considerable political backing.

Thanks for John Dunbar for the major contribution to this article


from Save the Royal Navy