Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
There are two big takeaways from HMS Queen Elizabeth’s epic first tour to far east and back. Firstly, the Royal Navy has moved up a gear in its international reach, capability and compatibility in working with likeminded nations.
The second is just how dangerous our world has become – elements of the carrier group were not just pursued but harassed and provoked in international waters. As an island nation, dependent on maritime access for much of our energy and trade requirements, freedom of the high seas is fundamental and needs to be defended.
But as the Defence Select Committee’s inquiry into the UK’s maritime capability spells out, we face an increasingly complex and unstable international security situation, manifesting in the maritime domain with more assertive state adversaries, grey zone warfare and technological risk.
In this environment the Royal Navy is likely to be the Government’s tool of choice to deliver the Integrated Review’s strategy of persistent engagement and competition below the water. We should expect to see more British ships flying the white ensign overseas more often, whether that is visiting allied countries’ ports to strengthen bilateral relationships or performing freedom of movement exercises in maritime choke points to prevent our adversaries gaining uncontested control over international waters.
These plans are ambitious and they will not be easy to deliver, especially in the next five years. Sadly decades of underinvestment have left the fleet reliant on aging vessels like the Type 23 frigates and Trafalgar class submarines that are becoming increasingly challenging and expensive to maintain. It takes too long to rectify major problems and ships are too often unavailable for operations. At one point in July 2021 only one of six Type 45 destroyers was not undergoing maintenance – the programme to fix their propulsion issues will not be complete until 2028. When ships do get to sea, budget cuts have stripped them of their offensive weaponry and left them using deck space and expensive missile tubes to ferry around air.
The situation is unlikely to improve in the short term. The defence budget decreases slightly over the next four years yet it must now cover cyber and space domains as well as the three traditional services.
Consequently this year’s Integrated Review introduced severe cuts to equipment such as reducing the number of F35’s from 138 to 48 and delays replacing our aging surface fleet.
Important capabilities like the anti-ship missile and the vessels that provide medical care, deliver provisions at sea and monitor the seabed for hostile activity will be lost or lacking.
The three new classes of ships coming into service later in the decade 2028 are welcome news. The new vessels should be easier to maintain, and the Navy is planning to kit them out with the modernised lethal missiles they are overdue.
However, completing three shipbuilding projects on schedule and transitioning three classes of vessels at once is a major challenge, and not an area where the Ministry of Defence’s track record is good.
Ultimately, delivering the government’s fresh list of maritime commitments is ambitious.
With 18 frigates and destroyers, six are likely to be in refit, six on training and preparing for duty with six available for tasking. Yet we are now committed to protecting our interests in British waters, the Mediterranean, the Gulf, off East Africa, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Nordic waters and now a tilt to the Indo-Pacific – as well as carrier protection.
Cutting maintenance and upkeep time to make ships more available for operations works well in theory, but in the real world, vessels need repairs and crews need downtime – and the harder you work a ship, the more likely they are to need both. Nor can un-crewed vessels replace ships and sailors for presence missions. No drone can meet with foreign leaders or wave to locals in a foreign port.
Simply put, the Royal Navy needs more ships. In particular, the escort fleet needs to double in size by acquiring more low-end capability to carry out presence operations and other low-end tasks. We also need more attack submarines to reflect the growing importance of the subsurface domain, the last place on the planet where our forces can really hide from an adversary.
These vessels need to be delivered by British shipyards working in collaboration with Government and coordinating with one another. The Government needs to commit to an adequate, long-term pipeline of work that allows industry to invest in the technology and workforce they need. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance shows what can be achieved when Government properly marshals the country’s shipyards and shipbuilding industry in a truly national effort.
Properly investing in our Royal Navy today will help but defend the UK and our allies against a the more dangerous world of tomorrow. It will not only support the Government’s plans to level up the UK by providing investment and skilled work across the country it will also offer the serious hard power that is required if we aspire to, once again, play a more influential role on the international stage.