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“We’re going to need a bigger Navy”

14 December 2021

The Defence Committee publishes its report “We’re going to need a bigger Navy” following the Committee’s inquiry into The Navy: purpose and procurement.

The report finds that the next decade is one of significant risk for the Royal Navy's fleet, and one in which the UK and the Navy will face an increasingly complex international security environment.

The Committee finds that Royal Navy remains one of the most capable forces in the world and that it will be expected to take on increased responsibilities as it becomes the Government’s “tool of choice” to deliver its strategy of persistent engagement.

However, successive governments’ “failure to fund the ha'porth of tar the Royal Navy needs has literally spoiled the ships”. The fleet will continue to suffer from well documented problems with several key assets for at least the next few years:

  • Delays to crucial procurement programmes mean that old ships are becoming increasingly challenging to maintain and spend too long unavailable for operations.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • “When ships do get to sea they act like porcupines - well defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities”. 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.
  • Three important vessels - RFA Argus, RFA Fort Victoria and HMS Scott - will also retire without replacements: the Navy will likely lose its current ability to provide medical care, replenish vessels at sea, and monitor the sea bed.
  • The fleet is increasingly reliant on allies for many capabilities, with a limited scope to act independently, and the Government needs to do more at the political level to ensure this support will be provided when needed.

You wait six years for a new warship then three come along at once

The report finds that in 2027-28 the Navy plans to introduce three new classes of vessels (Type 26 frigates, Type 31 frigates and Fleet Solid Support ships) simultaneously. 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 Ministry of Defence's track record on delivery is far from good.

On Watch

The Committee calls for better scrutiny to ensure vessels are delivered on time. It calls for the Government to report annually to Parliament on the availability of vessels, its shipbuilding plans, and the progress of five key programmes: the construction of the Type 26 and Type 31 class frigates and the Astute and Dreadnought class submarines, and the Power Improvement Project to fix engine issues in the Type 45 destroyers.

Not enough small ships or submarines

The report finds that the Navy cannot fulfil the full ambition of the Integrated Review with its current fleet. The report calls for the escort fleet to double by acquiring more low-end capability to carry out low-end tasks, and for the Government to increase the size of the attack submarine fleet.

Supporting British Shipbuilding

The Committee finds that to deliver these new ships, the UK requires a strong domestic shipbuilding industry. It calls for the planned refresh of the National Shipbuilding Strategy to finally take on board the consistent recommendations the Government has been given over the last fifteen years: provide a steady pipeline of work for British shipyards, prioritise building vessels in the UK, work collaboratively with industry, promote exports, and actively intervene to support the modernisation of shipyards. It emphasises that the Fleet Solid Support ships that are currently being competed must be built quickly in UK shipyards.

Chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, said:

“The Royal Navy has a long and proud history protecting our nation at sea. To maintain our position as one of the leading global navies, the Government must deliver a rapid programme of modernisation and growth.

“The next ten years will prove a test for our naval fleet. The UK 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.

“The timely delivery of these new ships is crucial to plug the hole in our naval capabilities. However, the Ministry of Defence has a poor track record projects like this. We need a firm hand on the tiller to navigate us through the next decade.

“Overall our Navy needs more ships, armed with more lethal weapons and the most up to date technology. We have the shipyards and the knowhow to build them: the Government just needs to place the orders and give UK shipbuilding the commitment and confidence it needs to deliver.

“Of all the Services, the Government is most ambitious for the Navy. However, if the Government does not deliver the ships and capabilities the Navy needs, that ambition will be holed below the waterline.”

Further information

Image: Ministry of Defence/© Crown Copyright 2014/OGL (Open Government License)