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New Money for the Royal Navy: So What?

Professor Greg Kennedy

Director, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies

24 November 2020

The announcement of the biggest investment in the Armed Forces in almost forty years by Prime Minster Boris Johnson has prompted much speculation about what the Royal Navy will be able to do with this new-found largesse. While many knowledgeable observers of the Royal Navy’s financial woes over the years would assume that much of that money will be spent to plug the Navy’s spending black hole, particularly on nuclear propulsion and weapons systems, it appears that this may not immediately be the case.

In terms of pledges so far, there is a stated commitment to improving the diminished surface warfare capability of the Royal Navy Fleet. The orders for eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates appear to be confirmed. The substantial commitment to the desperately needed Future Solid Support ships to enable the Carrier Strike Group to do what a Carrier Strike Group is supposed to do, reinforces the belief that this Government is dedicated to producing a viable, visible and capable Carrier Strike capability that has global reach and is sustainable.

Other plans involve, investing in enough F-35 Lightning aircraft to make the Carrier Strike Group credible, as opposed to ceremonial, which is the case now. Investing in organic air to air refueling capability, such as the V-22 Osprey Aerial Refueling variant, to ensure the F-35s have the full range of tactical capabilities expected of them in the Strike role by not only the Royal Navy but allied powers including the United States, also figure as important considerations in the ensuing dash for cash.

This increase in spending can support overseas basing, to boost the hard power element of a Global Britain, and help regenerate the Covid-ravaged domestic economy. This in turn fits in with the overall strategic needs of the Government to support trade, and economic and fiscal growth through various forms of signalling, alliance reassuring and cash injections into high-skill job sectors.

This extra funding for the Navy will, therefore, enable both domestic and external strategic requirements for stability, confidence and resilience to be achieved. What is less well-known is what the mysterious investment in Type 32 war ships is about. Without confirmed sources of information to work from, there is still the opportunity to make some informed deductions about this mystery programme. Despite it being designated with a Type number and being referred to as a frigate, it is unlikely that what will be produced will actually be a frigate in reality. So it will be a frigate that is not a frigate.

The Type 31 was an export model warship that was to re-energise Great Britain’s warship exporting market, but was never a very popular item for many in the Royal Navy’s surface warfare club due to its limited technological and performance capabilities. So it is unlikely to be invested in as a Batch 2 or derivative version with the new funding. As the Type 26 has proven to be a more popular version in the export market, there is little need to continue to pour more money into the Type 31 concept and platform. What is more likely is that the Type 32 will be an 'innovation show piece', somewhere along the Littoral Combat Ship or Future Surface Combatant idea, incorporating Stealth technologies and other cutting-edge innovation features.

This also speaks to the Navy’s stated desire to work more closely with the United States Navy in future design and procurement, making interchangeability a key element moving forward for that relationship. The Type 32 would also serve that purpose, thereby giving a critical reality to the signalling of the intimate nature of these two Navies' strategic relations to both their respective domestic audiences, allies and potential opponents. The impact of the money should, therefore, be seen not just in terms of hulls and kit procured, but also the domestic and external strategic objectives to be achieved.

Nonetheless, the investment promised by the Government is vital in boosting the most critical element of the UK’s Armed Forces for Great Britain’s future prosperity and global security standing, the Royal Navy. As a consequence, it will be better prepared to help deliver a complex mix of strategic and operational effects that are required to rebuild Great Britain’s post-Covid, post-BREXIT economic and international standing.

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Greg Kennedy

Greg Kennedy

Professor of Strategic Foreign Policy

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