The Royal Navy in the 21st Century

From Academic Kids

Template:Royal Navy At the beginning of the 1990s, the Royal Navy was a force designed for the Cold War - with its three ASW aircraft carriers and a force of small frigates and destroyers, its purpose was to search for and destroy Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. However, the Falklands War proved a need for the Royal Navy to regain a bluewater capability which, with its resources at the time, would prove difficult. So, over the course of the 1990s, the navy has begun a series of projects designed to bring it into the 21st century.


Major Fleet Units

The most significant source of power projection available to a navy is the aircraft carrier, and in the Royal Navy this is no exception. However, the three ships of the Invincible class are limited in what they can actually do, due not only to their small size, but also to the capabilities of the Sea Harrier. As a consequence, in the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, the British Government announced it would replace the Invincible class with a pair of much larger vessels, in a project that has been designated as 'CVF'. These two ships will displace over 60,000 tonnes and will be some 280m long, making them the largest ever operated by the Royal Navy. They will be STOVL carriers, operating the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, which has been ordered by both the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force to replace the Harrier. It will also operate the Merlin ASW helicopter, and a platform for Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control (MASC), among the contenders for which are a modified version of the Merlin, the E-2 Hawkeye or a modified version of the V-22 Osprey.

Since the mid 1980s, the Royal Navy has been looking at ways of replacing the small and increasingly obsolete Type 42 air defence destroyers, which have been in service since the early 1970s. After two failed collaborative efforts - the NFR-90 project, a joint NATO venture that Britain withdrew from in 1989, and Project Horizon, a scheme in association with France and Italy, which failed in 1999 - the government announced that a new class of destroyer, the Type 45 would replace the Type 42. Type 45 will displace approximately 7,200 tonnes, twice the size of its predecessor, and will be the largest combat ships (except aircraft carriers and amphibious vessels) built since the Tiger class of the mid 1950s. This will provide significantly improved living space for the crew, which will be approximately the same size as the Type 42. For its primary mission, it will be equipped with the PAAMS integrated anti-aircraft system. As with the Type 42, the Type 45 will also have a limited anti-surface/anti-submarine role, being equipped with a 4.5in gun and a helicopter, which will either be Lynx or Merlin. Although as built it will not be fitted with anti-ship or land attack missiles, its size will allow upgrades to be made if required, giving it an enhanced general warfare role.

At present, the majority of the navy's escorts are Type 22 and Type 23 frigates. Although these are capable units, they are, as with the rest of the combat fleet, designed for the Royal Navy's Cold War role. For the bluewater missions they are being asked to perform, they are not as well equipped as they could be, and their small size makes equipment upgrades difficult. Work has therefore begun on Future Surface Combatant (FSC), to replace the Type 22 and 23. At present there are different design proposals being studied, with the most high profile and ambitious being a trimaran hull. To this end, the study vessel Triton was constructed to study the trimaran concept. This has advantages over a conventional monohull, in terms of higher speed through decreased drag, greater stability and surface area on deck. Should the trimaran be unsuccessful, the hull form of the Type 45 could be adapted with an emphasis on general warfare rather than air defence.

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Amphibious Units

In 1990, the Royal Navy's amphibious forces were still centred around the venerable Fearless class LPDs, both of which were commissioned in the 1960s. The end of the Cold War saw a re-evaluation of the navy's amphibious role - not only were replacements for the Fearless class required, but increasingly helicopter assault capabilities were recognised as vital, capabilities which the navy had not had since the 1970s. An unsuccessful attempt to use RFA Argus in this role re-emphasised the need for a specialist vessel, and so HMS Ocean was ordered in 1993. The ship's hull form is based on that of the Invincible class, but she was constructed to commercial specifications and to a modular design (meaning the ship was assembled from pre-constructed blocks). Commissioned in 1998, Ocean is the first purpose built helicopter carrier in the Royal Navy. She has space for an Embarked Military Force (EMF) of up to 800 troops and their associated equipment, or 500 troops plus up to 40 light vehicles and 6 field guns. Her air group is tailored to whichever operational situation is called for, but would typically include up to 12 Sea King transport helicopters, supported by up to 6 Apache battlefield attack helicopters. However, the flight deck is rated to accommodate helicopters the size of Chinook. Troops can also be transported off the ship by one of four LCVPs that are fitted.

In 1996, the Government placed an order for a pair of ships to directly replace HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid; these two ships were given the names HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. In preparation for the entry into service of these two vessels, Fearless was withdrawn in 2002 (Intrepid had been non-operational since 1991), being replaced by Albion in 2003; Bulwark commissioned in 2004. Both ships have an overload capacity of 700 troops, with the standard being just over 300. Up to six Challenger 2 main battle tanks, or 30 smaller tracked vehicles, can be accommodated on the vehicle decks - these can be removed by one of the LCUs located in the stern docking well. This can also accommodate an LCAC. Another four small LCVPs, similar to those carried by Ocean, are also carried, and there is a flight deck (though no hanger) which can support either two medium lift (Merlin or Sea King) or one heavy lift (Chinook) helicopter.

Ocean, Albion and Bulwark form the core of the amphibious force. They will be supported in their mission by the LSDs of the 'Bay' class. These ships, operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, will replace four of the elderly LSLs of the 'Sir' class. The new ships will resemble the LPDs in having a large flight deck and stern docking well, with a capacity of over 300 troops.

Although the units mentioned would form the core of an amphibious task force, additional capacity would be provided in the form of six roll on/roll off vessels for strategic transport (as opposed to direct amphibious assault). In addition, the three ships of the Invincible class have a secondary role as an LPH; it is rumoured that one of the vessels will be permanently converted to this mission once CVF enters service.

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Hydrographic Squadron

The Navy's surveying service has responsibility for surveying and charting the oceans, the information from which goes into the numerous Admiralty produced charts and publications that are used all over the world. As a consequence, the work that the service does must be as accurate as possible, which requires the best equipment available.

The Royal Navy has a mandate to provide support to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which comes in the form of the dedicated Antarctic Patrol Ship. However, in 1990, HMS Endurance was over 30 years old and, having been repaired following collision with an iceberg, was found to be unsafe to return to the Antarctic. The vessel that was chosen to replace her was chartered from a Norwegian shipping company and commissioned as HMS Polar Circle. After a successful deployment, it was decided to purchase the ship outright, and she was renamed HMS Endurance in honor of her predecessor. Endurance 's mission is twofold; to assist the BAS in charting and surveying the waters around the Antarctic, a task for which she is well suited thanks to her strengthened bow, and to provide a semi-permanent naval presence in the South Atlantic in support of the Atlantic Patrol Task (South) deployment.

The navy's ocean going survey needs were served by the four ships of the Hecla class, all built in the 1960s and 70s. Two were paid off in the late 1980s, while HMS Hecla left the service in 1997. She was replaced by the brand new survey vessel HMS Scott. Scott is the largest ocean survey vessel in Western Europe and, at over 13,000 tonnes, the seventh largest vessel in the Royal Navy (only the three carriers and three amphibious vessels displace more). Despite replacing four ships with only one, the Scott is able to spend over 300 days a year at sea, thanks to its crew rotation system, whereby the total complement of 63 is divided into three teams - two man the ship, while the third remains ashore on leave or in training and rotating back on board when the ship returns.

In addition to the ocean survey vessel, the navy retains a single coastal survey ship, HMS Roebuck, which performs the same tasks on the UK continental shelf as HMS Scott does in deep ocean. However, the remainder of the survey fleet has since been replaced by the two brand new multi-role ships of the Echo class, which commissioned in 2002 and 2003. HMS Echo and HMS Enterprise build on the success of the Scott by utilising similar methods of operation and technology.

Patrol Forces

The navy operates patrol vessels primarily in the role of fisheries protection and guarding British interests in the North Sea. These tasks were primarily undertaken by the 'Island' class, which entered service in the late 1970s. They were supported by the two larger vessels of the 'Castle' class. However, as time went on, it became clear that the age and small size of the 'Island' class was counting against them; so, in 1997, a decision was taken to replace them. An order for three much larger offshore patrol vessels was placed in 2001. The three ships of the 'River' class, HMS Severn, HMS Mersey and HMS Tyne, all commissioned in 2002/3; they have a large cargo deck and 25 tonne capacity crane aft, which allows them to be fitted for various roles including disaster relief, fire-fighting and rescue work. On Mersey and Severn, this will be fitted as a flight deck for medium helicopters, giving them facilities equal to the 'Castle' class. In 2005, construction of HMS Clyde began; this will be a modified 'River' class vessel designed to replace the two 'Castle' class vessels as the Falkland Islands guardship.

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In the early 1990s, the Royal Navy's submarine force was already in the process of significant upgrade - the Trafalgar class SSNs, with their state of the art, ultra quiet pump-jet propulsion system, were still entering service; the brand new Upholder class conventional submarines were on the verge of being commissioned, while the first of the Vanguard class SSBNs was close to completion. However, the Upholder class proved unsuccessful, and all four units were sold to Canada, leaving the Royal Navy all nuclear. Today, the modernisation of the Royal Navy's submarine force centres on the Astute Class SSNs and the Swiftsure & Trafalgar Update Final Phase (S&TUFP). In 1997, an order was placed for three units of the Astute class, which was designed as the SSN replacement for the Swiftsure class, with an option for a further two. The new boats will be larger and quieter than the existing SSNs. However, under the Strategic Defence Review, the five Astute class boats will replace five unmodernised Swiftsure and Trafalgar class submarines. S&TUFP will see the remaining boats of the Swiftsure and Trafalgar classes upgraded, giving them similar combat capabilities to the Astute class.

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Fleet Air Arm

Along with the aircraft carriers, the major instrument of power projection is the Carrier Air Group. Clearly, the larger the air group, the more tasks it can perform; however, this is limited by the size of the carrier. The Invincible class, because of its small size, has only a limited capacity, and is only capable of operating STOVL aircraft, the Harrier GR7/GR9 and the BAE Sea Harrier. The Sea Harrier is an immensely capable and adaptable platform, with a proven combat record going back to the Falklands War. The upgrade it received in the early 1990s to the FA2 standard allowed it to achieve even greater potential, which has again been proven in the Balkans and the Gulf. However, within the next two to three years, the Sea Harrier will be withdrawn from service, with fixed wing flying from the carriers the sole responsibility of the Harrier GR9s of the Royal Air Force. Although technically the two front line Sea Harrier squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm will 'convert' to the GR9, in practice the set-up will be a continued merging into the Joint Force Harrier concept. This will carry on until the entry into service of the Harrier's eventual replacement in both the RAF and the FAA, the Joint Strike Fighter. The Joint Strike Fighter will be a significant improvement over the Harrier, in terms of speed, range and weapon load. The JSF comes in both CTOL and STOVL variants - as the Harrier replacement, both the RN and the RAF have chosen the STOVL version, with CVF being designed thus as a STOVL carrier.


The anti-surface/anti-submarine mission remains the purview of rotary aircraft; in small ships this is the updated Mk8 version of the Lynx. However, in the carriers, and in later frigates, the larger Merlin helicopter is used - this has already begun replacing the venerable Sea King in the ASW mission. The Sea King remains in the commando assault mission from HMS Ocean, although replacement with the Merlin is likely.


Merlin is also being touted as a replacement for Sea King in the Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control (formerly Airborne Early Warning) mission. However, the limitations of using a helicopter in this role are well documented - endurance is limited, service ceiling is low and vibrations from the rotors may cause distortion. Therefore, two other concepts have been put forward:

The V-22 would be an attractive option given the STOVL configuration of CVF, as it combines the VTOL aspects of a helicopter with the endurance of a fixed wing aircraft - indeed, the Osprey is another contender to replace the Sea King in the assault mission. The E-2 is already in service with the French and US Navies; the problem with the aircraft is its CTOL configuration - although it has been proven that it can launch successfully from a ski-jump, it would still require arrestor wires for landing, which would force CVF to be redesigned to a STOBAR configuration. However, it has advantages over the V-22 again in terms of endurance and ceiling; because its cabin is pressurised, it can operate at greater altitude than the Osprey, extending the range of its radar.

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The Royal Navy is evolving - it has begun a transition from an Atlantic based, ASW force back into a true bluewater navy, with capabilities it has not had since the 1970s. Perhaps the realisation that this was the case started with the Falklands War - had this not occurred, the Royal Navy would have lost one of its aircraft carriers and both of its major amphibious units without replacement; decisions which, with hindsight, would have proven disastrous. Now though, there are serious decisions to be taken; some already have been, and for the better. The successes of the three Invincible class ships in recent years have shown that aircraft carriers will always be needed - how much more successful will a ship twice the size be, equipped with aircraft twice as capable? Guarding these ships will be the Type 45s, again, twice as big as the vessels they are replacing, and with space afforded them to be significantly improved, something that could never be done with the Type 42s. Hopefully, this will be a similar situation with FSC, once it has been finalised. The amphibious force has not only seen the venerable Fearless class replaced, but has also been enhanced with the addition of Ocean, along with the addition of the 'Bay' class LSDs, which are significantly more capable than the LSLs they will replace, making the amphibious force possibly the most capable in Europe. All of this, plus the addition of the Astute class, and upgrades to the other SSNs, should make the Royal Navy a potent force.

But... since the end of the Cold War, successive Chancellors have imposed the 'peace dividend'. With no recognisable threat, the defence budget has been constantly raided to provide additional funds in other areas. This has led to continuing cuts to the strength of the fleet, particularly with regard to escorts - in 1990, the destroyer and frigate force numbered 43; by 2000, it had dropped to 32. In addition to this is the continued reduction in the nuclear submarine force, which will drop to 10 boats. At present, with the current global situation, these numbers are only just sufficient. Should something like the 2003 Iraq War happen again, the fleet would be stretched. And yet, it seems likely that the numbers of new units will only replace what is already in service, thanks to the government's decision to base its strategy on systems that are adaptable to many situations; it has decided that it does not need large armed forces, despite the continuing evidence of the War on Terror and the fallout of Iraq.

Added to this is the continuing obsession with the Private Finance Initiative, using private money for public works. At present, three warships in the service of the Royal Navy are owned, not by the Admiralty, but by the shipbuilder that constructed them. They are chartered by the Admiralty for five years, after which the navy can purchase them, extend the charter or return them. As it seems unlikely that such major assets would be returned, it means that the taxpayer is not only paying for the five year charter, but also for the eventual cost of purchasing the ships; in effect, they are paying for them twice. While this may be an acceptable arrangement for assets such as the new strategic lift ro-ro ships (which can be used as ordinary merchant transports when not needed by the military), the same cannot be said for actual warships.

At present, the government's procurement policy involves 2 CVF and their air groups, 8 Type 45 destroyers, 5 Astute class submarines and perhaps as many as 17 FSCs. Assuming 8 Type 45s are built, this will provide a major fleet of 25 escorts, 2 carriers and 10 SSNs, with a sizeable amphibious force and significant (though not numerous) other assets. Will this be enough? Even now, the fleet is stretched and the government continues to talk of further decommissionings, not to mention the number of projects that are behind schedule - Albion and Bulwark will both enter service late; the first Type 45 has only just started construction and will be late, as will the Astute class, while there are still wranglings over the size of CVF; it has also recently been discovered that the F-35 is severely overweight, which will probably lead to a slip in its in-service date. This, coupled with the early withdrawal of the Sea Harrier, will leave no capable fleet air defence aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm for five years or more. The rationale for this is that the UK 'no longer fights the sort of wars where ships need defending from enemy warplanes far out to sea; if necessary, we can rely on coalition forces to provide the outer air defences for surface ships' (Armed Forces Minister, Adam Ingram, 28/02/02). But, who can say what the global situation will be once HMS Queen Elizabeth enters service? Who knows what will happen in the next five years? Unlikely as it sounds, a situation such as occurred in the Falklands War could happen again. How would the government respond? Basing the question on the here and now, the conclusion seems to be that it is doubtful that the Royal Navy will be able to cope, even with the (hopefully) capable systems in which the British Government has invested so much faith. Technology is a good thing, but it doesn't help when men in small boats can cause so much destruction.


In July 2004, the Government announced as part of its new Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World, that the number of Type 45s to be ordered would be cut from 12 to 8, while the two attack submarines due to be decommissioned would not be replaced, taking the SSN fleet down from 10 to 8. In addition, the existing escort fleet will also lose six units, the three oldest Type 42 destroyers, HMS Glasgow, HMS Cardiff and HMS Newcastle, and three Type 23 frigates, HMS Norfolk, HMS Marlborough and HMS Grafton, as well as a further six mine counter measures units, with a total of 1,500 job losses. In the same speech Geoff Hoon announced that the RAF will receive 16 BAE Nimrod MRA4s, the UK's long range maritime patrol aircraft. This is reduced from 18 (originally 21) and Hoon suggested that an eventual fleet of 12 may suffice. This is part of the Ministry of Defence policy that it is not the number of platforms that is important but the capability of each, however it remains to be seen whether the savings from the measures listed will be invested improving the remaining units or even stay within the procurement budget.


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