UK Defense Review Sets Out the Plan

By Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, Royal Navy

The foreign policy review has led to an expeditionary strategy, underpinned by a strategic deterrent. Both of these strategic elements define plans for the Royal Navy for the next 20 years or so. In broad terms, the Royal Navy has to be able to contribute to two simultaneous operations, both of which may be expeditionary in character. One might be a regional conflict of limited duration; the other could be a long, drawn-out peace-support operation. But the systems procured, the people recruited and trained, and the support provided for these commitments also will have to provide for the eight missions defined by the government. These are:

  • Peacetime security
  • Security of overseas territories
  • Defense diplomacy
  • Support of wider British interests
  • Peace-support and humanitarian operations
  • Regional conflict outside the NATO area
  • Regional conflict inside the NATO area
  • Strategic attack on NATO

Although described in rather different words, these are very much the same tasks defined by the previous government, with one exception: defense diplomacy. This mission brings together into a coherent package the well-practiced work of the armed forces on conflict prevention. The tasks include arms control monitoring and inspection training; attachments abroad and the deployment of training teams; and training for "democratically accountable forces." How all this applies to the Navy still has to be clarified, but the practice of defense diplomacy will extend beyond this narrow definition to include such major peacetime deployments as Ocean Wave, where a carrier battlegroup spent some months in 1997 in the Asia-Pacific region, visiting and exercising.

Nuclear Deterrent

The strategic deterrent will be provided by the Vanguard -class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), the fourth of which, HMS Vengeance , will be rolled out late this year and will join the other three in service around the turn of the century. But this deterrent (which now is Britain's sole substrategic as well as strategic nuclear weapon system) has been reduced both quantitatively and qualitatively. The number of warheads has been cut by a third, to fewer than 200. Only one submarine will be on patrol at a time, carrying 48 warheads; this compares with a ceiling of 96 hitherto and is the same number as was carried in the Polaris submarines when they entered service. These 48 warheads will have an explosive power one-third less than the 32 Cheveline warheads that were carried by the Polaris boats at the end of their service lives. The government also does not see the need to buy any more Trident missile bodies than those already delivered or on order.

The posture of the deterrent SSBNs also will be more relaxed, with a "notice of fire" measured in days rather than the few minutes of Cold War deployments. The missiles are detargeted. In the future, the submarines may be reduced from double to single crews, a measure that cannot be reversed quickly. Also, SSBNs on patrol now will carry out secondary tasks, including "hydrographic data collection, equipment trials, and exercises with other vessels." This seems to imply a slightly less rigorous approach to maintaining the integrity of deterrent patrols—which is probably realistic.

The Future Shape of the Navy: Platforms and Systems

An expeditionary strategy that does not entail merely contributing elements to a fixed coalition, and that does not assume that host-nation support will be available every time, requires a maritime force able to act on its own. This offers the great advantage that such a force always can fit productively into a coalition, and if it is able to contribute at the operational level, then its commander can expect to play an influential role in the military command of the coalition. The expeditionary strategy requires three main elements—carriers, amphibious ships, and nuclear submarines—plus other enabling forces and systems.

Carriers and Their Aircraft . The key is to be able to dominate the maritime battlespace, and for that, the critical capability comes from aircraft carriers. The SDR plans to replace the three Invincible -class CVSs with two new carriers, starting in 2012. Their displacement is put at 30,000-40,000 tons; big enough, it is said, to carry some 50 aircraft of a tailored air group of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Not quite 50% larger than the current ships, the lower limit of 30,000 tons seems a cautious nibble, redolent of unstated caveats, rather than a bold bite. Of course, there is a long way to go, and many studies and simulations to be done, but an estimate of 40,000-50,000 tons, as extensively leaked, would have been a more convincing statement of intent—and probably more cost-effective for power projection.

The fact that the carriers' in-service dates are a long way out, and that their costs are bound to be high, worry many people that they will be a target for prowling pruners in the years ahead. Historically, procurement in the follow-on years has failed to deliver the full programs published at the defense reviews, and there is a rumble of opinion in Whitehall that the program for the second decade of the next century looks vulnerable. The plan for the two carriers is, however, a major political commitment, and the supporters of the expeditionary strategy need to ensure that it remains so.

The teeth of the carriers in both battlespace dominance and power projection will be the air groups, and the rotary-wing element of these will be EH-101 Merlins into the indefinite future. The fixed-wing aircraft selection, however, largely will determine the configuration of the carrier. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a U.S. program that the U.K. has been involved with since it was a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project at the start of the decade, has been declared a strong contender. The JSF would be STOVL (short take-off/vertical landing), but another option that has some supporters is the "marinized" Eurofighter. This would need both catapults and assisted landing on the carrier.

During the standoff in the Gulf early this year, the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers F/A2 and the Royal Air Force's Harriers GR7 operated together off HMS Invincible , thereby increasing the number of available aircraft and providing greater flexibility for offensive air operations and air supremacy. During the SDR, an agreement was reached by the Chiefs of Naval and Air Staffs to pool the successors to these aircraft in the new Joint Force 2000. This should lead to aircraft from both services, current and future, operating together ashore and afloat, with common maintenance, support, and training. If the two services' cultures can be aligned, it should bring welcome efficiency improvements and a formal resolution to years of rancor between the protagonists of shipborne and land-based air power.

Amphibious Ships . The second element is the amphibious ships, which with the Royal Marine Commando brigade provide a specialist amphibious capability with a whole range of tasks, from humanitarian operations to war fighting. Over the past ten years the question of whether to maintain this capability has been debated and analyzed repeatedly, and one must hope that the commitment in the SDR to provide "a strong and capable amphibious force" is the last word on the subject. Unlike the carriers, the entry into service of specialist amphibious shipping is near term. The helicopter landing platform HMS Ocean is on trials and will enter service in early 1999, and the two replacement landing platforms dock, HMS Albion and Bulwark , and the two new landing ships logistic are expected early in the next century. To support the specialist shipping and to provide extra sealift capacity, four roll-on/roll-off containerships will be acquired to supplement the two already in service. This will reduce at least the immediacy of the need to take up ships from trade.

Helicopters for the force will be provided by the Navy's Commando squadrons of Sea King 4s, and some of the Army's Apache Longbow attack helicopters will be marinized to permit their operation and basing on HMS Ocean to support the landing force. Both the commando helicopters and the attack helicopters will be brought together with the Royal Air Force's support helicopters into the Joint Helicopter Command, which will be under Commander-in-Chief Land. The Joint Helicopter Command will seek greater efficiency and coordination between the elements, but the inclusion of the Commando Sea Kings seems to be of marginal value—more dogmatic than helpful.

Submarines . The third element is the nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). Here there is good news and bad news. The good news is that all SSNs will be fitted with Tomahawk land-attack missiles, thus providing a strong coercive capability, and that the intention to procure all five Astute -class submarines has been restated. The bad news is that the flotilla will be reduced from 12 to 10. This seems to play down the SSN's characteristics as a quintessential post-Cold War platform able to dominate antisubmarine and antisurface warfare battles in the enemy's littoral, to gather intelligence, to insert special forces, and to deploy and redeploy covertly and therefore at political convenience. This cut could fester.

Frigates and Destroyers . The three key elements give the Royal Navy a coherent ability to project power that it long has lacked. During the Cold War, when its prime role was blue-water ASW in the North Atlantic, power projection was not a requirement. In general, ships, submarines, and aircraft procured before 1990 have proved adaptable to post-Cold War demands, but the 1998 SDR may justifiably claim to bring their act together. Across the eight defense missions, however, the ever-present contributors—both in war-supporting units critical to the success of a mission and in lower intensity operations where they are center stage—are the frigates and destroyers.

Perhaps the saddest decision in the SDR is to reduce the number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. The escort force is chronically overstretched and often undermanned, and it takes quite a leap of faith to accept that commitments will be reduced by enough to compensate for the loss of hulls, and hence that the stress on the men and women in the ships' complements actually will be eased.

The reduction in hull numbers will not be made easier by the need to take out youthful Type 22 frigates rather than the aging Type 42 destroyers. The Type 42s are becoming overdue for retirement, but their British-French-Italian Horizon frigate replacements have been delayed significantly from their original in-service date of 2002. There also has been a reduction in the future capability of the frigate force's embarked helicopters: the second batch of EH-101 Merlins has been canceled, and more Lynx aircraft will be converted to Mk 8 standard to fill the gaps. This decision is ironic in that the power and agility of the EH-101 were developed at great cost primarily to operate in very demanding wind and movement conditions off small ships' decks. The Merlin as a force ASW asset, with a high-capability active dipping sonar designed to counter small conventional submarines in littoral waters, will be deployed with less flexibility.

Mine Countermeasures . Another enabling force needed in post-Cold War operations is mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs). The SDR plans to increase the number of such craft from the present 19 to 22—not 25 as previously planned. Current assessments rightly play down the mine threat in home waters, though it could rise again. The sea mine is a cheap way for ill-disposed countries or substate groups to oppose strong maritime forces, and MCM is a branch of warfare that over the years has tended to "sit below the salt." Mine warfare in Desert Storm posted warning flags, and although the quality of the Sandown -class mine hunters entering service is undeniable, the threat benchmark can change rapidly and minesweeping capabilities seem to have stagnated. It is easy to sympathize with the SDR decision, but it is one that will need to be kept under review as the international environment continues to evolve.

Command and Control . Drawing these platforms together are the command-and-control (C2) systems; they are the essential enablers. The sensors from above, on, and under the sea, above and on land, and in space provide vast quantities of data that have to be sorted, filtered, and analyzed and then merged with data from outside the theater. The product then has to be fertilized with wisdom by the right people, so that the correct military and political decision can be made, and made quickly, to get inside the enemy's decision-making cycle. The onward gallop of technology does not create the C2 challenge, but it both exacerbates it and points the way to solve it.

The speed of advance in C2 systems both demands and makes difficult interoperability between the U.S. Navy and its allies. For the Royal Navy, the ability to operate closely and at all levels with the U.S. Navy not only is essential but also offers the prospect of a highly effective force multiplier. Insofar as the U.S. Navy values the contribution of allies in military as well as political terms, it is as much the responsibility of the United States to ensure interoperability as it is incumbent on allies to achieve it. The SDR was hardly explicit in this matter, but if the search for value for money is to be relentless, getting C2 systems right between allies must be a high priority.

Smart Procurement

Inevitably, the SDR focuses on the major platforms, which are the most visible product of the defense budget as well as the longest in development and service life. One major innovation was in acquisition reform, the so-called Smart Procurement Initiative. A important factor in this reform is that capability upgrades will be introduced incrementally. Together with the other improvements in procurement—faster, cheaper, better—this will allow weapons and sensors to be fitted quickly and therefore reduce the risk of their being obsolescent on entry into service. It also will allow more flexibility for frequent capability updates, both major and minor. This certainly is to be welcomed and accommodates both the rapid changes inevitable in systems and the longevity of platforms.


Finally, there are the people in the Royal Navy, for so long lauded as "the greatest single factor." The SDR gives a high profile to its "Policy for People," which addresses not only the changing interrelationship of the armed forces and society but also the wider problems of overstretch and undermanning. The measures proposed are likely to be welcomed and are triservice in nature, but questions remain: Are the measures enough? Can the determination to give people their deserved priority be sustained under inevitable future stresses?

Service people's expectations only will get higher, and their tolerance of what they perceive to be less than adequate conditions will get lower. Society is becoming less aware of the military profession and does not recognize any military threat to the national way of life. Recruiting and retention therefore will tend to become a greater problem, as the public priority for defense wavers or reduces. But it is a problem for which a good solution will be increasingly necessary, and for which the penalties for failure may be increasingly far-reaching.

Final Word

As public support for substantial defense spending becomes more difficult to sustain, and interest in defense dwindles, the importance of getting the right message across increases. This often is a volatile, interconnected, and dangerous world, from which we cannot retreat. A country's security starts a long way from home, and defense forces need to get out and cope with crises either before they become conflicts, or in an early stage in conflict. The British services in general, and the Royal Navy in particular, must contribute to this process in a way that demonstrates value for money to the taxpayers. The SDR sets out a plan to achieve this, and it is generally a good plan. All that is needed now is to implement it.

Admiral Cobbold is director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, an independent research institute, and a specialist advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence.



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