2020 SDSR – A Royal Navy Perspective

In the first of a multi-part series regarding the expected Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) we will explore what potential changes the Royal Navy could make to ensure its viability as a global force capable of projecting British power around the globe. Also covered will be an overview of the SDSR, with the other two service arms being covered latter, alongside joint capabilities. The Royal Marines will be covered in a separate article, due to the numerous changes that service has undergone in recent years.

Since the election late last year it has been expected that the government would release a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). These documents, released around every five years under a Tory-led government (normally following an election), outline key threat the United Kingdom is expected to face as well as announcing the government’s strategy to combat them. In this article, we will be looking at a wish list for the upcoming review, and while not a true “I want this,” it will serve as an outline to see which capabilities could realistically be generated in a reasonable timeframe.

These articles will not look to identify key threats that may come to the forefront in the future. These types of forecasts are best suited to specialist strategic forecasters and I am most definitely not in a position to attempt to identify emerging threats. Rather, this series of articles will look towards what capabilities could be reasonably added to British forces.

The last SDSR in 2015 saw slight uplifts in capability for both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, with the British Army having sweeping changes to the way it operates. The RN and RAF both got slight increases in the numbers of personnel in each service while the Army had upgrades to the Warrior, Challenger 2, and Apache fleets announced, as well as a new approach to deployable forces and hybrid warfare.

The front cover of the previous, 2015, SDSR

Arguably most important in the 2015 review was the announcement that both Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers would enter service, putting to bed rumours that one of the vessels could be sold or put straight into a mothballed state. This means that the UK will always have at least one carrier available. As the French found out during operations over Libya in 2011, a single carrier is a powerful warship however it is almost as incapable as having one. If you have a single carrier and it needs refitting, you lose the ability to generate organic airpower at sea. However, with two carriers you always ensure that at least one is available, meaning you don’t lose your organic fleet airpower.

Royal Air Force commanders must have also been happy with the news that they would get an extra two Typhoon squadrons rolled for homeland air defence operations. By leaving the Tranche 1 aircraft in service rather than retiring them, it has been possible to increase the deployable strength of the RAF without severely impacting the QRA, or Quick Reaction Alert operations. These operations, taking place on a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year schedule, are required to ensure the integrity and security of British airspace.

While not getting the same personnel uplift as the other two services the Army did get huge amounts of new hardware and upgrades announced. The Warrior and Challenger 2 fleets are to receive upgrades to keep them relevant until at least 2040 and 2035 respectively. These upgrades are essential to maintaining the capability of the British Army to fight peer conflicts it may find themselves in. These, coupled with the announcement of the first block of Ajax vehicles, mean that the Army will be able to shift focus from low-intensity counter-insurgency operations it has been fighting into the Middle East towards high-intensity, large force operations against much more capable adversaries.

Nimrod MRA.4, cancelled in the 2010 SDSR, is a key example of when an SDSR has announced a key reduction in the UK’s ability to control the seas. (Photo Ronnie Macdonald)

Looking back on the 2015 review, it was mainly about attempting to regenerate certain capabilities that had been cut due to budget constraints in the 2010 SDSR. Most important among these were specialised maritime patrol aircraft and carrier strike. These two capabilities, shared between the RN and RAF are essential components of the UK’s national security strategy and cutting them served to negatively affect the UK’s enduring ability to project power and to keep shipping lanes open. With the Boeing P-8 Poseidon being purchased to replace the Nimrod MRA.4 aircraft which had been cancelled during production the UK is again able to maintain control over large swaths of water. This, coupled with the two new aircraft carriers means that the UK is again capable of controlling waters through which its trade flows.

Royal Navy

Commissioned Surface Fleet

Royal Navy numbers are a serious bone of contention when it comes to reviews of the armed forces as a whole. In recent years the numbers of escorts have dwindled and we are as yet to have an announcement regarding increasing this number. Although the aim with splitting the new frigate purchase in two was intended to allow for increased numbers we are as yet to see an order for an increased number of vessels. Type 26 is intended as the RN’s new high-end warfighting frigate with the Type 31 intended to be a less capable, much cheaper vessel.

The Type 26, or City Class, is expected to be the Royal Navy’s premier ASW vessel when it enters service in the mid-2020s (Image BAE Systems)

Type 26, also known as the City Class or previously Global Combat Ship, is intended as the direct replacement for the Type 23, or Duke Class frigates. Built specifically for Anti-Submarine Warfare first and foremost like their predecessors, the Type 26 is to be equipped with a Merlin heavy ASW helicopter as well as the 2087 towed array sonar system. These systems, carried over from the Type 23, remain some of the most capable ASW systems on the planet and as such are the main tools in the vessels locker for dealing with the threat posed by submarines. At a cost of more than £1bn expected per vessel, it is unlikely that the Royal Navy would be able to procure extra vessels and therefore focus needs to shift towards the Type 31.

Other navies are also looking at Type 26 to fill their future frigate needs. Orders have been placed for modified variants by the Australians (up to 9, currently 3) and Canadian (15 vessels) navies with it looking likely that the New Zealanders will also order two vessels given their history of going for commonality with the Australians. Although Type 31 is the design that has been touted as an export model it has become clear that in the age of shrinking budgets quality not quantity is required when it comes to buying equipment for peer conflicts, at least at the top end of the scale.

As useful as I feel another two Type 26 frigates would be when it comes to the high-end warfighting it is clear that the Royal Navy cannot afford more of these vessels than have already been announced. Shifting focus to the Type 31 is the best, and most pragmatic, option.

In offering the majority of Type 26’s capabilities at a fraction of the cost the Type 31 design has an awful lot going for it. Based on the Danish Iver Huitfelt Class frigates, the vessels are intended to cost in the region of £250m per vessel, a huge saving when compared to the Type 26’s £1bn. Question marks, however, are still being raised regarding the armament and outfit of the vessels, two areas which are yet to see substantial announcements made. It is however expected that the vessels will be equipped with the BAE/Bofors 57mm gun, Sea Ceptor surface to air missiles, and at least a single 20mm Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS). This will likely be complemented by a Type 997 3D surveillance radar as on Type 26, Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, and the Albion Class assault ships.

Most of what warships do obviously isn’t fighting wars, with them operating most of the time purely as a presence in any given reason. This gunboat diplomacy is vital to ensuring the UK can influence world events. In producing the Type 31 at a much cheaper cost than the Type 26 it is hoped that the Royal Navy will be able to procure more vessels than currently in service without degrading other important capabilities. The fact that these vessels will be more lightly equipped than the Type 26 is moot, a warship being somewhere is more important than having an ever-dwindling number of high-end warfighting vessels. Patrols are vital to ensuring the free flow of trade around the world and a for protecting the UK’s interests in throughout the globe. It’s been suggested that one of the vessels may even be permanently based in the Middle East, continuing to expand on British influence in the region.

Babcock won the Type 31 frigate competition for a more affordable vessel than Type 26. Based on a Danish design, their cheap price will allow them to be used to plug gaps in the UK’s shipbuilding program, potentially increasing Royal Navy numbers. (Image Babcock)

However, although not designed to give the same capabilities as the Type 26, the Type 31 does need to be capable of contributing to task forces fighting conflicts. A must-have, on both the Type 31 and Type 26 is a new missile for countering enemy naval forces. It has been speculated that the Royal Navy is looking to purchase the AGM-158 LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) from Lockheed Martin and although this would be a good upgrade over the existing Harpoon it isn’t the only option. If the RN wishes for a longer-range option then the Maritime Strike Tomahawk missile is the weapon to go for or if the RN wishes for a more like-for-like LRASM alternative then the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile would be the way to go. Whichever way the RN chooses to go they need to ensure that their warships are properly equipped for any possible surface engagement.

Alongside the procurement of these frigate classes it is also widely speculated that the Royal Navy may begin its program for the replacement of its Type 45 Daring Class destroyers. The program, dubbed Type 4X in the media has been widely speculated on for the last few months, with a rendering of the Type 26 equipped with the Type 45’s sensor fit doing the rounds in the defence media. This program will be a vital follow on to the building of Type 26 if only to maintain the knowledge of the workforce when it comes to shipbuilding.

Although a Type 26-based design has been widely speculated for the next anti-air warfare (AAW) destroyer, this could be a major mistake. One of the biggest flaws of the Type 45s is their numbers of vertical launch system (VLS) cells or lack thereof and the Type 26 design doesn’t offer any step forward in this regard. The Type 45 is equipped with 48 Sylver A50 VLS cells and the Type 26 design, at least at present only has 24 Mk.41 cells (although they also have 48 dedicated to the Sea Ceptor missiles). Whatever replaces the Type 45 must give a substantial increase in the number of cells per vessels. In the modern era saturation attacks are much more likely, especially considering the cost of attacking vs defending, and therefore being able to deal with a swarm of threats is vital to maintaining operational supremacy.

Type 45 destroyers are expected to be replaced by the Type 4X program. This program may be officially launched in the upcoming SDSR. (Photo Royal Navy (Crown Copyright))

Whatever hull design is chosen for Type 4X the vessels will likely carry an upgraded sensor fit based on that currently in use on Type 45. The SAMPSON radar system is widely accepted to be one of the premier naval Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems and the S1850M is a very capable volume search Passively Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar. Indeed, an upgraded S1850M has been developed and tested by the Royal Netherlands Radar, offering even greater performance. I would suggest that purchasing these upgraded radar systems and fitting them to the existing Type 45 fleet initially in their mid-life refits would allow for an increased capability now while also allowing the radars to be carried forward to Type 4X, much in the way the Type 997 radar is to be reused on the Type 26 frigates once the Type 23s leave service.

Another major reason not to reuse the Type 26 design for the navy’s future AAW destroyers is one of power generation. Unlike the Type 45s and Queen Elizabeth Class which utilize integrated electric propulsion (IEP) Type 26 uses the more basic combined diesel-electric and gas (CODLAG) propulsion system. The main difference between the two systems is that in IEP the gas-turbines, as well as the diesel engines, are used to generate electrical power which then powers the ship via an electrical bus whereas in CODLAG only the diesel engines are used to generate electrical power with the gas turbines directly driving the propellers.

With the expected future trend towards railguns and directed energy weapons (DEWs), the amount of electrical power a ship can generate becomes one of its most important characteristics. These future weapons rely directly on electrical power to either, in the case of a railgun, propel the projectile or, in the case of DEWs, to generate the energy required to attack a target. CODLAG has a serious issue when it comes to generating enough power for these weapons and although the Type 26 design could be retrofitted to use IEP, the work required could severely compromise the design.

Type 45s themselves, with an expected service life until the 2040’s, need upgrades to maintain their relevance against potential future threats. The most important of these would be to finally add the sixteen ‘strike length’ VLS cells that they are designed to take between their two banks of 16 shorter ‘tactical length’ cells. These additional cells would allow for both land attack and anti-ballistic missiles to be carried, vastly improving the fighting strength of the vessels. Adding an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capability must be seen as a must, especially considering the fact that China, Iran, and Russia have all developed anti-ship ballistic missiles, something we aren’t currently in a position to counter.

There are two main options when it comes to integrating an anti-ballistic missile capability into the fleet. The first of these, as outlined above involves adding ‘strike length’ cells to the Type 45s. This option is the simplest of the two, utilizing the ships existing radars which are proven to be capable of tracking ballistic missiles. The second option involves firing the missiles from the Type 26 with firing data provided by the Type 45s via a datalink. This is the cheaper of the two options as the Type 26 is already designed to feature 16 ‘strike length’ cells and therefore it would purely be software tweaks that are required. The main drawback to this approach is the fact that both vessels need to be within range whereas adding new cells to the Type 45s would require only one vessel to be within range.

The Standard SM-3 ABM would add a significant capability to existing warships. Seen here being launched from a Japanese destroyer, it is the only Western sea based anti-ballistic missile weapon (Photo US Missile Defense Agency).

Standard SM-3 is the only viable option when it comes to ballistic missile engagement. Already in service with the US and Japan (South Korea will follow shortly), it also has the proven capability of being used in an anti-satellite role. These missiles are already full integrated onto the Mk.41 and therefore either adding Mk.41 cells to the Type 45s, either to complement their existing ‘tactical length’ Sylver cells or to replace them with both ‘tactical’ and ‘strike length’ cells of the Mk.41 design. Such a capability is also a must when it comes to dealing with the ballistic missile threat posed by both Iran and North Korea against European and allied targets.

In development by MBDA, the FC/ASW (Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon) program completed a “key” program review in March 2019 and now will be down-selected to the most promising concepts that meet both nations requirements. The €100m program, equally funded by both nations, is expected to replace the SCALP/Storm Shadow missiles in service with both nations as well as the Harpoon in British service and Exocet in French service. Being developed as an air and sea-launched weapon, FC/ASW is expected to be down-selected to a single design in 2020, with additional capabilities such as suppression of enemy air defences being added over existing systems. The program will be addressed in more depth later, stay tuned for a follow-up article on the program and its aims.

With regards to the Queen Elizabeth Class, there isn’t much that needs to change regarding their introduction into service. Their airwing is covered below in both the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and RAF sections below and therefore the most important thing regarding them in the SDSR will be a renewed commitment to maintain both vessels in service with full airwings (see below under FAA). A small change that I would however look to make is the number of marked out ‘deck spots.’ Currently five such spots are marked out on the flight deck and this can be increased to ten. Marking out another two or three would vastly increase the number of troops that can be launched by helicopter in a single wave, significantly increasing the capability of the vessels when operating as a ‘commando carrier.’

Question are continuously raised as to the decision to go with short take off vertical landing (STOVL) carriers over conventional carriers equipped with catapults and arrestor wires. However, this has been hashed out to death and can’t be changed now. What is now essential is that a full F-35B purchase is made to allow for carrier strike commitments, as well as RAF needs, to be met.

Organic airpower at sea is essential to any expeditionary deployment. The Queen Elizabeth Class is to fulfill this role for the foreseeable future. (Photo Max Speed)

A replacement program is also on the horizon for the two Albion Class amphibious assault ships. These vessels, launched in 2001, have at least another 15 years of service life left in them. While not a priority, ensuring that the vessels can be replaced is essential to ensuring the UK’s enduring out of area expeditionary operations. With the retirement of HMS Ocean, they are the UK’s only ships equipped to launch and coordinate amphibious landings, with support supplied by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s three Bay Class landing ships. A like for like replacement is expected, however depending on what the RN and Royal Marines future aims are this may be a mistake.

Many nations have begun moving to assault ships with better aviation facilities, an area in which the Albion Class is seriously lacking. Despite flight decks capable of simultaneously operating two Chinook helicopters the vessels lack of a hanger is a serious issue. Without a hanger a vessel can’t support aviation operations for an extended period of time and while in any conflict they’d likely have air support from the Queen Elizabeth Class the lack of organic airpower needs to be addressed. The ability to operate Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) helicopters without carrier support would allow for smaller-scale operations such as commando raids without deploying a whole task force, seriously reducing the burden of such operations.

Currently, the Royal Navy operates two Batch 2 River Class offshore patrol vessels, with another three either under construction or fitting out. These vessels, an increase over the four Batch 1s, are perfect for operations that don’t demand a fully-fledged warship. Such operations include fisheries protection, exclusive economic zone, counter-terrorism, and counter-piracy. All most of these missions require is a good operating endurance and a helicopter. While the Batch 2 vessels have very good endurance, they do lack a hanger, only possessing a helipad for helicopter operations. Adding a telescopic hanger that can protect an embarked helicopter from the elements must be seen as vital if these vessels are to operate away from UK home waters. Space will, however, be an issue here and whether one would fit is questionable.

One reasonable, cheap upgrade that could be made across the surface fleet would be the addition of Marlet missiles to the Royal Navy’s existing DS30 Mark 2 remote weapons stations, currently utilized across the fleet from the Hunt Class right up to the Queen Elizabeth Class. Discussed further below, Marlet would seriously improve the self-defence capabilities of Royal Navy vessels.

In February 2019, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the Royal Navy would purchase two commercial vessels and convert them into “Littoral Strike Ships.” One would be based in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Atlantic, while the other is to be based East of Suez. These vessels are expected to support special forces and amphibious operations around the globe. However, no vessels have been ordered and it has been reported that so far only £5m has been allocated to the program.

The Littoral Strike Ship program could add a much needed boost to the UK’s ability to support amphibious and special forces operations (Image Prevail Partners Ltd)

No changes are expected with regards to survey vessels, with HMS Protector also doubling as a patrol vessel in Antarctic waters. She was procured on a permanent basis in 2013 and therefore is not due for replacement for some time. HMS Scott, a large vessel at 13,500 tones, is the Navy’s only ocean survey vessel and is expected to continue in this role for the foreseeable future. The Echo Class, built to support submarine and amphibious operations are relatively young vessels, entering service in the early 2000s, and are therefore also expected to service.

The smallest actual warships (rather than harbour patrol craft) operated by the Royal Navy are the minehunters of the Sandown and Hunt Classes. These vessels are designed explicitly to keep shipping lanes open and two vessels of each class are currently based in the Persian Gulf with that express purpose. The Royal Navy operates the joint largest western mine countermeasures vessels (if counting the survey ships in their auxiliary MCM role) and remaining a leader in the field is vital. A new, single, class to replace both the Sandown and Hunt Classes would go a long way to maintaining this capability going forward.


Looking at the Royal Navy’s submarines it is clear to see that a complete build strategy is being pursued, working alongside BAE Systems in Barrow to provide both high-quality vessels and work for a yard which has at times struggled for orders. Currently, the Royal Navy operates four Vanguard Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), three Trafalgar Class hunter-killer submarines (SSNs) and three Astute Class SSNs, with four more Astutes to replace the remaining Trafalgars in the coming years.

The Royal Navy very rarely comments of submarine matters and operations, with them being a highly sensitive area addressed much like special forces with constant no comment answers and electronic warfare, with very little ever being released into the public domain. Therefore, most information regarding their operational capabilities is pure speculation, including some of what is mentioned below.

Pictured is the first in her class, the Royal Navy’s SSN HMS Astute. Astute is seen here leaving her homeport at HMNB Cltyde under Scottish moody skies. (Image Royal Navy (Crown Copyright))

Delays in the beginning of the Astute program led to serious issues regarding the Barrow yard. Despite the Albion and Wave Classes providing much-needed work for the yard the lack of submarine work seriously affected the Astute program. Many workers left to pursue other careers and the employed workforce had fallen from 13,000 to around 3,000. This, however, is no longer expected to be an issue, with the Dreadnought Class SSBNs to follow the Astute Class and work is then expected to begin immediately on the Astute successor program, around the mid to late 2030s.

Unlike their American counterparts (Virginia Class) the Astute Class are designed explicitly with ASW in mind, with everything else coming second. This is obvious by their lack of a VLS for Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) and the lack of an anti-shipping missile such as Harpoon. Despite early teething problems a lack of reported problems leads most to believe that these issues have been overcome. Again, the lack of public domain information is an issue when addressing whether or not the vessels are as capable as many believe.

It was however released in 2012 that HMS Astute had conducted wargames with the US Navy’s Virginia Class USS New Mexico. During these exercises, it was reported that the Americans were “utterly taken aback, blown away” by the vessel’s sonar suite, an essential piece of the ASW puzzle. This, coupled with the fact that the Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes the class carries are highly regarded, means that the vessels are expected to be extremely competent when it comes to ASW operations.

The Astutes will likely be in high demand in any future conflict for cruise missile strikes as well as ASW operations. Therefore, it is essential that the UK’s existing Tomahawk stocks are upgraded to Block V standard (available from this year). Block Va will add the capability to use the missiles in an anti-shipping role while Block Vb will be equipped with the Joint Multi-Effects Warhead System (JMEWS). JMEWS is designed to improve the ability of the missile to penetrate hard targets without diminishing the weapons blast-fragmentation capabilities. New missiles will likely be deemed too expensive and therefore it seems likely that upgrades of existing munitions would be likely. This may however not allow for there to be enough anti-ship and land-attack missiles in stocks for future conflicts.

It would likely to be possible to purchase submarine-launched Harpoons from the US, either directly from US Navy stocks or new from Boeing. A joint Anglo-French program (FC/ASW) to develop a new family of dual role anti-ship and land attack missiles is currently underway and buying Harpoons would likely lead to less money being allocated to this program (see above). It is currently unknown if the RN aims to use the weapons from submarines however with it expected to replace Exocet in French service a submarine-launched variant looks likely.

Upgrades are currently underway on the Royal Navy’s stocks of Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes, with the first upgraded munitions are expected to enter service this year, with upgrades complete by 2024. These upgrades consist of a new, insensitive warhead package, an improved fuel system, full digitization, and a new, fibre optic datalink to improve performance. Essential to ensuring the ASW and ASuW (Anti-Surface Warfare) capabilities of the Submarine Service, these upgraded weapons are expected to serve for many years to come, with them being a huge step forward over the previous, unreliable Tigerfish.

HMS Dreadnought, the namesake of her class began construction in 2016, with work on HMS Valiant beginning in September 2019. The Dreadnought Class, previously known as Successor, is the class to replace the Vanguard Class in the nuclear deterrent role. This article is not going to go into the issue of nuclear weapons, an issue that requires multiple articles on its own, and therefore will not be addressing the issues regarding the replacement of the existing systems.

A CGI rendering of what the Dreadnought Class submarines may look like once completed. (Image Royal Navy (Crown Copyright))

Dreadnought is expected to enter service in the early 2030s, with the four vessels being a like for like replacement of the Vanguard Class, utilizing the same Trident D5 stocks that are shared with the US Navy. These missiles, operated and maintained as part of a common pool, only vary from the US weapons in that they carry British designed and built warheads, allowing the missiles to circumnavigate the Non-Proliferation Treaty which bans the transfer of nuclear weapons between nations.

The Common Missile Compartment (CMC) is to be constructed jointly by the US and UK as the Trident launch component of the US’s future Colombia Class and the Dreadnoughts. This will lead to a reduction in maximum missile capacity from 16 to 12 but will not however lead to fewer missiles being carried on patrol, as the UK only carries up to 8 missiles and 40 warheads on its submarines. The submarines will also be equipped with four torpedo tubes for Spearfish; however, these weapons are only carried for self-defence and serve no offensive purpose on SSBNs.

Conventional submarines or the lack thereof is a major issue for the Submarine Service. Nuclear powered hunter-killer submarines are best operated in oceanic waters, with smaller, quieter air-independent propulsion submarines (SSPs) better suited to coastal waters. While SSNs are essential for long patrols and seriously scare lesser nations, they lack some of the capabilities of SSPs. The US Navy leased a Swedish Gotland Class vessel for two years following an exercise in which she had managed to “sink” an aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, during exercises. Like the Royal Navy the USN lacks conventional submarines and while a nice to have it looks like, due to cost, the Submarine Service will continue to be exclusively nuclear powered.

Royal Fleet Auxiliary

Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels are essential to enabling the global operations of the Royal Navy’s warships. The RFA’s primary role is one of providing supply to the Royal Navy, usually via replenishment at sea (RAS), while also providing amphibious landings support, transport to the Army and Royal Marines, as well as engaging in counter-narcotics, anti-piracy, and humanitarian relief. Their flight decks are also used as force multipliers, allowing for refuelling and rearming of combat helicopters of a task force. Unlike normal Royal Navy vessels, ships belonging to the RFA are not commissioned, and are therefore not classified as warships.

Most important to the RFA are the ten replenishment vessels, split between six replenishment tankers, two dry stores replenishment vessels, and a single multi-role tanker. The replenishment tankers, four Tide Class vessels (formally known as the MARS project) which entered service in the last four years, and two Wave Class vessels which entered service in 2003, are essential to enabling extended operations without requiring warships to refuel in port. Alongside fuel for warships, the vessels also transfer aviation fuel and fresh water. The Tide Class vessels, built to a British design in South Korea, provide exceptional value for money. Costing around £600m for four vessels, the vessels are much cheaper than the US’s equivalent John Lewis Class, not named after the British department store, which cost in the region of £1750m for the first four vessels of the class.

The future of the Wave Class tankers is currently being questioned. With the need to allocate money towards new warship procurement it has been rumoured that one or both vessels could be sold to the Brazilian Navy. This would leave serious gaps in the ability of the RFA to support both standing deployments and task forces around the globe. With only four tankers it would be questionable as to whether or not the RFA would be capable of supporting just the two carrier strike groups, let alone other deployments.

RFA Tiderance, a Tide Class tanker, seen in Plymouth in 2018. The Tide Class have been procured explicitly to support carrier strike groups centred around the Queen Elizabeth Class supercarriers. (Photo Graham Howarth)

The two Fort Class solid stores support ships, alongside the multirole Fort Victoria, have been expected to be replaced by the Fleet Solid Support Ship (FSSS) program for up to three vessels. The capability of the existing, ageing vessels to supply carrier strike groups with enough stores has been questioned and therefore the RFA initiated the FSSS program in 2015. The ships are expected to be based on the Tide Class tankers, with tanks being replaced with cargo holds. It had been expected that two vessels, with an option for a third, would be ordered in 2018 however it was rumoured in 2019 that the order had been halted due to no bidders providing compliant bids. A British consortium of Babcock, BAE, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce has been pitted up against international bidders Navania (Spain), the Japan Marine United Corporation, and Daewoo, who built the Tide Class vessels.

Whereas normally British vessels must be constructed in the UK this doesn’t apply to RFA ships due to them not being what the MoD call “complex warships.” This allowed the Tide Class’s extreme value for money and while not politically expedient, provides much needed additional yard capacity for warships. Indeed, no British shipyards bid for the Tide Class contract, therefore causing no effects on the British workforce.

RFA Argus, the so-called “Primary Casualty Receiving Ship” (PCRS), is expected to leave service in 2024 and no replacement has yet been ordered. Originally a container ship MV Contender Bezant, she served in the Falklands Conflict before being converted into an aviation training ship, entering RFA service in 1988. She was then fitted with a full NATO Role III designated hospital for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, before serving as both the PCRS and as an auxiliary landing platform helicopter (LPH). Indeed, the fact she wasn’t suited to being an LPH led to the procurement HMS Ocean. Due to the fact the ship is armed with self-defence weapons, she is not classified as a hospital ship under the Geneva Conventions and therefore is not afforded the same level of protection, with her being painted as a normal warship rather than white with red crosses.

Currently, Argus, nor RFA Diligence, a repair ship which recently left service, have not had replacements procured, potentially leading to serious capability gaps. A hospital ship has long been rumoured to be on the Department for International Development’s wishlist and could serve as a military hospital ship during times of war. This would allow for a vessel to be procured and operated outside of the MoD’s budget, with her only being tasked on military deployments during times of war. The replacement of Diligence is more contentious than replacing Argus, with much of her working going unnoticed. So far, no funding has been allocated to the replacement of Diligence.

The Bay Class landing ships, a class of four vessels, were procured in the early 2000s as replacements for the Round Table Class. These vessels are based on the Dutch-Spanish Enforcer design but built in the UK by BAE Systems and Swan Hunter (two vessels each). RFA Largs Bay was sold to the Royal Australian Navy in 2010 as a result of that SDSR, where she serves as HMAS Choules. The other three vessels continue in RFA service, with one serving as a mothership for the four MCMVs based in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Kipton. Procurement for a replacement for these vessels is likely to be delayed until at least the 2025 review, with them possibly waiting even longer for a replacement program to be started.

Point Class RoRo vessels provide an essential strategic sealift capability to the British military (Photo Wolfgang Hägele)

Four Point Class roll-on/roll-off cargo vessels are operated to provide the MoD with a permanent strategic sealift capability, lessening the need for ships taken up from trade, known as STUFT vessels. Procured under a Private Finance Initiative for four vessels with another two available at either 20 or 30-days’ notice.  In 2011 it was announced that the two vessels at short notice would be released from the contract due to budget cuts. The remaining ships continue to support MoD operations around the globe, as well as proving replenishment for the Falkland Islands.

Fleet Air Arm

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is the Royal Navy’s aerial presence, providing support to naval and land operations. Currently the FAA operates Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning IIs, known locally as the Lightning FGR.1, in the organic carrier airpower role, with operations beginning from HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2021. While no FAA squadron has been formed, the “Lightning Force” is a joint RAF/FAA operation with three RAF squadrons, 16 Test and Evaluation Squadron, 207 Operational Conversion Unit and 617 “Dambusters” Squadron, containing a mix of FAA and RAF personnel. 809 Naval Air Squadron is expected to be stood up in 2023, with a fourth RAF squadron expected at an as-yet unannounced date. 24 aircraft are expected to be made available for carrier use by 2023, with a full buy of 138 aircraft.

The Lightning aircraft themselves will be covered under the upcoming article regarding the RAF, with this article purely looking at them in a naval context. This future article will also cover aircrew training (other than RN specific training below). Organic airpower at sea is essential to the continued ability of the Royal Navy to project power globally. As was found during the 1982 Falklands Conflict, task forces without organic airpower are extremely venerable to air attack and therefore the Royal Navy is unable to operate effectively without it. Without the full planned 138 aircraft, the Lightning Force will be unable to meet its commitments to both RAF and RN operations. It was announced in the 2010 SDSR that the carriers will routinely deploy with 12 Lightnings aboard, with 24 available to join each ship at short notice. They will, however, be capable of operating 70 F-35s should the need arise and will also routinely operate with US Marine Corps F-35s aboard alongside British aircraft.

The Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning can be seen here refuelling from an RAF Voyager with an Armee de l’air Rafale in the background during EXERCISE POINT BLANK.
EXERCISE POINT BLANK comprised of Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning, USAF F-15E Strike Eagle and Armee de l’air Rafale aircraft operating in unison. (Photo Royal Air Force (Crown Copyright))

AgustaWestland’s Merlin and Wildcat will continue to be the backbone of the FAA’s helicopter fleet and their CHF variants will also continue to operate in support of the Royal Marines. The CHF helicopters will be covered under the upcoming Royal Marines article and therefore aren’t addressed under the FAA section of this article.

The Merlin HM.2, upgraded from the HM.1 variant, operate primarily as ASW helicopters, with secondary roles including VERTRAP (Vertical Replenishment), troop transport, and maritime attack. Ten radar units, reusing the Sea King ASaC.7s equipment, have been procured and the existing HM.2 fleet will also be operated in the Airborne Early Warning role about the Queen Elizabeth Class. 30 HM.1s were upgraded to HM.2 standard, with five being in maintenance at any one time, and fourteen will be assigned to the aircraft carriers. This leaves eleven aircraft available to the escorts and it is likely that these aircraft will be primarily assigned to ASW rolled vessels.

A Merlin HM.2 undergoing trials aboard HMS Illustrious. The Merlin HM.2 is the West’s premier heavy ASW helicopter and is expected to continue in service until at least the end of the decade. (Photo Royal Navy (Crown Copyright))

These aircraft are expected to serve until around 2030 and therefore a replacement program needs to be begun in the near future. One potential option is new or upgraded Merlins, with helicopters being able to have many more components ‘zero-lived’ in upgrades and updates, therefore allowing a cheaper alternative to new aircraft. The Merlin HM.2 continues to be one of the worlds premier ASW platforms, with an extremely high-end active and passive sensor suite and the extremely capable Sting Ray lightweight torpedo being the two main tools for the ASW role. This, coupled with the aircraft’s triple engine reliability and extremely long endurance of five hours (without extra fuel bladders) being unsurpassed by any Western ASW helicopter.

Wildcat, developed from the successful Lynx family, entered FAA service in 2015. While superficially resembling the Super Lynx, the Wildcat is an almost completely new helicopter, with only 5% of components being the same as on the Super Lynx. The aircraft are primarily armed with Sting Ray torpedo in the ASW role, and the Sea Venom and Marlet missiles in the ASuW role. While capable of deploying ASW weaponry, the aircraft themselves lack the sophisticated electronics required to track and target submarines and therefore require offboard sensors to provide targeting data. While the option of adding a dipping sonar is available, as purchased by South Korea, it would leave little to no space available for troop or cargo transport and therefore isn’t a viable option for increasing ASW capabilities.

The Sea Venom, previously known as Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy) (FASGW(H)), is the Wildcat’s primary weapon for dealing with hostile surface vessels. Capable of sinking vessels up to corvette size and significantly damaging larger vessels with its 30kg warhead, the missile is also capable of engaging static land targets. This is joined by the Marlet missile, also known as the Lightweight Modular Missile (LMM) or previously FASGW(Light), which is designed explicitly for dealing with swarming threats, as well as smaller land targets. In fact Marlet has the capability to deal with medium unmanned aerial systems, giving Wildcat some level of self-defence capability.

A computer-generated image of the Royal Navy’s Wildcat attack helicopter, fitted with next-generation precision missiles Sea Venom and Marlet. (Image AgustaWestland (Crown Copyright))

The FAA currently operates the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle RM.1 as it’s primary ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Launched via a deck-mounted pneumatic catapult and recovered via a net, the ScanEagle has an endurance of over 24 hours, allowing for persistent surveillance and targeting of enemy vessels, as well as providing early warning of threats. It is expected to leave service imminently, being replaced by the RQ-20 Puma and Waspe III UAVs, both from AeroVironment. However, neither of these platforms have anywhere near the endurance of the ScanEagle and therefore the FAA may experience a major capability gap when it comes to persistent surveillance.

A rotary-wing UAV, along the lines of the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout, is likely high on the FAAs shopping list. The MQ-8B comes with an endurance of around 8 hours, with the larger MQ-8C having around a 15-hour endurance. Both of these aircraft would be good candidates for the role and Leonardo has been actively selling it’s AWHERO (6-hour endurance) and its larger SW-4 Solo was developed for the FAA’s Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) program. While announced as ready for sale in 2015, it has yet to find a buyer, with the FAA seemingly ignoring it for their needs.


Overall it is clear to see that the Royal Navy is currently undergoing a significant change in the way it operates, its largest since the immediate post-Cold War era. With the return of proper carrier airpower for the first time since 1979 the Royal Navy is in a prime position to address the ever-evolving threats in an increasingly unstable world. Despite rumours that the Army will get the premier treatment under the upcoming defence review the Royal Navy cannot withstand further cuts without significantly impacting its ability to project power. This cannot be allowed to happen and therefore the Royal Navy needs investment, not cuts, to continue to be a viable naval force.

One thought on “2020 SDSR – A Royal Navy Perspective”

  1. There are no words to show my appreciation!

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