From shrinking headquarters staff to the UK’s carrier strike group declaring initial operating capability and continued investment in uncrewed and autonomous systems, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin is overseeing plans to see the Royal Navy transition into a modern force that is more actively engaged and forward-deployed across the globe.

At the Surface Warships conference in January, he commented on some of the aspects of this work.

Shipbuilding and the future fleet

Last November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans for an increase in UK defence spending to drive transformation and strengthen the role of the Royal Navy. Part of the government’s ambition is to expand the size of the UK’s escort fleet. At the time, Johnson said building more ships was “one policy that strengthens the UK in every possible sense”.

This announcement reconfirmed a number of programmes, and also laid the groundwork for a new ship, the Type 32 Frigate, which is expected to be used as a mothership for autonomous systems.

Speaking at the conference, Radakin said of the work ahead: “The prime minister heralded a shipbuilding era and a clear ambition for the Royal Navy to the foremost naval power in Europe.

“That translates into all eight ships of the Type 26 class, Fleet Solid Support Ships to allow our aircraft carriers to operate anywhere in the world, new multi-role surveillance ships to protect our critical undersea cables, a new class of Type 32 Frigates to add to our new Type 31 Frigates, shipping to support our Future Commando Force and affirmation of the UK’s commitment to the Dreadnought programme and the maintenance of the continuous at-sea deterrent.”

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The Fleet Solid Support Ship programme is expected to proceed to the competition phase soon. The planned three ships will be critical to future carrier strike deployments, keeping ships stocked with supplies while at sea.

Elsewhere the First Sea Lord had talked about “shipping to support our Future Commando Force, which could be a reference to the Littoral Strike Ship project that has gone quiet and seen little public mention over the past year.

Speaking at the conference, Radakin added: “This shift towards maritime investment is not unique; it is representative of numerous other navies whether that is Australia, Japan, India, France or the United States.

“The threats that we face, the relentless growth of commercial shipping volumes, climate change opening up new trade routes, the need to influence, protect our values and where necessary compete, all of these once again are focused on the world’s oceans.”

The First Sea Lord highlighted HMS Montrose as a success story for the Royal Navy. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

The year ahead for the Royal Navy

Discussing the year ahead, Radakin said: “The Integrated Review and the Integrated Operating Concept give a clear route forward from both the prime minister and the secretary of state for defence. This is to meet the UK’s strategic direction; our role is for all of us as chiefs of the various services to deliver against those requirements.

“For the navy that is about realising our shipbuilding programme, working even more cohesively with the army, Royal Air Force and Strategic Command, driving technological innovation. And we must keep improving the availability of our existing ships and submarines, and keep closing the gaps in our personnel.”

One example of success the First Sea Lord was keen to highlight was the Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose, which is forward-deployed to the Gulf. Montrose uses double-crewing and has been able to achieve 99% availability. The ship also has the lowest rate of defects among the Type 23 frigates.

Radakin said this could be a model for more ships to follow as the UK looks to achieve its ambition for a more forward-deployed fleet.

“We need to maintain what we started with transformation, more forward presence,” he said. Our offshore patrol vessels are already deployed around the world. Soon we will be able to augment them with even more capable Type 31s.

“More double crewing building on the success of HMS Montrose. More support done at distance, again the success of the Montrose model gives me confidence that we can manage deploying ships, and even start to imagine their never returning to the UK.”

Type 31 is intended as a general-purpose ship in the Royal Navy’s future fleet. Credit: Babcock

The carrier strike 2021 deployment

Later this year, the UK’s carrier strike group is set to embark on its maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific, which will see HMS Queen Elizabeth operate near China, a point of increasing contention between it and the UK.

Speaking of the deployment at Surface Warships, Radakin said: “And of course, this year sees what the prime minister has called our most ambitious deployment for two decades. HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the most modern and most capable aircraft carriers in the world, will deploy at the heart of a multi-national carrier strike group with Royal Navy and RAF jets and helicopters embarked.

“She will sail through the Mediterranean, through Suez, through the Indian Ocean and on into the Indo-Pacific. And on the way, she will exercise with our allies and partners from around the world, very much the floating embodiment of Global Britain.”

Another critical aspect of the exercise is the partnership with the US Navy and Marine Corps on the deployment. Like Exercise Joint Warrior last year, the deployment will see US Marine Corps jets deploy on operations from the British carrier.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will also be joined on the deployment by the US destroyer USS The Sullivans, which will form part of the carrier strike group.

The Type 26 as a model for the navy’s future

The Royal Navy’s next anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigate, Type 26, is key to the navy’s plans, and as Radakin explained a model for the fleet to follow when it comes to modularity and flexibility in its design.

Most importantly, he said, Type 26 represents the beginning of a mindset that drives automation and modularity and flexibility, he said at the conference, adding: “I revel in the fact that we have HMS Glasgow in build as the first Type 26 ASW frigate and she has an enormous mission deck that can take 14 containers. And we have had the confidence to wait and see how we best use that space.

“That space can be used with containers holding a raft of different technologies, that could be directed energy weapons, it might be railguns, it might be mobile mini-factories with laser printing capabilities. It might be MCM in a box, it could be a full office suite for an embassy or it could be medical facilities or a suite of surface, air or underwater drones to enhance a single ships reach.”

The idea of using a single platform for a range of purposes is echoed in the thinking behind the Type 31 which is slated to be a general-purpose ship. While having an ISO containerised rail gun may seem far-fetched at present, the idea of quickly changing a ship’s toolset is not, and would help the Royal Navy achieve more flexibility with fewer hulls.

Radakin added: “That, to me, is much more of what the Royal Navy of the future is starting to look like. Every ship, submarine and Royal Marine really will be a sensor, an intelligence station, an embassy, a launchpad for a range of new technologies and all of them playing their part in increasing maritime special operations.”Commenting on how the recently announced defence funding would enable change, the First Sea Lord concluded: “So this really is an exciting time for the Royal Navy and for UK defence. It has to be, in order to respond to the threats that we face, to embrace the technological revolution that is all around us and that excitement has to be matched by our people and our partners in industry.

“Recruitment is up, retention is up, tonnage is up, but to be successful we need to keep our desire to change and adapt and transform also up. And alongside that, our bureaucracy has to go down, our costs have to come down, and our timelines have to come down.”