Maritime first is the right defence posture for the UK
Speaking in 2020, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to make the UK the 'foremost naval power' in Europe. The statement came with a pledge to build a new class of Type 32 frigates that would finally see the RN's escort fleet grow after years of decline.
Going into the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific tilt that came with it, much was said of the importance of free trade – most of which the UK conducts via sea, the international rules-based order and undersea critical national infrastructure.
Emerging from the Integrated Review, it seemed the RN was well placed to address these challenges, deploying River-class OPVs to corners of the globe far from the UK and promising to buy a new ship to help keep tabs on the crucial emerging seabed domain.
Despite being the clear winner of the Integrated Review, it is worth noting the decisions stemming from it were not all sunshine and roses for the RN.
Plans laid out saw the RN losing its entire fleet of Hunt and Sandown-class MCMVs without a like-for-like replacement and the deletion of two Duke-class Type 23 frigates – something the Navy said would actually improve escort availability.
What has stemmed since the Integrated Review has been the publication of a long-awaited refreshed National Shipbuilding Strategy, including a 30-year pipeline for all government shipbuilding, the announcement of new projects, and a re-focusing of existing RN assets for new missions.
'The Navy is central to the IP [Indo-Pacific] engagement - because the region is both maritime centric and maritime-led in terms of security issues and therefore solutions to them.'— King's College professor of war & strategy in East Asia Alessio Patalano
From missile upgrades to the Daring-class Type 45 destroyer and the announcement of its successor Type 83, to the latest decision to refresh RFA Argus and keep it in service and the most recent snippet of information about a new Mine Countermeasure Support vessel, the RN sees investment.
Prof Alessio Patalano, an expert in Asian maritime conflict and strategy at King's College London, told Shephard: 'More than "naval", I think "maritime first" is a relevant posture for the UK. Maritime here meaning a posture that rightly integrated naval, land, air and space capabilities to deliver a sea-based frontline defence and projection posture.'
Patalano added: 'The Navy is central to the IP [Indo-Pacific] engagement - because the region is both maritime centric and maritime-led in terms of security issues and therefore solutions to them.
'That said, the Army, the marines, and the Air Force all have important contributions to make. Indeed an integrated approach that makes the most of the multiple exercises, capacity-building opportunities, and relationship-building processes is the real objective. The key is to think maritime and not mutely naval.'
Despite criticism for not being well-armed, deploying two River-class OPVs to the Indo-Pacific has been a success. Steaming into the region with smaller ships has shown the UK's willingness to commit to the area while not necessarily making a statement of overt power or seeming to step on anyone's toes.
This deployment followed the inaugural Carrier Strike Group (CSG 21), which, while almost definitely falling more into the category of an overt statement of power, took an approach of partnering along the way and saw the RN exercise and train with countless countries in the region.
The UK will eventually replace or supplement the OPV presence with an Inspiration-class Type 31 frigate once the ships come online later this decade. It could be argued that for the role in the region the UK wishes to play – that of a friend and partner - maintaining the OPVs and rotational CSG deployments could be more than sufficient.
River-class OPV HMS Spey in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: UK MoD/ Crown Copyright)
In the immediate term, the RN is at a crossroads with fleet numbers set to decline and a reliance on the maturation of emerging technology, both key concerns. Existing programmes such as the City-class Type 26 are behind schedule, and the Daring-class Type 45 destroyers continue to be plagued by issues requiring lengthy refits.
The RFA is also shrinking, and concerns remain over the entry into service of the much-needed Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ship and, therefore, the ability of the UK to support its shiny new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers while afloat. The RN's attack submarine fleet has also shrunk.
Navigating the immediate term shrinkage with growth plans is a prescient challenge for the service deemed the so-called winner of the Integrated Review.
Commenting on the Integrated Review, an RN spokesperson said: 'We are delivering on our vision to support and equip our sailors and marines for a more competitive age, including the need to invest for the long term in vital capabilities such as the Continuous At Sea Deterrent.
'The Defence Command Paper and Integrated Review put a threat-led approach firmly at the heart of the Royal Navy's work and as part of this, is committed to funding significant upgrades, including the investment in new ships and capabilities, and retiring of those that are approaching obsolescence. Risks associated with this transition are being actively managed in order to minimise capability gaps and ensure the Royal Navy is able to meet all its operational outputs.'
The spokesperson furthered: 'We are proud of our personnel and the work they do across the world every day, including our ongoing support for Ukraine.
'We are acutely aware that our nation's resilience is crucial and we will continue to adapt our strategy and response to meet emerging threats and challenges.'
Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for many Western countries about under-investment in their armed forces and reliance on old equipment.
This has been particularly clear in the UK, with the British Army still using decades-old tanks, IFVs and APCs. This issue has been compounded by the MoD's failure to procure new equipment for the British Army promptly.
On the other hand, over the past few decades, the RN has done well to safeguard investment in large capital platforms and maintain the aircraft carrier purchase in a decade defined by cuts following the global economic crash of the late 2000s.
The Navy has also postured the aircraft carriers as not an RN asset but rather a defence asset, something the other RAF and the Army can operate from in support of the UK's global goals.
Ukraine has reminded the UK of the need to invest in its army, and rightly so, but given the location of the UK, its aim to be more present in the Indo-Pacific and strategic challenges like that of the GIUK gap, a maritime first approach is the best focus for the defence of the UK.
A robust maritime power can then support the other branches of the armed forces, allowing the RAF to operate where there might not be runways and helping to project the force of the army forward by safeguarding its supply lines.
The RN also plans to extend its missile capabilities to deploy faster and further flying missiles with land-attack capabilities, which would give the service a more substantial role in supporting land forces.
The RN has a direction of travel, and the immediate term decline will be a challenge to surmount, but if a larger, stronger Navy emerges out the other side, the UK will be better for it.
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