In 1997, the British government said the Royal Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers to protect the country’s interests. Today, the Royal Navy has just 22 surface warships. With the Type 45 destroyer program cut in half to just six vessels, surface combatant numbers will drop again, to as low as 14 under current plans, when old Type 22 and Type 23 frigates begin paying off in six years.
The Royal Navy is already too small. Consider that, in order to send a ship to patrol for Somali pirates as part of the E.U. naval force, London had to pull a frigate from the regular South Atlantic station. There is no “flex” in the fleet as it stands. With further cuts, core missions will inevitably drop away.
The fleet’s only hope is a vaguely-defined program to build a family of small warships to replace the four Type 22s and 13 Type 23s that comprise the majority of the surface fleet. The “Future Surface Combatant” program is supposed to build up to 18 “modular” ships optimized for Anti-Submarine Warfare, land attack and patrolling, with the first ship to join the fleet around 2019. That’s four years after the Type 22s begin retiring. Type 23s pay off starting in 2019.
“Given the current funding situation, we should be aiming to support the build of a new combatant about every 12 months or so,” Commodor Steve Brunton, one of four officers assigned to study FSC, wrote this year. If the Royal Navy gets one FSC (concept art pictured) per year starting in 2019, the fleet will drop to 14 surface combatants by 2023, since Type 23s will initially retire faster than FSCs can be built. After 2023, fleet numbers might creep up to a new peak of 24, comprising 18 FSCs and 6 Type 45s.
And that’s the best-case scenario.
Under current plans, the Royal Navy circa 2020 will be a very strange force. There will be just six high-end warships to protect two 65,000-ton super-carriers, plus a mixed flotilla of old Type 23s and FSCs numbering just over a dozen. It’ll be a top-heavy force with too few destroyers to escort the carriers into a shooting war, and too few frigates to perform day-to-day patrolling during peacetime. It’s a fleet optimized for nothing.
(Art: Vosper Thornycroft)