The Royal Navy Has More Ambitions Than Assets (2022)

ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH—It wasn’t your father’s decrepit, old Royal Navy. After years of seeing ship numbers dwindle, the Royal Navy is trying to prove it is back on the uproll, parking its flagship carrier in New York Harbor last week for the world to see.

Once the world’s largest navy, Britain had just 19 destroyers and frigates—and no aircraft carriers—after parliamentarians took a scalpel to the defense budget in the mid-2010s. But experts who watched the 65,000-metric-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth, sporting a flight deck the size of three football fields, drop anchor near the Statue of Liberty saw hope for London’s promises to reemerge as a global naval superpower, pledging to have 24 surface ships underway by the first half of the next decade.

“They do everything. They do live-fire missile shots, they do anti-submarine warfare, they do maritime interdiction operations, humanitarian assistance stuff, rotary wing from one ship to the next, cross-checking of personnel,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States. “The Royal Navy, although much smaller than in its heyday, is downsized to an appropriate level where they can still contribute [and] punch above their weight with two aircraft carriers.”

ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH—It wasn’t your father’s decrepit, old Royal Navy. After years of seeing ship numbers dwindle, the Royal Navy is trying to prove it is back on the uproll, parking its flagship carrier in New York Harbor last week for the world to see.

Once the world’s largest navy, Britain had just 19 destroyers and frigates—and no aircraft carriers—after parliamentarians took a scalpel to the defense budget in the mid-2010s. But experts who watched the 65,000-metric-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth, sporting a flight deck the size of three football fields, drop anchor near the Statue of Liberty saw hope for London’s promises to reemerge as a global naval superpower, pledging to have 24 surface ships underway by the first half of the next decade.

“They do everything. They do live-fire missile shots, they do anti-submarine warfare, they do maritime interdiction operations, humanitarian assistance stuff, rotary wing from one ship to the next, cross-checking of personnel,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States. “The Royal Navy, although much smaller than in its heyday, is downsized to an appropriate level where they can still contribute [and] punch above their weight with two aircraft carriers.”

Even if the British navy can punch above its weight, it is in a different weight class from the U.S. and Chinese navies, the two largest fleets in the world. The Queen Elizabeth more closely resembles U.S. amphibious assault ships, which only support aircraft with vertical takeoff, than U.S. supercarriers that can fire F-35 fighter jets into the sky with an electromagnetic catapult.

But the question for the Royal Navy going forward, experts told Foreign Policy, is not how hard it can hit but, with just a fledgling fleet around its two carriers, whether Britain will be able to build enough ships around them with the Treasury’s purse strings getting tighter.

“If Great Britain’s going to reemerge as a sea power, they’re going to need more than just the carriers,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy captain. “You don’t build carriers for presence. Carriers are the ultimate power projection source. So if you don’t have the rest of that force … the carrier becomes a wasting asset.”

Sitting at the far edge of the Hudson River last week, drawing glances from New Yorkers in lower Manhattan, the British carrier was alone, with only small boats servicing it with new conference-goers throughout the day.

“We are the center of a layered defense system protected by all Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, submarines, and not just sovereign assets but, you know, U.S. assets, other nations providing units that assist in the protection of the flagship,” said Ian Feasey, the captain of the Queen Elizabeth.

The problem is that Britain doesn’t have enough assets to create what Washington would recognize as a proper carrier strike group. In Pentagon terms, every carrier needs three smaller ships as a defensive perimeter in treacherous waters and 65 to 70 carrier-fired jets. The Queen Elizabeth held its first seven-month deployment to the Indo-Pacific last year with nearly a dozen U.S. Marine Corps F-35B fighter jets filling in empty slots on the flight deck. (Each ship has about 40 aircraft.) And Britain’s escort fleet of frigates and destroyers will dip to just 17 ships by next year, while the Queen Elizabeth’s twin carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, has been sidelined with engineering issues.

Newly minted British Prime Minister Liz Truss pledged during her campaign for Conservative Party leadership to raise defense spending to 3 percent of GDP by 2030, doubling the military’s annual budget. Truss is also likely to rewrite the integrated defense review championed by her predecessor Boris Johnson. That could see the Royal Navy fielding deep precision strike weapons, land-attack missiles, and developing hypersonic missiles for submarines.

Yet in the context of Britain’s renewed financial woes, with the British pound facing a rout over the past week after Truss announced additional Treasury borrowing to pay for tax cuts and a cost of living crisis that has extended for months, experts fear that there is little public appetite for a defense spending bump—or that Truss would be an effective messenger. “[T]here has been very little attempt to ready the British public for the sacrifices that will be needed for a similar level of increase for defence,” Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, wrote in a recent paper for the organization.

Britain’s navy got a bump in Johnson’s integrated defense review, which was published last year and called for the U.K. to be the foremost naval power in Europe, a $9 billion jump over what London had previously planned, most of which will be funneled into building more vessels to fill out the surface fleet and extending the life of refitted ships, as well as some new ballistic missile submarines. The navy has also upped spending to deploy so-called Sea Viper air defenses aboard new destroyers and a lightweight torpedo system.

Years after British officials cast cold water on the idea of sharing an aircraft carrier with the French amid a spending lull that saw the Pentagon brass raising public concerns about London’s falling defense spending, interoperability remains the name of the game.

“For us, the most important thing is to have that plug-and-play capability with allies and partners,” said Feasey, the Queen Elizabeth’s captain, citing the hosting of U.S. F-35B fighters aboard the ship and an effort to integrate a U.S. guided missile destroyer into the British carrier strike group. “We are absolutely comfortable in swapping out a U.K. asset and replacing it with a U.S. asset or a Dutch asset because they are nations with which not only we have a deep heritage in maritime operations but we go beyond interoperability. It’s interchangeability.”

That’s part of the technological game plan, too. The Queen Elizabeth, unlike U.S. supercarriers, is not nuclear-powered. So, while it carries plenty of fuel, it can’t keep station indefinitely. Defense officials expect the British government to lean heavily on capability development partnerships such as the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the U.K., and the United States to get up to speed. But Feasey sees the Queen Elizabeth lasting in the British fleet for as long as half a century, sporting an uncrewed air wing on deck and electronic weapons like rail guns.

But the fleet numbers—watched closely by the United States and other allies—have yet to match up with London’s ambitions. Hendrix, the retired U.S. Navy captain, said air defense destroyers and frigates to defend the carrier, more F-35B aircraft, and sustained investment in shipyards will be vital if Britannia is to rule even some of the waves.

“We have yet to see all those numbers mature and come along,” Hendrix said. “So that’s the big challenge that they’re facing.”

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