By Julian Lewis

RUSI Defence Systems – February 2009

Julian Lewis is the Shadow Defence Minister in the UK House of Commons and is the Member of Parliament for New Forest East. Here he deplores the drop in warship numbers over the last decade and suggests that the Future Surface Combatant must be designed to be as 'cheap as chips'.

According to the new Defence Procurement Minister, Quentin Davies, “The Future Surface Combatant (FSC) programme is still in the early stages of concept and the design is not expected to be confirmed until early in the next decade”. Whenever they are taken by the Government, Ministry of Defence, Navy chiefs and UK shipbuilders, decisions about the FSC will make or break the future of the Surface Fleet.

As Shadow Defence Minister with responsibility for the Royal Navy since 2002, I have monitored with dismay the reductions in warship numbers which would have caused mutiny at the top if imposed at the outset in 1998. That was the year of the Strategic Defence Review – from which the Navy had apparently emerged victorious. Although a price was exacted in return for the promise of two Future Aircraft Carriers, the Admirals sucked their teeth, took a deep breath and agreed to the deal. The attack submarine fleet would shrink from 12 to 10, and the frigate and destroyer total from 35 to 32. But the Navy would get the carriers.

Now the submarines are down to 8, with no pretence that more than 7 of the Astute-class will be built, whilst the reduction of frigates and destroyers to 22 means that over a third of the escort fleet has been cancelled, scrapped or sold.

As head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Alan West – now a Security Minister in the House of Lords – repeatedly exploited the specialist press to warn that “we need 30 destroyers and frigates for what the Government wants us to do”. In the autumn of 2004, he even declared that his “concern overall is that we are piling risk on risk by falling below this total”. The Royal Navy’s view directly contradicted the dangerous claim in Geoff Hoon’s RUSI lecture of 26 June 2003 that, on account of “advances in technology” and the “astonishing speed” with which we can now operate, “Measuring the capability of our Armed Forces by the number of units or platforms in their possession will no longer be significant”. The ‘Hoon excuse’ had already been used to justify the loss of four, rather than three, surface ships after 1998. Once it had been spelt out nakedly in his RUSI lecture, few people were surprised when the axe fell in mid-2004 and another half-dozen frigates and destroyers were cut.

Nor was this the end. Originally, there were supposed to be 12 of the Type 45 destroyers; now there would be 8 – except that the 8 would become just 6 at about the time when the aircraft carriers were finally being ordered, a decade after the Strategic Defence Review. In the meantime, the submarine total had also been reduced nominally to 8 but actually to only 7, or even 6, in the medium term …

Which brings us neatly to the FSC. As an Opposition politician with no access to the files, I cannot comment authoritatively on its detailed early development; but I can give some practical advice about how to handle the project. This can be summed-up in a single sentence: if the Royal Navy is to have any chance of restoring the escort fleet, it must make the FSC as ‘cheap as chips’. The old story of top-of-the-range specifications for new warships must, this time, be abandoned. If the Navy and the MoD insist on piling every available gadget and gizmo into these vessels from the outset, they will end up with half the total number actually required – as happened with the Type 45 destroyers. In contrast to the Hoon excuse, Admirals are now rightly singing a new song entitled: “Quantity is Quality”. Too right it is – given that even the most powerful ship can be in only one place at any given time.

When considering the FSC project, one’s mind reverts to the cancellation of a previous future carrier by a previous Labour Government which decided that the UK need no longer maintain a military presence East of Suez. There would have been no aircraft carriers today but for two factors. The first was the ingenuity and determination of those who conceived and designed the through-deck cruisers which became the Invincible-class carriers. The second was a technical advance – the jump-jet technology which enabled military aircraft to be operated from much smaller ships.

A parallel development has now occurred in warship design. No longer is it necessary to rip open and rebuild surface warships in costly refits whenever additional systems need to be incorporated. Provided that spare space and extra connectivity are built into the frigates, destroyers and carriers of the future, they can be upgraded with minimal disruption and delay, using a modular “plug-and-play” technique.

This was probably developed mainly with a view to adding future systems which have not yet been developed. Yet, it is equally valuable as a means of incremental acquisition, even when systems are available already but the money cannot be found. Of course, it is frustrating that ships as potent and costly as the Darings are not (yet) fitted with tactical Tomahawk missiles; but at least we know that this gap can be filled relatively simply when the budget permits – though the crew will have to use a much smaller ‘gymnasium’ in the future.

Everyone involved with the FSC needs to think in these terms: it is vital to get as many hulls into the water as the budget will allow. If Admiral West is right about the minimum of 30 ships – and, remember, the SDR promised 32 – then no fewer than 24 FSCs will be needed to reach that total in combination with the Type 45s. I do not yet know how achievable this task will be. Much will depend upon how slowly our dwindling escort fleet can be phased out as the new hulls take to the water. What is clear beyond doubt is that the numbers required will prove to be practicable only if the Royal Navy and the MoD in particular exert iron self-control and make these vessels – in their initial versions – the most economical and utilitarian warships of their size which have ever been designed.

These designs must exploit to the full the new techniques enabling greater or lesser systems incorporation according to the funds available. And the process will have the valuable side-effect of providing cheap-and-cheerful frigates for export to other navies, whilst supplying us with template ships in fairly large numbers for basic workhorse duty – until the money is available for some or all of them to be upgraded to specialist roles.

This is a one-off opportunity for the Fleet to restore the size of its nautical ‘footprint’. If it is missed or botched, there will not be another in my political lifetime.