A year in review – the Royal Navy in…
In this article we look back at the previous year, summarising the key events and achievements of the Royal Navy in 2022.
The terrible war in Ukraine that began in February, the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War obviously dominated the year. For the RN the war has not had huge obviously visible implications, rather it has added a greater sense of urgency to the standing patrol tasks and NATO commitments that were already in play. Naval combat in the Black Sea is being fought in rather unique circumstances but still offers some lessons for the RN and NATO, especially in how low-cost uncrewed systems can threaten conventional warships.
The threat from the Russian surface fleet is not the prime concern and their dismal performance in the Black Sea has undermined their credibility further but in the undersea domain, things are different. The submarine fleet has always been the Russian Navy’s (VMF) main strength and countering their activity has taken on increased importance. The RN’s involvement in this work has been going on for decades and is rather out of sight and cannot be covered in detail. Despite their age, the Type 23 frigates (HMS Northumberland, Richmond, Portland and Kent in 2022) continue to excel and several have been deployed on long Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) duties in northern waters. HMS Northumberland, for example, has been at high readiness for much of the last 4 years. This year she covered 40,000 miles and was away from her home in Devonport for 241 days, primarily employed on ASW on operations from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, HMS Audacious completed a very long maiden patrol monitoring Russian warships and underwater activity. The RN led the NATO Maritime High Readiness Force in 2022 and warships and submarines spent around 10,000 hours directly supporting the alliance. This included Exercise Cold Response, the largest exercise held in Norway since the end of the Cold war and ASW Exercise Dynamic Mongoose off Iceland. Ships were also attached to the Standing NATO Maritime and Mine Countermeasures groups.
If Russia is often outmatched by NATO forces at sea it is seeking to exploit areas where it can have an asymmetric advantage. It is well equipped with a variety of submarines, submersibles and ‘research vessels’ able to interfere with subsea infrastructure that the UK and Europe are highly dependent upon. Besides the high profile sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic (Sept), communication cables were cut (Jan) and a complete section disappeared in Norwegian waters (April 2021). Two cables connecting The Faroe Islands and Shetland to Scotland were also cut in separate incidents (Oct).
On 7th November the Defence Secretary announced that the much-unloved National Flagship project had been terminated with immediate effect and funding would be urgently redirected to deploying a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS). The ship will be able to deploy UUVs and ROVs to patrol thousands of miles of cables and pipelines as well as hundreds of separate energy installations that need protection. The scale of the task means this activity cannot be undertaken by the Royal Navy alone and will require broader international collaboration between governments, navies and industry.
A commercial vessel has been purchased and will be converted for the role, ready for deployment in 2023. She will eventually be joined by a purpose-built vessel in a few years’ time. At the time of writing the MoD has yet to name the ship they have bought due to vendor sensitivity about selling assets for use by the military.
With Putin continuing to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, those calling for British unilateral disarmament have been further exposed as hopelessly naive and wilfully disregarding the lessons of history. The nuclear deterrent is needed more than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The RN’s Vanguard-class submarines continue to conduct deterrent patrols but maintenance becomes more difficult as the boats get older. Pressure on the force has not been helped by the colossally over-running refuel and refit of HMS Vanguard – now in its seventh year. This also has implications for submariners who are having to endure even longer periods at sea. In 2022 one of the boats conducted the RN’s longest deterrent patrol to date, spending more than 5 months underwater.
Although the RN has just 10 active submarines it has two dry docks and a shiplift certified for their maintenance. HMS Vanguard finally was brought out of Number 9 Dock at Devonport this year but the dock needs repairs before HMS Victorious can start her long-delayed refit. Work has begun on converting Number 10 dock for nuclear submarine work but will take time to complete. The NAO report (November) revealed the MoD has been considering the purchase of a floating dock for submarine maintenance, presumably for use at Faslane to supplement the covered shiplift.
On 6th November, The Sun reported HMS Victorious suffered a fire at sea and was forced to surface. Better sources say there was a fire but it did not necessitate surfacing. Unusually, Victorious was not assigned to a deterrent patrol at the time but was conducting exercises with the US Navy. The USN later released an image from the exercise showing the very rare sight of two SSBNs at sea together.
Limited progress with Carrier Strike
UK Carrier Strike operations in 2022 have not come close to the significant achievements of 2021. HMS Prince of Wales became the flagship of the NATO Response Force (NRF) in January and operated in the high north and the Mediterranean in the first half of the year. Although a good command platform, she embarked only a handful of rotary wing assets for these deployments. At the start of her trip to the US in late August, she suffered an unusual form of mechanical breakdown which resulted in a hasty re-scheduling of the Autumn programme as she was withdrawn for repairs which will continue until ‘Spring 2023’.
HMS Queen Elizabeth was at sea for short training periods early in the year and later crossed the Atlantic, replacing her sister ship as host of the Atlantic Future Forum event in September. Subsequently, CSG22 consisted of a brief 3-week training package in the North Sea with the air group and a visit to Oslo. Fixed-wing aircraft were embarked on RN carriers for just 18 days in 2022 (11-29 Nov). The 8 jets made good use of their very limited time at sea but this output is unimpressive, given the scale of investment and ambition for CEPP. A lack of jets, lack of pilots, dual demand for involvement in land-based operations and a tight budget are among the reasons for this hopefully temporary situation. CSG23 should see HMS Queen Elizabeth and escorts conduct a more substantial deployment, possibly to the eastern Mediterranean, it is unclear if there will also be another visit to the Asia Pacific region. Westlant 23 should see HMS Prince of Wales complete F-35 SRVL trials in the US.
CSG22 was nominally part of the wider Operation Achillean – the largest RN deployment of the Year. HMS Albion, HMS Defender, RFA Argus and RFA Mounts Bay supported by RFA Tidesurge spent 3 months in the Mediterranean. As the Littoral Response Group, it was focussed primarily on amphibious activity, but the ships entered a wide variety of ports in the region for defence diplomacy and engagement visits – an important RN task that is often undervalued. It emerged this year that a Bay class vessel will not now be converted as a ‘littoral strike ship’ as was planned. Instead, RFA Argus will be extended in service beyond her 50th birthday and employed in the role as well as retaining her afloat medical capability.
Signing on the dotted line
November saw a sudden flurry of announcements as the MoD progressed several key naval contracts in a short space of time. Most notably the deal for the second batch of five Type 26 frigates was finally agreed with BAE Systems, each of the ships being about 18% cheaper on average than the first three. Team Resolute was selected as the preferred bidder for the Fleet Solid Support ship contract. We can look forward to further controversy around the percentage of workshare that will go to Spain although the decision is not the complete disaster for British shipbuilding that it has been portrayed as in some quarters.
MSubs Ltd was awarded a £15.4m contract to build Cetus, the first XLUUV (Extra Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle) to be wholly owned by the Royal Navy. This 17-tonne submersible will be able to dive deeper than existing crewed submarines and is likely to provide a pathway for the RN to acquire a much larger fleet of underwater vehicles in future.
Foreland Shipping Ltd (FSL) which operates the four Point Class RoRo vessels that transport military cargoes around the globe were awarded a 7-year £625M ‘interim’ Strategic Sealift contract extension until Dec 2031. Serco was awarded a £200M contract extension for Maritime Services until mid-2024 this covers the provision of tugs, in-harbour support and various other vessels for the UK naval bases. A tender for £147M was also issued to provide offshore support for military training and exercises to run from 2025-35. Serco is the incumbent and likely winner who will operate (MoD-owned) global support ship SD Victoria and provide a replacement for SD Northern River. Finally, in December, James Fisher Plc was awarded a 3rd £63M In-Service Support contract (Jan 2023-28) to maintain the NATO submarine rescue system (NSRS).
While these announcements were very positive, the NAO revealed in November that during the Summer Navy Command withdrew its plans for Type 32 frigates and Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) because of concerns about unaffordability. Effectively there is no money in the MoD future Equipment Plan yet allocated to these programmes. Type 32 remains in the concept phase but is in a fight for funding and is the only means by which the RN might expand its escort fleet beyond 19 vessels in the 2030s. MRSS are supposed to replace the LPDs, Bays and RFA Argus and are fundamental to the RN retaining amphibious capability in the future.
Steady as she goes
The RN order of battle did not improve significantly in 2022, although ultimately deliverable capability matters more than platforms. HMS Echo was taken out of service, primarily to save money on maintenance so that funding can be redirected into new technologies. Some aspects of what is termed Military Data Gathering (MDG) can be done more efficiently with uncrewed systems and the RN has recently been seeding the oceans with data-reporting buoys and glider UUVs that produce far more data than a ship can collect. More Sandown-class minehunters were decommissioned as the RN transitions to an autonomous mine warfare model. A commercial vessel has been purchased for conversion and will act as a mothership for offshore MCM work in UK waters and should be in service sometime next year. The NAO reports there are plans to purchase up to four more ‘Logistic Support Vessels’ for overseas MCM operations. RFA Wave Knight joined her sister ship in long-term lay-up as the RFA struggles with a lack of personnel and finding a crew for MROSS is the higher priority.
The Type 45 Power Improvement Project inched forward with HMS Dauntless set to finally rejoin the fleet next year while work is progressing on HMD Daring and Dragon. Almost a year late, HMS Duncan has finally completed regeneration after major refit and HMD Diamond’s programme was interrupted by mechanical issues. HMS Defender had another outstanding year, covering 27,000nm from the high north to the Baltic and Mediterranean. The Type 23 LIFEX programme is delivering slowly with HMS Somerset rejoining the fleet with HMS Iron Duke to follow soon. HMS Montrose completed an exceptionally successful 4 years forward-deployed in the Gulf but will decommission in 2023 after a farewell tour of the UK, taking total RN escort numbers down to 17 until at least 2028. HMS Tamar and HMS Spey completed their first full year based in the Asia-Pacific region, a policy that has continued the pattern of success with all the Batch II OPVs permanently based overseas.
The 5th Astute class boat, HMS Anson commissioned in the shipyard at Barrow during August before she had even begun initial sea trials which should start sometime next year. In December the last surviving Trafalgar-class boat, HMS Triumph emerged from a refit that began in 2018 and when Anson becomes active, the RN will have a nominal strength of 6 SSNs.
Despite the shambolic state of the government in 2022, UK defence can at least be thankful that Ben Wallace remained in place, providing a measure of continuity as Secretary of State. Few ministers have ever been so committed to their job and had such a good grip on a complex brief at this especially challenging time. The optimism that followed promises of increased defence spending to 3% GDP from the Boris Johnson, and briefly the Liz Truss, administrations has evaporated rapidly. Even with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who once backed a policy of 4% of GDP on defence and foreign aid, the state of public finances ravaged by a colossal lockdown hangover and rocketing inflation means there is little chance of a substantial rise. It now seems likely that against a background of war in Ukraine, the Treasury will at least provide the MoD with an extra £1.5Bn next year to offset the effects of inflation and FOREX movements. The Navy’s headline capital projects are broadly on track but the budget looks set to remain tight with programmes and deployments still vulnerable to cuts, de-scoping and delays.
As ever, the RN has continued to deliver on its core tasks with many people working hard all over the world, often at considerable sacrifice to themselves. There were few really positive headline moments but the Navy’s most significant achievements remain mostly obscured from public view – monitoring and deterring Russian naval activity together with material support, training, advice and intelligence supplied to Ukraine.