Future of the Royal Navy

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At the beginning of the 1990s the Royal Navy was a force designed for the Cold War. The main purpose of its fleet, based around three small aircraft carriers and a force of anti-submarine frigates and destroyers, was to search for – and if required, to destroy – Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. The 1982 Falklands War also demonstrated a requirement for the Royal Navy to maintain an expeditionary capability.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Royal Navy has been used to meet a wider range of objectives around the world, while experiencing a gradual reduction in the size of its surface and submarine fleets. Fixed-wing carrier operations ceased in 2010 with the retirement of the last Harrier GR7/GR9 aircraft. This capability will not be restored until the Joint Combat Aircraft (F-35) and the first Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier become operational around 2020. Cuts have also seen the sale of three Type 23 frigates in 2005/6 and the early decommissioning of four Type 22 frigates in 2010/11.

Over the course of the 1990s and the 2000s, the navy began a series of projects to improve its fleet, with a view to providing enhanced capabilities, although many programmes were reduced in scale. This has led to the replacement of smaller and more numerous units with fewer, but larger, units. The main examples of this are the replacement of twelve Type 42 destroyers with six Type 45s and the replacement of the three 20,000 tonne Invincible-class aircraft carriers with two 70,600 tonne Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

There are, as of November 2018, 13 Royal Navy ships and submarines under construction (A further 5 planned): Four Astute-class submarines (boats 4-7), one Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarine (boat 1 of 4), one Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier (ship 2 of 2), one Type 26 frigate (ships 3 of 8) and four ocean-going patrol vessels (ships 2-5). Early design and preparation work has begun on a fleet of at least five frigates known as the Type 31e. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary will receive a further two Tide-class tankers by the end of the decade, which are presently under construction/being fitted out.

Ships under construction[edit]

Royal Navy[edit]

The following is a list of vessels planned, ordered, under construction or undergoing sea trials within the United Kingdom, and destined for the Royal Navy:

Class Ship Pennant No. Builders Displacement Type Homeport Commissioning
Queen Elizabeth class Prince of Wales R09 Aircraft Carrier Alliance, Rosyth 65,000 tonnes Aircraft carrier Portsmouth Expected 2020
River class Medway P223 BAE Systems, Glasgow 2,000 tonnes Offshore patrol vessel Portsmouth Expected 2018
Trent P224 Expected 2018
Tamar P233 Expected 2019
Spey Expected 2019
Astute class Audacious S122 BAE Systems, Barrow-in-Furness 7,400 tonnes Fleet submarine Clyde Expected 2018
Anson S123 Expected 2020
Agamemnon S124 Expected 2022
Agincourt S125 Expected 2024
Dreadnought class Dreadnought 17,200 tonnes Ballistic missile submarine Clyde Expected 2028
Valiant TBC
Type 26 Glasgow BAE Systems, Glasgow 6,900 tonnes Anti-submarine frigate Devonport Expected 2026
Cardiff TBC

Royal Fleet Auxiliary[edit]

The following is a list of vessels under construction or undergoing sea trials and destined for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary:

Class Ship Pennant No. Builders Displacement Type Service entry
Tide class
RFA Tidesurge A138 DSME, Korea 37,000 tonnes Fast fleet tanker Expected 2018
RFA Tideforce A139 DSME, Korea 37,000 tonnes Fast fleet tanker Expected 2019


Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier[edit]

HMS Queen Elizabeth on sea trials in June 2017.

In the 1998 Strategic Defence Review a requirement was laid out for a replacement for the Royal Navy's three Invincible-class light aircraft carriers. The Invincible class were originally designed as "through-deck cruisers", with each carrying a squadron of ASW helicopters, tasked with patrolling the North Atlantic in search of Soviet submarines. With the end of the Cold War, as well as events in the Falklands and the Persian gulf, the Royal Navy gradually changed in emphasis from an ASW force into an expeditionary force with a need for fleet carriers. As a result, in 2009 BAE Systems began construction on the Queen Elizabeth class, two 70,600 ton STOVL configured supercarriers. The primary weapons system of these ships will be the F-35B Joint Combat Aircraft. The lead ship HMS Queen Elizabeth entered the water in July 2014, with sea trials in 2017, flight-deck trials expected in 2018 and interim operating capability by 2020. In September 2014 David Cameron announced that the second ship HMS Prince of Wales will enter service alongside her sister-ship, ending years of uncertainty about her future.[1] According to Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, one of the carriers will be adapted towards amphibious operations as HMS Ocean will be decommissioned in 2018.[2][3]

Type 26 and Type 31e frigates[edit]

In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review a replacement programme was authorized for the Navy's fleet of thirteen Type 23 frigates. In 2012, BAE Systems Naval Ships was awarded a contract to design the replacement, known as the Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS). It was planned that two variants of the class would be built: five general purpose frigates and eight anti-submarine warfare frigates. According to the current timeline, construction will begin in 2016, with the first Type 26 frigate commissioning in 2021 and the last commissioning in the mid-2030s whilst the Type 23s are gradually phased out. Eight Type 26 frigates will be built initially. The five remaining ships will be covered by a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigate, known as the Type 31e frigate or General Purpose Frigate (GPFF).[4][5] According to the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, the lower cost of these frigates could lead to the Royal Navy acquiring more than five of them, thus increasing its numbers of frigates and destroyers.[6] In July 2016, BAE revealed two Type 31e designs, namely the Avenger-class and the Cutlass-class.[7] Work on the first Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow, began in July 2017.[8] On 6 September 2017, the UK government committed to building a first batch of five Type 31e frigates.[9] On 26 July 2018 the Government ‘paused’ the procurement citing the fact that neither of the submissions met the £250M price point. It stated that it would restart the procurement shortly.[10][11] On 10 December 2018, three groups were selected for the competitive design phase: BAE Systems/Cammell Laird with their planned Leander design, Babcock/BMT/Thales with their Arrowhead 140 design and Atlas Elektronik UK/Thyssenkrup Marine Systems, which is likely to be based on the MEKO A-200 design.[12]

Offshore patrol vessels[edit]

In November 2013 it was announced that to sustain the UK shipbuilding base, and for defence-related reasons, three new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) with Merlin-capable flight-decks are to be built.[13][14] In August 2014, BAE Systems was awarded a £348 million contract to design and build the new class. The vessels will be significantly larger than the River class and will be built on the Clyde in Scotland, with an in-service date of 2017. It is envisaged that they will be used for constabulary duties such as counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and anti-smuggling operations.[15] The vessels will be named, HMS Forth, HMS Medway and HMS Trent.[16] They will displace around 2,000 tonnes, be equipped with a 30 mm main gun, 16-tonne crane for two sea boats, capable of making 24 kn (44 km/h; 28 mph) and patrol for upwards of 6,000 miles or 35 days with a basic crew of just 34 or maximum of 60. [17] The latest Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 stated that two more OPVs will be procured,[2] with the new vessels later receiving the names Tamar and Spey.[18]

Although the 2015 SDSR laid out plans for the five new River-class ships to supplant in service the existing vessels, in November 2018 it was announced that the first three ships, HMS Tyne, HMS Severn and HMS Mersey, would be retained for service in UK waters. These ships would also be "forward-deployed" to ports that correspond with their names - Tyne at Newcastle, Severn at Cardiff and Mersey at Liverpool.[19]

Mine countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC)[edit]

The 2010 SDSR stated that the existing Hunt class and Sandown class of mine countermeasure vessels were to be replaced. The new vessels would use a common hull and modular design to support modern mine countermeasure, hydrography and patrol requirements.[20] In December 2010, an analyst suggested that "Current plans seem to point to a single class of vessel about 100 m in length and between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes displacement. These will deliver on the MCM, survey and patrol requirements using a range of off board systems like USV’s, UAV’s and UUV’s." It was also said that any programme would seek "to replace the Hunt, Sandown, Echo and River-classes" currently in service.[21] During June 2011, BAE Systems and SeeByte of Edinburgh, Scotland, signed a "Co-operation Agreement to pursue business opportunities associated with the UK’s Mine Counter Measure (MCM), Hydrography and Patrol Capability (MHPC) Programme."[22] In January 2012, Dstl of the Ministry of Defence announced a programme - in 'Concept Phase' - with interests in the development of remote mine countermeasure and hydrography systems such as UAVs, USVs and UUVs. Such systems would offer unique capabilities and deliver elements of a wider MHPC programme.[23][24]

In May 2012 shortly after the Dstl release, the MOD published a 'Joint Concept Note' entitled "Future Black Swan-class Sloop-of-war". The MoD publication outlined the future maritime needs and challenges of the Royal Navy and focused on the potentiality of the Royal Navy returning to large numbers sloops as a solution. It proposes a class of around 40 sloops-of-war, displacing 3,150 tonnes, a length of 95 meters and a low unit price of £65 million.[25] The sloops would incorporate a modular design, including; a mission bay for UAVs, USVs and UUVs during mine countermeasures and hydrography tasks, a large flight deck capable of accommodating a Boeing CH-47 Chinook sized helicopter for disaster relief operations and external module stowage for the ability to add and remove various offensive and defensive weapons when needed. The external module stowage is described as facilitating 'Capability Packages' so that the sloop can be reconfigured for different roles when the need arises. Fixed weapons include a single 30 mm gun, two Miniguns and two GPMGs. For 'Sea Control' or 'war-fighting capability packages' the Black Swan class would be reconfigured with containerised missile modules for land attack, anti-ship and anti-air missiles in addition to the sloops' fixed weapons. A towed array sonar could also be fitted as well as directed energy weapons. The Black Swan class would have a core crew of 8 with additional crew added depending on the capability package. For example, in some configurations a crew of 40 would be required.[25]

DSTL is developing autonomous unmanned surface vehicles such as the 32 ft (9.8 m) Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST)

The order for the River-class Batch 2 led to the "patrol" element being dropped from the requirement in 2013.[26] The Concept Phase established that most elements of the capability could be delivered by off-board systems from steel ships, but a low-signature hull has not yet been discounted.[26] The Project passed Initial Gate in July 2014 and is now in the early stages of its Assessment Phase, which will deliver three technology demonstrators.[26]

The 2015 SDSR specified that only 12 mine-counter measure vessels will exist in Joint Force 2025.[27] The three oldest Sandown-class minehunters will be decommissioned.[28] The UK and France will collaborate on a Maritime Mine Counter Measures project.[29] At DESI 2017, the First Sea Lord mentioned that the Royal Navy’s aim to accelerate the incremental delivery of our future mine countermeasures and hydrographic capability (MHC) programme.[30]

HMS Gleaner, the Royal Navy's inshore hydrographic survey launch, was scheduled for decommissioning at the end of 2017. In August 2017, it was announced that she would be replaced by a boat that had been ordered as part of a large order of workboats. The new boat, HMS Magpie, from Safehaven Marine's Wildcat 60 range of catamarans, will be 18 metres long with a displacement of up to 37 tonnes, and room for a crew of up to 12.[31]

Gibraltar Squadron[edit]

In July 2017 it was announced that the Gibraltar Squadron, responsible for the security of the territorial waters around the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, would receive two new warships which will be more “capable”, “faster” and have “bigger guns”, to replace their existing patrol vessels HMS Sabre and HMS Scimitar "within the next two years".[32]

Royal Fleet Auxiliary[edit]

Four 37,000-ton Tide-class fast fleet tankers are being built in South Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary under the first phase of the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) project. The ships will provide fuel, food, fresh water and other supplies to Royal Navy warships, and are projected to enter service at a rate of about one ship every four or five months from September 2016.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 confirmed that three new large MARS Solid Support Ships would be acquired for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, to replace the single-hulled RFA Fort Victoria, which entered service in 1994, and RFA Fort Rosalie and RFA Fort Austin (both dating from the late 1970s). The ships are expected to enter service in the mid 2020s.[33][34][35] The 2017 National Shipbuilding Strategy confirm this, noting that the Fleet Solid Support ships would be subjected to an international competition and be delivered by the mid-2020s.[36]

The SDSR did not mention any current plans to replace RFA Diligence which at the time was scheduled to go out of service in 2020 but was laid up and advertised for sale in 2016, or RFA Argus which will go out of service in 2024.[37] The decision may be taken before or during the next Defence Review in 2020. A parliamentary reply on 21 March 2016 noted that "The consideration of options to deliver the capabilities provided by RFA Diligence and RFA Argus remains ongoing".[38] An August 2016 notice stated that Diligence is placed up for sale, [39] and it was stated that the MOD is considering options for a replacement.[40]


Astute-class nuclear attack submarine[edit]

HMS Astute enters Faslane Naval Base

In 1997 the MOD signed a contract with BAE Systems Submarine Solutions to deliver a new class of seven nuclear powered attack submarines to the Royal Navy. This class was intended to replace the five boats of the ageing Swiftsure class, as well as the oldest two boats of the Trafalgar class. The first-in-class HMS Astute was laid down in January 2001 and commissioned into the fleet in August 2010, followed by her sisters HMS Ambush (2013) and HMS Artful (2016). As of March 2016, three of the boats have been commissioned and entered service, and three are under construction. The long lead contract for the seventh boat has been signed and her commissioning is planned for 2024. The Astute class are much larger than their predecessors and have greatly improved stealth, endurance and weapons load. Each submarine is capable of carrying up to 38 Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles and Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes.

Dreadnought-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine[edit]

The British government is currently conducting preliminary studies into a replacement for the four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) which carry Britain's nuclear deterrent. In July 2016 it was confirmed that a new class of submarine would be built retaining the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent and replacing the current fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines.[41] In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, both of the UK's two main political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, pledged to authorise a like-for-like replacement of the four Vanguard-class SSBNs, and to preserve the UK's policy of continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence. The final decision over a replacement was due to be made on 18 July 2016.[42][43] On that day, the House of Commons voted 472 for and 117 against to proceed to build the new submarines.[44] On 21 October 2016, the MoD announced that the first of the four planned boats would be named HMS Dreadnought, with the name also attached to the class.[45] On 25 April 2017, junior minister Harriet Baldwin confirmed that Dreadnought was under construction.[46] On 6 December 2018, the second boat of this class was named by the Secretary of State for Defence as HMS Valiant.[47]


Fixed-wing aircraft[edit]

F-35 Lightning II

The aircraft carrier's major instrument of power projection is the carrier air group. The larger the air group, the more tasks it can perform. The Invincible class, because of its small size, had only a limited capacity, and was only capable of operating STOVL aircraft, the Harrier GR7/GR9. In 2006 the Sea Harrier was withdrawn from service. This saw the front line Sea Harrier squadron of the Fleet Air Arm converting to the Harrier GR9, as part of the evolution of the Joint Force Harrier concept. The Harrier's eventual replacement in both the RAF and the FAA is the F-35 Lightning II Joint Combat Aircraft. The F-35 will be a significant improvement over the Harrier, in terms of speed, range and weapon load. The UK had plans to order 138 F-35Bs for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The financial crisis led to the decision taken in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 to immediately withdraw the Harrier GR9 force in late 2010 along with HMS Ark Royal, to reduce the total number of F-35s planned for purchase by the UK, and to purchase the F-35C CATOBAR version rather than the STOVL F-35B. By May 2012, the government had decided to purchase the short-take off version, the F-35B instead.[48] In July 2012, the Secretary of State for Defence stated that an initial 48 F-35Bs will be purchased to equip the carrier fleet.[49] In September 2013, it was announced that the second JSF squadron would be the Fleet Air Arm's 809 NAS.[50] Chancellor George Osborne announced on 22 November 2015 that the UK will have 24 F-35Bs on its two new carriers by 2023.[51] The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 also confirmed that the United Kingdom will buy 138 F-35s over the life of the program. On 20 May 2016, it was reported that the UK would field four frontline squadrons as part of its Lightning Force, including 809 NAS and 617 Squadron, plus an RAF-numbered Operational Conversion Unit (later 207 Sqn) and 17(R) Squadron as the Operational Evaluation Squadron.[52] 809 NAS will stand up in April 2023.[53]


Merlin HM2's operating on HMS Illustrious

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that the Royal Navy will operate two types of helicopter in the future - the AW101 Merlin and the AW159 Lynx Wildcat.[54] The anti-surface/anti-submarine mission remains the purview of rotary aircraft; in small ships this is the updated Mk8 version of the Lynx. The Future Lynx program has seen 28 of the new AW159 Lynx Wildcat, ordered for the Royal Navy.[54] In the carriers and in later frigates, the larger Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopter is used. There are 38 Merlin helicopters in service, and an upgrade plan intended to increase their flexibility of use until 2029 is planned. In late 2009 it was announced that the Fleet Air Arm would retire its remaining Sea King HC4 helicopters, their place being taken by Merlins upgraded and transferred from the Royal Air Force (RAF).[55]

The future AEW capability of the FAA is the "Crowsnest" programme, which intended to replace the current Sea King ASaC7 fleet due to retire in 2016.[56] Current plans will see Crowsnest enter service in 2022 (with a main gate in 2017)[57] acting as a roll-on/roll-off fit for the FAAs Merlin HM2 helicopters. The original six year capability-gap between the retirement of the Sea King ASaC7 fleet and the entry service of Crowsnest was the source of much criticism.[58] A PAC report had revealed the Main Gate decision for the Crowsnest to be around 2017.[57] Crowsnest will be operational by 2019.[59] As a result of the time gap between the planned out of service date of the Sea King in 2016, and the introduction of "Crowsnest" seven Sea King ASaC.7 helicopters will remain in service with the RN through to the second half of 2018.[60] Thales was selected as the chosen bidder to provide the radar and mission system at the heart of the Crowsnest capability on 22 May 2015. They will provide a slightly upgraded version of the existing Searchwater 2000 radar.[61]

Remote Piloted Air Systems[edit]

The RN has been slower to adopt unmanned systems than some other navies; following trials with the rail-launched ScanEagles it started operational flights of leased ScanEagles in January 2014 watching for swarm attacks on HMS Somerset and RFA Cardigan Bay in the Persian Gulf.[62] This was expanded in November 2014, when 700X NAS was formed to serve as both the parent unit for ship based ScanEagle flights, and as the evaluation unit for any future RPAS systems that the Royal Navy elects to try.[63] The ScanEagle will be withdrawn by 2017 and likely to be replaced by an unknown UAS, chosen through the Unmanned Warrior exercise in 2016.[64]

Dstl are testing ISR packages compatible with the RQ-20A Puma hand-launched UAV on board the M80 Stiletto US special forces trials ship in November 2014 under Capability Demonstration 15-1.[65] The optionally-manned PZL-Świdnik SW-4 Solo completed trials with the RN in 2015as part of the UK’s RWUAS (Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) programme.[66][67] The Royal Navy has also utilised 3-D printed unmanned aircraft in its operations.[68][69]

The Royal Navy has planned for two future UAS: The Flexible Deployable UAS (FDUAS) and Joint Mini UAS (JMUAS) programs. FDUAS is seen as a "Sea Eagle (Scan Eagle) Plus" while JMUAS is a UAS for the Royal Marines.[70]

Speculative order[edit]

Although nothing has been officially stated, the Royal Navy may have declared interest in the potential procurement of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, for operation in a number of different roles. A proposed airborne early warning and control (AEW ) variant of the V-22 (EV-22) was actively studied by the Royal Navy as a potential replacement for its current fleet of carrier-based Sea King ASaC.7 helicopters.[71][72]

At the 2016 Farnborough Airshow, Bell Helicopter stated that although there was no specific requirement from the 2015 SDSR, the company was "keeping the Royal Navy informed".[73] The V-22 has been procured as a COD aircraft for the US Navy, with one of its major requirements for the role being the capability of transporting a whole F-35 engine, something that the US Marine Corps also may be doing, and this has been suggested as being attractive for the UK, in addition to other potential requirements (aerial refueling, special forces operations, heavy lift capability).[74][73][75] A parliamentary written answer specifically stated that the V-22 is not part of immediate UK future military procurement, therefore, all of this is pure speculation.[76]

Royal Marines[edit]

The Royal Marines will be restructured for the future, with 200 driver and administrative staff posts removed and reallocated to Royal Navy personnel. 42 Commando will be transformed into a specialised "Maritime Operations unit" so that roles from that unit such as heavy weapons specialists, can be reallocated across the Royal Navy.[77]


  • Sea Ceptor (formerly CAMM(M) or FLAADS) is a short-range air-defence missile to replace Sea Wolf on Type 23 frigates from 2016.[78]
  • Sea Viper, used by the Type 45 destroyers, has undergone trials using its SAMPSON radar to track ballistic missiles, and work is ongoing to develop its Aster missiles to counter ballistic missiles.[79] The UK is also considering upgrading its Type 45 Destroyers with the Aster 30 Block 1NT missile.[29]
  • Martlet (formerly FASGW (Light) and the Lightweight Multirole Missile) is a short range, supersonic anti-ship missile for use against small surface warships, patrol vessels and craft. Martlet is due to enter service around 2015 on the Fleet Air Arm's new Lynx Wildcat maritime helicopters.
  • Sea Venom (formerly FASGW (Heavy)), a bigger anti-shipping missile launched from helicopters, to replace Sea Skua from 2021.[80][81][82][83]
  • The SPEAR 3 missile is a multi-role networked anti-ship and land-attack missile based on the Brimstone anti-tank missile with the JSOW-ER turbojet to extend the range to over 120 km. Four Spear 3 can fit in two internal weapons bay of an F-35B, MBDA are also looking at ship launch for members of the Brimstone family, including a quick-firing, anti-swarm 'Sea Spear'.[84][85]
  • The FC/ASW (Future Cruise/Anti Ship Weapon)[86] is a future anti-ship cruise missile planned for the Royal Navy and the French Navy. MBDA has presented Perseus, a supersonic multi-role cruise missile concept study[87] which was unveiled at the Paris 2011 Air Show. In the 2016 UK-France Security Summit, the two parties pledged to work on a "joint concept phase for the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) programme to identify solutions for replacement of the Scalp/Storm Shadow missiles, for both countries, Harpoon for the UK and Exocet for France."
  • The British Government announced on 5 January 2017 that it had awarded a £30 million contract to UK consortium 'Dragonfire' to develop a directed energy weapon technology demonstrator. Their intention is to have a working prototype ready by the end of the decade and potentially have vessels equipped with directed energy weapons by the mid 2020s.[88]


  • In January 2016, it was announced that a £44m Navigation Radar Programme would see "more than 60 Royal Navy ships, submarines and shore facilities" fitted with state-of-the-art navigation radars, with contracts awarded to Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems UK and Kelvin Hughes.[89]
  • The MoD is reportedly investing heavily in development of quantum compasses which could potentially transcend the need for GPS as a means of navigation, providing a self-contained and interference-proof alternative.[90] Deployment of this technology is often discussed with regard to the Royal Navy's submarine fleet, allowing vessels to navigate without outside assistance and therefore remain submerged for extended lengths of time.[91]

See also[edit]


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