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Experts warn UK needs a larger, more lethal Royal Navy in face of mounting global challenges

HMS Prince of Wales leading the UK Carrier Strike Group and multinational naval forces (Source: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2024)

Despite workforce and budgetary pressures, a group of UK experts have urged the next British government to rapidly begin expanding the Royal Navy to better protect Britain’s global and regional interests, with some similarities to our own plans, but still lessons for us to learn.

Despite workforce and budgetary pressures, a group of UK experts have urged the next British government to rapidly begin expanding the Royal Navy to better protect Britain’s global and regional interests, with some similarities to our own plans, but still lessons for us to learn.

As both an island nation and one of history’s greatest naval powers, the United Kingdom and its Royal Navy are a shadow of their former glory.

Where once the Royal Navy sailed the world’s oceans, dominant and peerless, the Royal Navy, much like the Royal Australian Navy, serves now as a boutique fighting force designed largely for the post-Cold War era of stability guaranteed by the United States.


For the most part in the three decades post the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Royal Navy could get away with being a largely small, bespoke force employing a small number of high-impact platforms both above and below the waves.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, originally in 2014, and the growing reach of a resurgent Russian Navy, coupled with Beijing’s increased antagonism in the South China Sea and increasing hostility in international waters, has prompted successive British governments to re-evaluate its place in the world.

Beginning with the Johnson government’s “Global Britain” strategy, calling for a return to the Far East by the British, with the Royal Navy to run point on the nation’s strategic pivot to the Indo-Pacific and re-emergence as a global naval power.

However, much like the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Navy has been plagued by a myriad of project delays, cost overruns, cancellations and workforce challenges undermining the capability of the fleet to project the United Kingdom’s interests and project British power abroad.

In response, William Freer and Dr Emma Salisbury, for the Council on Geostrategy, prepared a report, titled A more lethal Royal Navy: Sharpening Britain’s naval power, detailing a plan for reshaping the Royal Navy to better prepare it to face the strategic challenges of the coming decades.

Dual strategies: Sea control v sea denial

At the forefront of the proposal by Freer and Salisbury is the rapidly shifting global and regional balance of power and the increasing naval capability of peer competitors like Russia and China, coupled with the increased capability of emerging powers and non-traditional, asymmetric challenges (think Houthis).

This combination of factors has prompted both Freer and Salisbury to fundamentally rethink the way the Royal Navy has been structured, it’s priorities, and the capability/platform mix and thinking that has shaped the Royal Navy for the better part of the last three decades, with a shift towards a dual strategy of sea control and sea denial.

Delivering this capability requires a rethink of the mission the Royal Navy will play, with Freer and Salisbury explaining, “The Royal Navy’s force design should be determined by a combination of threats to the nation, the nation’s resources, and the nation’s interests ... given Britain’s location, the Royal Navy’s primary focus should be on the Euro-Atlantic, working with NATO allies to enact sea control. Sea control is achieved when a navy is able to establish a persistent, or even permanent, maritime presence which deters rivals from confrontation.”

Successfully delivering sea control as described by Freer and Salisbury depends largely on the opponent the Royal Navy would be facing in that instance, to this end, they stated, “Depending on the capability of the country in question, the objectives it wants to achieve, and the strength of its adversaries, sea control can be enacted locally, regionally, or even globally.”

Shifting to the second component of the proposed strategy for the Royal Navy, Freer and Salisbury advocate for an Indo-Pacific-centric strategy of sea denial which they detailed as, “Meanwhile, in the Indo-Pacific, the Royal Navy should contribute to sea denial – which necessitates capabilities to prevent a rival navy from operating with impunity (i.e., from establishing sea control). This can be achieved in multiple ways including by threatening sea-based assets from land, the use of naval mines, and deploying naval forces themselves (usually larger numbers of smaller vessels).”

This combination of strategies has similar themes to the findings in Australia’s own Independent Analysis of Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet which highlighted the shifting role that the enhanced lethality surface fleet would play in delivering the nation’s “strategy of denial in Australia’s northern approaches through the flexible application in time and space of naval power projection, sea control and sea denial”.

Perhaps most interestingly is the recognition by Freer and Salisbury that in spite of the geographic divergence of the two operating environments and the proposed strategies, there isn’t a necessity for the Royal Navy to effectively field two distinct, separate fleets, with the pair stating, “Although the Royal Navy needs to support two regional postures, it does not necessarily need two separate fleets. Naval platforms are inherently flexible (due to the variety of systems they can host), and most of those operated by the Royal Navy can contribute to both postures to varying degrees.”

Responding to the reality of not having enough ships

However, this reality, coupled with the modernisation of adversary’s capabilities with growing fleet sizes, necessitates an expansion of the Royal Navy’s fleet, both above and below the waves.

Freer and Salisbury detailed this, saying, “The current posture was largely designed over a decade ago, when geopolitical competition was less severe. What required only a single ship or two in 2010 or 2015 will require potentially several by the 2030s or 2040s. And the UK does not have enough.”

So what exactly are Freer and Salisbury proposing to address the dual strategies outlined above and to address the critical hull shortage that dramatically impacts the capability of the Royal Navy, both in the Atlantic and Middle East, but also in the Indo-Pacific?

It is equally important to recognise that for both countries, while there is an emphasis on forming a “integrated” and “focused” force, platforms remain important components of a “system-of-systems” approach to developing a contemporary “integrated” and “focused” naval force.

Beginning with the Royal Navy’s silent service, which is made up of both the Cold War-era Vanguard Class ballistic missile submarines and the Astute Class attack submarines, Freer and Salisbury stress expanded investment in the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarine facilities to accelerate the production run and ensure continued viability for the UK’s nuclear arsenal.

Freer and Salisbury also advocate for the Dreadnought Class to be fully equipped with a full complement of Trident II or successor missiles and warheads to amplify British strategic power given the growing importance of nuclear deterrence. In addition to this, the pair advocate for the acquisition of a fifth Dreadnought Class converted to cruise missile submarine to expand the conventional strike capabilities of the Royal Navy.

This final point is designed to keep the UK submarine industry’s workforce active, avoiding a repeat of the issues that faced the UK submarine force between the completion of the final Vanguard Class and construction beginning on the first Astute Class, minimising the risk of delays to the AUKUS program as a result of having to rebuild the workforce.

In terms of the Royal Navy’s attack submarine fleet, Freer and Salisbury advocate for the acquisition of 12 SSN-AUKUS (up from the planned like-for-like replacement of the seven Astute Class boats) and “ensure their design has significant land attack and anti-ship missile capability, including vertical launching systems (VLS)” along with expanding the capacity of automation to minimise the crew requirements in face of mounting workforce shortages.

Shifting to the Royal Navy’s embattled Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Royal Navy’s apex capital ships, Freer and Salisbury call for no change to the ships themselves, rather calling for an expansion of the planned F-35B fleet, to grow from the current 72 aircraft to 90 (at least, but ideally 138) allowing both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales to deploy with three full squadrons of 12 aircraft, while also allowing for a training squadron and spares.

In addition to this, the pair call for the acceleration of the integration of autonomous systems to augment the F-35B fleet, with a hierarchy of priorities, including replacing the “Merlin-carried Crowsnest Airborne Early Warning (AEW) with a drone which can carry a larger radar for longer and at a higher altitude to extend AEW coverage” alongside “introduce a fleet of long-range, long-endurance ISR drones; and explore the possibility of a drone with in-flight refuelling capability”.

Finally, the pair call for significant upgrades for the self-defence capabilities of the carriers, to include the installation of at least two SeaRAM systems per ship to supplement the existing three Phalanx close-in-weapons systems, allowing the carrier to become an active participant in its own defence, with Freer and Salisbury explaining the role SeaRAM would play with “relatively cheap missiles [being] perfect for dealing with any threats which penetrate the CSG’s outer defences. This would amplify the number of short-range missiles available to a CSG to deal with leakers”.

Shifting to the backbone of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, the destroyers and frigates, the pair begin by stating the obvious, that the Royal Navy’s major surface combatant fleet is unfit for purpose, being both too few, too old, and undergunned for the contemporary threat environments they may be deployed into.

In order to address this reality, Freer and Salisbury advocate for a review into the Type 45 Class destroyer’s upgrade program to ascertain whether it is possible for any of the warships to receive Mk41 VLS in place of the Sea Ceptor cells. Additionally, they call for the acceleration of the Type 83 Class replacement destroyer program, alongside the proposed replacement to have at least 100 VLS cells, alongside larger VLS modules to accommodate future hypersonic missile systems.

As it relates to the Type 83, Freer and Salisbury advocate for an expansion on the existing Type 45 destroyer fleet from six to eight, returning the escort fleet to a total fleet of 32 hulls.

Shifting to the Royal Navy’s frigates, the UK is following a similar model to that of Australia with a fleet of eight proposed “Tier 1” Type 26 frigates (the base design for our own Hunter Class frigates), supported in the “Tier 2” role by a fleet of five Type 31/32 Class frigates, which the pair explain provides a balance of hulls versus missile cells, “These warships would provide the Royal Navy with a cost-effective balance between hull numbers, lethality, and survivability.”

To expand the surface fleet capability, Freer and Salisbury call for a number of changes to the proposed Royal Navy frigate fleet, saying, “Procure an additional two Type 26 Class frigates, taking the total order to 10 vessels ... Integrate the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC) system with the Type 26 Class.”

Shifting to the Type 31/32 frigates, the pair advocate for the acquisition of “an additional four Type 32 frigates, taking the total order to nine vessels” while ensuring that the “Type 32 Class frigate design – as a ‘Type 31 Batch 2’ – does not see a reduction in the capabilities of the Type 31 design.”

Bringing us to the Royal Navy’s foray into large optionally-crewed surface vessels (LOSVs) or as Freer and Salisbury refer to them, arsenal ships, with Freer and Salisbury urging the United Kingdom to follow the example set by Australia, and accelerate “the UK’s exploration of the arsenal ship concept by procuring a single LOSV as soon as feasible, this could be based on the proven River Class OPV hull (stripped of everything apart from minimal crew quarters and packed with VLS), to act as a testbed platform.”

This also has implications for the Royal Navy’s mine countermeasures capability, with Freer and Salisbury proposing that the Royal Navy follow the Australian example of shifting away from traditionally, crewed platforms towards a force dominated by suite of autonomous and uncrewed surface and underwater systems to counter the threats of advanced sea mines.

Freer and Salisbury detailed their push, saying, “Continue with investment in the Mine Hunting Capability program to shift mine countermeasures capabilities towards autonomous uncrewed vessels. This would multiply the number of platforms which could conduct mine countermeasures activities to any vessel capable of hosting the equipment.”

Where their suggestion diverges from the Australian example is the partnering with the fleet’s existing and replacement offshore patrol vessel capacity, with Freer and Salisbury calling on the Royal Navy to “ensure the supplemental offshore patrol capability of the Hunt Class minehunters is not lost when those ships are retired”.

Finally, of particular importance for Australia as well, is the proposed shift in the Royal Navy’s sealift and amphibious warfare capabilities and the fleet auxiliary and replenishment-at-sea support capabilities, both critical components of strategies of sea control and sea denial.

In particular, the Royal Navy’s shifting emphasis from more traditional concepts of amphibious warfare towards a doctrine of littoral strike in support of the Royal Marines Commando forces is designed to enhance the overall lethality of the Royal Navy and the capacity of the Royal Marines to support both doctrines of sea control and sea denial.

To this end, Freer and Salisbury advocate for the Royal Navy to “prioritise the Multi-Role Support Ship process to ensure that the program delivers a strong design that fully encapsulates all of the capabilities of the Albion and Bay classes without significant delay” and to “Explore the option of procuring Mk70 containerised VLS cells to amplify the firepower of the new ships.”

Finally, as it relates to the capacity of the Royal Navy fleet to sustain deployed operations, Freer and Salisbury call for the Royal Navy to future-proof the Fleet Auxiliary through an expanded acquisition and acceleration of the Fleet Solid Support ship program to expand the regional and global reach of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Commando at a time of increased great power competition.

Final thoughts

The Royal Australian Navy will be at the forefront of how the nation engages in the Indo-Pacific and will be the tip of the spear for securing and promoting our national interests, accordingly, getting the force structure and capability mix right is increasingly essential during these competitive and increasingly dangerous times.

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

While taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing, as proposed by the government is an admirable goal; ultimately, it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability, so perhaps a longer-term vision of the nation’s role and responsibilities both to itself and its partners in the region.

Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, all of this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own defence capabilities and the nation more broadly.

This reality equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others that are being shoehorned into fulfilling “strategic” roles to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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