By Nicholas Drummond

The award of the Type 31 General Purpose Frigate contract to Babcock has highlighted just how small the Royal Navy has become in recent years. With a fleet of just 19 surface combatants, there is genuine concern about whether the Royal Navy has a credible baseline of ships to counter the range of threats it now faces. Even though the quality of British warships has never been higher, an often used expression has gained currency: “Not even the best designed ship can be in two places at the same time.” Resisting the temptation to play one of the internet’s favourite games, “Fantasy Fleets,” which invariably assumes an unlimited budget, what can realistically be done to increase Royal Navy ship numbers and in a way that is affordable?


01.  Introduction
02.  Aircraft Carriers and Commando Ships
03.  AAW Destroyers
04.  ASW Frigates
05.  GP Frigates
06.  Attack Submarines
07.  OPVs and MCMVs
08.  Summary

HMS Chatham
Sailors on board HMS Chatham, a Type 22 frigate.

01.  Introduction – No new ships without more sailors

With a headcount cap of 30,450 the Royal Navy is struggling to crew the ships it already has[1]. Acquiring additional vessels without recruiting more sailors to man them would therefore be pointless. Although the new Type 31 general purpose frigate has a reduced crew requirement versus the current Type 23, a further factor relevant to this discussion is lifestyle. In the past, ships tended to have single crews, but few sailors like spending extended periods at sea away from their families, so the Navy has had to recognise that without offering a better work-family life balance, experienced talent will leave for other jobs that offer better lifestyle benefits. Consequently, the Royal Navy is moving to a new model where each ship will have two crews. Such a system is already in operation with our nuclear missile submarines and is vital to guarantee a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD). This trend will reduce the availability of personnel to crew additional ships. Current headcount limitations were the result of extreme Government austerity measures following the global financial crisis in 2008. With ongoing Brexit discussions, the financial impact of Britain leaving the EU is still uncertain, assuming we do in fact leave. Regardless, Royal Navy headcount numbers need to set by senior leadership based on what they believe is necessary to fulfil our national security priorities, not by the Treasury based on arbitrary cost targets. If this is true for numbers of sailors the Navy has, it is also relevant to the number of ships it operates.

02.  Aircraft Carriers and Commando Ships

Short of World War Three starting, the United Kingdom is extremely unlikely to acquire additional aircraft carriers. When the Queen Elizabeth Class was planned, the Navy elected to have two larger carriers rather than three smaller ones, because two 65,000-tonne ships would better support the need to fly a larger number of daily aircraft sorties than three smaller 40,000-tonne ones. When HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are compared to the US Navy’s 40,000-tonne Wasp Class Amphibious Assault ships, which have significantly less deck space and hangar storage below decks, the decision seems to be a wise one. However, in an ideal world it would be preferable to have at least three of everything as this allows a sustainable deployment cycle with one ship deployed, one working-up to deployment and the third, resting and refitting after a deployment. Limited to two carriers, the Navy will deploy one at a time with the second resting and refitting as well as preparing for its next deployment.

HMS Queen Elizabeth sets sail, September 2019. (Image: Plymouth Herald)

Irrespective of the number of aircraft carriers, “Carrier Strike” remains an essential capability that allows the UK to project power without relying on foreign powers to give us permission to use their airfields when military action is required. Our carriers are essentially mobile airfields that can be positioned wherever needed to secure British interests. In an era where soft power and operations within the grey zone have become vital tools of diplomacy and action below the threshold, being able to deploy a carrier sends a clear message to would-be aggressors simply by their presence. The need to protect the carriers requires escort vessels that provide anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities, which is why destroyer and frigate numbers are so important. Each carrier task force will require two AAW destroyers plus two ASW Frigates, plus an Attack Submarine. When such ships are used for escort duties, they are not available to operate independently to perform other roles.

Within a decade or so, it will become necessary to replace HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, the Navy’s two amphibious assault ships. It seems likely that we will acquire two new and slightly larger 35,000-tonne landing helicopter dock (LHD) vessels similar to Australia’s Canberra Class. With flat tops for helicopter operations and rear well decks for launching and recovering landing craft, such ships will also be capable of handling F-35B STOVL combat aircraft. Again, by acquiring two larger LHDs instead of three the same size as legacy vessels, including the now de-commissioned HMS Ocean, their greater size offers increased flexibility. Two aircraft carriers plus two amphibious assault ships will effectively give us four carrier vessels. This should be more than adequate to support our needs now and in the future.

03.  AAW Destroyers

The Royal Navy has only six Daring-Class Type 45 AAW destroyers. Given the importance of air defence for the fleet, this seems an oversight. However, with its SAMSON radar, a single Type 45 ship has the ability to track 1,000 targets the size of a cricket ball simultaneously, which is more than five of the previous Type 42 Class destroyers could do collectively. Admiral Lord West, who was First Sea Lord at the time Type 45 was introduced into service, described it as the most capable destroyer the Royal Navy has ever had and the world’s best air defence ship.[2]

HMS Duncan (D37)
Type 45 AAW destroyer, HMS Duncan

The Type 45’s 48 vertical launch cells for Aster 15 and Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles make it fundamentally superior to its predecessor. Even so, such sophistication comes at a price with Type 45 experiencing more than its fair share of problems, delays and cost overruns. The final Type 45 bill was £6.46 billion, which was £1.5 billion or 29% over budget. Since this happened in 2008, when the global financial crisis was at its peak, hulls 7 and 8 became victims of austerity. To make matters worse, unexpected and ongoing issues with the ships’ WR-21 engines and intercoolers have limited deployments while taking several years to overcome, reducing their availability. Even though a fix has now been developed, the ‘rule of three’ governing sustainable deployment cycles means that six AAW destroyers allows us to routinely deploy only two at a time.

Despite prodigious capabilities, many senior naval officers believe we really ought to have 8 or preferably 10 AAW destroyers. If money wasn’t an issue, it would be hard to disagree with them. In the short-term, it is not be feasible to re-start Type 45 production. When it comes to the next generation, however, the Navy is likely to build its future destroyer using the Type 26 ASW Frigate’s hull. If this saves money, then it might be possible to build 8 or 10 instead of having only 6. We should certainly aim to achieve this.

04.  ASW Frigates

The City-Class Type 26 ASW frigate will also be one of the most capable warships the Royal Navy has ever had. Also called the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, many consider it to be a cruiser more than a frigate. Whatever it is, its most important role is to hunt submarines, and to do this it has an acoustically-quietened hull with a bow sonar, towed sonar array and Merlin ASW helicopter. It will additionally have the new 127 mm gun, 48 VLS missile cells to launch Sea Ceptor / CAMM AAW missiles, 24 extended-length Mk 41 VLS cells for whatever anti-ship missile replaces Harpoon, plus Tomahawk land attack missiles and anti-submarine munitions. The Type 26 is much more than an ASW warship. It is so capable across many areas that Canada will acquire 15 and Australia 10.


The UK had originally planned to build 13 Type 26 ASW frigates, but again, higher than expected costs have resulted in the total being cut to just 8. It is anticipated that the first three vessels will cost around £3.7 billion.[3] One of the things that has increased costs is a slow roll-out. Despite the first steel being cut in 2017, the first ship is expected to be launched in late 2021, and won’t become operational until 2027.[4] If more could be built over a shorter time period, it would certainly help to reduce the average price.

Like AAW destroyers, there is a genuine concern that 8 ASW frigates is not be a credible baseline to maintain a global presence with routine patrols in the North Atlantic, the Gulf, the Falkland Islands, the Mediterranean, and East of Suez. This directly led to the Type 31 programme, which will result in a new class of five general purpose warships.

As a defence commentator, my major concern is that the Government did not listen to the Royal Navy when it originally stated its requirements for Type 26, emphasising the threat that submarines would pose in any future conflict. Russia has 58 submarines, including 48 tactical attack boats.[5] China has 59 submarines, including 55 tactical attack boats.[6]

While the low-cost Type 31 GP frigate will enable the Navy to reinforce its effectiveness across maritime security roles, it will not augment its ASW capabilities, unless such equipment can be added. Consequently, there is a strong case to increase Type 26 numbers. It is unrealistic to think we could revert to having 13, but it ought to be possible to buy two more. The cost of building two additional Type 26 ships would be an estimated £2.2 billion, assuming economies of scale as more ships roll down the slipway.

With 10 Type 26 frigates and the same hull used to construct the Type 45 destroyer successor, as has been suggested, this would create a total requirement of 18-20 ships. Assuming one vessel is launched every 18 months, this number would enable Bae Systems to justify building the much desired “Frigate Factory” on the Clyde turning out new ships on a constant basis.

05.  GP Frigates

With just 8 Type 26 ASW frigates, it was decided to acquire a complementary low-cost general purpose frigate capable of performing maritime security roles. The Type 31 GP frigate was also designed to reduce BAE System’s monopoly of British naval shipbuilding.  Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 design has now been selected as the preferred choice. This is a modified version of the Danish Iver Huitfeldt AAW frigate. Armed with 57 mm and 40 mm guns, 24 VLS cells for Sea Ceptor / CAMM and high-end sensors for surveillance and fire control, the Type 31 will be a capable ship. With a unit cost of £250 million, five will cost a total of £1.25 billion, or around the same as a single Type 26.

Arrowhead 140 Type 31 GP frigate (Image: Babcock International)

The simplest and cheapest option to acquire more ships would be to buy five additional Type 31 GP frigates for £1.25 billion. As noted above, many of those calling for more naval ships believe that they are needed for ASW. To make a Type 31 credible in this role it would need a bow-mounted sonar, plus a towed sonar array and an anti-submarine helicopter such as Merlin. Under present plans, Type 31 ships will be “fitted for, but not with” ASW equipment. Adding it is likely to increase the cost per ship to £350 million, adding-up to a total of £1.75 million. This could be an extremely cost-efficient approach, assuming the hull, which is not acoustically-quietened, is up to the job.

Type 31 is noteworthy because it shows that an inexpensive ship can still be a potent one. This is not about using a less expensive hull or reduced building standards. It is about healthy competition that reduces our dependence on a single supplier. Thales’ sensor fit for Type 31 provides an astonishing level of capability for the price. For example, its NS110 (or NS200 GaN) radar is a modular 3D AESA S-Band system that is electronically steerable. Providing fire control for Sea Ceptor as well as general surveillance, it has a range of 110 nautical miles with a 70o elevation and dual-axis multi-beam processing, allowing it to track multiple targets simultaneously. These features make the Thales system complementary if not superior to Bae Systems’ Artisan radar to be fitted to Type 26 ASW Frigates, which operates in the E/ F band and scans mechanically. At 5,800 tonnes, Type 31 is a lot of metal for the money and like Type 26 it will have endurance and survivability.

If further ASW sensors can be added to Type 31 without drastically increasing the price, this would provide a much more affordable ASW capability. However, the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM Mk. 2 helicopter is a key part of the Type 26’s ASW package and with a purchase price of around £50 million each, the cost of additional Merlin airframes for Type 31 would significantly increase the total price of each ship. It is estimated that adding basic ASW sensors plus a helicopter to Type 31 would add £100 million to the price tag. Even so, five extra ASW-capable frigates at £350 million each is still impressively close to the price of a single Type 26 frigate.

Perhaps the best compromise is to increase GP frigate numbers to five and ASW frigates by two for a total of seven extra vessels or 10 of each type. This approach provides extra ships using existing configurations, so avoids additional costs incurred by any design changes.

06.  Attack Submarines

The Navy plans to build a total of seven Astute-Class attack submarines (SSN). This design is approximately 30% larger than previous submarines of this type in order to accommodate Rolls-Royce’s PWR2 pressurised water reactor, which was already being used with the current Vanguard-Class of ballistic missile submarines. With an average cost of £1.6 billion per boat, the Navy’s attack submarines are much more expensive than their predecessors. Even if it were possible to build an eighth boat, this would stretch the Navy’s budget considerably.

HMS Ambush
HMS Ambush, an Astute-Class attack submarine. (Image: BAE Systems)

Another problem with building more Astute boats is that as soon as the seventh, HMS Agincourt, is completed, Bae Systems submarine construction facility at Barrow-in-Furness will begin building the four successor Dreadnought-Class of ballistic missile submarines. By the time these are finished, in the 2030s, the Astute-Class design will be close to 30-years old and we will have started to plan what comes next.

Given recent advances made in Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems and battery technology for diesel submarines (SSK), and with nuclear propulsion increasingly being rejected on grounds of environmental responsibility (e.g. for Australia’s Attack-Class boats), we will need to decide whether we want to stick with nuclear attack submarines or whether we can deliver the desired level of capability via an advanced fuel cell / all-electric boat. It may be possible to develop a more advanced attack submarine at a lower cost, which means we would be able to afford more.

Diesel-electric AIP submarine
Type 212 diesel-electric / AIP submarine.

In the short-term, and for the prices of a single Astute, it has been suggested that we could acquire 3-4 SSKs like the German 212 / 214 Class.[7] This has a super-stealthy hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system which allows it to stay submerged for up to 18 days, a record for non-nuclear submarines. While such boats have good open water abilities and would be attractive, the extra cost of sustaining a third submarine type could be prohibitive. For these reasons, we are unlikely to be able to acquire additional attack submarines in the short-term.

07.  OPVs and MCMVs

The River-Class Batch 2 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) provide a constabulary capability in littoral waters. With a total cost of £635 million (£348 million + £287 million) for five vessels, they provide questionable value-for-money since they lack the firepower to perform a blue-water maritime security role, e.g. they would not have been deployable for the recent stand-off against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. If they were stretched further, fitted with 57 mm and 40 mm guns, anti-ship missiles, and a hangar for a Wildcat helicopter, this would improve them. Such development potentially defines a Batch 3 vessel and would be close to Bae Systems’ Khareef-Class corvette, which formed the basis of the same company’s Type 31 offer. In other words, lengthening and up-gunning a River-Class would be close to building a Type 31 GP frigate, so why not just go with the latter? Until Type 31 arrives, the five River-Class OPVs commissioned for the Navy will fill a gap. Long-term, the next generation of MCMV is likely to supersede them.

HMS Cottesmore, a Hunt-Class MVMV (Image: UK Ministry of Defence)

The current Hunt-Class mine counter-measures vessels date back to the 1980s and are well overdue for replacement. The same ships also perform patrol duties. So the question that needs to be asked is whether the next MCMV can also be optimised to perform a maritime security role as well as mine-hunting duties? It should be noted that new technologies will allow future mine-clearance to be conducted using unmanned surface vessels operating from a mother ship. BMT displayed a future MCMV concept at DSEI 2019 that showed a potential configuration for a new class of ship. Using unmanned systems would reduce our dependency on degaussed hulls, allowing alternative MCMV designs to be utilised. A new Class of 10 such vessels would create a new class of ships below Type 31, adding considerably to the Royal Navy’s capabilities.

BMT model illustrating a design proposal for a future MCMV. (Image: Nicholas Drummond)

08.  Summary

Under current plans, the fleet composition will include 35 surface ships plus 11 submarines as follows: 


In the short-term, overall fleet size could be increased by seven ships by acquiring two additional Type 26 ASW frigates plus five additional Type 31 GP frigates. Approximately 1,800 extra personnel would be needed to crew them. The uplift to 42 surface ships would ensure that at least three ASW Frigates and three GP frigates could be deployed at any one time. The fleet would then be comprised of the following ships:

Short-term uplift

 In the long-term, the overall fleet size could be enhanced by increasing numbers of each class where possible, except for MCMVs, which would be reduced by two, due to a more capable and flexible vessel being acquired. Also, developing a non-nuclear attack submarine has the potential to reduce construction and support costs enabling boat numbers to be increased to 10. This would create a fleet of 44 surface ships plus 14 submarines. The future fleet would be comprised of the following ships:

Long-term uplift

These proposals have tried to be as realistic as possible by being rooted in what is practically achievable and affordable. In essence, the above approach resurrects the Future Surface Combatant model conceived in 2006 with three classes of ship.[8] In fact, it creates four classes with two high-end classes and two low-end classes:

  • High-end AAW destroyer
  • High-end ASW frigate
  • Low-end GP frigate
  • Low-end MCM / patrol vessel

Increasing both Type 26 and Type 31 numbers implies an increased budget requirement of around £4-£5 billion over 10 years. Long-term, the equipment plan would only need to expand to cover the cost of two to four extra AAW destroyers. Everything else would be a like-for-like replacement, apart from submarines. If we decided to stick with nuclear boats, then 8 instead of 7 might be the most we could hope for.

The Navy may not like the term “low-end,” but if we want to achieve critical mass, we must accept a 90% solution rather than a 100% solution that depletes limited resources. The Army’s protected mobility fleet reflects the acceptance of a lesser capability than its “high-end” MBTs and IFVs, so that it can deploy more units. Even so, its “low-end” protected mobility vehicles still provide excellent utility. In the same way, Type 31 and a future MCMV will do likewise.

Irrespective of Britain leaving the EU, our long-term growth will be driven by international trade. Protecting trade routes continues to be a vital RN role. Meanwhile, the threats posed by Russia and China require a response that deters potential aggression. China’s recent behaviour, inhibiting passage through international waters in the South China Sea, will see the US Navy become increasingly focused on Asia-Pacific waters. This means that the Royal Navy will need to assume an increased responsibility in the North Atlantic in response to Russia. In a more dangerous and volatile geopolitical environment, with potential adversaries investing in their navies, we must respond by investing in our own.



[1] Ministry of Defence, UK Armed Forces Quarterly Service Personnel statistics, April 2019

[2] Ministry of Defence Press Release, Wednesday 1 February 2006, Countess of Wessex launches Royal Navy’s new Warship.

[3] Save The Royal Navy, Type 26 article,17 December 2018.

[4] Daily Telegraph, Type 26 article, 22 July 2019.

[5] The Military Balance 2019, IISS, page 198

[6] The Military Balance 2019, IISS, page 258

[7] Type 212A AIP submarine.

[8] Think Defence Article, Type 31 History.