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What is the Role of the Royal Navy?

Ultimately, the government will need to define how Royal Navy commitments can be truly integrated, as opposed to being resourced in a coordinated way.

While the UK government’s Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper have shed light on the missions and roles of the Royal Navy, there exists a conceptual gap between discussions of geopolitical ambitions and capabilities which the government and the Royal Navy will need to cover.

Recent hearings by the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons have underscored a number of important points regarding the service’s ability to meet its strategic obligations. Topics such as how adequate readiness levels can be maintained and the flexible use of navy platforms to ensure persistent presence across multiple geographic areas of responsibility are of crucial importance. Missing from these discussions, however, is a clear articulation of the navy’s raison d’être and the strategic concept that should both underpin its future role and drive capability generation. In the absence of a strategic concept, the navy will be left working to resource the regional commitments laid out in the Integrated Review without a clear articulation of how allocated capabilities should be employed to further national policy.

The Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper do provide a rank ordering of priorities for the Royal Navy, with NATO being clearly signposted as its primary focus, while the navy also plays a role in the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between a list of missions with accompanying guideposts regarding the degree to which they will be resourced, and a maritime strategy which clearly delineates the ends-means-ways chain through which a navy can serve national policy. A rank ordering of regional priorities is important, but is not sufficient in and of itself. The key question that needs to be answered is what unique capabilities the navy provides to the UK, and how these capabilities can serve national policy.

For example, while the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers are effectively committed to being available to NATO in order to enhance deterrence in Europe, less is said about precisely what the strategic role of maritime power in a European context is in peacetime and war. Is the primary naval challenge in a contingency involving Russia the same one which prevailed during the Cold War – manning the Greenland–Iceland­–UK gap and preventing the egress of Russian submarines into North Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOCs)? Given the shift in Russian emphasis towards using submarines to launch long-range conventional strikes from safe bastions, as opposed to severing SLOCs as was the case during the Cold War, this role may not have the salience it once did.

A vision emphasising combined operations might prevail, with the Royal Navy providing NATO with a mobile airfield in a wartime context, supported by NATO assets such as aerial refuelling tankers. The generation of anti-ballistic missile capabilities and more robust air defences for carrier pickets would also gain an outsized salience in this context, making the omission of an anti-ship ballistic missile from the suite of the Type 45 in the Defence Command Paper all the more notable. Moreover, the improvement of Russian long-range strike capabilities and the constrained maritime geography of the seas surrounding Europe mean that such operations will be conducted at significant risk, raising the question of whether maritime aviation represents the optimal means of supporting wartime operations in Europe.

It might alternatively be argued that the primary focus of competition with Russia will be limited competition, whether in the form of efforts to assert freedom of navigation in areas such as the Black Sea, or engaging in localised conflict along NATO’s extra-European periphery in the vein of Russo-Turkish competition in theatres such as Libya. A Royal Navy postured to spearhead expeditionary operations in these relatively permissive environments could provide European NATO with the capacity for power projection at reach to compete in the less risky – and thus more likely – peripheral conflicts that often characterise great power competition, in which full-scale warfare would be mutually catastrophic. In this context, a carrier-centric Royal Navy would do well to optimise for persistent low-level competition against opponents with limited but credible anti-access suites, as opposed to high-intensity warfighting against a peer. However, it is notable that countries such as Russia and Turkey have prosecuted competition at this level with limited numbers of smaller vessels providing tasks such as air defence around key ports and strike operations ashore. Given that the emphasis of such operations is often enabling local partners while maintaining as low a footprint as possible, they are likely to require less support from high-end naval platforms.

Perhaps the most fruitful avenue by which the navy – and in particular its high-end assets – might offer a unique capability to NATO is through a focus on global reach and strategic raiding in tandem with allies such as the US. Emulating the Reagan era maritime strategy of attempting to offset Soviet preponderance on the ground with a combination of aggressive submarine operations in the High North and horizontal escalation on the extended Soviet periphery in areas where defences were less dense – such as the Russian Far East – remains a viable way of leveraging the mobility and flexibility of navies. The core value of maritime power – its global reach – can paradoxically best serve European defence through actions beyond Europe, which remains a land-dominated operating environment. This would be consistent with the emergent US emphasis on dynamic force employment, which emphasises imposing uncertainty regarding the time and place of a military response on an opponent. Horizontal escalation which can offset preponderant Russian land power in Europe may be the best way for the navy to enhance NATO deterrence obliquely rather than directly. A Royal Navy offer to NATO that emphasises a global response to regional aggression would, additionally, allow extra-European deployments to be synchronised with European priorities, by focusing the navy’s attention on regions such as the Russian Far East and the growing Russian presence at and beyond NATO’s southern flank in areas such as Libya, Syria and Sudan. This in turn would set the requirement for less expensive and visible platforms, including those which will comprise the navy’s littoral response groups, maintaining a competitive presence as higher-end forces are husbanded for dynamic deployment but also building the regional knowledge base needed to facilitate the dynamic redeployment of forces.

This will require both prioritisation and organisational integration. Given its limited number of available surface vessels – which will fall further until the 2030s due to the early retirement of two Type 23 frigates – it cannot be argued that the Royal Navy could hedge its bets by performing all the functions described above. The limited number of high-end Type 26 frigates needed for anti-submarine warfare, to use one example, will be required both for manning key chokepoints and for carrier picket duties. Similarly, the UK’s submarine fleet can either support dynamic responses or chokepoint defence.

Optimising for offensive sea control supporting the US concept of dynamic force employment would entail emphasising interoperability with the US over most European NATO states – barring those with comparable reach – and shifting naval readiness cycles to emphasise surge capacity over presence with respect to the navy’s most high-value assets. Persistent presence and limited competition on the European periphery would become the purview of the navy’s littoral response groups as well as its incoming batch of less expensive platforms like the Type 31, with these assets seeing greater coordination with European partners and longer, less intense deployment cycles. As the gaps between the US and European NATO grow, the Royal Navy will need to make a choice as to which theory of maritime power it subscribes to and thus which partners it prioritises.

While engagement beyond Europe in the Indo-Pacific makes both economic and geopolitical sense, it must be couched in an understanding of which objective is to receive priority, and how engagement fits with wider policy objectives. Does the Integrated Review’s identification of China as a systemic competitor necessitate engagement of regional powers to enable them to moderate China’s behaviour, without the UK directly confronting it? Or is the impetus of Indo-Pacific engagement primarily commercial in its orientation? While it might be tempting to see the two ends as mutually reinforcing, this is not necessarily the case. Viable commercial partners such as South Korea may not always be inclined to constrain China, while the prospective partners and forms of engagement most conducive to doing so may not always serve commercial ends.

If systemic competition is the primary aim, shifting the balance of resources towards less visible, more persistently engaged forces may prove more important than the intermittent deployment of visible assets like aircraft carriers, which have little lasting deterrent utility unless backed by a persistent presence. This presence could be provided by the Royal Navy’s Southern Littoral Response Group, which could compete indirectly with China – for example, by supporting regional states’ efforts to overcome internal instability and thus precluding China’s efforts to gain influence by becoming the sole or preeminent public goods provider in this area, as it did by enabling Sri Lanka to win the Fourth Eelam War. Alternatively, the force could provide training and niche capabilities to partner maritime forces in tasks such as retaking contested littoral features, reinforcing balancing tendencies within the region.

Additionally, persistently engaged forces can reinforce deterrence vis-à-vis Russia by building the regional relationships and institutional knowledge needed to expand the scope of a confrontation with Russia beyond Europe, whether in the form of peacetime competition for access and influence in regions like the Indo-Pacific – where Russia seeks to become engaged – or by generating the understanding of local conditions needed to facilitate operations against Russia’s eastern periphery and growing network of overseas facilities. In effect, then, the Indo-Pacific tilt could be conceptually integrated with NATO deterrence vis-à-vis Russia.

Ultimately, the government will need to define how Royal Navy commitments can be truly integrated, as opposed to being resourced in a coordinated way. The mobility and flexibility of naval power can potentially expand the footprint and strategy by, for example, allowing NATO to respond to a Russian challenge at a time and place of its choosing – including beyond Europe. This in turn would set the requirement for less visible, more persistently engaged forces such as littoral response groups, constraining systemic challengers and generating the situational awareness and regional partnerships needed to enable strategic mobility. A closer alignment with the US and those NATO members capable of extra-European operations will thus be central, as will the subordination of all the navy’s assets to an overarching strategic concept that emphasises the unique global reach of naval power.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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