British Navy needs to build more warships for future threats, say MPs

Navy too small and too specialised to face the threats posed over the next 20 years, says report

COWES, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 05:  The Royal Yacht Britannia makes it last appearance at Cowes Regatta before being decommissioned on August 05, 1996 in Cowes, Isle of Wight. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
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A successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia will bring no advantage to the British Navy, MPs have warned, as a report urged the UK to build more warships to protect the country against an “increasingly hostile and unpredictable international environment”.

A report released on Tuesday by the Commons defence committee revealed how at one point last year, only one of six Type 45 destroyers was not undergoing maintenance.

And it warned that a new £250 million ($330m) “national flagship”, which is expected to replace the Royal Yacht Britannia, would add “ongoing pressure on an already constrained naval budget”.

“Overall, our Navy needs more ships, armed with more lethal weapons and the most up-to-date technology," said former minister Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the committee.

“We have the shipyards and the know-how to build them. The government just needs to place the orders and give UK shipbuilding the commitment and confidence it needs to deliver.

The report said that budget cuts had meant procurement was slow, and then when ships were built and got to sea, they acted “like porcupines – well-defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities”.

And it said the UK was increasingly reliant on allies to support its capabilities.

Experts had warned the committee that the Navy could be needed in the future to fight for control of the sea, or to deny adversaries access to UK waters.

But the MPs said the Navy was “too small and too specialised” to face the threats that will be levelled over the next 20 years, including from Russia and China.

“The Royal Navy will be asked to do even more with even less,” the report said. “This is a clear risk, which those beyond these shores can calculate just as readily as we can.”

It said the MPs received “no evidence of the advantage to the Royal Navy of acquiring the National Flagship” and that the initial cost of £200m to £250m, combined with the £20m to £30 a year running costs and providing a crew, would pile extra pressure on the force.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in July that he hoped to announce the winning bidder in the competition process to build the ship this month.

At the time, he said some of the government’s ambition for the ship was for it to be a “floating embassy”, which was made and designed through a “prestigious showcase for UK skills and expertise”, and was also the “greenest ship of its kind”.

The report also warned that in its current state, the Navy would not be able to meet the aims of the government’s foreign policy shift in the Integrated Review released this year, in which it has a “potentially leading role”.

“The Navy cannot fulfil the full ambition of the Integrated Review with its current fleet," the report said.

"It needs more lower-end, adaptable vessels like the planned Type 31 frigate, to fulfil the presence operations planned."

And it said that when compared to peers and adversaries, the Royal Navy was not as well-equipped in weaponry.

“The Royal Navy has a long and proud history protecting our nation at sea," Mr Ellwood said. "To maintain our position as one of the leading global navies, the government must deliver a rapid programme of modernisation and growth.

“The next 10 years will prove a test for our naval fleet.

"The UK is faced with an increasingly hostile and unpredictable international environment but the government is still reducing funding, retiring capability and asking the Navy to rely on increasingly elderly vessels for the next five years until new ships come in.

“The timely delivery of these new ships is crucial to plug the hole in our naval capabilities. However, the Ministry of Defence has a poor track record projects like this.

"We need a firm hand on the tiller to navigate us through the next decade. Of all the services, the government is most ambitious for the Navy.

"However, if the government does not deliver the ships and capabilities the Navy needs, that ambition will be holed below the waterline."

A Ministry of Defence representative said: “We are well on track to becoming the foremost naval power in Europe – a carrier deployment and ships operating in several oceans showcases the best of Global Britain.

“This report rightly identifies the judgments the service must make to deliver new classes of ships, submarines, innovative weapon systems and technologies.

“Investment in Royal Navy shipbuilding will double over the life of this Parliament to more than £1.7 billion. As a consequence the Royal Navy’s tonnage is projected to grow by more than 40 per cent from 2015-2030.

“We will consider the committee’s report and will respond in due course.”

Updated: December 14, 2021, 12:01 AM