LONDON — The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters are spearheading a revival of British sea power unparalleled since the end of the Second World War, the country’s top admiral said on Tuesday.
“The Royal Navy is growing for the first time in 70 years,” said Adm. Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff. “I am unashamedly bullish.”
Speaking on the opening day of the DSEI defense exhibition, he said the navy was undergoing a “substantial” recapitalization program that included Dreadnought-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, offshore patrol vessels, support ships and new and replacement aircraft.
But pride of place went to the effort to regenerate and improve upon the carrier strike capability that was lost in 2010, when a cost-cutting government retired the Royal Navy’s remaining light aircraft carriers and their Harrier jump jets.
The first of the new flattops, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed recently from her home base at Portsmouth for a second work-up deployment to the U.S. East Coast, where she will embark British F-35Bs for the first time.
Ship two, the future Prince of Wales, has now spun her shafts at the builder’s yard in Rosyth and is poised to commence sea trials later this month.
Radakin told a DSEI naval seminar that the RN’s long-awaited growth path was “a great place for us to be in” but that there was no room for complacency.
“We have to do much more than bask in the avoidance of decline. We need to change. Defense and the navy’s strategic context has changed, and we need to change with it,” he said.
“We’re now in an era of potential state-on-state conflicts, [and] these threats are appearing in different ways. Sub-threshold and gray-zone activity are becoming much more the norm. We are in a state of constant competition. We need to be able to handle, to shape and respond.”
Radakin is focusing on five priority areas: operations in the North Atlantic, the future commando force, forward presence, technology and innovation, and carrier strike.
In the North Atlantic, he said, the Royal Navy has to ensure freedom of movement for its SSBNs in the face of increasing pressure from Russia, whose naval forces are now operating at a level of intensity not seen since the Cold War.
The Royal Navy is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in upgrading sonar and other “traditional” capabilities, he said, “as well as introducing novel and disruptive technologies.” It would also leverage the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the Royal Air Force’s planned fleet of nine P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the first of which will soon enter service.
“This whole approach seeks to change [anti-submarine warfare] from delivery by individual platforms to a battlespace of networked sensors,” he said.
Turning to the future commando force, he said the Royal Marines would be “blended with technology” to create “fifth-generation commando warriors” who would be forward deployed more frequently. Ships would also be forward deployed to respond to threats more quickly.
He said the Royal Navy must “embrace technology and innovation in a much bigger way. We’re doing some brilliant things across the service, but it has to be stronger, bolder and much more impactful.”
An industry/military innovation hub called NavyX has been established to rapidly develop autonomous systems technologies and speed them to the front line; work is already progressing in the mine countermeasures space.
Radakin said he wants to see a shipborne land-attack missile system introduced to replace the increasingly obsolete Harpoon surface-to-surface weapon, and he also mentioned the possible development of a drone-launched supersonic missile capability (presumably using Thales’ Lightweight Multi-role Missile – otherwise known as Martlet – which was test-fired recently aboard a Type 23 frigate).
However, it was carrier strike that drew most of his remarks. “We need to shift the whole navy to being a carrier task group navy. This will allow us to project our power around the world and at a level alongside our American and French allies,” he said.
“These two carriers will have a strategic impact. We’re used to thinking of the U.S. as having enormous power and reach with its … carrier strike groups,” he said.
“But even with all this power, the U.S. normally has only one carrier strike group in any one area at a time. It really does make a big difference when we can add to that force.”
Rear Adm. Martin Connell, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff for Aviation and Carrier Strike, said that last year’s Queen Elizabeth first-of-class flying trials off the eastern United States – using U.S. Marine Corps F-35B aircraft – proved that new digital technologies were working “extremely well.”
The current deployment, WESTLANT 19, will see British F-35Bs fly from the carrier for the first time. With an escort force consisting of a Type 45 destroyer and a Type 23 frigate, supported by one of the new Tide-class tankers, the milestone event is intended to demonstrate a cohesive, agile and efficient carrier strike group operational capability.
WESTLANT 19 will “realize symbiotic integration of the F-35 within the maritime task group alongside the United States,” Connell told the DSEI audience.
Queen Elizabeth’s inaugural operational deployment in 2021 will involve the U.S. and the Netherlands, he said, adding, “we’re preparing for our carriers to routinely be assigned to NATO from the mid-2020s as part of the NATO Response Initiative”.
Air Commodore Paul Godfrey (Royal Air Force), the head of Carrier Enabled Power Projection, said that F-35Bs could be armed with next-generation smart weapons such MBDA’s SPEAR Cap 3 (Selective Precision Effects At Range, Capability 3) standoff air-to-surface missile.
However, the aircraft’s advanced sensors and networked data links meant the pilot would not be limited to his own weapons payload, but could also, for instance, launch Aster anti-air missiles from the silo of a Type 45 destroyer.
“The F-35 pilot will have more situational awareness than any pilot in history. How will we let him use that knowledge? There’s a need to re-write the rules of engagement. We’re at the start of that process,” Godfrey said.
“I’ve now got the full might of a maritime task group available to me. F-35 is the catalyst for transformation in the maritime domain.”