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Navy Command will spend over £41 billion on equipment and support over the next decade from 2022.

The Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) are planning a fleet of new vessels, including frigates, supply and multi-role ships, autonomous mine-hunting systems, and ocean surveillance vessels to protect critical undersea infrastructure.

Parliament has taken a keen interest in the way the Government procures surface ships. This paper provides a short overview of the current and future fleet, the evolution of naval procurement policy and Parliamentery scrutiny of this topic.

The Royal Navy and RFA fleet

There are 71 vessels in the Royal Navy’s and RFA’s surface fleet, as of 1 April 2022.

The flagships are the two new aircraft carriers, equipped with the new F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft. 

Type 45 destroyers protect the fleet from air attack, while specialist anti-submarine warfare frigates protect surface vessels from underwater threats. The latter also support the submarine-based strategic nuclear deterrent.

General purpose frigates, and a new fleet of offshore patrol vessels, protect the waters of the UK and British Overseas Territories and perform a range of duties, including counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations.

Amphibious and large landing ships support the delivery of Royal Marines in the littoral (coastal or near shore) environment.

Specialist vessels survey the ocean and make shipping lanes safe from mines. Tankers and solid support ships resupply naval vessels with fuel, ammunition, food and other stores at sea.

Currently under construction are two classes of frigates for the Royal Navy: the Type 26 anti-submarine warfare and the Type 31 general purpose frigates. BAE Systems is building the Type 26 at its yards in Glasgow. The Type 31 is being manufactured by Babcock at its Rosyth facility.

Latest announcements

In November 2022 the Defence Secretary made several announcements relating to the Royal Navy’s future surface fleet:

Evolution of naval procurement policy

The Government’s approach has evolved since it published its first national shipbuilding strategy in 2017. That articulated the position that all Royal Navy warships (which it defined as aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates) would be built only in the UK. Open competition would be applied to all other surface vessels.

The Government has since revised that approach, with a new industrial strategy published in 2021 laying out the need to “maintain a maritime enterprise” within the UK. From now on, the procurement approach for each class of ship will be “determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In March 2022 the Government laid out a 30-year masterplan for future ships in a refreshed shipbuilding strategy, in which the Government outlined plans to “reinvigorate the whole British shipbuilding industry.”

Current issues

In recent years much of the debate about the procurement of naval surface ships has focused on where the ships are built. Supporting the UK’s shipbuilding industry and retaining skills has often been at the forefront of the debate, balanced by the Government’s preference for open competition to maximise value for money and meet its legal requirements.

There are also concerns about timescales and delays to programmes and the effect this may have on the Royal Navy’s ability to fulfil the demands placed on it. In a report published in December 2021, the Defence Committee worried that the Navy’s fleet is “too small and too specialised”. The Committee also expressed concern about the current availability of ships, with ageing vessels retained in service before being replaced with new ships.

The Scottish Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into military shipbuilding in February 2022. It is accepting written evidence until 19 January 2023.

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