The Royal and US Navies seem unable to replace the ships of 20 years ago

The Royal Navy and the US Navy can fairly be described as the leading maritime forces of the Western world – though nobody would realistically suggest that the British fleet is in the same league as the USN.

Nonetheless both services, alone among the world’s navies, can deploy fifth-generation fighters from aircraft carriers. Both can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets a thousand miles away. Both have now proven that they can shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, in historic engagements against the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen. Though the USN is far bigger, both can do the rest of the top-tier missions: nuclear submarine deterrence, attack, and covert ops; effective anti-submarine warfare (an area in which the Royal Navy is sometimes, for once, a little ahead); and amphibious assault. Or anyway the USN can do amphibious assault and the Royal Navy – actually the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – will be able to soon.

But both services have their problems, in particular with introducing new ships.

Here in Britain, the problems are obscured because planned shipbuilding numbers are good. The new Dreadnought class deterrent submarines are in train as are the last of the Astute class attack submarines. The collaboration with the US and Australia for the next generation of attack submarines remains sound, although that is a long way away and many hurdles remain. The Type 26 and 31 Frigates are (finally) progressing nicely and the news that they will both have Mark 41 vertical launchers, able to carry effective American missiles of all kinds, is welcome.

The fact that, to my mind, takes a little bit of the gold leaf off ‘the golden age of shipbuilding’ here in the UK is the number of ships that are being asked to run on beyond their programmed lifespan because these projects all started too late. Resource constraints make getting programs across the line so difficult that we are now seemingly incapable of starting a complex build programme in time for it to be finished as the previous class pays off. Delays in build due to politics, shipyard capacity issues and design tinkering all compound this. Capability gaps are now the norm, sometimes huge ones.

The venerable Type 23 frigates typify this. They were built in the 1990s and Noughties and were designed to run reasonably low-intensity towed array patrols in the North Atlantic with a life span of 18 to 20 years. Even the very newest (and best) one, my old command HMS St Albans – just coming out of an extended maintenance period – is already 24 years old. They will all be in their late 30s by the time the T26s are ready to relieve them.

Running ships on past their designed life like this creates two problems. First is the cost of keeping them mechanically sound and safe to operate. The refits cost more than it cost to build them. Second, you are forced to throw money at what in technological terms is now an ‘old ship’. The latest advancements in weapons, sensors, AI, communications and satellite networks – all the things we are working so hard to develop to retain a technological edge – become increasingly incompatible with the ageing platforms.

The USN's futuristic Zumwalt class destroyer has not been a success. Only three will ever join the fleet
The USN's futuristic Zumwalt class destroyer has not been a success. Only three will ever join the fleet - US Navy/Getty

Older ships also use more people, the reason I am confident we won’t see our two Royal Navy amphibious assault ships on operations anytime soon, despite the announcement that they will not be paid off early.

It’s doubly frustrating that we are in the middle of making the same mistake again with the replacement for the Type 45 destroyers. HMS Daring, first of class, was launched in 2006 and should therefore be expecting to retire in 2036 at the latest. If the Type 45 replacement is to be ready in time, designs need to be mature now and contracts awarded straight away.

To give an idea, steel was first cut on the Type 26 Frigate in July 2017 but that ship won’t reach initial operating capability until October 2028. But that was on the back of a further seven years of contract discussions and awards, i.e. it took 18 years from ‘concept’ to ‘operational’.

Meanwhile, over in the US, the Zumwalt class was a case study of what happens if you try to pack too much new and untested technology into one hull. The initial plan was to build 32 but as the costs skyrocketed, this reduced to 24, then to seven. The USN has ended up with three. A related case was the Seawolf submarines, which are powerful but horrendously costly. Again, the USN only got three, though in this case the more reasonably priced Virginia class successor project has been a great success.

With surface ships the USN did not recover as well – if at all. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is perhaps the exemplar of a programme that started with a confused concept of operations, was rushed into production, and got worse from there. It took about 12 years from launch before they were universally being referred to as ‘little crappy ships’. Needless to say, the US Navy hasn’t let the almost unarmed LCSs anywhere near the current littoral combat theatre in the Southern Red Sea.

And now the Constellation class frigate, the US answer to our Type 26, is also in a bit of a mess. On this occasion, the USN took the excellent and proven Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM) design and rather than modifying 15 per cent of it for US purposes as initially stated, modified 85 per cent. It’s basically a new ship. A combination of this meddling and workforce shortfalls in the yard where it is being built have caused delays and a price hike.

So ‘too expensive’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘fiddled with too much’ in sequential order. It’s almost as though the USN can’t build new surface combatant warships at all any more. Fortunately, in the long running Arleigh Burke destroyer programme, the US not only produced one of the best warships ever at the start, it is also one of the most modifiable. The latest ones, still coming off the line, physically resemble their forebears of 33 years ago but that’s about it: and the old ones still in service have been upgraded in line with the new ones.

Arleigh Burke class. When you get something right, keep doing it
Arleigh Burke class. When you get something right, keep doing it - MC3 Lasheba James/US Navy/AFP/Getty

Here in Britain our replacement air defence destroyer, the Type 83, will need to avoid all these traps. It will need to be advanced (but not too much), have what is meant to be inked in from the start and then not be tinkered with during build.

That’s not going to be easy, however. The things an air defence destroyer needs to be able to do are expanding and shifting at pace. The Future Air Dominance System (FADS) is the collective term for this and whilst accelerating fast, the concept is still in its infancy.

Whatever FADS ends up being, it will need to be advanced but not too expensive. It must be survivable and not have too many people onboard. It must carry lots of (reloadable at sea) missiles but not be too big and expensive. It will need to counter swarm attacks by cheap and simple drones or missiles (the forthcoming Dragonfire laser should be useful here). It will also need to shoot down ballistic missiles in space, supersonic or hypersonic missiles from the upper atmosphere to sea level, and defend against surface attack (also drones). It should be able to knock down targets below the horizon which are being tracked by something else such as an airborne radar aircraft.

The Red Sea has confirmed beyond doubt that warships need to be able to strike targets ashore – add this to the list, though most navies apart from the Royal Navy had already done so. The Type 83s will need to be able to conduct disaggregated operations thousands of miles from other ships but also in a task group next to the carrier (this is a key requirement).

These are complex and sometimes conflicting requirements to the point where some FADS concepts dispense with the idea of a large ship at all, relying instead on a fleet of smaller arsenal and uncrewed ships. This could work in wartime, and might even save money (never far away in the conversation) but solutions like this often overlook the 99 per cent of the time when a warship’s job is to prevent the war in the first place.

So, to my mind, peacetime operations, deterrence work, radar physics and probably a pinch of traditionalism means that FADS will still have a destroyer-looking ship at its core with the option to add remotely operated or heavily armed options down the line.  It won’t be a vast cruiser (see Zumwalt) or small and under-armed (see the LCS).

But FADS needs to mature now because the equation is simple: no destroyers = no carriers = no conventional deterrent in far too much of the world. And if they’re not ready in time, we know from the Type 23s what it costs to run ships beyond their expected life and given the complexities (and difficulties) of the Type 45 power train, it will be worse if we have to do it again.

So I would question the notion that we are in a golden age of shipbuilding here in the UK. If we have entered a golden anything it should be the age of budget holders finally recognising how tight things have become in the Royal Navy, how this could compromise the defence of the nation in the face of increasing threats and the demands this continually places on the service’s excellent people.

In the States the problems are less ones of lacking money and vision – the US has long had clear ideas on a powerful navy and has provided ample funds. Problems in America are ones of execution, with at least three major ship classes failing to reach service in any numbers over the last three decades – leaving the USN, like the RN, with a lot of the same ships it had 30 years ago.

The good news is that in both nations the desire is there to meet the threats of the future. The two navies now just need to be given the resources and freedom to deliver. In the specific case of the Type 83 destroyer, that time for decisive action is now.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and surface combatant captain