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How should the Royal Navy look and operate in the 2040s?

As part of the official proceedings for the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2024, the Council on Geostrategy asked 11 experts with different specialisations how the Royal Navy should look and operate in 2040s, with topics covered ranging from small states, emerging technologies, sailor health and the ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ region.

Robert Bassett Cross, Adarga

Focused investment in modern ‘unified data infrastructure’ today will ignite the most significant evolution of organisation, culture, lethality, and precision in the Royal Navy’s history, providing the technological underpinning for the force to harness the explosion of potential in artificial intelligence (AI). 

A truly software-defined, data-driven navy of the 2040s will be operating in an Indo-Pacific orientated, mature information age, where global shipping volumes may have tripled. Continuous innovation and adaptation will be propelled by an intimate, symbiotic relationship with industry. Responsible autonomy will be the norm, enabling leaner crewing and the seamless synchronisation of crewed and uncrewed systems across all domains, interoperable with allies and other joint force elements to deliver substantial mass and effect. 

Individual platforms will deliver much greater impact in terms of the physics of warfare – operating sustainably over greater distances, with lower logistics burden, and packing significantly greater ‘punch’. AI will drive decision advantage with rapid targeting cycles and a pre-emptive edge in the information domain. Effective strategic deterrence will be as much about rapidly developing and fielding emergent AI models as warheads on undetectable submarines. The AI-enabled, software-driven Royal Navy of the 2040s will be disproportionately more effective, not materially larger.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

They say no man is an island, but looking to the 2040s, the Royal Navy can certainly enhance its reach and impact by collaborating with some island states. 

Collaboration with small island developing states (SIDS) should be prioritised through capacity-building initiatives, joint training exercises, and information sharing agreements. By providing training and technical assistance, the Royal Navy can help partners to develop their sovereign maritime security capabilities, improve coastal surveillance, and combat transnational threats such as piracy, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and drug trafficking. 

However, assistance does not have to be limited to naval capabilities or combatting illegal activity, but can extend to sharing best practices on coordination. For example, as Fiji is instituting its inaugural Maritime Security Committee and working to develop a maritime security strategy, drawing on the longstanding expertise of the United Kingdom (UK) can help to enhance this strategic capacity.

In turn, the Royal Navy also stands to learn and receive support, given SIDS’ influence and leadership in the maritime domain. As stated by Aiyaz Sayed- Khaiyum, then Attorney-General of Fiji, in 2020: 

…there’s nothing small at all about Fiji’s responsibilities. We are actually a “large ocean state” with over 1.3 million square kilometres of sea under our protection. And we’ve led the global ocean’s management movement from its inception.

Whether through holding the presidency of COP23, leading the Commonwealth’s Ocean and Climate Change Group, or having a Fijian diplomat currently serving as the United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean, the country is seen as a global leader in protecting the ocean. SIDS are thus ideally positioned to support the Royal Navy with its own sustainability ambitions, demonstrating the empowering potential of genuine and equal partnership.

Neil Brown, Council on Geostrategy

The Royal Navy should be contributing to Britain’s nuclear and conventional deterrence of the adversaries identified in the Integrated Review and its Refresh, having improved operational performance through organisational transformation to maximise a 2025 spending round which finally reflected the grim global outlook and reversed decades of underinvestment and inefficiencies.  

Prioritisation of expeditionary capability should lead to investment in more platforms to be forward deployed nationally, under AUKUS, or the Joint Expeditionary Force (NATO’s High North anchor). These will deliver improved access, presence and intervention options for HM Government, and promote the economic and security benefits of good governance at sea, leveraging technology as a force multiplier. 

Long-term strategic commitment aligned to organisational improvement should give the UK an increased leadership role, and its defence industry and private sector the confidence to invest in production capacity and optimise supply chains and market access to improve efficiency, availability and lethality. The reinvigorated industrial base and its national workforce should enable the Royal Navy and defence to flex specialists across a more resilient workforce, including a reconfigured reserve. Prioritisation of deployed capability should drive procurement, training and operational partnerships with allies, sister services, agencies and industry focused on optimising presence in the Atlantic, High North and Western Indo-Pacific and beyond, as required.

Joanne L. Fallowfield, Royal Navy

Under-recruitment and workforce outflows are degrading the Royal Navy’s pool of trained personnel and the service’s expertise. Moreover, poor health behaviours in the 21st century – which increase non-communicable disease prevalence and contribute to poor-health conditions at work – are disproportionately affecting service entrants. These trends will continue into the 2040s, presenting the Royal Navy with recruitment and retention challenges now and in the future.

Exclusively focusing upon lean crewing and digital-automation technologies – which transfer risk and seek to compensate for workforce gaps through improving efficiency – will introduce new cyber vulnerability and platform resilience challenges. People can be an organisation’s most adaptable and agile asset, but employers must transform to break patterns of poor health in the workforce; supporting employees to remain ‘well-in-work’. Military approaches to addressing interconnected health problems have historically focused upon the symptoms experienced by individuals, rather than organisational root causes.

Adopting a ‘whole system approach’ – recognising both individual and organisation responsibilities – provides a model for tackling these complex and interconnected health problems. The operational maritime environment presents a setting which could be strategically managed to support good health in sailors; preventable, workforce-impacting poor health outcomes could be effectively targeted through adopting person-centred, context-relevant, community-based interventions. Thus, a maritime ‘system for health’, which is directed by the leadership and coordinated through the Chain of Command, could assist in ameliorating the Royal Navy’s workforce capacity and capability challenges, today and out to 2040.

Monica Kohli, Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association

Over the next 15 years, I would expect the Royal Navy to be reflective of British society. As per the UK Armed Forces Biannual Diversity Statistics, in October 2023, 10.7% of the regular forces and 16.2% of reserves were female. In 15 years, I would like these figures to reach 50% – a proportion which would accurately reflect the female population of the British Isles.

We should want all aspects of the bodies which represent us to be reflective of society. Hence, in 2040, I would also expect to see more ethnic diversity in the Royal Navy, as well as greater representation from people of disadvantaged backgrounds. And this is not just about representation: in today’s more diverse Britain, we need cultural awareness, cultural sensibility and an ability to predict and resolve internal issues before they become a greater threat to internal cohesion. This is best done by having people who have a comprehensive understanding of different cultures and backgrounds.

The Royal Navy also needs to continue being a deterrent, even more than it is today. It needs to be available and ready to be mobilised when there is a threat to our seafarers and to our merchant marine, including piracy, disruptions by non-state actors, or vessels being caught in the middle of proxy wars. It therefore needs to be well funded, well trained and carry on standing as a beacon of safety and trustworthiness for the maritime community. The Royal Navy is one of the leading flag bearers for safety and training worldwide – it is uniquely placed to lead in the guidance and education of other navies. This puts the Royal Navy in a unique position to build collaboration, forge close and direct contacts and foster greater understanding in order to prevent conflicts, both now and in the future.

Andrew Lambert, King’s College London

In 2040, the Royal Navy’s core missions will endure: providing effective, targeted maritime security across the globe, and maintaining world class war-fighting skills and capabilities, including continuous at sea deterrence (CASD), whether working alone or with allies. Current alliances and partnerships look likely to endure; they enhance national security and share burdens in an uncertain age. 

With new routes across the high north and the phasing out of hydrocarbons, along with additional resource pressure on obvious choke points, trade flows may change. The Royal Navy has a solid record of anticipating and adapting to change, skills which will be tested by an evolving world order. Some current concerns will persist, others may fade and be replaced by new hot spots. The (relatively) unexpected is always possible, with the Falklands conflict of 1982 emphasising the need for a substantial fleet, with a wide range of capabilities. The fleet moved away from a ‘Cold War’ posture across the next two decades, acquiring new carriers, and a relatively full spectrum for capabilities. Britain will continue to depend on imported food, raw materials and international trade, while global exchanges enrich British society. 

While key elements of the Royal Navy’s current fleet will remain in the 2040s, there is an opportunity to extend the reach and impact of naval presence, the core of Britain’s global maritime posture.

Jennifer Parker, Council on Geostrategy

Since the announcement of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ in 2021, the Royal Navy has been central to Britain’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as has its relationship with Australia. While many might think the 2021 AUKUS agreement between Australia, the US and the UK can be put down to Australia turning back to its strategic and cultural roots, and some convenient cost sharing on the Astute-class submarine replacement, it is much more.

For reasons of demography, global gross domestic product, not to mention the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to remould the global order, Indo-Pacific security is central to Britain’s security, despite the geographic distance. And geographically central to the Indo-Pacific is Australia.

The recognition in London of the importance of Indo-Pacific security and stability to the UK’s national interests is also de facto recognition of the growing importance of Australia to the Royal Navy as a strategic hub which allows protected access to the region. This is clear in the Royal Navy’s decision to rotate an Astute class submarine out of HMAS Stirling as part of AUKUS Pillar I from 2027. But beyond AUKUS, Australia’s geography, while not as impenetrable as it once was, will increasingly become an important staging base for Royal Navy operations in the Indo-Pacific, as the South China Sea, and waters surrounding bases such as those in Singapore, become increasingly contested.

Alessio Patalano, Council on Geostrategy

Looking at the next two decades, it is not unreasonable to assume that threats to freedom of navigation and the use of coercive actions to manage competing claims and unsettled disputes will continue to undermine the global order at sea. In particular, state-on-state competition is likely to keep the lines separating law enforcement activities from military projection blurred, and authoritarian regimes and their proxies more inclined to disrupt maritime connectivity to hold open economies hostage to their ambitions. For these reasons, the risk of contested sea control in times of crises or war should be regarded as a core assumption.

Within this context, as the UK aims to retain the ability to influence events at sea – alone and in coalition – to ensure its prosperity, the Royal Navy should strive to look as a primary tool of British statecraft fit for a contested age, committed to credible deterrence and, failing that, ready to meet military threats. This means that the Royal Navy should strategically seek to regularly operate from forward positions in key theatres in Europe and beyond, retain the current level of base access, and ensure that it fully implements sustainable rotational deployment in new places such as Japan and Australia. It should also operate on a logic of interchangeability with key partners to maximise the strategic effects of its mass.

Operationally, the Royal Navy’s force structure should be maximised for coalition-centred high-end warfighting, and national and multilateral expeditionary action in contested spaces under challenging environmental conditions. Its force should also be able to meet issues in the undersea environment, and integrate technology to streamline support, and facilitate the fleet’s sustainability.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

By the 2040s, the geopolitical and economic forces joining the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres together into an integrated geostrategic space – the Atlantic-Pacific – will be far greater than today. 

Short of a substantial pushback from the largest free and open countries, the PRC will be significantly more powerful. By the 2040s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy should have significantly more warships, enabled by a larger fleet of auxiliary vessels and overseas naval facilities. 40 large vessels and submarines have been commissioned into the Chinese fleet over the past five years alone, and these are not vessels designed for coastal defence. These larger and more capable Chinese warships will follow and support Chinese interests – increasingly global and focused in distant theatres, from the Middle East and Africa to South America and the Arctic.

Should Russia not be defeated in Ukraine, the Russian threat will almost certainly grow, combining with the Chinese to form a formidable adversary. Due to climate change, the Arctic may also be ice-free for a longer period of time per year than today, providing an additional route between the European and East Asian regions. By the 2040s, India might also be a significant power on the world stage, adding another layer of complexity.

Should the major European countries not rearm, Europe will invite intrigue and intervention. The UK – a centre of power in its own right – will need a larger and more capable navy to protect its interests and to convene and align allies and partners in support of them.

Tom Sharpe, Special Project Partners and The Telegraph

As an island nation dependent on seaborne trade for survival, with a blue water navy and a submarine-delivered nuclear deterrent, it is clear that nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) will be a core part of the Royal Navy in 2040, and for a long time after. 

To ensure this capability in anything like the required numbers by 2040 and beyond, SSN-AUKUS is the only viable option currently. Building more Astutes, Dreadnoughts (for use in the SSN role) or diesel boats, or working up a Virginia-class derived collaboration with the United States, all come across near insurmountable issues of build capacity and cost. 

So with SSN-AUKUS by far the best solution we have, how many will the Royal Navy of 2040 need? The answer is 12, based on a minimum of four standing tasks and a ratio of three boats for every one on operations. In rough order of priority, these tasks would be; around the UK, in the North Atlantic/High North, accompanying an aircraft carrier, and in the Mediterranean/Middle East. Any others that were operational could be used for training, allied interoperability tasks, Indo-Pacific operations, protecting the second carrier, and so on.

The bill for this number will be large compared to the navy budget, and a significant chunk across the defence budget as a whole. However, this sum is not that big when compared to the UK’s GDP, especially when you consider their importance. But, as ever, money is only part of the process. Procurement practices, (nuclear) infrastructure, recruitment and retention will all need to improve in lockstep out to 2040, or the money will be wasted.

Daisy Turnbull, University of Portsmouth

Just as it was realised at the turn of the 20th century with the construction of five experimental Holland-class submarines, the next naval arms race is set to be in the proliferation of subsea capabilities – particularly in development of ‘Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles’. This paradigm shift is set to open a new frontier in maritime defence and drastically change the modus operandi of the Royal Navy by 2040, reshaping the look of the fleet as it adapts to this new subsea battleground. The Royal Navy should continue to respond, alongside Britain’s allies and partners, to the ‘rapidity of relevant technological advances’ being made in global private industry. It ought also to utilise the products of a pre-eminent domestic maritime sector, to be at the forefront of innovation – leading the way through a new digital age both above and below the water.

However, in the 2040s the Royal Navy should continue to operate as both a scientific and people-powered force as our relationship with the sea is remade in the wake of climate change. With the strategic value of the deep-sea also set to exponentially increase in the next 15 years, we should be reminded of HMS Challenger’s legacy, and ask how new technology can inform our scientific understanding of the anthropogenic ocean. The cultural position which the Royal Navy has historically occupied in this regard is important, and the recent announcement of an awareness course is a gesture towards this.

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