In 1871, Helmuth von Moltke – often referred to as ‘the Elder’ to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who commanded the German Army at the outbreak of the First World War, coined the phrase: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” A bit of a mouthful, no doubt sounding better in the original German. Over time, it has been reshaped into the snappier: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

This phrase may well have come to the minds of the Russian admirals responsible for naval deployments in the Black Sea, once news came through of the sinking of the Moskva on 14 April. With just two relatively low-tech, shore-launched Neptune cruise missiles, Ukrainian forces punched through the side of the £750m heavy Russian missile cruiser. This news caught the entire naval community off guard – the Moskva was the third-largest ship in the Russian Navy, and the largest and most powerful warship to be lost in combat anywhere in the past 40 years. With all the high-tech defences and support that these kinds of ships boast specifically intended to protect them, something like this should not have happened – and yet it did.

A plan for the times

All of this brings us back to March 2021, when the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) released the much-awaited Integrated Review and the following Defence Command Paper, laying out its plan for the future of the British Armed Forces. For the Royal Navy, there was much to celebrate. A substantial increase in funding; the continuation of the existing construction programme including doubling investment in overall shipbuilding to £1.7bn per year; and a tilt towards a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific region, with the Royal Navy taking centre stage. Even the best laid plans, however, can fall foul of changing times.

“[The Integrated Review] was a step in the right direction. But whether it was a leap in the right direction, I think, is now being tested with Ukraine,” says the former Royal Navy Second Sea Lord, retired Vice-Admiral Nick Hine. Questions have been raised over whether the plan laid out in the Integrated Review might be worth revisiting – not because the roadmap itself was necessarily flawed, but because the timescale for its implementation should now be significantly more compressed since its creation.

There are a number of reasons for that compression, but the main factor, as Hine states, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where recent events have seen many long-held theories on how modern warfare should be conducted upended and shown to be woefully out of date.

“I think that if ever there was an example of preparing to fight the last war, this looks like it,” says Hine, referring to the difficulties Russian armour, in particular, has come under over the course of the invasion. “It’s made individuals on quadbikes with rocket launchers strategic assets,” he adds, while also noting that the use of Neptune missiles to sink the Moskva “would suggest that there’s a new type of activity going on – one where drones provide targeting in real time with little opportunity to know that it’s happening”.

Here, Hine cites the way in which Russian patrol boats have been targeted by Ukrainian drones, most notably on 2 May, when a Ukrainian Navy TB2 drone engaged and sunk two Russian Raptor assault boats near Snake Island. “What we’re seeing here, again, is a changing conversation on the nature of maritime conflict akin to the introduction of maritime air power in World War Two,” he says. “There remain some truths – fundamentally, you can still operate largely with impunity under the water. You can create disruption by denying people access through relatively cheap mining activity, which then consumes enormous amounts of time and effort. But what seems to be changing is that which we thought was a well-defended, high-end capital warship looks to be vulnerable against a combination of newer technologies.”

However, the biggest takeaway in Hine’s opinion, is that “the utility, ubiquity, efficiency, effectiveness, at scale” of autonomous systems has been clearly demonstrated in the conflict. Some 6,000 reconnaissance drones are reportedly being deployed by the Ukrainian army, according to Wired, and Ukraine has received an unknown number of military drones in the shape of Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey and US kamikaze Switchblade drones, which it has used to great effect. Russia has suffered for underinvesting in this area, entering the war with only a small number of its Orion combat drones, many of which were shot down in the early days of the war.

“Lots of the negatives that are played out about autonomous systems are being eradicated in real time, as we speak,” Hine says, noting in particular how the war has shown that drones are expendable and disposable in a way that other vehicles are not, at a fraction of the cost. At the same time, unlike crewed vehicles, factors like loss of life do not weigh down decision-making. Others are warning against drawing too many conclusions just yet, and while Hine agrees, he believes that it would be an error not to state that “the level of autonomy being employed is significantly greater and at a higher scale than we have seen elsewhere – it’s demonstrating a shift”.

While the Integrated Review did focus on increasing expenditure and development in autonomous technologies, this shift in the perception over their utility and capability has raised questions over whether the review goes far enough.

“When everything was written, there was no war in Ukraine – so perhaps the timelines need to be accelerated,” Hine says, noting that this would create a host of new challenges. “Do you take more risk on existing capability? Do you retire older capabilities more quickly? Do you take a leap in technology terms and place some bets on things that are probably less mature than we would normally procure?”

Purchase or procure?

In Hine’s opinion, the most effective solution to this issue would involve changing the way in which the MOD goes about its procurement system. “The lifecycle of some of these autonomous platforms or capabilities is going to be so fast that you’re going to have to purchase, not procure, and therefore the system will have to adjust,” he says. At the moment, the cycle of procurement is too long to keep up with such changes, which is slowly being acknowledged by the MOD, industry and government. “You’re buying things that are now expendable, disposable, and if you are lucky, may not be obsolete in two years.”

With this in mind, industry partnering with the MOD should be looking into solutions that look more like mobile phone provisions – iterative, adaptable and updated on a regular basis. “You never actually necessarily need to own the phone,” Hine adds, noting that the MOD needs a different kind of model if it is to truly exploit existing and future technology, and accelerate their introduction into military service.

For example, rather than expensive, high-impact munitions boasted by traditional and favoured capability practitioners, he suggests that navies might be better off investing in large quantities of autonomous drones with smaller charges, to be used in much the same way as Ukrainian forces have been doing to eliminate Russian tanks.

“If you replace like for like, which is largely the [UK] Ministry of Defence’s method of procurement for things, you get something that’s a bit more sophisticated, it goes a bit further, a bit faster, gives a bit more bang – but it also costs you a lot more, and therefore you get a few less,” Hine notes. “That seems to me to be a race to the bottom in terms of the volume of your ability to deliver capability.”

Improved capability

Of course, the greater proliferation of autonomous capability in the Royal Navy will have ramifications that extend far beyond procurement. While national media attention focused on the personnel cuts in the British Army, less focus was placed on the still-considerable cuts to positions within the Royal Marines – to be replaced, in part, through increased investment in autonomous technologies.

“My very, very personal view has always been that you can drive down the number of personnel at risk by driving up the levels of autonomy and the level of automation. And we should be doing that more rapidly than we are,” says Hine.

There are two main aspects that would factor into increased automation of Royal Navy operations, according to Hine. The first is the high number of people employed in back-office functions, while the second is the rotation of people at sea in order to conduct operations. With increased automations of Royal Navy ships, fewer personnel will be required to man these vessels. Similarly, many back-office functions could be replaced with autonomous systems, empowering people to go to sea rather than working in an office.


The new annual investment in shipbuilding for the Royal Navy as laid out by the Integrated Review in March 2021.



The number of reconnaissance drones that are reportedly being deployed by the Ukrainian Army.


“If something can be autonomously delivered, why wouldn’t you do it? We’ve seen autonomy is ready. We’ve seen you can do it at scale. We know that it’s efficient.”


Cost of the Russian Moskva, sunk by two low-tech Neptune missiles off the coast of Ukraine on 14 April 2022.


This would likely result in lower numbers of personnel serving on each platform, which would enable the navy to create multiple crews per platform, driving up their availability while retaining the same number of people. “All of that seems to me to be entirely possible,” says Hine. “But it’s very difficult to achieve because it requires changing culture.”

And there’s the rub. In Hine’s opinion, the biggest obstacle hindering the Royal Navy’s ability to achieve its goals is the culture and long-held traditions that are currently in place, and require a considerable shift. “This isn’t a criticism because you need culture. But you need the right culture – the culture of challenge, pace, urgency, prioritisation, all of which we could do more of,” says Hine. “We are at a place where best endeavours are not good enough. […] Trying is not as good as achieving.”

Winning time

Of course, when discussing what the Royal Navy needs to achieve its goals, it is worth examining what those goals are. According to Hine, at its most fundamental level, the Royal Navy “needs to be an organisation that can fight and win”. Of course, that raises questions of its own – who will fight, and how, and on what timescale? From there, deciding what ‘winning’ looks like, determines a whole host of other factors.

“It’s very easy to say ‘stay within budget’,” Hine notes. “Well, that immediately implies that the budget is right.” Of course, no military force in history has ever been satisfied with its funding, but in terms of immediately increasing the efficiency of the Royal Navy, Hine would want more availability from its platforms. “The best way to do that is to put multiple crews on the platform. But that will cost you more money as you’d need more people currently – because the platforms are not optimised for autonomy.”

While there are some situations in which you would not necessarily want to involve autonomous systems – the delivery of a nuclear warhead, for instance – there are many others where autonomy would work perfectly well. With the benefits of autonomous systems now being demonstrated on the global stage, the question, then, is whether or not the Royal Navy has the appetite for it in the timescale necessary to be at the front of any queue.

“If something can be autonomously delivered, why wouldn’t you do it? We’ve seen autonomy is ready. We’ve seen you can do it at scale. We know that it’s efficient,” says Hine, underlying his position on the subject. For him, the answer is clear: “We should be autonomous where possible, crewed when necessary.”