Prevarication leaves another crucial ‘capability gap’
Key assets for the Royal Navy are it’s Airborne Early Warning helicopters, i.e. search radar-equipped helicopters that can give the fleet much greater coverage than ship-based radar limited by the curvature of the earth. During the Falklands war this lack of coverage left the fleet in fear of Exocet missile and aircraft attack, with just seconds to react and it cost ships and lives. In a classic piece of British ingenuity the problem was solved by fitting a radar to a Sea King helicopter in just a few weeks. The much-loved, but now knackered Sea King helicopters will have to be retired by 2016. Despite being fully aware of this, the MoD project “Crowsnest” to develop a replacement has only just begun assessment phase. Almost certainly the solution will be to take some of the precious few (30) anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s currently in RN service and add radar in a very similar way to the current solution. Crowsnest is not expected to deliver until 2022, thus leaving the RN carrier(s) at sea without vital radar coverage for at last 4 years. Since 1982 the AEW helicopter has seen its role expanded and they have proved useful in Afghanistan and other non-maritime environments where their tracking and surveillance capability provides vital intelligence on the ground. It is the complacency & penny-pinching of successive governments that have, yet again, created a situation where the RN will have a another very significant ‘capability gap‘. Crowsnest’s lack of urgency is typical of so many MoD-managed programs and it is unclear why something that was solved in a few weeks in 1982 will take up to 10 years in the 21st century!
RAF plans to royally screw up the aircraft carrier project remain on track
Having succeeded in “advising” government to ditch catapults & traps for the aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be much diminished, the RAF recently proposed the RN’s new 65,000 ton carriers should only “routinely embark 6 aircraft”. Whoever made that proposal is either an idiot or deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. The defence secretary later announced that he expects 12 aircraft to be routinely embarked, still a very silly number for a large carrier designed to operate at least 36 aircraft. As we have continually highlighted, the RAF now see the F35B as a replacement for their Tornado aircraft when in fact the F35B is really the successor the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9. The F35B has “60% RAF ownership” and will probably be based at RAF Marham. It is not hard to imagine the RN will continually struggle to be allowed to operate the aircraft carriers main armament if the RAF have other plans. It is a crazy situation to build carriers then cripple them with bizarre aircraft operating arrangements. The F35B should be allocated to the Fleet Air Arm who fully understand what is involved in carrier aviation. If the RAF must maintain their questionable ‘deep strike’ role then they should lobby government to buy the F35A. A recommended read is the excellent article in the December issue of Warship International Fleet Review magazine by Commodore Steve Jermy who brilliantly explains the complexities of naval aviation and why in every carrier-equipped nation in the world (except the UK), the Navy owns and operates its aircraft.
Astute class subs – serious problems but still world-beaters?
Recently The Guardian gleefully reported on the many problems of the Astute submarine project. Late and over-budget, the Astute program can indeed find a place in the MoD’s Top 10 All-Time Greatest Procurement Fiascos. That said, there are now 2 boats in the water and the Astute class is beginning to deliver on the huge potential it always promised. These boats will be a great asset to the nation and the Royal Navy and ultimately are worth the cost and unfavorable media coverage. Nuclear submarine construction is one of the most demanding engineering challenges known to man and it is unsurprising that the first of class has encountered problems. We can be confident that the problems are slowly being solved and Astute is amongst the quietest subs ever built, offers many new capabilities and has already impressed when tested against the latest US Virginia-class boat. The main concern is possibly with propulsion and a mis-match between her very powerful reactor and the drive train. However this kind of detail must remain highly classified and it’s impossible to speculate in an informed way.
The looming threat of Scottish independence
With referendum on Scottish Independence looming in 2014, the horrible possibility exists that the RN’s key submarine base at Faslane and primary warship builder in Glasgow will suddenly be in a ‘foreign country’. Although opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Scots will see sense and reject the idea, it would seem wise for the MoD to start making contingency plans. Apparently the ‘do nothing and hope it goes away’ approach is being applied by the MoD. (although one would hope the RN is at least looking at its options behind closed doors) In fact, the plan to transfer the remaining Trafalgar class subs from Devonport to Faslane is still going ahead. In the calamitous event of Scottish Independence, the nuclear deterrent would be in serious problems, although basing the entire submarine fleet in Devonport is a realistic possibility, the vast cost of replicating the weapons handling facility at Coulport would be a major obstacle and could even spell the end of the UK nuclear deterrent. There are lots of other nightmare issues to consider such as which defence assets and personnel would Scotland demand? Would the RN still build is warships in Scotland and are there any affordable alternatives? Franky independence would be an exercise in silly local pride, there is enough division and splintering in this world and we are better off and stronger together. Let’s pray the Scots vote no to what would be an disaster for them, the Royal Navy and everyone in the UK.
Portsmouth shipbuilding yard saga lurches towards disaster
We have been warning and campaigning against the closure of BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth for several months. All indications are that BAE seem set to announce the yard will close very soon. Due to a total lack of coherent industrial strategy on the part of this government and its predecessor, when the aircraft carrier work is complete the yard will have no work (at least for several years until the leisurely-paced Type 26 frigate programme starts). The yard is ideally suited to building small, relatively cheap Offshore Patrol Vessels which the RN really needs. Instead of placing an order for a couple of OPVs to fill the gap in work, government complacency and dogma dictates they will let the yard close. Ministers talk of there being “no business case” to keep the yard open – of course there is no business case if their main customer won’t even place a small order! Besides, the importance of an island nation’s ability to build warships goes beyond short-term business arguments. This pathetic laissez-faire approach to vital national strategic assets is indefensible and hard to understand, given the relatively small mount of money needed to keep it afloat. The financial argument does not even add up as it will actually cost more to close the yard than the cost of a couple of small ships!
Economic problems – more defence cuts on the way?
With the UK economy showing no signs of recovery and public borrowing not significantly reduced, apparently the armed forces may face another round of cuts. Defence has been cut, cut & cut again even in “good times” under Blair & Brown and there is absolutely nothing left to cut without really endangering UK security. Most politicians pay lip service to the fact that the first duty of Government is to afford protection to its citizens but the reality is that defence is a low priority for them as they have a short-term focus on re-election. Most politicians simply assume there are no votes in defence (apart from dishing out employment-related equipment contracts). It is shabby political cowardice & dereliction of duty on the part of government not to ‘ring fence’ the already inadequate defence budget, like it has with more politically-sensitive budgets such as overseas development, education and health.
Remember Timmy MacColl
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl failed to return to his ship HMS Westminster after a night out when the ship was docked in Dubai in May this year. Despite exhaustive searches, nothing has been seen or heard of him since. Our thoughts go to his family and children as they face their first Christmas without him. www.bringtimmyhome.co.uk
Some Christmas cheer
Despite all the problems there are many reasons for the RN to remember 2012 with some satisfaction. The failure of G4S to provide sufficient security guards for the Olympics meant the armed forces stepped in and did a brilliant job, the unintended side-effect was a big PR boost for the forces fed by the feel good factor around a highly successful Olympic games. The RN also did a fine job in providing the security cordon around the Olympic sailing events off Dorset. HMS Daring made her debut as the first Type 45 deployed to the Gulf and operated successfully with the US fleet. Despite the ridiculous hysteria about her deployment from Argentina, HMS Dauntless completed a lengthy Atlantic tour although she was only in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands for a few weeks.
The major RN exercise of the year was Exercise Cougar 12 which saw the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) deploy to the Mediterranean. The most notable feature was jointly working with the French Navy. (Our new best friends in a shot-gun wedding of convenience brought on by austerity?) The RFTG concept was proven although rumors the ships could be deployed to the Syrian coast for an evacuation or humanitarian operation proved unfounded. Notable was the absence of any RFA tankers or stores support ships. The RFA is so busy covering important jobs that are really the work of now non-existent warships, that there was not a single one available for this major exercise. On a positive note, 4 new RFA tankers were ordered from South Korea although this rather good news was lost in the hysteria surrounding their construction abroad. The Type 26 Frigate programme reached another encouraging milestone as the latest design was revealed it also seems possible that some foreign orders or collaboration maybe possible which could help keep costs down, however it will be at least 2020 before the first ship is delivered to the RN and the numbers have yet to be decided.
The Royal Marines continue to serve in Afghanistan with 40 Commando currently in theatre. Keep safe and best wishes for 2013 to all RN and RM personnel, particularly those serving overseas and away from family this Christmas.
It is an apocalyptic weapon system that could kill millions of people that thankfully has never been used. It has already cost us £billions and will cost a great deal of money to replace at a time when the nation is in debt and there are so many other things that the money could be spent on. There are millions of poor and starving around the world yet we are building weapons that can destroy whole cities and their populations. There is no doubt the existence of nuclear weapons is a depressing reminder of all that it wrong with humanity. That said, the voices of CND, SNP, The Greens, Lib Dems and many others calling for Britain to abandon the nuclear deterrent may have a deep emotional resonance but their arguments do not stand up to pragmatic examination.
Giving up nuclear weapons means one day another country could decide our destiny
The harsh truth is that to abandon nuclear weapons would be to accept that the fate of the UK could one day be decided by other countries. Without this weapons we may be subject to blackmail, threats or defeat by nations that do posses them. Nuclear weapons are unpleasant but necessary and like it or not, nations that do not posses them will always be in the second rank. If Britain is going to retain power and influence in the world then we need the muscle to back this up. Many see this as about dominating and exploiting other nations, obviously this is something of a grey area but we can and have been a force for good. Despite our much-weakened conventional forces we still hold a seat at the UN security council where we can shape world affairs. (A recent example is the PM’s speech at the UN calling for China and Russia to allow an intervention to end to the violence in Syria). Without nuclear weapons our already waning influence would decline to irrelevance.
The so-called ‘peace campaigners’ believe they have the moral high ground and think they somehow want nuclear war less than those in favour of keeping Trident. This is nonsense, the hundreds of naval personnel who make great personal sacrifices serving on long patrols for months on end do so, not because they are war-mongers, but because they rightly believe that nuclear deterrence helps keeps the peace and their very presence prevents their use.
Since the end of the Cold war it has been argued that the threat of nuclear attack against the UK has receded and we don’t need to worry anymore. While the immediate threat from the Soviet Union is long-gone, Russia still has a large stock of nuclear missiles and retains superpower ambitions, only temporarily checked by financial issues. There is little chance of Russia becoming a nuclear threat in the near future but circumstances can change much faster that the 15-20 years it takes to acquire nuclear armed submarines. In fact the number of nations with nuclear missiles has increased since the end of the cold war. Although China, North Korea, Pakistan and India are far away and appear unlikely to be direct adversaries of the UK, there are many potential conflicts that we can’t ignore and that could at least leave us allied to nations in conflict with these nuclear powers. Who is to say that China, which is expanding its navy fast, will not be routinely sending nuclear armed submarines into the North Atlantic in future? Iran is working hard to obtain nuclear weapons and if not stopped (possibly in the near future by Israel), would leave us facing a nuclear armed country that considers the UK to be “the little Satan”. Even if there is only tension between the UK and a nuclear state it will always be reassuring that our power to strike back will deter even the craziest regimes.
The asymmetric threat is always cited as supposedly making nuclear missiles irrelevant. “What about terrorists with nuclear bombs in a lorry or a shipping container?” Any terrorist must be ultimately be supported by some country (especially to obtain nuclear weapons) and even the most dysfunctional state will think twice about sending terrorists to use nuclear weapons against a nation equipped to retaliate. The nuclear deterrent is really for preventing blackmail by other nations and of course is not the complete answer to the complex problem of terrorism which is really a separate issue.
Europe has had something of a free ride on the back of the US that has provided much of our defence since WWII. Faced with its own decline and financial problems, the US is moving forces away from Europe and into the Pacific as is more concerned with China than Russia. Most of Europe continues to live in dreamland, defence budgets continue to fall in the belief that ‘Uncle Sam’ could still bale us out in a real crisis. Although the UK deterrent will always depend heavily on US technical assistance, it does signal to both the US and the rest of the world that we are not as delusional about defence as most of Europe. Many argue the UK deterrent is worthless because it is a part-American system. Maintaining the system does rely on US co-operation but once at sea, the UK’s missiles can be fired even in the most unlikely event that the US was not involved in the conflict.
Unilateralist who argue that by disarming we could set “a great moral example” to other nations are utterly deluded. While many nations are striving and great cost to build their own nuclear weapons, however well-meaning, disarming would ultimately be interpreted as a sign of weakness and stupidity. In international politics military weakness has never produced peace and stability, usually the opposite. Bullies only respect strength not moral arguments. Jimmy Carter’s administration of the 1970s allowed US military strength to decline. The result was a more unstable world and a more aggressive Soviet Union. Reagan’s resolute strengthening of US forces and its nuclear capabilities forced the Soviets to negotiate a reduction in strength and ultimately achieved the peaceful victory in the Cold War.
Half-baked cost-saving solutions
The tough reality is that replacing Trident will cost around £20+ Billion and this has resulted in several half-baked cost-saving proposals dreamed up by politicians without thorough military analysis and that would simply not be workable. Many studies hunting for savings have always concluded that four ballistic missile submarines are the only minimum credible continuous nuclear deterrent option. Proposals have included building more Astute class submarines to carry nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are much slower than ballistic missiles and any state with a modern air-defence system would have a good chance of defeating them. There is also the highly dangerous confusion factor. It is impossible to tell if a cruise missile has a conventional or nuclear warhead. Conventional Tomahawks have been used regularly since the 1990s – a state that detects a Tomahawk might consider itself under nuclear attack and respond with nuclear weapons. This undermines the concept of deterrence and created dangerous uncertainty. Ballistic missiles are virtually unstoppable (without a colossally expensive and technically dubious ‘star wars’ type defence system).
Another less drastic corner-cutting ‘brainwave’ is to reduce the four submarines to three. This is another solution dreamed up by politicians far removed from the daily reality of operating submarines. Three submarines cannot guarantee a continuous deterrent. 1 submarine must be on patrol, 1 in deep refit, 1 just returned from patrol & undergoing maintenance and 1 preparing for patrol, undergoing training or at short notice to go on patrol should there be a problem. Three submarines put too much pressure on the boats and men leaving no slack for unforeseen problems.
A recent amateurish proposal suggests we abandon submarines and just keep a “bomb in the cupboard” to be wheeled out for some kind of retaliation if we were ever attacked. Assuming ‘the cupboard’ survives a nuclear strike, just how it would be delivered to a highly alert target is unclear. Other really desperate suggestions include returning to 1950s-style missiles launched by aircraft which are of course very vulnerable and much shorter range .
Trident and the cost to the Royal Navy
Many would argue that the RN is so depleted because of the money spent on Trident. “If only we could abandon nuclear weapons we could spend more on conventional forces” they say. This is of course a fantasy, if the deterrent was axed the liberal left, having won such victory, would be pushing for a “peace dividend” and every government department would be fighting for their share. It would be very unlikely there would be the political will to re-allocate the bulk of the money to the RN.
The argument for replacing Trident may be perceived here as about maintaining the prestige of the Royal Navy as the operator of the nation’s deterrent. Such thinking is utterly irrelevant when considering something as weighty as national survival. The costs and responsibilities of Trident and its successor has weighed heavily on the RN and it is one of many reasons the rest of the RN is in such a poor state. In a cold analysis of Britain’s defence needs there is an overwhelming case for funding the deterrent separately rather than the cynical political convenience of taking a huge bite out the RN’s ever-dwindling resources. Of course the pain of replacing Trident would be much less if UK defence was funded properly. With just 2.2% of GDP now allocated to defence, (falling from around 4% of GDP when the Trident project was started in the late 1980s) the cost of the replacement now assumes a greater proportion of the limited budget. Sadly a sensible re-balancing of defence spending is most improbable given the political courage required and ‘sacred cows’ that would have to be sacrificed.
If Trident is not replaced, there would still be very significant immediate costs of decommissioning the nuclear infrastructure, the warheads alone could take 4 years to be dismantled. There would be a loss of jobs and skills and the ability to field ballistic missile submarines would be gone, never to be replaced. The industrial impact would almost certainly deprive the UK of the ability to build further nuclear-powered attack submarines (Arguably the most important conventional naval asset) as the Barrow yard would probably close in the absence of a Trident replacement programme.
Despite making an unholy mess of most aspects of defence, fortunately the dominant Tories in the current coalition government are actually committed to replacing Trident. Design work on the successor has been started and it claims that it is funded in future spending plans. However retaining ongoing political support while the new submarines are constructed will be challenging. In the face of further austerity and economic weakness, watch out for politicians standing on a populist platform that says “lets scrap this horrible weapon (that I can’t be bothered to understand) and spend the money on hospitals (and damn the long-term consequences)”. The case for Trident must kept being made especially with a media that is either outright against the program, luke warm or all-too ready to whip up hysteria about anything nuclear.
- Trident submarine missiles review to suggest ‘stepping down nuclear ladder’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Alexander to lead Trident review (bbc.co.uk)
- Plan for dismantling Britain’s nuclear arsenal (guardian.co.uk)
- Trident contracts worth £350m unveiled by MoD – (May 2012) (energyandnuclear.com)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War