Naval conflict in the Gulf?
In a recent speech in Washington, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond stated that any attempt to block a key trade route in the Gulf will be met with military force from the Royal Navy. “Our joint naval presence in the Arabian Gulf, something our regional partners appreciate, is key to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for international trade.” Of course protection of trade is the fundamental role of the Royal Navy, but have successive governments so hollowed out the navy it is now unable to fulfil that role?
Like in most conflicts, war with Iran will mean everyone loses in some way. Iran’s fragile economy would be destroyed and because it would have no allies, would ultimately suffer military defeat. Make no mistake, the Iranians have the ability to sink ships and kill sailors. However it would be madness for them to block the Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. The US and UK would respond and have support across the region and even from China which is now the biggest customer of oil passing through the Strait. Oil prices would rocket, further damaging the fragile world economy and the UK could suffer gas shortages as we are heavily reliant on supplies of Liquid Natural Gas from the Middle East. And of course the UK can ill-afford another conflict, even the ‘relatively simple’ Libya campaign may have cost the UK around £1.75 Billion. War with Iran could be much more dangerous and costly.
Unfortunately logic may not be enough to prevent the unstable and sometimes crazed Iranian regime lurching to war. Further provoked by Israeli assassinations of key nuclear scientists, the mad mullahs and extreme elements may be gaining the upper hand, even Iranian students are marching to “Give war a chance”.
So where are the Royal Navy’s big-hitters?
As the Mr Hammond contemplates the appalling prospect of war with Iran, it’s clear the Royal Navy would be very much in the front-line with the US Navy. Having hastily axed the UK strike carrier capability (until at least 2020), we would again be reliant on expensively deployed land-based aircraft and US naval airpower. Due to the short-sighted decision not to fit the Type 45s with Tomahawk, we will have only 1 or 2 submarines as launch platforms to attack Iranian land targets such as naval installations, airfields or missile sites.
Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring will arrive in the Gulf in February and will replace HMS Argyll. (part of the routine cycle of RN warships present in the Gulf since 1980). If the Type 45s work as advertised they should have few problems dealing with missile and air attack and should be able to provide area defence for a large group of ships. The Type 23 frigates with upgraded SeaWolf missiles should also be effective against missile attack but they can really only defend themselves or another ship in very close company. RN presence in the Gulf is significant but inadequate to make much difference without international support. Simple lack of numbers is the problem – just with 1 Destroyer or Frigate, 1 Submarine, 4 Mine hunters & 3 RFAs. Of course the RN could send more ships but there are precious few available.
The biggest threat to RN surface ships and merchant vessels is probably from Iran’s midget submarines which would be incredibly hard to detect in the warm shallow waters of the Gulf that cause problems for both passive and active sonars. Swarm attacks by multiple small craft or suicide boats may also be hard to counter and there is no navy in the world that has significant experience of dealing with this. At least 13 oil or gas tankers per day would require escort through the Straits, and even in convoys they it will require a lot of capable surface escorts.
Modern mines are also a serious threat but the RN’s small mine-hunting force is probably the best in the world and has extensive experience operating the in Gulf, dealing with many mines in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. The RN has been gathering very accurate seabed surveys over that last decade which are very helpful in mine warfare.
2010 Defence cuts, unwise then, frightening now
While this government justifies its defence cuts with the dogma “our most important strategic aim in to maintain our triple-A credit rating by cutting the deficit” they may like to consider the state of our strategic interests around the world. As discussed above, a naval conflict with Iran in the Gulf is quite possible this year. Despite the vague intention to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban seems far from defeated (43 UK troops killed in 2011). At a time when the UK has wisely begun to distance itself from the basket-case that is the European Union, the US has announced it will be more focused on the Pacific and rightly expects European nations to do more to defend themselves. Argentina is becoming more belligerent over the Falklands which David Cameron has promised to vigorously defend. It is possible that international intervention in Syria may become necessary in order to protect the population from it’s increasingly violent government. The RN is committed to providing a significant contribution to security for the Olympics in London this summer. It is time for the government to take bold, possibly unpopular decisions and get to grips with defence funding & procurement and re-build the Royal Navy for the safety and security of the nation.
- MoD confirm the Type 45 destroyer will join British presence in the region (Daily Mail)
- Britain threatens military action with Iran (Telegraph)
- Captain says ‘we’re ready for anything’ as HMS Daring heads for Gulf (Portsmouth News)
- Warning over the size of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
Nuclear submarines: the key UK defence asset
The submarine force is the arguably most important of the RN’s assets. Not only do the 4 Vanguard class subs (SSBNs) carry the UK nuclear deterrent but the attack submarine force (SSNs) are the only vessels able to launch the Tomahawk land attack missile. Of all the problems facing the RN at present, the recent rapid decline in SSN numbers is the area for greatest concern. The SSNs are really the modern-day capital ships – equivalent of the battleships of old. Only the most powerful nations are able to build and operate them and they are the key to denial of the sea to the enemy. With long endurance, stealth and a variety of weapons they are a threat to all surface ships and are also the most effective way to hunt other submarines. They are able to provide covert surveillance and intelligence gathering while remaining invisible and undetected for weeks on end. During the Falklands War, SSN HMS Conqueror was able to easily sink an Argentine cruiser and the submarine threat kept the remaining Argentine fleet in port. Throughout the Cold War the RN SSN fleet was mainly involved in successful operations to track the Soviet SSBN fleet and provided vital intelligence about the Soviet Navy. Much of what they did remains secret but their achievements were significant. In recent times Royal Navy submarines have fired Tomahawk missiles during the Balkan conflict (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). A Royal Navy submarine is always on patrol East of Suez and maintaining this ‘Duty tomahawk firer‘ ready for action in support of UK interests in this volatile part of the world. Precisely what this submarine does in the Red Sea, Gulf or Indian Ocean areas can often only be guessed at, but providing useful intelligence about a variety of foreign navies is an obvious task.
An elite service
Royal Navy submariners are an elite ‘service within a service’. Operating a highly complex vessel in a very hostile environment, they must endure cramped conditions and have a all-round technical knowledge beyond just their own specialisation. The attractions of extra pay and an exciting career, often seeing more action than their ‘skimmer’ counterparts in the surface fleet suit many. However the increasingly lengthy periods away from home is hard to take even for the most dedicated. When HMS Triumph returns home on 2012 she will have been away for 13 out of the last 17 months. HMS Tireless completed a 10 month deployment earlier this year while HMS Turbulent will return home in December after 9 months away. The problems for crews and their families is obvious. Even in times of recession, recruiting, training and then retaining experienced and competent submariners is a serious challenge exacerbated by the constant pressure to go to sea.
The thin black line
A quick survey of the boats at present reveals there are a maximum of 4 boats fully operational. Of these one is stationed East of Suez while one is being prepared or on the way to relive her. Allowing for time alongside for maintenance, leave etc there is probably only 1, or occasionally 2 boats available for other tasks (such a protecting the Vanguard submarines).
A turbulent procurement history
Building effective nuclear submarines is one of the most challenging engineering tasks imaginable – more complex than the space shuttle, it requires specialist expertise and infrastructure. The reasons for the shortage of boats is complicated. It is not just a matter of lack of funds but also a failure in industrial strategy. The successful Trafalgar class submarines were developed from their predecessor, the Swiftsure class (the last of which HMS Sceptre decommissioned in 2008). Due to the construction of the Vanguard SSBNs and lack of money, the proposed replacements for the Swiftsures were never ordered and a new design – the Astute class has become the replacement for the Trafalgars. The failure to replace the Swiftsures ensured the RN’s SSN fleet would almost halve. The RN did have 4 new conventional submarines (SSKs) – the Upholder class built in the late 1980s but they only served for 3 years before being hastily axed in 1994 as part of the illusionary “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. The RN has always said in needed at least 8 Astutes but by 2005 it was clear that the government would only fund 7 boats. By the mid 1990s the last of the 4 SSBNs were being completed at Vickers / BAe Systems at Barrow (who are now the only UK submarine builder) and there was a gap in work for many of the staff and vital expertise in submarine design was lost. In addition, problems with computer-aided design meant that in 2004 BAe Systems had to go cap in hand to Electric Boat in the US to request technical assistance. This was an effective cure that helped the programme get back on track but by November 2009 the project was still 57 months late and 53% or £1.35 billion over-budget (more than the cost of an entire boat). The early design issues still affect the programme, for example no one noticed they had forgotten to allow space for the galley in the original design so the senior rates mess had to be cut in half to fit it in. The first 3 boats will be much the same but design changes have been made from boat 4 (HMS Audacious) onwards. Although HMS Astute was ordered in 1997, she was not launched until 2007 and commissioned in 2010, a full 13 years later. Astute’s arrival has been further marred by an unfortunate grounding incident off the Isle of Skye in October 2010 and a fatal shooting incident on board while berthed in Southampton in April 2011. The delays and budget problems of the Astutes are in stark contrast to the 7 Trafalgars which commissioned from the mid 1980s through to the early 1990s, delivered on time with little fuss or controversy, and more or less on budget.
The Astutes – world-beaters?
Despite the problems, by all accounts the Astute class submarines will be the best SSNs in the world (only the US Virginia Class may be able to match them). HMS Astute has recently conducted deep-water trials off the US coast including successfully firing a Tomahawk missile. She does not have traditional periscopes but has sophisticated optics, TV and digital cameras that can pop up, very quickly sweep round and then the command can review the images at leisure. With the Type 2076 sonar array and even quieter running than the Trafalgars, Astute’s ability to detect others while remaining undetected herself is exceptional. She also has more space to carry weapons, up to 38 Tomahawk missile and/or torpedos compared to the 30 of the Trafalgars. She will not require costly mid-life nuclear refuelling and although larger than the Trafalgars, has more automation so needs a smaller crew, reducing running costs. Much like the surface fleet, the future of the RN submarine force will be a very few top-quality eggs in a few very expensive baskets. Nevertheless, if you are a terrorist in a training camp or a hostile warship or submarine commander, the Astute submarine-equipped Royal Navy will be causing you sleepless nights.
- Navy ‘will not have enough submarines to protect UK (Telegraph)
- Navy’s HMS Astute test fires cruise missiles (ITN)
- HMS Astute is exceptional says her CO (BAe Systems)
- Astute class – detailed history and background (Navy Matters)
- HMS Ambush completes its first dive (Daily Mail)
- UK fixed-wing naval aviation in the 2020s – F35B in focus (PART 1)
- Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Examining the options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy
- Royal Navy 2012 News Round-up
- Making the case for the Trident replacement
- The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet