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.
Photo: Defence Images via flickr
In 1982 foolish cuts to the Royal Navy by a Conservative government were seen as a green light by the Argentines to invade the Falklands. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody war that had a big impact on British history. Fundamentally it was a triumph for the Royal Navy and the lessons from the conflict profoundly influenced the shape of the RN for the following 20 years.
In the last 10 years many defence pundits and journalists have written endless articles asking “Is the UK capable of re-fighting another Falklands War?” This is a rather tired debate but in light of recent Argentine belligerence and the 2010 defence cuts it is an issue worthy of re-consideration and which raises 2 fundamental questions. (1) Are the Falklands properly defended and (2) could they be recovered if invaded?
Defence is possible,
Recovery is not
The RN has maintained at least 1 warship and 1 RFA in the South Atlantic (in addition to a permanent Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde and Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector) ever since 1982 and they usually rotate every 6 months. This single warship is supposed to cover this vast area that includes not just the Falklands, but South Georgia and West Africa. The main permanent defence for the islands supposedly rests with just 4 Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Their main strength would be intercepting invading aircraft but 4 aircraft is a tiny number to defend an area the size of Wales. Essentially there is a bare minimum of defensive assets around the islands but defending Mount Pleasant and the rapid arrival of reinforcements would be the key to defence of the Islands, in the unlikely event of attempted invasion.
Should Argentina manage to invade and take Mount Pleasant, there is no hope the UK could mount a recovery operation. In reality the UK gave up any hope of being able to mount an independent Falklands ’82-type operation when Tony Blair’s government decommissioned the Sea Harrier FRS2. The Sea Harrier was a fighter aircraft, critical to the air defence of the fleet and it was the handful of Sea Harriers made the 1982 victory just possible. The axing of HMS Ark Royal and her GR9 Harriers in 2010 was just the final nail in the coffin. The GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with only limited air defence capability. The shrunken Royal Navy, lack of RFAs and merchant ships and an Army and Royal Marines committed in Afghanistan mean the cupboard is bare. The long-term decline in the RN can be illustrated in simple numbers – in 1982 the RN possessed about 90 major warships, currently there are around 35 and crucially no fixed wing aircraft carrier (until 2020 at least!).
Are we ‘militarising’ the Falklands?
Even if it were true that the UK is ‘militarising’ the Falklands as Argentina recently claimed in the UN, there would be every justification given President Kirchner’s recent threats. The Argentines have also made much of HRH Prince William’s arrival in the Falklands saying it’s “provocative” even labelling him a “Conquistador”! He could hardly be less belligerent, flying a bright yellow helicopter and rescuing people. On closer inspection it’s clear the defences of the islands have changed little in the last decade. In fact Britain is busy ‘de-militarising’ itself and although the defensive forces around the Falklands remain much the same, the naval forces required to reinforce them in the event of a conflict are much-diminished.
The deployment of HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic in April was leaked to the press prematurely on January 31st (Although long-planned and the ship’s company knew before Christmas, the RN had not planned to make the announcement until much closer to sailing) The Argentines seem to think HMS Dauntless’ deployment is some kind of deliberate escalation. In fact her programme is quite routine and she is simply replacing HMS Montrose on the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APTS). HMS Dauntless is a more powerful ship than the ship she replaces on station but the new Type 45s were always destined to become part of the regular cycle of RN warships deployed (HMS Daring left for the Gulf in January relieving a Type 23 frigate). The media coverage of this diplomatic row is set to make HMS Dauntless Britain’s most famous warship, before she has even sailed from the UK on her maiden deployment. The arrival of Dauntless will strengthen the radar surveillance, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences around the islands but it could also be argued that the departure of HMS Montrose weakens anti-submarine defences. Argentine claims that naval power around the islands has been “quadrupled” are as ridiculous as the over-blown claims that Dauntless could “shoot down the entire Argentine airforce” and putting too much reliance on a single new and untested warship is very unwise as history has shown.
In an a break from the usual policy of not commenting on RN submarine operations, it has been confirmed that a submarine has been despatched to the South Atlantic. (Either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent). Again this is fairly routine as there have been RN submarines in the South Atlantic since 1982 although the shocking decline in RN submarine numbers in the last 5 years mean that a continuous presence has not been possible. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, the permanent presence of a submarine could only be maintained in future by abandoning the commitment to have one on station in the Indian Ocean. Back in 1977, the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the Falklands (operation Journeyman) in response to Argentine threats and her presence prevented any further aggression at the time. Argentine suggestions that an RN Trident submarine is in the South Atlantic with nuclear weapons targeted at South America is utter hysteria. The whereabouts of the ballistic missile subs are a closely guarded secret but even if there was one in the South Atlantic, the UK will NEVER use a nuclear weapons first. They are a deterrent aginst other nations with nuclear weapons and are of absolutely no relevance or concern to Argentina, whatever happens in the Falklands.
A second Falklands war?
The reality is that Argentina is not (yet) equipped to attack the Falklands even if it has the political will. However with a planned increase in defence spending of 50%, development of cruise missiles and even wildly optimistic talk of developing its own nuclear submarines, its military may start to present a very credible threat in the next 5-10 years. While the 1982 Falklands conflict was described as “2 bald men fighting over a comb” the situation has changed with the discovery of oil and the “bald men” could be fighting not just over a moral principle, but enough money to make a dent in their respective large national debts. History has shown that the most effective response to the diplomatic crisis is to maintain the peace through strong deterrence.
- Argentine foreign minister complains of ’4-fold increase’ in UK military presence in South Atlantic (bbc.co.uk)
- Royal Navy to send HMS Dauntless to Falkland Islands (Telegraph)
- HMS Dauntless to deploy to the South Atlantic (Daly History Blog)
- Argentinians label Prince William ‘The Conqueror’ over his posting to the … – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- Argentina has no more claim to the Falklands than Canada does to Alaska (Merco Press)
- 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
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder