Trying to keep up our guard: too much ocean, not enough ships

HMS Daring departs from Portsmouth on 11th January for a ‘routine’ deployment to the Arabian Gulf. At at time of heightened tension with Iran, the maiden deployment of the first £Billion Type 45 destroyer, will ensure much attention and expectation focussed on her.

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.

The folly of years of naval cuts, the stupidity of axing the strike carriers and procurement delays leave the UK asking “Can Iran, Argentina, rogue states and crazed dictators in the world kindly behave nicely until at least 2020 at which time (fingers crossed) we may be in a position to make a meaningful response”

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.

Photo: Dan Grant via Flickr


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