Britain's Future Navy by Nick Childs (2014 edn)

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  • Nick Childs, a BBC journalist, here examines our place in the world and what this means in terms of our future maritime warfare requirements. This is a 2014 paperback revision of the 2012 original. It comes with a Foreword (and thus endorsement) by Admiral Sir Jock Slater.

    The book opens with a well-researched, concise reprise of the back history of successive reviews and cuts as they have affected the Royal Navy, working towards a baseline of the (soon to be overtaken) 2010 ‘Strategic Defence and Security’ review which was none of those three things. This is followed by a survey of what other countries are doing, building, and planning, including where we stand vis à vis the USA and specifically the USN, in an era where the US is re-focusing on the Pacific and suggesting that with the enormous potential wealth of Europe our continent should ramp up its own defence. Clearly the UK needs the US far more than they need us and I would have liked to see it made more clear that a QE-class ship is no sort of equivalent, nor a valid replacement for one of the big US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

    There is then a useful review of evolving maritime warfare technology. This includes, for instance, energy weapons, unmanned craft, multi-hull experiments, and many other concepts.

    The aircraft carrier situation is well surveyed and includes a look at other countries’ investment in maritime aviation. However the author could have come down more heavily on the additional cost, delay and operational penalty incurred by shortening the ship in a VSTOL-only redesign. This has foreclosed any future fit of catapults and thus any future cross-operation with the only two powers in the real aircraft carrier business, the US and France; significant offensive capability; deployment of high-altitude airborne early warning; and also developments in unmanned carrier-borne aircraft, the key to future high-risk operations. It should be noted that all our post-war carriers except Centaur were extensively remodelled, often for totally different roles, and sometimes more than once. The selection of F-35 eliminates any capacity for extending strike range via buddy-buddy refuelling (which was routine for the RN fifty years ago). The reduced numbers in the normally embarked air group - any carrier’s principal weapons system and indeed its raison d’etre - leaves high intensity operations dependent on a surge by light blue personnel with possibly little idea of what is involved in living in, let alone operating from a ship, which can only compromise operational effectiveness. Why the USMC should be assumed to be interested in operating from the QEs, otherwise than out of curiosity, when for any war fighting to which they are committed not only do they have their own platforms but the backing of a pukka carrier group, is beyond me. I differ from the author’s bullish conclusions. I fear the consequences of penny-pinching and sub-optimisation may one day become tragically all too obvious. The long carrier ‘holiday’ may also expose - as the VSTOL preference has already done - the skill fade at Command level. In the last war we lost Courageous, Glorious and Hermes, and sustained near-terminal damage to Illustrious, because the Command did not know what carriers were for. Here, perhaps, we go again.

    The ballistic-missile carrying SSBN submarine is lumped in with other nuclear and otherwise powered submarines in one chapter - superficially logical perhaps, but this blurs the distinction between general submarine operations and the totally separate Continuous At Sea Deterrent, a strategic system whose platform just happens to use general nuclear submarine technology. This leads into some unfortunate red herrings which do not get properly squashed. Replacing ballistic missiles with cruise missiles fatally compromises the CASD concept by reducing the area of concealment, and possibly absolutely provoking a nuclear strike on the UK, because an enemy would have to assume that any incoming cruise missile might be nuclear-tipped. Fortunately this seems unlikely to happen, as so arming a cruise missile would appear to be a breach of arms control treaties. CASD would also be compromised by diverting the platform for any other purpose such as the launch of conventional cruise missiles or, disastrously, using the boat for landing Special Forces or any other tactical role. It needs to be completely understood that the entire validity of the Deterrent depends on its immunity from interdiction at the point of action. The US conversion of some Ohios to a cruise missile battery role is an irrelevance to the CASD discussion as these craft have then ceased to be part of the strategic force. However they do show that the US ability to deploy this sort of cruise missile firepower totally dwarfs anything the RN’s Astutes could put up, or contribute to any sort of UK-US alliance. It could usefully have been remarked that cruise missiles can only be replenished at an appropriately equipped shore base.

    Many other navies are investing in submarines and the author canvasses all this but does point out that non-nuclear boats, even with Air Independent Propulsion, do not have the global reach, and ability to poise for weeks, that the RN requires.

    I found the author’s description of the Belgrano sinking as ‘controversial’ to be offensive and rather showed the author’s BBC colours. He fails to note that this also removed Belgrano’s Exocet-armed escorts. It is a pity we missed fishing the 25 de Mayo as that would have taken out several of the aircraft that attacked our ships.

    Moving on to ‘small ships’, the genesis and gestation of the nearly 8000 ton Type 45 destroyer is well (and amusingly, and accurately) described as are its capabilities and limitations, the latter particularly in terms of future threats, in spite of the vital allocation of spare space whose lack has bedevilled modernisation of all our earlier ships. It is regrettable that the enormous one-off investment in both systems and building techniques has in the end only been spread over six hulls, thereby inflating the ultimate unit cost. The good news is what a success they have been in their primary role as an anti-air defensive ship for a (USN!) carrier task force. As to the future the author seems to have been beguiled into thinking that some ‘cheaper’ ship might be useful. All the RN’s history shows that ‘cheap’ - that is to say sub-optimal - ships have always been useless not to say an embarrassment and, like nearly all our ships post-war, ended up being deployed on tasks for which they were not designed, which might have been foreseen but which were not catered for.
    The same process and logic has been applied to the as-yet-undecided Type 26 ‘Global Combat Ship’ (ex-‘frigate’). It is essentially a quantity versus quality debate and not helped by a glib assumption in some quarters that Atlantic anti-submarine warfare has gone away. But again the historical analysis is thorough and also entertaining. Comparisons of our requirements with those of Italy, with only its lake to look after, let alone Denmark, are irrelevancies that need to treated with the scorn they deserve.

    There follow reviews of amphibious ships, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary with its increasing role in constabulary operations, and smaller fry such as mine countermeasures vessels and survey ships. Containerisation and modularity are discussed but without any reference to the associated maintenance of the key skills required for the associated roles, all of which - antisubmarine warfare, mine clearance, and hydrography - require highly specialise people who need to be in current practice if they are to be effective.

    It needs to be recognised that humanitarian relief in naval terms is a nice-to-have rather than a primary objective, and when needed diverts (as it did for the Boxing Day tsunami) ships from higher priority roles; plus, of course, the nearest ship gets sent, regardless of suitability. However the resulting photo-ops are always politically seductive, even if what is achieved is only a drop in the bucket, particularly given today’s, and the future’s very lean manning.

    Amphibious warfare ships deserve a look. It was no thanks to he wilfully sea-blind John Nott that in 1982 we were only just able to scrape together a task force that was only barely capable of dealing with a problem that as far as the FCO was concerned had come out of a cloudless sky. It was twenty years before the ageing Fearless and Intrepid were replaced. Almost immediately, and before the replacements’ supporting Bay class RFAs had entered service, the Sea Harrier was binned, and with it any chance of using these ships against any opposition. By the time QE is operational the amphibious force will have been useless in a war scenario for fifteen years, ageing the while. As it is, instead of remaining current in amphibious warfare, the ships’ main armament, the RM Commandos, have been at full stretch substituting for the army in Afghanistan as indeed they were routinely diverted to Northern Ireland before that and we should be worrying about skill fade in amphibious warfare also.

    In both cases the author has well brought out the years and millions wasted chasing moonbeams for political reasons, in the shape of commonality with other navies with completely different strategic assumptions.
    UK Governments never plan beyond the next election and the only visible strategy for the last few years seems to have been “let’s go and bomb someone” so that the PM can strut about like a tin-pot Mussolini. It is difficult to see what will happen if we have a threat really out of area with no safe local basing. If the RN is required it will, as usual, cobble up its one and only Task force out of any ships that happen to be available and hope, as usual, that Jack will pull the rabbit out of the hat. One day there may not be a rabbit.

    The author has certainly done his homework (all well referenced), sourced some interesting photographs, and covered the ground comprehensively. The global situation is well covered with a balanced analysis. The future of the Army and RAF post-Afghanistan comes in for some intelligent study (but without enough Navy the Army isn’t going anywhere, so bang goes the ‘Expeditionary‘ focus). Nevertheless his understanding is still that of an outsider. I do not criticise him for not articulating a clear post-Imperial role for the United Kingdom; after all our post-War Governments have failed at this. Our political strategy now seems to be to tag along and hope to be noticed, while seeking as much publicity as possible from the diversion of high-end war fighting ships - which we HAVE to have - to constabulary and coastguard operations. What 2015 will bring to the RN as the incoming Govt grapples with its legacy of a £1.4bn National debt I shudder to think.

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  1. Marlin spike
    Excellent review,maybe the author of the book is one of those 'MOD ' mandarins' the people who state 'we don't comment on individual cases' -except when it suits