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Economist: "Rum, Strategy & The Cash - Britain's RN Has Big Ambitions, But A Small Budget"


War Hero
"Can the force remain “truly global” even as it shrinks?

To understand how seafaring Britons, in romantic moments, see their island’s maritime story, it helps to join the tourists taking a cruise around the harbour that was once home to the world’s mightiest navy. In the same skyline, visitors are urged to admire the finest of the old and the shiniest of the new. Gazes switch from the oaken planks of HMS Victory, from which Admiral Horatio Nelson smashed the French and Spanish but lost his own life in 1805, to HMS Queen Elizabeth, a new aircraft-carrier which is by far the biggest vessel ever built for the Royal Navy.

To judge by its stated intentions and the ships it means to buy, Britain is planning to celebrate Brexit by reasserting some of its ancient prowess as an ocean-going power. Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, announced on May 24th that a frigate would be kept permanently in Bahrain, as part of an “enduring presence” in the Gulf, and that three British ships would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. This reflected a “vision of a Royal Navy always forward-deployed and truly global,” he said. As well as the Queen Elizabeth and another huge carrier, which will both be endowed with snazzy American fighter aircraft, the order book includes fresh generations of attack submarines and surface combatants, plus four subs armed with nuclear missiles.

All this has boosted the morale of a service which was hurt by the spending squeeze mandated in 2010 after the economic downturn. At that time, navy chiefs reluctantly accepted a reduction in surface combatant ships to a historic low of 19 (down from about 50 at the end of the cold war) as the price for saving the ambitious carrier plan. A defence review in 2015, noting the dangerous state of the world, helped turn the tide. But hard questions still hang over a service now dwarfed by its closest friend (America’s navy has about 300 big ships) and challenged by China and Russia.

All at sea

The Royal Navy’s strength, including reserves, is now about 35,000 sailors, roughly half the cold-war level. Staffing and equipping even a reduced fleet can be a stressful business. As the National Audit Office, a spending watchdog, points out, the navy is short of technicians, pilots and IT specialists, and it will need to make further efficiency savings to fund the new nuclear subs. There have been times in the past two years when none of the surface fleet was far from home waters.

The navy insists it is winning the battle to make do. As of mid-May, the defence ministry says, some 24 ships and subs were at sea and 9,000 sailors were deployed or about to sail. More than 96% of navy posts were filled and “plans were advancing” to find personnel for the second carrier, due for completion around 2020.

But another worry is that, having focused on low-tech foes like pirates and drug-smugglers, British ships may have lost the culture and capacity needed to fight high-intensity war with what strategists call peer competitors. The navy has just extended the life of its main anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, by two years. Nobody knows what will happen after 2020.

Aircraft-carriers need battle groups to protect them, and Britain’s shrunken fleet can hardly manage that alone. Sir Mark Sedwill, the national security adviser, made the revealing admission on May 1st that the two giant new ships would probably not enter contested waters without an ally (presumably America) to protect them. As Chris Parry, a retired admiral, points out, that negates one of the aims of the carriers when the concept was dreamed up in 1998: to keep an independent capacity to act in distant seas like the south Atlantic, where Britain fought Argentina in 1982.

The other question is whether, even when stretching its resources cleverly, Britain can hope to stay in an accelerating technological race between the world’s leading powers. America, China and Russia are all working hard to develop hypersonic missiles and laser weapons, which may transform maritime warfare. Russia, dismissed until a few years ago as a spent naval force, is broadening the range of vessels from which it can fire cruise missiles. China is building frigates and aircraft-carriers at a pace which makes cash-strapped British planners look plodding. It was announced recently that a new generation of British frigates would take eight years to construct, a timetable that was dismissed as an excessively “leisurely build” by Save the Royal Navy, a campaigning website.

In a small way, Britain already goes head to head with both emergent powers. The number of times when the Royal Navy was deployed to deflect potentially threatening actions by Russian ships rose to 33 last year, from 20 in 2016 and just once in 2010. In March a British frigate sailed through part of the South China Sea where the Chinese authorities are trying to establish a sphere of influence. This was a gesture of support for America’s effort to maintain free navigation on the high seas. The best sense anyone can make of Britain’s modestly rising maritime ambitions is that the Royal Navy, including its showpiece carriers, hopes to be a useful adjunct to the American one.

Back in Portsmouth, the difficulty of prevailing in a naval race is vividly illustrated. A prize exhibit in the old dockyard is HMS Warrior, a steam-and-sailing ship that outgunned all comers when launched in 1860 but held her lead for barely 15 years. Ever inventive, the navy kept using the hull as a fuelling barge until 1979."
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