Navy Carriers: We want two or no votes for you, Tories
No frigate on Caribbean drugs patrol? Imagine my concern
Comment Tomorrow, the new National Security Council meets to decide just what the future armed forces of the United Kingdom will have in terms of people and machines - how many regiments, tanks, guns, jets, choppers, ships and submarines, and of what type.
As at most meetings where major issues will be decided in a short space of time, the major decisions have already been made, at least in outline - and are leaking into the media.
Thus it is a good bet that the first of the two new carriers for the Royal Navy will go ahead. The second may be downgraded to serve as an amphibious-warfare ship full of troops and helicopters rather than combat aircraft, or it might be cancelled altogether - which means British shipbuilding would be kept alive by bringing forward plans for a new generation of navy frigates.
The RAF and even the Army will be offering up massive cuts of their own - it is expected that the entire Tornado deep-bomber fleet will be retired years early, and the current Cold War style armoured-warfare juggernaut of tanks, mobile artillery and infantry fighting vehicles is set for a major trim back - so there is only one way that the government can preserve a two-carrier navy.
That one way is to finally cut the Royal Navy's force of frigates and destroyers - collectively known as "escorts", as their primary role is to protect and defend major warships - down to numbers suitable for actually escorting our biggest ships. For the past many decades, for reasons of history and jobs for the boys, the RN has actually maintained far more escorts than it needs to escort major units such as carriers and amphibious task groups.
Realistically, a combat carrier can actually protect herself using aircraft far more effectively than her escorts can: but it is reasonable to say that sending a carrier out to a major war alone, when just one bomb or missile or torpedo could eliminate Britain's reach into a given theatre - perhaps cutting off air cover, supplies, even the chance of evacuation for our troops ashore - is a gutsy call.
So send out a carrier with some escorts, by all means. Send her out accompanied by a new Type 45 destroyer, whose Aster missiles (once they are finally declared operational) might offer some chance to shoot down incoming Russian-made shipkillers that have somehow evaded the carrier's airborne radar and thus not been shot down easily by patrolling fighters*.
Merlin sub-hunter helicopters aboard the Type 45 and the carrier should in fact provide all the protection one could possibly need against enemy submarines, assuming any actually exist. But let's make doubly sure, and send a couple of Type 23 frigates - the RN's most sophisticated sub-hunting ship - as well.
Having two carriers means that we'll always have one up and operational, so enemies won't simply wait until our one carrier is in refit before becoming annoying. Generating an escort force for one carrier can't possibly call for more than nine escorts - and we have been generous here, allowing three ships to produce one up rather than two for one up as is apparently quite achievable for the carriers themselves.
The carrier and her escorts will dominate hundreds of miles of sea surface and airspace, enough that we can send supply convoys and amphibious ships in and out of the warzone without fear of air or missile attack. These other vessels can also carry Merlin antisubmarine choppers should there be subs about, and the carrier could always detach a frigate too. Furthermore, air dominance effectively cripples any enemy submarine that lacks nuclear propulsion. So there's no great need to fret about subs.
Yes, there would be more risk to be faced tackling an enemy with strong submarine and air/missile forces, than there would be for an RN with a huge fleet of escorts. But such enemies don't actually exist; if they did they'd be likely to have nuclear weapons. So let's not panic too much about that.
So what's the downside? Assuming you haven't spent your whole life in an effort to be a frigate captain?
Really we need a maximum total escort fleet of say 10, as compared to the Navy's current lineup of 23. Savings just in running costs over the next decade would add up to at least £11bn. Then we can save at least another billion-odd in acquisition costs by not buying the last two Type 45s and their dubious missile systems. All this is far and away more than enough to ensure that the second carrier is built, and to give the two ships catapult launch. This in turn would permit the purchase of much cheaper and more powerful aircraft for them, easing the problems caused for the MoD budget by the rising costs and delays facing the F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjet (currently grounded following the discovery of technical snags during flight testing).
All up, such a plan would not only deliver a 2-carrier, 10-escort navy - it would deliver savings on top that would cope with a big chunk of the budget gap caused by the economic crisis and 20 years of stupid management at the MoD by both previous governments.
What's the downside?
Well, we'd no longer be able to provide a frigate or destroyer on patrol in the Caribbean as we now do. A few more consignments of drugs might get through to the USA: RN matelots could no longer expect runs ashore in tropical resorts quite as often. Imagine my concern.
Nor would we any longer be able to keep an escort on station off the Falklands. But there would still be strike jets based there, so Argentina would have no option to invade: and there's also already a separate patrol vessel for keeping an eye on fisheries, oil exploration etc.
Single frigates or destroyers would no longer be able to roam the world in general on "show the flag" cruises whose benefits have always been pretty notional. It doesn't impress a Third-World dictator or oligarchy to see an antisubmarine ship pull into the harbour and give a cocktail party: the only menace it poses is a tiny party of marines (if there are even any aboard) and a helicopter mostly full of sonar equipment - ie no menace at all.
Want to fight some pirates? Send a fleet-auxiliary supply ship with radar-equipped helicopters and embarked troops. It can respond a lot faster to pirate attacks across a wide area than a frigate or destroyer can. (Such a ship - some such ships in particular - are almost pocket heli carriers. They really would scare a dictator or a junta.) Funnily enough, the RN is actually doing this in a small way at the moment against the pirates of Somalia, in an effort which will be at least as effective as sending frigates.
We want two, and we don't care what the frigate mafia says
Long term, these sort of send-a-gunboat tasks might call for new, specialised auxiliaries or warships, probably optimised to carry troops and choppers either way. Pressed into major maritime combat, with the right aircraft aboard - perhaps backed by some containerised Tomahawk cruise missiles - they would easily vanquish single-helicopter enemy escorts or minor warships, and also submarines of the ordinary non-nuclear type. For now, though, our existing auxiliaries would do fine. Whenever a frigate or destroyer goes anywhere, it usually has to be accompanied by an auxiliary anyway (gas-turbine warship engines are not very fuel efficient), so the ships already exist.
Actually, then, there's no real downside here at all for the taxpayers and citizens of old Blighty. And there's a big upside, not just for them but for the UK's soldiers and marines too. A carrier on call doesn't just dominate the sea, but the land nearby and the sky above it - and it does this without any need for huge shoreside air bases with vast perimeters to guard and vulnerable road supply convoys etc. If there's a genuine need for planes to move to a base ashore, carrier planes can do so easily - landplanes can't move to sea.
It hasn't been often that British troops have needed fighter cover since World War II, but when they've needed it they've really, really needed it. Just ask the Welsh Guards, chopped to pieces by Argentine jets at Bluff Cove. When there has actually been any fighter cover for British troops in combat since World War II, it has come from the navy, not the RAF. Every time a British fighter has shot down an enemy aircraft since 1945, it took off from a ship to do so. Even back during WWII, lack of carrier air killed a lot of sailors and soldiers - and the presence of it saved many more.
So no downsides at all for this plan, really?
Actually there is a major one, for the thousands of Royal Naval officers who depend on the escort fleet for promotion. The Service is already wildly top-heavy, with more than 15 commanders (equivalent to Army lieutenant-colonels) for every seagoing commander's job - most of those job slots are as captain of an escort. There's no promotion for surface-fleet officers, the mainstream naval community, in carriers. These plans would mean a jobs bloodbath among the already ridiculously overmanned naval officer corps.
Again: Imagine my concern.
Come on Cameron, come on Fox and Osborne. Do the right thing tomorrow and make the Royal Navy what it should be, not what it would like to be. ®
*The much-feared SS-27 "Klub" is very difficult to shoot down on its final run in as it goes to rocket propulsion and accelerates to supersonic speed for the last 60km of its flight. During the rest of its possible 300km journey from launcher to target, it operates as a normal subsonic jet aeroplane flying along dumbly in a straight line, and is thus extremely simple to deal with.
The Type 45 might be able to cope with a supersonic Klub, but nobody knows: the Sea Viper system (controlling the Aster missiles) has not been tested against a supersonic target, and there aren't any plans to do so. What is certain is that any modern jet fighter could pick off a Klub in its cruise phase without breaking a sweat. It would probably have at least as good a chance of doing so as a Type 45 during the final supersonic approach, in fact.
It's worth noting that the Klub must also have a good idea of its target's location before being launched. This is hard to obtain for enemies whose aircraft have been driven off by fighters and who do not possess radar-ocean-reconnaissance satellites.
Lewis Page is a former Royal Navy officer, who left after 11 years' service in order to avoid wasting his time and the taxpayers' money aboard frigates and destroyers.