Another roller-coaster week in Strategic Defence & Security Review, with a parade of headlines in the news, that if considered chronologically, draw an interesting picture of the evolution of ideas that is occurring at break-neck pace inside the offices of government.
And it all started with the following headline: “Navy to reduce to smallest size ever to save carriers”
To run through that chronology of headlines we have the following snippets –
“The guiding principle must be that of graduated readiness. I chaired the Readiness Working Group for the last Strategic Defence Review, held in 1997-8, and remain convinced that this discipline must be applied now that the money is tight. Military units held at high readiness are the most expensive, so in this age of austerity, the only units that can be retained at that level are those which we are actually using on operations, or are likely to need in the near future. Thus our land forces – the Royal Marines, the bulk of the Army (less about half of our main battle tanks and heavy artillery), and the helicopter and transport elements of the RAF – should stay at their current levels, at least until our operations in Afghanistan are complete.”
Interpretation – The land-centric view of Cameron/Richards was occupying the high ground.
“The Navy is set to be reduced to the smallest size in its history after admirals yesterday offered drastic reductions in the fleet in order to save two new aircraft carriers from defence cuts. Under the plans, the number of warships would be cut by almost half to just 25, with frigates, destroyers, submarines, minesweepers and all amphibious craft scrapped. It is understood that the Navy has offered to slim down to as few as 12 surface ships, leaving it with six Type 45 destroyers and six Type 23 frigates. In addition, its submarine fleet would reduce to seven Astute hunter-killers plus the four Trident nuclear deterrent boats. With the two carriers, this would reduce the fleet by half from its current total of 42 ships.”
Interpretation – The Navy makes clear its absolute commitment to the carriers.
“The Prime Minister is understood to have decided that there will be no reduction in the operational strength of the Army while the fighting in Afghanistan continues. He has also agreed that both of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers will be built and that, instead of implementing widespread and large-scale cuts immediately, a “rolling review” of defence spending will take place over the next two years. The world is a far more dangerous place than even when Mr Cameron went through the door at No 10 in May. Hot spots are breeding, and at least six of them hint of wars and violence that touch vital British interests.”
Interpretation – The NSC backed down from announcing it would halve the Royal Navy.
“But The Sunday Telegraph has learnt Sir Bill Jeffrey, the MoD’s permanent secretary and its most senior civil servant, has thrown his support behind the Royal Navy’s £5.2 billion Carrier Strike programme. Officials have also warned that although the Army has escaped major cuts under in the present round, “they will feel their share of the pain” once Britain pulls out of Afghanistan in 2015. The Sunday Telegraph understands that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft programme will continue but numbers will be reduced from 138 to around 70, reducing the £10 billion price of the contract by half.”
Interpretation – Realisation that the easy route of backing a land-centric future because of a Afghan-centric present is not a very strategic way of conducting a defence review.
“All three of Liam Fox’s Defence Ministers have threatened to resign in a ‘political suicide pact’ if he fails to win his battle to protect the Armed Forces from massive cuts. The claim came last night as Ministry of Defence sources said Dr Fox is determined to step up his campaign to win more concessions from Chancellor George Osborne, who is pressing for savings of up to £7billion from the Services.‘They don’t want to go down in history as the Tories who presided over the dismantling of the Armed Services. They are committed.’”
Interpretation – Fox is unwilling to be presented a fait-accompli by the NSC on what is his department, this is a back him or sack him moment which Cameron cannot afford.
Various elements have expressed outrage at the notion of halving the destroyer/frigate fleet, as well as the wholesale conversion of the amphibious fleet into razor-blades, noting correctly the multitude of tasks the Royal Navy is expected to perform, and the enormous utility and value these (relatively) inexpensive amphibious vessels provide.
Let us be absolutely clear; first, that the Royal Navy must be far more than a mere expeditionary taskforce, and second, that carriers lose a great deal of their strategic utility if there is no ARG for them to provide CAP and CAS to, and that if this were the price of CVF then it certainly would not be worth paying.
So why does this blog appear so calm and collected?
1. The threat to halve the escort fleet is a threat to halve the number of high-end, area-defence vessels, or “ships of the line”, not necessarily to halve the sum total of RN warships. A cheap and cheerful choke-point frigate with a price-tag of £250m, and/or a cheap and cheerful multi-role sloop with a price-tag of £125m, could easily handle the majority of the Royal Navy’s standing tasks.
2. The amphibious fleet simply won’t get binned if the carriers are built and taken into service; an amphibious task group without CAP and CAS can only be used for mopping up drug-crazed militia common to African warlords, it is not a strategic capability, and a carrier group without an ARG is an extremely expensive way of firing a tomahawk from an Astute submarine.
There will of course be casualties in the amphib fleet, just as there will be a further reductions elsewhere, but most of it is very young and cheap to run, so the obvious candidate are the two LPH’s; Ocean and whichever Invincible class is not currently tasked to the CVS role.
It is often regretted that Britain long ago decided against having generic amphibious assets such as the Mistral of Canberra class, instead we opted for a larger number of more specialised hulls capable of filling individual roles alone or a cohesive platform of capabilities when arranged as a task group. This complaint has returned via the SDSR on the grounds that fewer and larger amphibious assets would be less susceptible to the avaricious hatchet-men in the Treasury, and that CVF is poorly configured to act as an LPH.
However, if we want massed storage then we have the Bay class LSD’s, and if we want massed landing craft then we have the Albion class LPD’s, likewise if we want massed helicopter assault then we have Ocean or Invincible as an LPH. Other nations have decided they want all three in one platform, and thus they have bought two or three LHD’s, where we have a fleet of eight platforms that can be tasked individually to the many standing naval tasks we undertake. It was considered the most flexible and most efficient route to have more, smaller, specialised amphibious vessels, which when aggregated would allow us to deploy, insert, command, and sustain a reinforced brigade in theatre.
Can Spain or Australia do this with two Canberra Class? Can France do this with three Mistral Class? Even if they could, for the ninety-nine percent of time you are not launching an amphibious war, can they operate several standing tasks at once by splitting up the aggregate capability into their component units?
When we consider that we are buying the QE class anyway, and that Ocean is approaching the end of her life, the obvious answer to this ‘conundrum’ is to realise that CVF has the hotel facilities to support a battalion in addition to the crew itself, and that the limited buy of JCA will leave plenty of deck and hangar space from which to operate helicopters.
Buying both CVF and operating them in a swing role means that we technically keep the same capability to deploy, insert, command, and sustain a reinforced brigade in theatre, only now it will have access to CAP and CAS from an organic fighter-bomber squadron deployed with the task-force. We also retain a permanent ability to generate a carrier group, not unimportant given that deterrence relies on the perception of commitment, after all, we didn’t keep armoured divisions in Germany only six months of the year throughout the forty years of the cold war.
The current rumours suggest a JCA buy of 72 aircraft, which would indicate three active squadrons of twelve aircraft, twelve in an OCU/ECU, twelve in squadron maintenance, and twelve in deep maintenance or attrition reserves. The likely result is one squadron aboard the active carrier at all times, with a second squadron frequently joining for exercises, or deploying from the second carrier when there is operational overlap. This on a vessel designed to operate 36 JCA, of spare capacity there will be plenty!
CVF does not have a vehicle deck, embarked landing craft, or a rear ramp, but then neither does the Invincible Class when its pulling duty as the fleet LPH, and it’s not as if the Royal Navy is short of these attributes in the six other amphibious vessels; the Albion’s and the Bay’s.
If it proves suboptimal so be it, these are suboptimal times, and they can always revert back to operating as pure carriers in the 2020′s when there is money to buy one more squadron of JCA (24 in total) and a brace of dedicated LPH’s.
It is possible that one of the carriers and half the amphib fleet will be put into extended readiness for a few years, but they will not be axed if the carriers survive because without the ability to deploy a reinforced brigade it does not represent strategic power projection, and is thus not a useful political tool with which to leverage diplomatic advantage, and for all their failing our current political leaders fully appreciate the benefit of cost-effective defence diplomacy.
So the amphibious fleet might well have been offered up on the alter of CVF, but the Royal Navy might as well offer the moon and it really only represents a demonstration of commitment to the carriers, for they are confident in offering the ridiculous as they feel they have the backing of Fox and his three ‘musketeers’.
Update – 11.10.10
An interesting article hosted on defence viewpoints discussing the utility of the Royal Marines Commando Brigade, as well as the Amphibious Task Group it operates from.