SDSR – Of carriers and the amphibious fleet

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 –

Daily Telegraph 5th October:

“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.

Daily Telegraph 7th October:

“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.

London Evening Standard 8th October:

“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.

Sunday Telegraph 9th October:

“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.

Mail Online 10th October:

“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?

Two reasons:

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.

21 responses to “SDSR – Of carriers and the amphibious fleet

  1. First class. Of course, I don’t lack bias on the subject 😉 But I think this is one of your most cohesive pieces of writing, across subjects, and seems to me like it’s on the money. Best think I’ve read wrt the subject so far, especially in light of all the wailing and gnashing.

    • well, as i said to Think Defence on the warships1 forum if the government really does want a land doctrine i would prefer them to ditch the carriers and the majority of the amphibs now, as it would at least allow the Forces to wield strategic effect in one domain properly, even if that is not my preferred direction.

      but this piece is separate from that land/maritime debate; it is merely an appreciation of what is high-stakes bargaining, and what is ludicrous posturing on the part of the admiralties stance to the coming defence cuts.

      • I’m not sure if it’s ludicrous, but definitely outlandish (i.e. unlikely.) Part of the high-stakes poker. Evidently Stanhope and his people (Stanhope has always reminded me, frankly, of Mole from “Wind in the Willows” in dress blues) have actually decided to treat this process as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. I don’t mean in terms of swingeing cuts and “DOOM, DOOOOM AH TELL YE!” but as a nakedly political process (in the generic, not ideological, sense.)

        As for sea-vs-land, I wish it was that simple. Or that those were the choices on offer. With Osborne and his ilk, I hate to keep comparing them to feudalists but, with some background in that stuff, that’s the mindset they display time and again. They don’t so much want a coherent land-based strategy as a levy of force to keep the big, bad, and distant Americans satisfied so that they can be left to rent-seeking and tidying up or disposing of bits of the family estate (otherwise known as the United Kingdom) as they see fit. Both entrepreneurial Conservatives and paeleo-Low Tories (I’ll class them as the “high” type, grandkids of Halifax’s appeasers) should want them debagged and radished, much less those of us anywhere to the left of the deep blue.

      • “have actually decided to treat this process as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. I don’t mean in terms of swingeing cuts and “DOOM, DOOOOM AH TELL YE!” but as a nakedly political process (in the generic, not ideological, sense.)”

        very much agreed.

        “They don’t so much want a coherent land-based strategy as a levy of force to keep the big, bad, and distant Americans satisfied so that they can be left to rent-seeking”

        that pretty much is a land strategy.

  2. Whilst I broadly agree with most of what you say, I have some problems with this bit:

    “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.”

    It depends on what your definition of cheap and cheerful is. Absalon, FREMM, Meko or any of a dozen other “off the shelf” designs’ or something that has to be designed and built in the UK to support the defense industrial strategy that we don’t actually have ?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing for a gold plated fleet of T45’s, but I have been to sea in everything from Broadbeamed SeaWolf Leanders, via Hunt Class MCMV’s to T42 “Destroyers”. Any “simple” frigate for anti-drug / anti-piracy operations still needs to have a “role” to play in a major shooting war, they need to be flexible. In the end anti-piracy and anti-drug / people smuggling are law enforcement missions, and while I understand the UK does not have enough cash for a separate flotilla of Para-military Coast Guard vessels, you may as well spend even less and just buy a bunch of River class OPV’s.

    Secondly, If the carriers are not going to be white elephants bought at the expense of the rest of the surface fleet, and then unable to undertake meaningful operations because we can’t afford an air wing, then we must buy what is affordable – the Boeing F18E Super Hornet. Not the best multi-role / strike fighter in the world by a long way, but ooooh sooooo much cheaper than current “estimates” (!) for any variant of the F35……

    Anyway, as per comments on ThinkDefence, repeat the mantra after me…. “we are all doomed”

    • on the point about genuinely useful frigates, agreed, mainly why i put and/or when talking about the further option of multi-role sloops, or C3 in modern parlance.

      also part of the reason i was exploring the idea of C2 as a littoral control ship, i.e. cheap with artisan/camm and a couple of CB90’s/griffin for use by an EMF.

      as for the matter of JCA, again agreed, i really don’t care what they fly off the damn things as long as having paid for their construction, we operate these cost-efficient vessels (£44m/year is peanuts) and fly something off the top of them that can perform both CAP and CAS.

      if the F18 is truly cheaper than F35b (with all those extra costs too), and it is the difference between running two or one carriers then i will take F18 in a blink.

  3. PS: I’d like to see a bid up to a plain buy of 100 on the aircraft. Rule of three splits to cycles of 32, squadrons of 16. That way you have a hope of getting 32 regularly on the on-duty ship if you sweat your assets a bit more heavily than the UK seems used to. And, at a stretch, you surge an extra half-squadron to the lead carrier (forty jets, out of the full load of fifty aircraft) and put some real wallop out there. When push came to shove in 1982, the RN got three-quarters of its Sea Harriers on the available ships, so two boats with 36 if the balloon went up would then be feasible.

    And, twelve ships of the line is fine if they’re all Type 45. Fill the order, arm them up right, add Sonar Type 2087, and make them the “first-rate” ships (that’s not just something out of Forester or O’Brien, it’s generally the way naval ship classification worked, whatever the actual terms, from pharonic Egypt to somewhere out past 1918, not from habit but because, like some basic principles of carpentry or engineering, it processed the task at hand efficiently. Now that we’re past the Cold War, and really since the US gave us the Burke class and derivatives, everything new is old again 🙂

    • i’m still toying with the idea of whether a limited buy of 72 justifies the creation of four frontline squadrons of 9 JCA, or three of 12 JCA, given that both would total 36 frontline aircraft, which is more flexible?

      yes, if we are to be limited to twelve first rates then by all means build a batch 2 T45 and stick a towed array on all of them.

  4. Very interesting analysis of the situation, I feel you are correct about the NAvy’s intentions. It’s a sad state of affairs though that they have to act so childishly with the nations security.

    • if the headlines are representative, and that is a big “if”, then the trend does appear to indicate an arc back towards Fox’s line of thinking.

      having written this, there will probably be a load of headlines on monday that utterly contradict this view tho……..

  5. Jed I think you are right a fleet of OPV’s would be better than a bunch of low end frigates. Atleast that way they can’t be supplemented for real escorts in a shooting war as happened with the Leanders and T21’s. Scrapping the T26 in favour of an extra 6 T45 seems to be the best course to me. Scrapping T27 and buying allot of Corvettes, OPV’s and C3 will give us more fexibility while still having the big stick option with a fleet of T45 and CVF’s.

    • it is an ‘attractive’ idea, but i’m still convinced that there is merit in the idea of a £250m littoral control ship armed with Artisan/CAMM and harpoon, in addition to a brace of CB90’s and a griffin for use by an EMF.

      with Artisan/CAMM it could survive in the fleet, and with Harpoon and some 30mm CIWS it would make a good ‘picket’ duty frigate to screen your HVA’s (read: everything else) from surprise surface threats.

  6. Jed. A very good post. I like your analysis very much. I am not a Naval SME, so am not too exited by the detail – but the higher level stuff definately passes muster. I know that Dr F is considering some pretty extreme (in single service terms) measures in order to cut the cake in the right way. As I have said before, the RAF and Army CAN afford to take pain that the RN can’t. I really do hope that your analysis here is proven.


  7. Jed. Agreed an excellent post. Although like other supporters of a “blue water strategy’ I will confess to have been very despondent in recent weeks at some of the more alarmist headlines, I am now coming round to support your view that both Admiral Sir Mark and the cunning Dr Fox (appropriately named – we hope!) have been pursuing a high stakes but consistent strategy, with, if the latest reported leaks from Tuesdays final meeting of the NSC, are true, some success. It was never credible that a Tory government would be seen to delete at a stroke our entire amphibious capability, particularly one which has been built up at great cost over recent years and even in defence terms is almost new. Nor was it credible that they could be seen to oversea the reduction of the surface fleet to some half dozen frigates. Actually i believe that even if this were the price that we had to pay to secure the second CVF, it would be a price worth paying. Detractors of CVF often site the fact that the real cost of the programme lies in the numbers of escorts and submarines required to escort a carrier task group. This in a high intensity conflict with a major power is true, but it belies the fact that even the United States would never enter into such a conflict without the support of allies, and that we have many allies that operate modern and high end escorts that would be there to assist. Spain, Holland, Norway, Italy, and even Canada or Australia, to name but a few. On any go it alone mission such as doing another Sierra Leon, 2 T45 and 2 T23 would easily suffice. What however most of our allies cannot provide is CAS, CAP and AEW capability in any form close to that which will be provided by even a single CVF. Arguably and along with CASD, this makes the contribution that the UK brings to collective defence over the next 40-50 years almost unique, and I hope and pray that whatever other outcomes we hear on Tuesday, some of which will no doubt churn the stomach, this government will finally acknowledge this, and also the fact that to guarantee one, we must have two.

    • cheers, we can only hope that the result is clearcut and useful, whichever way it goes.

      “and also the fact that to guarantee one, we must have two.”

      this point, is why i am a little shy of the move from stovl to catobar, because it automatically becomes an easier (read: cheaper) decision to mothball/LPH the second carrier, as you immediately delete the expense of a second refit, and justify a smaller JCA buy, which then becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of decline.

      fingers crossed.

  8. You are absolutely right. In an ideal world two identical CATOBAR carriers with F35C would be the way to go, especially if we could afford enough for six front line squadrons, 3 RN, carrier committed, and 3 RAF, deep strike specialist but which could surge when required. Its just possible that this might be the state of play by 2025, Sadly I think most of us concur that this aint going to happen. In the real world we still need to have both carriers completed to the same spec so that we can cover time in refit as well as having the option to swing taskings between LPH and carrier strike. This is especially vital if we lose Ocean,or dont get a suitable replacement as a dedicated LPH. To my mind if the decision has been taken to go for F35C, then it makes no sense to complete QE with ski jump et al. Just looking at the graphics it is a massive (and ugly!) structural addition, that would require an expensive refit to remove. If it were my call I would complete QE with a flat deck (assuming EMALS is not far enough advanced to fit from the go) and operate in the early years as a ‘COIN Carrier’, ie something like 12 – 16 GR7, 8 x AAC Apache, 4 SK AEW, 8 Merlin Commando, 4 Chinook. I would also include a routinely embarked SAS/SBS Squadron plus 2 x RM Rifle Coys. All of which could be readily accommodated within the current design, justifies our ship, and would actually meet the threat we face today? Losing the ski jump when used in this role would be no great loss, as the USMC routinely operate Harrier without a Ski jump, off LPH that are significantly smaller than CVF. What we lose in deleting the ski jump, ie range and payload, we gain in more easy conversion to CATOBAR, and dont end up in the longer term with a ‘first and second div’ carrier fleet?

    • Pogoglo,

      Don’t have nearly as much time right now to reply as I’d like but let me say:
      – pleasure having you around
      – yup
      – I like the way you’ve laid out your thinking, right down to the TO&E

  9. JBT,

    This isn’t integral to this subject (although it’s tied strongly to it at the level of strategy) but thanks so much for linking to that Defence Viewpoints piece on NATO strategy. Had me nodding my head so hard it almost popped off. That is, precisely, how NATO as we know it dies, and where the fault lines of both Europe and EUrope lie.

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