Monday, July 07, 2008

The Guardian Is Not Serious About CVF

There hasn't been much progress on my long-term beef with Martin Kettle for a while. But it's worth remembering that if the Guardian has a major leading article that isn't a business/economics story, it's probably him. And Saturday's second lead (behind a rather competent finance story) bears the Kettle hallmarks.
Forty years ago the Royal Navy came up with a wheeze to persuade the government to buy a new fleet of aircraft carriers - it claimed that they were actually "through deck cruisers". There was no need for pretence this week when the £3.9bn order for two superships was signed in Govan. The vessels, to be named after the Queen and her son (another naval wheeze - would any government dare axe Her Majesty?), should come into service from 2014 as the oceanic embodiment of British power.

Well, he could have mentioned that the "new fleet of aircraft carriers" weren't designed as aircraft carriers, either; the Invincible class originally only carried 5 fighters, intended to chase off Soviet Bear reconnaissance planes rather than to provide serious air defence, and their main mission was as a base for anti-submarine helicopters. The Invincibles' role as light fleet carriers was originally a desperate hack for the Falklands, which the Navy realised could be built upon.

(And if you want a good story about the CVA-01 decision, why not mention the fact the RAF promised they could provide air cover to British forces anywhere on earth, producing a map to support this on which Australia was about 300 miles north-west of where conventional wisdom would suggest?)
The government is proud, the navy thrilled and the army jealous. The problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the ships are intended to do or how they will be paid for.

Wrong; they will provide fleet air defence, the same for British or allied landing forces, close air support for troops ashore, and a significant air strike capability, with secondary ASW, command and control and logistic roles. They are budgeted for in the defence equipment programme. That is a cheap criticism, though. If Kettle means that we won't ever need the use of an aircraft carrier, or that they are morally appalling in all cases, why doesn't he say so?
Nor is it clear what sort of plane, if any, will fly from their decks: the Joint Strike Aircraft, which they are designed to carry, will not be ready in time (and will cost a further £12bn), even if the United States goes ahead with the necessary vertical takeoff version, which is not certain. In the meantime the navy will have to make do with its ageing Harriers.

It's perfectly clear. Harrier until the F-35 ISD in 2014, thereafter F-35. You've just said so yourself. Further, note that Kettle is complaining that the Fleet Air Arm's Harriers are "ageing" and also complaining about replacing them, within the space of two sentences. Is he even aware, I wonder, that there are Harriers in the RAF as well? And that they are no newer? The argument that the cost of replacing Harrier is all the fault of the Navy is dishonest; the Harriers will wear out, whether they are flying from Illustrious and Ark Royal, the future Queen Elizabeths, or land bases.

And if you're worried about the Army (they are "jealous", remember), you should be aware that the Harrier force's central mission is to support the infantry. The aircraft itself was designed back in 1969 as a specialised close support aircraft, a sturmovik as the Russians would say, one that would be small, manoeuvrable, with a lot of space for weapons, and no requirement for airfields at all. This was why the US Marines, probably the most CAS-minded air force in the world, bought them. Letting the Harrier force go isn't an option - because we already cut half the RAF's CAS aircraft two years ago when the Jaguars were decommissioned, and the press didn't really notice.
For a government facing a tricky byelection in Glasgow, led by a prime minister from Fife, it is easy to understand the attractions of ships built partly in Govan and Rosyth. Last year's Commons statement giving the go-ahead was greeted by MPs cheering news of work going to their constituencies. What was lacking - and has been since the 1998 strategic defence review set out plans for the vessels - was a discussion of why the ships are needed, or how they can be afforded

And you're not going to get one here. Viz:
No one doubts the importance of carrier fleets in certain circumstances - Britain could not have fought the Falklands war without Hermes and Invincible. Floating off some future conflict zone or humanitarian disaster, the new ships will prove valuable. But so might many other forms of military resource, some of which will be sacrificed to pay for these aircraft carriers. The army lacks secure patrol vehicles and helicopters, but the Future Lynx helicopter programme looks likely to be scrapped in order to bail out a defence budget that is already overspent and must now fund naval gigantism.

Many other forms, eh. Fortunately the Matra-BAE Dynamics Ideological Handwave appears to be cheap and available off the shelf. The FLYNX project ought to be scrapped anyway, because it's a procurement zombie - it's been going on for ten years, not a single helicopter has been procured, but no less than three different sets of capability requirements have been written, at astonishing cost, and the current solution is to buy another lot of the same helicopters, which don't actually cover the LIFT element of the requirement (which is the bit about racing to the succour of the wounded in Afghanistan, Minister), and are rather large and expensive for the FIND element, which is about sneaking about spying, and could better be done by robots, more smaller and cheaper helicopters, or by ones big enough to cover the LIFT requirement with the spooky gear bolted on.

Regarding the "secure patrol vehicle" thing, here's Armchair Generalist. Sure, everyone would like to see more of them. But they are relatively cheap, and in fact the government keeps buying more of them. Which is a pity, because they are completely useless for anything other than Iraq and some missions in Afghanistan (the ones where you don't need either heavy metal, or mobility). But politicians love them because they show We Care. As far as Army procurement goes, the generals are more concerned about the FRES project, which is costed at £14bn and has already spent hundreds of millions of pounds without building a single vehicle. Many people think it is actually physically impossible.

Further, the Invincible class lasted 30 years; HMS Fearless was laid down in 1964 and managed to launch Chinooks full of SBS men into Afghanistan in 2001. Will we be in Iraq or Afghanistan in 4 years, let alone 14 or 40?

So we didn't get a serious discussion of why the ships are needed, did we? Oh well, space constraints. What about the solution?
This does not mean Britain should not have access to carriers; only that it cannot afford to build and support two new ships, three times the size of its current ones, without doing harm to other capabilities. The answer would have been to share the cost of construction and operation with France, which has just pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet. Talk of this last month led to silly tabloid headlines about an EU navy. But a shared fleet and a capable military to back it up would do much more for global security than two big British ships and a cash-strapped army - even if it meant that the red ensign had to fly alongside the tricolour.

What does "access" to carriers mean? I hate this "access to" meme - it's a long standing government way of saying "something other than what you need". Rather than poverty, unemployment, or a terrible diet, your problem is that you "struggle to access finance, employment, and fresh foods". I fully expect to hear a government minister explain how they "are taking forward an initiative to improve our counter-terrorist capability's access to ammunition".

More seriously, how can we possibly "share the cost of construction and operation" with France when France has just "pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet"? The French government wants to make some quite impressive cuts in its defence budget, and has decided to put off building a ship, so why would they give us money to work on ours? This "answer" is actually self-refuting.

In fact, the French are likely to get assurances of some sort of the use of the British ships for training when the Charles de Gaulle is in dock, and perhaps also of support if something comes up. Presumably they will offer something in return. This is roughly what Kettle is suggesting, but reversed; but it's impossible for both Britain and France to do this, just as two people with no money cannot help each other out by lending to each other.

And on top of this, we finish with what sounds like a call to revive the European Defence Community of 1954, which is...different. After all, the Guardian's policy is not actually to support the creation of a single European state, the last I heard. Nobody actually wants this, and there is no evidence the French do. How it would work, who would command it, who would task it...all this is handwaved away.

Worse, this is a common fault of much discussion of British defence policy. On the Right, the assumption is usually that we don't need a policy because the Americans will provide. On the Left, it's usually that we don't because the Europeans will pay, as if there was a great pool of available funding or forces over there. It makes as much sense as assuming that "the Boche will pay" did in 1919.

Here, it's driven by Kettle's addiction to Neither-Nor Criticism. He wants to appear decently anti-militaristic and concerned - this is the Manchester Guardian, after all - but he also doesn't want to accept the policy consequences of this. After all, he's a sodding Decent! How can you be a fan of humanitarian intervention and the war in Iraq, but also be opposed to having a blue-water navy? If you don't think we need a navy, or you think that we don't need armed forces at all, go ahead and make a case. If you think we do, then please suggest a shape of the forces and a foreign policy that would reliably not need the carriers. But he refuses to go anywhere near either. So, what we get is a sort of tepid soup of unexamined assumptions, with the extra feature that he seems to be desperately underbriefed on the issue.

Alternatively, the reason why he dislikes the carrier project is that it might confer too much independence of the United States. Now, this would indeed be consistently Decent. Some sort of half-baked "access to carriers" would be far more likely to prevent independent British - or European - action, and far more likely to compel a future prime minister to march because some ally wanted it. George Orwell attacked the "shabby kind of pacifism common to countries with strong navies", in a passage much quoted by the Decents. But how much worse is a shabby kind of militarism that doesn't want to pay for the Navy?


Peter McGrath said...

How good to think that our local hero James Cook could fix Australia with greater accuracy that the modern RAF.

Anonymous said...

I'm still in the dark as to what the actual use of these carriers will be. Will they be old-Cold-War-go-up-against-the-Russians-and-Chinese sort of thing? If so, in 15 years time, are we going to send them out East of Singapore or even East of Suez? We've done that with two of our main capital ships before.

Aren't missiles meant to be rather important in the future? What chance will these two large ships have against hi tech missiles? And hi tech missiles are getting lower and lower down the food chain all the time.

And the other use they seem to have is "policing" in Third World countries - if there are actually Third World "countries" in fifteen years time. In 15 years time the main reason for invading Third World countries, oil, would seem to be a dead duck as by that time our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will be history and a failure too gross to risk repetition.

And "policing" actions - as in Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon - just seem to add to the resistance rather than diminish it. Mogadishu - Third World warlords outthinking and outfighting First World militaries - happened 17 (?) years ago. And the record hasn't improved since then.

We obviously need something. But I've yet to see an intelligent discussion/speculation on what warfare is going to be like in 15 years time. This seems to me too old Cold War and too old Scottish politics to be entirely convincing.

I think a much more open discussion on future warfare is needed.


James said...

I wonder whether he'd have written the same article if Blair was still PM.

cabalamat said...

The problem I have with these warships is who, realistically, will they be used against? Large warships are very expensive, and vulnerable to anti-ship missiles that cost a fraction of the amount. China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile and these days even non-state actors such as Hizbullah have AShMs.

I cannot imagine the RN will want to use these ships against any country with a half-decent air force. As an example, suppose Argentina builds up its airforce with the intent of having another go at grabbing the Malvinas and we get a refight of the Falklands War circa 2020. I think these ships would be potentially very vulnerable in such a scenario. (i.e. they would be easily sunk by long range shore based or UCAV-launched AShMs, resulting in massive loss of lives, and the whole mission would be an utter fiasco.)

The same arguments apply to Britain fighting any other medium/large power such as Iran, Indonesia, Russia, or China.

The only scenario I can see them being used in is when fighting some TPLAC where the opposition has negligible technological capability.

It can even be argued that large surface warships have been obsolescent since the mid 1940s and this has only not been obvious because (1) there's only been one large navy, contrary to the previous situation where many countries were competing for naval dominance, and (2) there have been no large naval battles -- of the kind of Tsushima, Jutland or Leyte Gulf -- since 1944; such battles could have shown up the vulnerability of large warships.

Anonymous said...

In other words, what will our "interests" be in 15 years time.

The Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism doesn't seem to be doing very well at the moment, and seems to be in decline. So the neo-imperial side of our neo-mercantalism is probably over.

But if the rest of the world - largely continental - also contract in this encroaching economic storm, then sea trading could again assume the importance it had in the nineteenth century, and Britain is a sea-trading nation par excellence. (Regurgitating Paul Kennedy here.)

So what we would need are small scale escorts for merchantmen, craft designed for low level policing, not provocative come-and-get-me-big-boy capital ships.

I know that no time ever seems the right time to make decisions, but at the moment there are so many intangibles about and so many crossroads ahead that putting all our eggs in one basket (to pile on the cliche) just seems plumb wrong.

john f

Anonymous said...

Ex RN Comment...Has anyone given any thought to the fall of the US Empire, the withdrawl of the US Fleet in the Indian Ocean. With US backing, a Royal Navy with two new reasonably sized aircraft carriers could possibly take over the role left by the USN. Furthermore, why fly fixed wing aircraft from these carriers, UAV/UCAV technology is so far advanced now surely these aircraft would be much more capable and far less costly than a piloted aircraft.
By the way, two aircraft carriers does not make sense, lets assume one in for refit, one working up, and one at sea, oops, that makes three?

Anonymous said...

This is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Where are the escort carrier groups being built?

These are just Portsouth harbour "red-top" rule britannia props for Liz, Charles and the rest of the inbreds.

Anonymous said...

Phil H: "fighting some TPLAC where the opposition has negligible technological capability."

That'll be it. I'm with Brecher on the vulnerability of surface ships to massed SSM attack. But . . . not everyone can launch one of these. If arms races between great powers heat up again, we might also see the UK moving into them, perhaps with mass-produced missiles of its own. In the meanwhile, these ships are for banging a small country against the wall once in a while. It's an imperial police force in the style of the C19th army (or even the pre-Fisher navy), not meant to fight Der Tag, but to make like a gunboat. I actually predicted all of this ten years ago:

As for the air defence . . . we need to assume that only one of PoW (auspicious name?) and QE will ever be on station at any one time. 2 frigates, 2 destroyers, and an SSN will do nicely to protect it. Build four of each and you're there.

[I know a man who helped to write the specs for these carriers. In arguments with the RAF and the Treasury, his killer point was always: "How many airfields have been knocked out since 1945? How many carriers?"]

Thus, I am in the 'morally reprehensible but not actually stupid' camp. Kettle manages to be wrong on both counts, which is par for the course for him.

Chris Williams

ziz said...

Points to mention
1. Cost will double
2. JSF looking further and further away especially STOVL
3. Anyone mention 42 year olf VC 10 and Tris Star Troop transports ?
4. Tanker replacment coming unstuck a PFI finance deal hits credit crunch buffers
5. Please can we have some more helicopters ?

Meanhwile Illustrious splashes round the Indian Ocean sans Harriers ( busy winnning hearts and minds in the Hindi Kush )... not forgetting call back to port on day 1 because the food freezers developed a non food freezing feature etc

Mind you if we keep choosing to fight only folks with no air/misile power we are OK. ..ish

Alex said...

John F: It doesn't work like that, though; if sea trade becomes more important (and I've no idea HOW it could get more important - it's 90% of all international trade already) sea control gets more important, and having more frigates only works if you have the backup, at least if you're planning to operate outside home waters. We could have a navy like the Germans' - but where do we and Europe turn...?

Various: Ships are manned aircraft in 1957, right? Tanks are another example. People thought they were outdated in the 1920s. WSC was keen on a huge travelling dragline, way way steampunk, to cut a huge trench for armour to move through - they kept the prototypes up to the winter of 1944.

Tanks were obsolete in the 60s because of tactical nukes and in the 80s because of ATGWs. ALso, some of the RN's specialisations are applicable to chasing up fast attack craft with SSMs - specifically AShW/ASW with small ship helicopters.

And all - the Watchkeeper UAVs currently cost more for each airframe than a Tornado GR4, even without allowing for inflation.

WEBF said...

I have been busy promoting naval issues for a few years now. To my mind, the emasculation of the Royal Navy by defence cuts is perhaps best represented by the early retirement of our carrierborne fighter, the Sea Harrier, between six and ten years before the replacement (F35 enters service).

I did my best, as did others, to fight the cause for Sea Harrier on PPRuNe and other places and in other ways, letters to MPs etc. Whilst we were unable to persuade the Government to retain 801 as a Shar squadron until CVF and JSF arrive, or at least the Type 45 arrive, or to keep a number of Sea Harriers in storage, I was relieved to discover back in February 2006 that some aircraft were being sent down to the School of Flight Deck Operations at Culdrose for training baby aircraft handlers - better than the scrapyard, and at least they will be intact and regularly powered up and moved about, a good start if we needed to regenerate them, and hopefully still a deterrent to the Argies etc. I am unsure how many are there but quite few remain either stored or at Culdrose.

Can't help feeling that

a)Whilst still a disaster, the RN has managed to salvage something.
b)The SFDO aircraft will be in use, therefore should be in a reasonable state. Also they should deal with the weather better than Jags the RAF use for similar purposes as they're naval aircraft.
c)If RNR pilots could go from flying an airliner to a Shar every year, then the GR9 to FA2 transition would be less difficult.
d)Engine/airframe spares will be available as India intends to operate the Sea Harrier FRS 51 until 2012.......maybe longer, 2020 maybe. The Captor radar used by Typhoon is Blue Vixen therefore I'd imagine spares would be available that way, also "build to print" is what many parts of the defence industry like to hear.
e)Exchange tours would maintain radar and other air defence skills.
f)In a crisis, whilst the Shars are regenerated (including building and modifying parts as needed) a few RN/RNR pilots could get a short course in using radar etc from the RAF.....good job Typhoon has Blue Vixen in a new package.

Maybe, not quite all is lost........

The following links are from the Military Aircrew forum on the Professional Pilots' Rumour Network (PPRuNe).

These threads are rather long and may take hours to read properly, never read them in full so I can't say...

Firstly, the "Sea Jet" thread.....

This discusses the Sea Harrier, and its service and retirement (including the aircraft retained for training and other purposes), CVF and JCA, other things that increase the risk of disaster (FF/DD cuts, MCMV cuts, SSN cuts - all at the same time as the high value amphibious shipping is increasing - as well as various other complaints. Did this thread help the RN save some? Who can say?

Since the Sea Harrier has now gone, the most important PPRuNe thread is the Future Carrier one:

Defence and the sources of its problems - Defence: public ignorance, politics and the media (or something like that): .

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