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Royal Navy’s Time of Testing

March 10, 2009

If you study most any analysis on the lessons of the 1982 Falklands Conflict, you will likely decide that the UK did almost everything wrong in the decades during which it transformed from a global empire into a regional arm of NATO. This view is especially prevalent within US Navy circles as they eagerly seized on presumed faults in the Royal Navy’s structure to justify fleets of large deck carriers, heavily armed and armored missile battleships, plus sizable amphibious ships with ever more sophisticated and complicated landing craft. For instance, in the third volume of Lisle A. Rose’s Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006, we are told:

The Royal Navy (was) only just able to meet the Argentine challenge and at a crippling cost to the readiness of NATO”, which still relied heavily on British antisubmarine expertise and equipment, embodied in the three new helicopter carriers; the older, about to be decommissioned Hermes; and their escorts. The Royal Navy devoted fully 40 percent of its major surface combatants to the South Atlantic War. Since it no longer possessed a significant amphibious warfare capability, and its logistic-support ships were few, the navy had to appropriate civilian cargo vessels and cruise ships, including the giant Queen Elizabeth II, and employ them as combat transports to bounce the Argentine invaders from the Falklands.

Other conclusions important for the future composition of the UK and US navies was that the task force only “enjoyed a modest degree of air protection“, with the Invincible class dismissed as merely “anti-submarine carriers“, its airborne early warning system “nonexistent“.

With these assumptions taken to build a future fleet on, lets see the state of each of the mightiest seapowers today, founded on the premise than only large exquisite warships can survive in the cruise missile era. According to military journalist and blogger David Axe:

Today, the Royal Navy has just 22 surface warships. With the Type 45 destroyer program cut in half to just six vessels, surface combatant numbers will drop again, to as low as 14 under current plans, when old Type 22 and Type 23 frigates begin paying off in six years…Under current plans, the Royal Navy circa 2020 will be a very strange force. There will be just six high-end warships to protect two 65,000-ton super-carriers, plus a mixed flotilla of old Type 23s and FSCs numbering just over a dozen. It’ll be a top-heavy force with too few destroyers to escort the carriers into a shooting war, and too few frigates to perform day-to-day patrolling during peacetime. It’s a fleet optimized for nothing.

So, a fleet built according to the popular view of the Falkland’s War, with supercarriers, high-end missile escorts, invinciblean obscure and yet to be built future surface combatant, plus large and specialized amphibious ships (not mentioned) is considered “next to nothing“. In stark contrast is the maligned small anti-submarine carriers, cheap, compact, plentiful, and reasonably priced escort destroyers, frigates, merchant ships converted into troops carriers for the emergency; all of which are considered the wrong type of fleet by the analysts, yet won a war without busting the defense budget!

Whose to say then, that Britain would have fared any better with an American type large deck carrier fleet, which she would have possessed in 1982, save for the Labour Party’s drastic budget cutting of the 1960s? To defend the very expensive CVA-01, a class of 4 expensive Type 82 air defense destroyers would have been bought. With the cancellation of the former in 1966, a total of 12 Type 42 Sheffield class entered service. Considering the tough economic times affecting Britain and the world by the early 1970s, who is to say the Royal Navy could have kept large carriers, plus adequate numbers of frigates and destroyers in service, the latter which proved so essential to victory in the air and sea battles of “Bomb Alley”?

Continued tomorrow.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 10, 2009 2:40 pm

    I’m betting the F-35 cost will rise dramatically Douglas, if history is our guide. Suddenly the powers that be realize they don’t need as many as they thought, or can’t afford the thousands they planned for in the last decade.
    As for the RN carriers, I can only imagine it is the new Internationalism which gives the British the hope they can sustain 2 giant carriers, while their general purpose forces shrinking into insignificance. The US is doing the same with its “1000 ship navy”, so it can build a huge luxury fleet that swell the pride of the admirals at naval reviews, and scares the non-naval powers in the Third World that we will bomb their caves and oil fields if they get out of line. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indians will expand their influence as they increase the respective size of their fleets.

  2. Douglas permalink
    March 10, 2009 11:57 am

    Under current plans, the Royal Navy circa 2020 will be a very strange force

    No kidding. I don’t understand what the Brits are thinking. This is a nation that, even before the economic crash, was having big funding problems for their military. They’re likely going to cut the RAF’s purchase of Eurofighters in half, and there were rumors of London actually trying to sell off some of the Eurofighters they have. The Fleet Air Arm doesn’t have it’s own fixed wing aircraft anymore… RAF Harriers go to sea on their carriers for the moment. Both their surface and sub fleets are shrinking.

    So why in the hell are they buying two supercarriers? Nostalgia? They can’t even afford the weapons they have. And as weapons are more expensive in Europe and the UK (due to local politics, unions, lack of economies of scale in production, etc), the UK is paying far more for their 65K ton carriers than we pay for our 97K Nimitz and Ford class ships. And their carriers still won’t have catapult launch ability. It’s all STOVL at this point (although they’ve designed in easy paths to upgrade them to steam cats). Speaking of expensive, the RAF is balking at the price of Eurofighters because they’re running at about $150 million US dollars, second only to our own F-22’s costs at this point. How then are they going to handle buying F-35B’s that, at optimistic predictions, will at least be over 100 million apiece, and if you believe CBO predictions, maybe twice that price?

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