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Royal Navy’s Time of Testing Pt. 2

March 11, 2009

rafSome have contended that with large strike carriers in RN service, there might never have been a Falklands Conflict, citing the retirement of the HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s last large-deck aircraft carrier in 1978, as a sign to the Argentine dictatorship that the British Empire was just a Paper Lion. It is just as possible that she would have been tested somewhere else, particular in the Middle East where, with a more powerful fleet, she might have been emboldened to play a greater role in the various crises there during the 1980s. Might it have been Iranian F-14s or Phantom jets she would have faced, rather than the Argentine Mirages and Skyhawks, against her own Phantoms or “Sea Tornadoes”?

The point we wish to make, is that at some time all Great Powers will have their militaries tested to the extent of endurance. Even the American nation has seen its role as the “last superpower” challenged by what some considered a minor threat, Islamic terrorism, and the public patience tried to the breaking point over the Iraq War. For Britain, it is amazing her forces performed as well as they did, after subsequent decades of terrible economic challenges which saw her once globe-spanning Empire fade into memory. Though no one is excusing a nation for failing to prepare for the future threats, what is more important is the ability to face unexpected difficulties head-on, not necessarily with the best equipment, nor the biggest battleships, or the most expensive wonder-plane available, but enough will to make what arms a nation does possess count.

For America, the prevailing attitude that only high end “exquisite warships” must be bought for current and future wars has taken a similar toll on the once globe spanning armada that won World War 2 and the Cold War. Galrahn gives details of its current state:

 The United States Navy fielded 526 ships in 1990 and ended 1999 with only 317, a net loss of 209 ships. Today the Navy is down to 283 ships, but over the last 16 years has built an abysmal average of 5.3 ships a year. With an average life of around 30 years, without a substantial increase in the number of ships built per year, the Navy is on pace to drop below 200 by 2016, which would be the end of a possible Obama second term. It is even more troubling when you consider how to date the Navy has avoided telling anyone about that problem, sure to make the next decade of aircraft carrier construction a miserable, expensive experience.

A “miserable experience” indeed when you think how much better it would be if the both Britain and America would concentrate on getting hulls in the water without every imaginable weapon, the most sophisticated sensors, and advanced defenses money could buy. Realizing that no warship is invincible, but even an austere patrol boat in the right place at the right time can make a difference. Yet, today our hearts swell with pride with tales of billion-dollar Aegis battleships capturing pirates in speed boats, and is it any wonder the politicians balk at defense hikes? Actually the navies seem to be getting too much, yet they still can’t build enough ships, or even ones which work properly when they arrive.

The answer to both the British and the Americans is a simple formula I often use here, and it will work for ALL services, not just the Fleet. It is Smart Bombs+Dumb Platforms. Both countries desperately need ships in the water married to the new precision cruise missiles and Unmanned Systems, to contend with the struggles we are currently facing. As a commenter wrote recently, we should borrow the tactics of the insurgents (or pirates), but on a grand scale.

Whatever these new hulls are to be I will leave to the experts, but we can get some ideas from recent experiences. Back in the 1990’s, DK Brown proposed upgrading a Castle class Patrol vessel to hold a helicopter, order them in large numbers to stop the downward spiral of the British surface fleet. The Castle was an interesting littoral warship built with the lessons of the recent Cod Wars with Iceland in mind, and would have been perfect for the anti-piracy mission the Royal Navy is currently facing in the Middle East. Yet, not surprisingly the leadership quickly disposed of this reasonable and affordable plan for larger gold plated warships built to fight a future “Cold War”. No surprise then at the current state of the Navy.

Whatever is decided upon, it must be done quickly. We have already wasted 2 decades on the current naval strategy set by the admirals and the politicians, which has given us a stretched thin, over-worked, over-priced, steadily-shrinking American and Royal Navy. At least if we fail with building small austere platforms, as they are priced in the lower millions rather than many billions, we can afford to count our losses and start over. While the traditionalists will blast our efforts as a waste of funds and time, as being too small, not enough weapons or adequate protection, one thing they can’t argue with is their way is no longer adequate for the problems in shipbuilding, keeping costs down while building adequate numbers for the threats we are facing in the Third World today.

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