The Next HMS Warrior Pt 1
The Royal Navy actually has a proud tradition of strategic, tactical and and equipment innovation, the realization that training and discipline were key to fighting efficiency, hygiene, nutrition, accurate mapping, timekeeping and navigation aids, HMS Dreadnought, amphibious warfare, heliborne operations, anti submarine warfare, naval aviation, ASDIC, the switch from sail to coal, HMS Warrior and the Falklands Conflict are all good examples, amongst an ocean of others.
But where is the next HMS Warrior?
Masters of Innovation
Currently the British Royal Navy is at a crossroad. With every warship program either delayed, reduced in numbers ordered, or suffering various technical issues, the temptation might be to predict impending doom for the small but proud service. Historically the “senior service” and rightly considered Britain’s first line of defense, for centuries the Navy has held a special place in the public’s heart, and for that matter has been a source of security for all nations loving freedom. It is no exaggeration to say, considering the amount of innovation and the various advances in naval technology introduced by her historically, that as the Royal Navy goes, so goes the world.
Also considering her track record, even this apparent present crisis may not be viewed as impending disaster, but an imminent Revolution at Sea, where we all may benefit. The above mentioned battleship HMS Warrior (1860) is but one example, launched as the world’s first truly modern, and iron hulled steam battleship. She appeared in stark contrast to the numerous wooden ships of the line, little changed from Nelsons day save for the addition of steam power, that was the current makeup of the fleet.
Yet at first glance she didn’t appear extraordinarily dissimilar to Nelson’s fleet. Warrior, however, was twice the length of HMS Victory, while still sporting a full spread of sail. In fighting capability, she was more kin to the new ironclads then appearing in world navies from France to America. She was a 10,000 ton giant, about the size of a modern American Burke destroyer, equally admired and equally feared for its power and newness.
A Century of Progress
Neither was she the last bold step taken by Britain in the years ahead, when the island nation was induced by mostly external pressures, threats to her sovereignty, and economic factors to drastically alter building strategies. Launched in 1906, the first all-big-gun battleship HMS Dreadnought was greatly maligned by traditionalists, as was Warrior resisted by the old sail navy. It was thought by some that her 10×12 inch heavy cannon would rip the hull apart when fired simultaneously, a misguided notion easily silenced after sea trials. Closer to the truth was the fact that not only was every other battleship of foreing powers now obsolete, but also the 50 or so predreadnoughts of Britain being equally deficient. The odds at sea were suddenly closer than ever.
Again the risk failed to deter progress within the RN. Even as the new aircraft carrier was introduced to the staunchly gun-minded service, she experimented and revised tactics that would also put her own battle fleet at risk. There was little hesitation though when the opportunity came to strike at Axis ships in aerial torpedo planes from large decks. The Italian Navy’s defeat at Taranto by archaic Swordfish biplanes and later HMS Ark Royal’s game changing attack on the German battleship Bismarck proved the concept that the Japanese would later use against the Americans and the British in the Pacific. The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off Malaya in 1942 is testimony to the lessons learned by the World.
A quarter century later, Britain helped instigate the demise of another of her own innovations, at least in her Navy’s service. In 1966, the Labour Government canceled the planned supercarriers, the CVA-01. At 53,000 tons, the planned 5 ships were the largest ever to have been built in the country up to that time and would have been slightly smaller than the American Forrestal class carriers. They were considered too expensive at a time the nation was facing one economic crisis after another.
CVA-01 was sacrificed not to the lessons of war but on the altar of fiscal reality. By the 1970s the Royal Navy was faced with the extinction of her carrier arm, as old war-built vessels like the new HMS Ark Royal were to be discarded by decade’s end. Even lacking an Empire to defend, the British proved they were still up to the challenge and at the forefront of innovation. Though sold as anti-submarine cruisers, the Invincible class carriers armed with the new Harrier V/STOL planes proved you didn’t need large decks to deploy an effective air strike force from the sea. Though often criticized for lacking the same innovations she herself created and adopted by the US Navy’s supercarrier fleet like angled decks and steam catapults, the Argentines who captured and soon lost the Falklands Islands in the spring of 1982 might beg to differ with their apparent lack of ability. The day in which only superpowers could deploy effective naval airpower was at an end.
An Uncertain Future
The Invincible light carriers were a remarkable leap for medium and small navies and her type has been adopted by numerous fleets such as Spain, Italy, and India. However, today the Navy seems to have forgotten the hard-learned lessons of the past centuries, planning to take a step back instead of forward. While still seeking to deploy the force enhancing and small deck friendly vertol aircraft with the fleet, she has planned two new 65,000 ton supercarriers to launch them. The CVF’s HMS Queen Elizabeth class are an amalgamation of the past and and future rather than anything innovative, a hybrid vessel almost too good for the aircraft she is to carry, the F-35B and least capable version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The CVF’s are also far more expensive than the Invincibles, while still loading the type of vertol fighter that made the smaller carrier so remarkably effective. Thanks to the power and precision of modern smart bombs, the additional capability of a few extra planes on the larger ship is minuscule. Not since Jackie Fisher’s thinly armed battle cruisers has such a worse idea nearly come to fruition in the Royal Navy. Though the service has shorn itself of numerous still useful warships in order to afford these giant craft, the costs continue to multiply as does the price of the risky Joint Strike Fighter program. With nothing left to cut we can only hope sanity will quickly return and this mistake might be turned into yet another opportunity to induce radical and innovative change in the still great Royal Navy.
The questions remains, though, if not the CVF’s, then what? Is another HMS Invincible light carrier the wave of the future? Perhaps an alternative and out-of-the-box idea is waiting in the wings, allowing the Royal Navy once again to lead the rest of the world into the future.
Tommorrow-The new HMS Warrior.