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The Next HMS Warrior Pt 1

January 4, 2010

HMS Warrior-Photo by Remi Jouan and Wikimedia Commons.

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?

Think Defence

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 1:12 pm

    Jed, no one has commented on SHAR pilot comment that F-35B can be a way to end conventional (nuke) carrier building with smaller carriers equipped with JSF-B. Taken together a re-equipment cost saving? Surely extra cost of F-35B compared to Harrier II is worth something in the gain in capability. Why not have the best aircraft on a cheap platform?

  2. Jed permalink
    January 5, 2010 9:23 am

    SpazSinbad – your Shar pilot friend has not addressed one major problem – COST. The F35 is spiraling out of control. The look like costing over $100 million U.S. each. The Harrier was a relatively cheap aircraft, even in its Harrier II incarnation. If we wanted ‘cheap’ utility STOVL we should have kept developing the Harrier II – the F35 and its U.S. Navy dictated “first day of war stealth” is going to price itself right out of its own market for ‘flexibility and utility’ if only the USN or USMC can afford them.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 4, 2010 9:45 pm

    “Surely thinking ahead to future use is a good thing in case of CVF?”

    At the expense of present threats? No way! It could be that in the future other technology will do the work expected of the CVF, and all signs point to this actually happening. It was the British which gave us the original large deck alternative with the Invincible light carriers, proving you wouldn’t have to gut essential fleet escorts in order to deploy manned carrier air. What good are the worlds most powerful and impressive warships, if they can’t even leave port for fear of the numerous small threats out there? I have yet to see any navy prove carriers can escort themselves or aircraft are an adequate replacement for hulls in the water.

    The primary advantage of VSTOL was and is the ability to fly from small decks. this is a step backwards, not forwards.

  4. January 4, 2010 9:02 pm

    Heavily edited e-mail comments from a former (not I) SHAR pilot: “The problem is that ‘they’ can see their worlds ending when everyone realises the STOVL aircraft concept along with everything that goes with it is so much cheaper than huge carriers with their attending and critical machinery [which can be damaged, become unserviceable]. STOVL aircraft can operate from anywhere… Air Force and USN aeroplanes can only operate from their specific places… Having 45 F18Es and 45 F35Cs is a complete waste if ‘mum’ can’t launch them… then even 1 F35B would be better than 1000 F35Cs.”
    “All that talk about limited range on the F35B! Codswallop! Limited compared to what? It’s better than the F18C by a factor of more than 2. Heaps better than an AV8B. I don’t know about Super Hornets, but it should be comparable. The only aeroplanes it will be worse than in the context of
    age are the F35A and C models, and the whole concept of the B is to be available when As and Cs are not! How can that be a limitation!”

    From my reading about intended JSF-B ops on CVF, having a large deck is a godsend for operational reasons and aircraft shuffling with a lot of flexibility. Don’t forget these large CVF decks may be used in far future for different purposes. Surely thinking ahead to future use is a good thing in case of CVF?

  5. January 4, 2010 2:08 pm

    STOBAR is inefficient in its use of deck space.

    Perhaps a better question to ask is for what purpose(s) does the UK want to use its navy? If all we want to do is to deploy carriers and ARGs then 16 escorts is enough.

    The various standing NATO task groups have been deployments looking for purposes ever since the end of the Cold War.

    As for defence of the home islands at a distance greater investment in the SSN force would give better value.

  6. Matthew S. permalink
    January 4, 2010 1:16 pm

    I agree that the RN should have went with something more evolutionary of the Invincible class like the aforementioned Cavour. However, its much too late for that and they will have to live with 2 huge carriers with enough aircraft for one carrier air wing and probably 14-16 escorts.

    I think the best point of the article is the following:

    “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.”

  7. Joe permalink
    January 4, 2010 10:51 am

    The way the Lightening II is going, by the time it ‘matures’ the only country that will be able to afford it en masse will be the nation it’s being tasked with assuming the role of defense/offense against: China.

    Something I’ve never read…why does Great Britain write into contracts such draconian cancellation terms that if a change in policy is warranted, it {virtually speaking} costs more to back out than to continue?

  8. Jed permalink
    January 4, 2010 10:35 am

    Mike, as we have discussed at great lengths on Think Defence, the CVF is with us whether we like it or not, its really too late to cancel them.

    The problem then, becomes what can we afford to fly from them ? I have suggested doing a deal with France and making 1 vessel available to the French when the Charles de Gaul is in dock, that would mean CATOBAR and Rafale.

    With the recent Indian RFI the thought of STOBAR rears its head, with a Ski Jump and arresting gear to operate a “Sea Gripen”.

    But lets face it, the UK defence budget is so screwed, even if we had gone for a 40,000 tonne USS America size flattop, or even better a Cavour class type vessel, we simply cannot afford the over schedule, over budget, untested pile of pants that is the F35 !

    (by the way, I am sure the Lightening II may mature into a fine aircraft, but its too expensive for us ‘poor’ Brits….)

  9. January 4, 2010 9:06 am

    “Swordfish” was only 5 years old when war broke out, hardly archaic then. ;)

    You could argue that they at their time they fitted your philosophy of simple platforms.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 4, 2010 8:53 am

    Range and payload Solomon. I didn’t mean to suggest it was incapable, (I actually prefer the F-35B out of all the JSF variants) just that placed on a large deck ship, seems the RN could do better. That would be like putting only Harriers on the Nimitz class, a waste of capabilities.

  11. January 4, 2010 8:25 am

    The F-35B is the least capable by what measure? Range? If that’s your metric then ok but you must know that the F-35B will make allow amphibs to punch above their wt. Its supersonic and has the same avionics setup as its landbased brothers. To be honest, if you look at the airplane that the B model is to replace(Harrier) then it becomes a game changer.

    It will also give something to the RN that it lost with the retirement of the Sea Harrier….a fighter.

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