Friday, 6 July 2012

Cutting Defences

I'm currently reading an excellent book on the future of the Royal Navy. It is, in places, heavy going, but it poses some interesting questions as well as putting forward some good arguments. Since the end of World War 1 the Royal Navy has been, if not in decline, then certainly shrinking. If the author of the book I'm reading is right, this is a twofold thing. First, the Navy has always enjoyed the position of knowing that 'everybody knows we need a Navy' and secondly, because its ships are such expensive items, it is easy, when making 'savings' on defence, to make a 'big' saving by simply deleting a new build or a planned build or scrapping several ships.

Politicians and civil servants never think further than five years (Capital Budgets) or one year (Operating Budgets). Knock a project costing a couple of billion on the head and - "Gosh! Look at what we've saved, Mr Chancellor, sir." This is why Britain entered the Second World War with a Fleet List of 22 'Capital' Ships, most of them obsolete. There were five in building in 1939, and the most modern were the already out of date HMS Rodney and Nelson. The "Queen Elizabeths" had been upgraded in 1925 - 30 and three had been "rebuilt" and modernised by 1940, the remaining pair, HMS Barham (Sunk off Mersa Mutru by the U331, probably as a result of the torpedoes starting a fire in her 4 inch magazines which had been 'inserted' adjacent to her 15 inch magazines) and HMS Malaya, were, for a time the best the RN had available.

The Naval Estimates were knocked back in 1928 and again in 1932, so building of the KGV Class could not begin before 1936. At the formation of the Royal Air Force, the Navy had been forced to give up the Fleet Air Arm, something they did not regain control over until 1938 and then had to find the money to build the ships they needed for the coming war (Winston Churchill is a bit disingenuous about this - he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who would not allow the Navy the money in the 1928 Estimates) and replace the redundant aircraft they were lumbered with. The KGV Class were started building in 1936/7 and in 1939 the three "Lion" Class were started, alongside the "War Emergency Class" HMS Vanguard. She was not completed until 1945 and she was armed with the guns taken from two battle cruisers converted to aircraft carriers in the 1920s.

The three Lions were cancelled and scrapped on the slipways. The official reason was that they could not be completed in time and the war effort needed the steel for other projects. I am not alone in believing that the real reason was that Whitehall had belatedly discovered that the guns they were designed to carry, 16 inch guns of a more advanced type than those fitted to the Rodney and Nelson, could not be produced in Britain. The reason was simple, Whitehall had cancelled all forward orders (more budget 'savings') for these guns and for 15 inch guns, so the gun foundry that produced them had been closed in 1928 and dismantled. The largest bore gun the UK could produce for itself in 1936 was a 6 inch, which is one reason why this became the standard gun fitted to the very successful classes of 'cruisers' built between 1936 and 1950.

Thus, the Royal Navy, in 1939, found itself equipped with ships that were, for the most part, obsolete and even the new ones being built, The King George V Class, had to be equipped with very large and complex quadruple turrets carrying 14 inch guns salvaged from the ships scrapped in 1922 by the 'Geddes' Axe which reduced the once proud fleet to a shadow of its former self. In truth, they should have focussed on building more aircraft carriers, but Churchill and his fellows still believed that battleships could force an enemy to sue for peace. One of his more ludicrous schemes, thankfully thwarted by Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, then First Sea Lord, was to sacrifice the 'R' Class battleships, Royal Oak, Royal Sovereign, Revenge and Ramillies, in an attack through the Skaggerak, Great Belt and into the Baltic to attack the German base in Kiel.

The problem in all 'Defence Reviews' is that they are entered into and conducted with the same goals in mind. "Where can we cut the costs and how much can we cut" rather than any real appraisal of what the Armed Forces may be called upon to deal with. This has been exposed again and again, but still Whitehall and Westminster are attempting to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. The Defence Chiefs find themselves caught in the same trap over and over - how do they defend the expenditure on ships, aircraft, tanks, personnel and training, when all the Treasury wants is cuts, all the politicians want is to be able to look good afterward and the civil service just keeps expanding.

Sir John Nott's slashing of the Royal Navy's resources and the withdrawal of the Falklands Patrol exposed just how little Whitehall and Westminster actually understand about Defence of the Realm. Blair's excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed massive gaps in materiel and equipment for the Army and the RN and now we face a drum beating Iran and an upsurge in piracy, not just off the Horn of Africa, but increasingly elsewhere as well. Blair and then Cameron's interventions in Libya, Sierra Leone and elsewhere continues to expose the fact that the RN is stretched to the limit, the Army is as well, and now the RAF is to be crunched again, with the ludicrous suggestion, once again, that 'piloted aircraft can be replaced by remote vehicles and missiles. They tried that stupid argument in 1964 - but, of course, hope everybody has forgotten how that worked out.

The Naval Staff have a very difficult role. Their efforts to maintain a 'balanced' fleet, one capable of meeting the demands most likely to be placed on it, are increasingly difficult. In Nott's review, the aircraft carriers were scrapped on the grounds that the RAF would provide all air cover from land bases or the US Navy would from their carriers. Falklands proved how good an assessment that was! Now we have the expensive "air defence" Type 45 Destroyers being deployed to roles they are not designed for in the Middle East, and the carriers have, again, been scrapped. Mind you, that was inevitable as soon as the Whitehall Wonders scrapped the only aircraft that could be operated from them!

The real problem is this. Whitehall cannot look at the big picture, their focus is on 'this budget' and 'this government.' Westminster lacks the competence and the expertise to see anything outside of their ideological goals and, as a result, believe what any civil servant tells them. If the Treasury says something is too expensive, it must be cut. There is no understanding of what is being destroyed and lost, or of the consequences of not having something - until it affects them directly. Tragically, the biggest problem all three armed services face at present is that Whitehall and Westminster see them as a necessary evil, something one has to have, but really doesn't like to think about too much.

They have no vision of what the Royal Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force should look like, should have or may have to deal with in future. Sadly, like Churchill and his generation, they still think that 'British Industry' and 'the British People' can rise to the challenge, build the ships and aircraft, man them and fill the gaps in the Army and go marching off to deal with any threat at the drop of a hat. They seem to think they can use the nations former glory as a negotiating tool, as a 'trading card' in diplomacy, forgetting that the diplomacy of the 19th and early 20th Century was backed by those 'Grey Diplomats' on the horizon in every ocean.

If the current trend continues, Britain may no longer have a navy in the not too distant future. Perhaps some future historian will ponder over why such an obvious essential for an island nation, dependent on the sea for some 60 - 80% of its food, raw materials and trade, allowed its leaders to scrap its most important military asset.

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