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Friday, 31 May 2013

Recycled concepts ...

I am currently reading a book on the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on the 10th December, 1941 off the coast of Malaysia. These two ships fell victim to aerial attack by 85 Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers. Their loss was a tragedy, a severe blow to British prestige and heralded the demise of the battleship as the 'Queen of the Oceans' in naval thinking. As ever, though, their loss arose from a combination of many factors, not least the belief in British military circles, that the Japanese were not 'air minded' and that the mere presence of these two ships would be sufficient to deter the Japanese invasion fleet.

They were sent to the Far East against the advice of the Admiralty, which wanted them to have an aircraft carrier to provide air cover. Churchill wanted a 'show of force' and believed the Japanese would not challenge 'superior British forces' despite the the fact the Japanese had a substantial fleet. He also believed the RAF when they told him they would provide the air cover for the ships - despite having only outdated and outclassed Brewster Buffalo fighters and Blenheim Light Bombers in place to face a vastly superior force. The Japanese had one stroke of incredible luck, the German surface raider Atlantis captured a ship carrying vital secret information - the full details of everything the British had deployed in Malaysia, where it was and even how effective it was likely to be.

Coupled with the sheer stupidity and incompetence of some of the British officers doing the assessment of Japanese forces and intentions, it is small wonder the entire air defences of Malaysia were destroyed within hours of the launching of the Japanese assault - most of them on the ground. Into this sailed the ill-fated Force Z. No air cover, inadequate air defences and a well equipped, well trained and extremely motivated enemy. It still took five torpedo hits to stop the Prince of Wales and sink her, and four to despatch the Repulse. Considering that almost 40 torpedos were launched against each ship and several tons of bombs, it is not surprising they were sunk. What is appalling is that they were sent out relying on 'air cover' which could not be supplied.

What is even more surprising is the fact that even 70 years on, there are still people in Westminster and Whitehall who argue that ships at sea can be defended by land-based aircraft. Or that a single aircraft can destroy a major warship. One thing they all overlook is that to be effective against a ship an aircraft has to penetrate the air defences, which starts with what our American Allies call a CAP - Combat Air Patrol - a constant patrol of the area around a Task Group by armed interceptor aircraft. Above these is an airborne radar picket, able to detect inward bound intruders well outside the attack range of their weapons, and to direct interceptors to deal with them. This is where our losses in the Falklands should have alerted our strategists and the politicians to the deficiencies of our armed forces - we lacked adequate airborne radar patrols and we also lacked the interceptor capacity, which the Argentinians exploited with their low-level strikes. Most of our ships didn't have the weapons needed to take down an incoming sea skimming missile either  - a 'cost saving' innovation based in the premise our ships would always operate with an ally providing this cover.

Even today our ships are despatched to duties well outside the capability of the RAF's "land based" aircraft in the same manner as the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Always the questions of air cover are answered by the statement, sometimes patently false, that the ship(s) will always have the requisite air cover from an ally. Thus, our Fleet currently has only the assault ship HMS Ocean and her compliment of helicopters as 'air cover' and airborne anti-submarine patrols. The new HMS Queen Elizabeth and her consort HMS Prince of Wales won't be available for a while yet, and even when they are, will not have a full complement of aircraft. That brings me to the next bit of 'recycled' thinking, this time from the 1960s.

The "Defence Review" of the late 1950s actually suggested that the future RAF would not have manned aircraft, but should instead be equipped with missiles. Likewise, it said the RN didn't need big ships - on the grounds that 'a single bomb can destroy an entire fleet.' They ignored several important things in making that statement. First you actually have to deliver the 'single bomb' which is not as easy as it sounds when you have to penetrate a properly equipped and organised defence screen. Secondly, the technology didn't then exist to completely do away with manned aircraft as an aerial defence system - and it still doesn't. There is talk now of equipping the two new carriers with 'drones' and I recently listened with growing disbelief to a civil servant spouting nonsense about how the technology would soon render the need to put pilots in any aircraft obsolete. There is also talk among the terminally blind in Westminster of not needing the carriers at all. Why? Oh, the RAF can provide the cover from a "land base" in "friendly territory". Ah, yes, and just where would that be in, say, the vacinity of the Falklands?

As the German Luftwaffe of the Bundeswehr has discovered, the day of unmanned aircraft is a long way off - and may never be entirely possible. A pity it has taken them almost €2 billion to discover that the Eurohawk drone, impressive as it looks, can't get CAA clearance to fly. Why? Because the satelite communication it needs to be controlled while in flight is subject to disruption. Most of the cost of this project has been spent trying to cure that problem, without success. So now the Minister of Defence faces massive criticism for not having stopped the project earlier.

I find it fascinating that the lessons of 70 years ago have still not been learned in Whitehall or Westminster. They seem to have no concept of the realities of strategic thinking, of war or threat of war. Nor of maintaining the forces you need where you need them, or even of supporting those you have with the right defece systems. I get the impression it is all about their own comfort today. Tomorrow is someone else's problem. Pity about the chaps and chapesses our short-sightedness will ultimately kill - but, hey, never mind tomorrow ...

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