The year is 1992. A full decade after the fiasco of naval doctrine and procurement policy that was the Falklands War and the punishing and unnecessary losses that resulted, the Royal Navy has risen from the ashes to a form that, if not ideal, is at the least far more capable and survivable than the Royal Navy of the Falklands War. Three carrier hulls provide air cover using upgraded Sea Harriers with better radar and AMRAAM missiles. Eighteen Broadsword class frigates provide point defence missiles, anti-submarine and anti-surface capability, while the new Type 23 frigates will maintain that level of capability. The Type 42 air defence destroyers all have close-in weapons systems to deal with missiles. The Trafalgar class submarines are in commission stalking beneath the waves. With such a navy, the Falklands War would have been entirely one-sided.
Skip to 2013. The carriers have followed their Harriers into the scrapyard. Their replacements are the size of fixed-wing carriers but designed for STOVOL operations. The new carriers are vastly overbudget, and will carry the least capable variant of the extremely expensive F-35. The new Type 45 destroyers lack any effective capability other than air defence. The Broadswords died young, and the Type 23s will have to soldier on for some time before their replacement comes along, a design based on a late 1970s concept of what a frigate should be. The submarine force is in a poor position, with the Trafalgars showing their age much sooner than their American 688 class counterparts, and the new, late and expensive Astute class showing serious design flaws. The Royal Navy is incapable of launching expeditionary operations against anything more than light opposition on its own hook, and even if promised capabilities materialise, the Royal Navy will still be hampered by its own doctrine and planning.
For the third time in the last hundred years, the Royal Navy has faced a drastic budget reduction with a minimum of critical thought and planning, and in so doing, made itself vulnerable. Lest anyone blame the politicians alone, go back and look at the advice British governments have gotten from their sailors, and then look at what the Royal Navy does with the budget that it does have. Here are a few of the problems with which it has saddled itself:
The Royal Navy has made serious doctrinal errors by perpetuating old ideas in the wrong situation and in a changed climate.
First, it has squandered the opportunity presented to acquire full-sized carriers by equipping them with V/STOL aircraft, something that was originally regarded as a temporary expedient when the idea was conceived. The mistake in my opinion goes back to the idea that the purpose of a carrier is to strike land targets and conduct ASW work, which was behind the brief retention of the GR. 7/9 Harrier force after the Sea Harrier had bit the dust. This is a doctrine only suited to conducting operations in small third world nations that can’t fight back. If you don’t have the tools for air superiority (and the F-35B is eminently unsuitable for this role), you don’t have the precondition to conduct any other kind of air operation.
Second, the Royal Navy has perpetuated the obsolete doctrine of the separation of air defence and ASW ships, while leaving anti-surface and strike roles primarily to submarines. In an era in which frigates are expected to have at least some area air defence capability, they are planning frigates without this ability. In an era of a reduced submarine force and a global increase in SSM-armed ships, leaving serious anti-surface work for the submarines is a luxury the RN can no longer afford. Like it or not, this is an era in which every hull needs to be able to do a little of everything, and with reduced hull numbers, forming task forces to accommodate multiple roles is a luxury. It should have been realised in the planning stages that the Type 45 design was not providing value for money, either in terms of number of SAMs carried or in terms of capability for cost and hull size.
For purposes of illustration, consider an alternate pair of surface combatants, the KDX-III class of South Korea and the Formidable class, Singapore’s La Fayette derivative. The KDX-III class carries more than twice the Type 45s’ SAM load, plus sixteen anti-ship missiles, vertical-launch ASROC, cruise missiles, two anti-submarine helicopters and a formidable multi-layered close-in defence including ESSM, RAM and Goalkeeper. The KDX III is also not much more expensive per unit than the Type 45, despite only three of them being built. You could bring in all sorts of arguments to invalidate the comparison, but the bottom line is that the Royal Navy bought a one-trick pony while South Korea bought the most heavily armed ship to be built since the last Kirov-class battlecruiser was launched.
The Formidable class, meanwhile, includes a full range of capabilities expected of a modern frigate, including Aster missiles and Herakles radar for air defence in an economical and advanced platform. In other words, it can protect itself and other ships while operating in a hostile environment. Instead of something like this, the Royal Navy has essentially updated the Type 23 concept.
The Royal Navy made a number of decisions in the nineties and oughts for which it is paying in the 2010s. One was HMS Ocean, a perfectly superfluous helicopter ship built in response to a particular one-time capability gap. This and other indulgences in the amphibious role took up resources that should have been paid forward in maintaining basic capabilities in other areas. Capabilities planned and funded in this era fell quickly to budget cuts. Other poor decisions included abandoning the Horizon frigate project with Italy and France in favour of the Type 45, whose only significant differences are the radar fit and the combat system- and the lack of meaningful secondary armament. In general, the Royal Navy has been very poor at leveraging partnerships with European nations.
All that aside, budget cuts have seen the Royal Navy unable to stand by a coherent vision of which core capabilities need protection- the loss of the Sea Harrier was first example. The very fact that Broadswords and Type 23s, multirole ships capable of independent operations in threat environments, were decommissioned while any Type 42s were still in commission shows a badly disjointed sense of reality. The failure to retain even one carrier or air wing, and then dumping the decommissioned carriers and aircraft on the market without the slightest planning or any coherent attempt to make other carrier-using nations an offer they couldn’t refuse.
This is the worst mistake, and the one that’s killing the British armed forces more than any other. For political reasons, the majority of British hardware has to be developed and built in Britain. I’ve written before about the vast cost overruns this causes in terms of specialist projects like submarine construction that come with decade-long hiatus between orders. Rather than arm their frigates with the existing Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile and equip them with Smart-S or Herakles radar for next to nothing, the Royal Navy has instead funded its own ESSM equivalent and Smart-S equivalent. Rather than buying into a proven frigate design, they’re doing it themselves. Rather than buying into a European destroyer design, they made one themselves.
The pathetic thing about this dogged and expensive insistence on buying British is that they still harbour hope of offsetting their costs through export orders. Not a single country has bought or is likely to buy the PAAMS system. Few countries would consider the Type 26 in a crowded market if they could get a more capable ship for a comparable price. Above all, the doctrinal logic of the Royal Navy is so disjointed from the rest of the market that it is almost impossible to formulate a coherent marketing position for any of this material. The net result is a navy that’s far too expensive.
As the British armed forces rapidly shed the impressive capabilities gained over the past three decades, we can tally up the losses. Britain no longer has a meaningful armoured force, an air force capable of large-scale autonomous combat operations, or a navy capable of real expeditionary warfare. It probably didn’t have to be this way. For a brief moment back in the eighties and nineties, it looked as though the Royal Navy had turned a corner, not on tight budgets, but on the constraints of mentality that have dogged its fighting ability since the end of World War I. At this point, it would take a truly visionary leader to turn the Royal Navy back into a real middle power navy, in the bracket of the large navies now being built in Asia. Improving the budgetary situation would not be enough. There must be a change of mindset.
For related materials, see Mark Collins’ post on the shrinking Royal Navy surface fleet here.