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Britain's wasted warships


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#1    Blackleaf

Blackleaf

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Posted 20 June 2005 - 09:23 AM

Considering that I'm an ex-Royal Navy guy, I thought this interesting.  


Eleven years ago, I joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet. It was 1993, and the Soviet threat was already yesterday's news. Repercussions of the 1991 war with Iraq were still echoing around the world. I assumed that the navy would be responding to the new geopolitical reality. Exciting times, I thought; change was afoot. How very green I was. - I read that piece in The Spectator, but apparently it has been originally published in Prospect Mag.

\Wasted warships
[Lewis Page (*), Prospect, February 2004 - prospect-magazine.co.u . . .]

Eleven years ago, I joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet. It was 1993, and the Soviet threat was already yesterday's news. Repercussions of the 1991 war with Iraq were still echoing around the world. I assumed that the navy would be responding to the new geopolitical reality. Exciting times, I thought; change was afoot. How very green I was.

At that time, the defining scenario around which Britain's defence had been built was that of a suddenly hot cold war: a Warsaw Pact attack on the European Nato allies, using, at least initially, conventional weapons. Until 1989, the communists had maintained a hugely powerful striking force poised on the iron curtain, with five Soviet army groups in East Germany alone. These were spearheaded by the ominously named Third Shock army, composed almost entirely of tanks. Third Shock and its many supporting formations outnumbered the Nato opposition in place by a large margin. It was felt that in the event of a Soviet attack, there were only two ways we could retain any substantial foothold on the continent: the first was the use of tactical nuclear weapons (not ideal, and especially not for the Germans); the second was the speedy arrival in Europe of the entire US army.
Regrettably, the Soviets had this second option covered. In their arctic naval bases they maintained the Red Banner Northern Fleet, the mightiest submarine force ever seen, ready to swarm through the freezing seas of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and cut off the sea lanes of the north Atlantic. Soviet naval air forces - the SNAF of cold war jargon - were also ready with regiments of long-range Bear bombers to shower heavy anti-shipping missiles from the sky. In the event of war, the Royal Navy's plan was to head north into the gap and die there gloriously - with luck, staving off communist subs and aircraft for long enough to allow the Americans to get their army across the Atlantic.

I mention this rather Wagnerian scenario because nearly every piece of equipment in Britain's armed forces was procured with it in mind. And the same is true of nearly all the new stuff now in the pipeline. Once you realise that the ministry of defence is essentially still setting up to fight the communists, everything makes a lot more sense.

In the navy of 1993 we had what appeared to be a reasonable fleet for the scenario as described. There were three aircraft carriers, equipped with anti-submarine helicopters to fight the Red Banner submarines; and Sea Harrier jump jet fighters which would try to hold off the SNAF. (Actually there were, and are, enough aircraft and sailors for only two of these carriers, so one is always mothballed.) There were about 15 nuclear-powered attack submarines, which would fight their opposite numbers in the Russian fleet, and four ballistic missile subs, in case we decided to nuke Moscow. We had just over 20 frigates, whose main purpose was again the hunting of Soviet submarines, and a dozen destroyers which could also hunt subs, though their particular trick was air defence - with surface-to-air missiles to shoot down the incoming SNAF, or to pick off the missiles launched at us.

In addition to this core stuff, there were some other parts of the navy which had carved themselves out niches in the cold war budget and which were quite useful in actual conflicts. We had the Royal Marines, essentially a brigade of elite light infantry, and a collection of ancient and rusty amphibious shipping which could just about deliver them. Officially, come the big war, their destination would be the northern flank of Nato; the marines would land in Scandinavia and attempt to assist the locals in holding off the Russians.

There was also a flotilla of around 20 minehunters. These were provided in case the Soviets decided to mine the waters around Britain, although they saw rather more action in the Arabian Gulf. Sadly, despite the fact that they were clearly going to be required in hot places, the newer class of minehunting ships was ill-suited for such missions. It was cheaper to design them for use in home waters only.

That was the cold war navy: two carriers and a spare; just over 30 frigates and destroyers; a dozen or so attack submarines and four with nuclear missiles; a brigade of marines, and a score or so of minehunters.

With the end of the cold war, planners at the ministry of defence realised that budgets would come under threat. "Amphibiosity" became the watchword: the navy would shift its focus away from a doomed last stand against the Northern Fleet towards "power projection." We would be able to appear off the coast of rogue states, ready to launch airstrikes, bombard the shore or land troops. No evil dictator or military junta would be able to sleep safely.

It sounded good. I went into the mine warfare part of the navy, as it seemed obvious that the average rogue state would find mines its best (or only) naval weapon. In 1991, having taken Kuwait, the Iraqis heavily mined the northern Gulf and wrote off two major US warships, a cruiser and a small carrier: a good score for a navy of its size. In the meantime there were still around half a million mines left from two world wars unaccounted for in British waters, which added a bit of zing to peacetime training.

Ten years went by, however, and it gradually became clear that nothing much was going to change. As the new millennium dawned, the plan for the Royal Navy of 2010 and beyond firmed up, based on 1998's strategic defence review. To deal with the new strategic challenges, we would have:
Two aircraft carriers, bigger than the current ones but still unable to operate normal jet aircraft - initially, at least.
Twenty frigates, mostly Type 23s. These are now designated "general purpose" ships, but in fact they can't do anything significant except hunt submarines.
A dozen air-defence destroyers.
Ten or so attack submarines, plus four with nuclear missiles.
A brigade of marines, with their amphibious shipping finally replaced.
Twenty or so minehunters, expensively retrofitted to allow operations in hot climates.


Sound familiar? It did to me. Apart from a few minor adjustments to the order of battle, the navy of the 21st century was to be an almost exact replica of the navy I had joined in 1993.

On a personal level, I had gone about as far as I could in the mine-clearing part of the navy. I had done every officer job aboard a minehunter except the captain's (I had even done this, as my skipper left me in charge for a few short voyages). Unfortunately, such a career does not make one a contender to command a minehunter in our navy. Indeed, no actual mine warfare experience is required to obtain such an appointment. Oddly, what one needs instead is several years' service in frigates or destroyers. The navy has no place for officers who are not prepared to work in the frigate/destroyer world at some stage in their career. Only having done so would I be able to compete for a minehunter command. And even then I would more likely be offered an "equivalent" job - second in command of a frigate or destroyer.

So I decided to take a serious look at these ships, supposedly the backbone of the navy's combat power, and certainly of its career structure. I had spent ten years doing necessary work with equipment that could achieve a real job (statistically, our ships have been much more threatened by mines than by anything else). Would work aboard a frigate or destroyer be similarly valuable? I hate to spoil the surprise, but here I am writing as a civilian, so you may guess my answer. Nevertheless, let me explain.

Frigates and destroyers are collectively known as "escorts." Their purpose is to accompany other ships and protect them from three types of threat: enemy aircraft, hostile ships, and submarines. Destroyers and frigates look much the same. Both are steely-grey ships of 4-7,000 tons displacement, with (among other weapons) a four-inch gun, a helicopter and various types of radar and sonar. What distinguishes a destroyer is its air defence missile system, which makes it three times as expensive as a frigate. But what distinguishes both types of escort is that, above all other ships, the navy loves them.

The navy sees frigates and destroyers as proper, traditional warships, in which a non-specialist officer may still act as a front-line fighting man. They aren't floating airports, as likely to be operating RAF aircraft as navy ones; they aren't grey car ferries, designed to service the marines; and they aren't submarines. Without escorts, there would be no surface fleet with a distinct naval identity. Escorts are fundamental to the Royal Navy's reason for existence. So what is it that they actually do? What is the evidence that they are effective against at least one of the three threats they are supposed to fight: submarine, surface and air?
The most important of these threats, for the Royal Navy, continues to be the field of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), partly because of the historical role it has played. German U-boats came close to forcing Britain's surrender in the second world war, and the subsequent Soviet threat was very serious indeed. From the 1940s to the end of the cold war, the navy rightly prepared itself for a terrible battle against enemy submarines, possibly for the survival of the nation. And yet, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the swarms of nuclear-powered (and often nuclear-armed) subs that used to lurk northeast of Iceland are rusting quietly in their bases. The submarine threat has effectively disappeared.

The many anti-submarine specialists of the Royal Navy would, of course, disagree. According to the ASW lobby, just a few submarines could suffice to deny us the use of the seas anywhere near our adversaries. If true, this would indeed be serious news. It would mean that the mighty industrial west could easily be prevented from deploying or sustaining its military forces far from home by any third-rate regime which felt like purchasing a few submarines.

This is because, in almost any serious operation, supplies and equipment need to move by surface transport - and this means, for the most part, by sea. Some forces, such as light infantry, can move to a far-flung theatre and be supplied entirely by air. But this requires immense amounts of air transport. Only the US possesses much, with a fleet of 300-odd heavy military transport planes. Fewer than a dozen such aircraft are operated by western European countries. If air transport alone is to be used, Britain will struggle to deliver and sustain even a light brigade. The French and Germans combined can't match us, and the rest of Europe has little to add. The US can and has deployed entire light divisions by air, but such an effort ties up most of its airlift. Not even the Americans can move heavy land forces (of the type which took Iraq) by air.

If you see a minor power purchasing submarines, it is probably doing so with a view to threatening the supply lines of western military deployment in its region. European countries sell reasonably priced diesel subs around the world, and similar Russian boats are also available. Sensationalists would have it that the major world navies can be held off by such subs, and US supercarriers destroyed by them. However, even the most ardent anti-submarine specialist would admit that here we are no longer talking about scores of powerful nuclear submarines, as in the old days. We would be facing half a dozen subs at most and they would be similar to the German U-boats of the second world war. A diesel submarine has to run on batteries whenever it is submerged, and can only travel at speed for a short, battery-draining burst. This is why U-boats had to run on the surface to get near Allied convoys. The appearance of radar and aircraft made this very dangerous and, in the end, most of the German submariners never came home.
And it gets worse for our putative rogue state submarine driver. Modern merchant shipping and warships are much faster than the convoys of the second world war. More than ever, the submarine skipper has to be able to move fast and far to intercept his targets - in other words, he has to move on the surface. But aircraft with dedicated search radar can cover vast stretches of ocean, and even standard anti-submarine helicopters can cover quite a bit. If we have airborne radar protecting our ships, the rogue state submariner will be forced underwater before he can get near. So much for small numbers of enemy submarines causing havoc in our supply lines. A few aircraft will see them off.

A small force of conventional subs (the most we are likely to face) isn't much threat. This was borne out in 1982, during the Falklands conflict. The Argentinians sent their four diesel submarines to sea, with a view to stopping our fleet from approaching the islands. One of these subs was caught on the surface by our helicopters, and badly damaged; it was later captured. Not a sign was seen of the other three. The typical developing-world submarine force is unlikely to be even this capable: at least the Argentinians got all their boats out to sea. Not many analysts think that, for example, Iran's submarine force could manage even that.
If you strain hard enough, there are some unlikely scenarios in which one can imagine being worried by a developing-world submarine force. In narrow straits or close inshore, well-handled enemy submarines might sneak into the vicinity of our ships. Or new types of conventional power technology might produce a more capable non-nuclear submarine. Or let's go crazy and imagine that we're fighting the Chinese, who possess a few nuclear boats. But even if any of these things should come to pass, there would be little point in using escort ships to solve the problem.

Let's consider the scenario of a Type 23 frigate, our most modern anti-submarine ship, trying to find and attack a submarine. Type 23s can only find a quiet submerged boat, conventional or nuclear, by using active sonar: that is, by "pinging" sound pulses into the water and detecting the echoes. In order to do this, the ship must be moving slowly, making itself an easy target. Worse, the pinging gives away the ship's position to the submarine well before it reveals the submarine to the ship. And the huge design effort which made the Type 23 frigate too quiet for submarines to hear has been wasted. Despite being our latest ship, it was designed in the 1970s to fight older types of Soviet nuclear sub. These were noisy, and could be found by simply listening. But the Soviets' 1980s submarines were too quiet for this; the central concept of the Type 23 became obsolete. Yet we kept buying Type 23s through the 1990s, at a cost of 180m a ship.
The frigate is at the submarine's mercy. Even if by some miracle our Type 23 manages to find a submarine without being sunk, it will probably only be able to attack the sub by sending its helicopter to drop a homing torpedo. If the helicopter is a specialist anti-submarine type, it can find the submarine on its own; it doesn't need the frigate, except as a helicopter pad.

At least ten years after it became obvious, the uselessness of the Type 23 in its primary role of ASW has finally been noted. We will begin, possibly as soon as 2006, fitting six of these ships with a new pinging sonar that may work better, perhaps allowing the frigate to detect a submarine from beyond the distance at which the sub can sink it. Yet even if this new kit works as advertised, it will nevertheless reveal the frigate's presence and location to the sub before the sub is detected; it will render the Type 23's expensive silencing irrelevant; and there will still be at least 22 other escorts without any useful ASW capability. This programme will cost at least 160m.

The way to fight submarines is to stay well away from them and let aircraft do it. And there are much cheaper ways of getting aircraft to sea than by a frigate or destroyer. If no aircraft carrier is available, helicopters can easily be flown from suitably modified merchant ships (this is already common practice). The best way of all to hunt enemy submarines is to send in a nuclear-powered attack submarine of one's own. Even if the submarine threat hadn't almost entirely disappeared, escorts would be a very bad way of dealing with it.

So why is the future Royal Navy planning to have 30 escorts, but only ten submarines and just two aircraft carriers? Carriers and nuclear submarines are more expensive to buy than frigates, but that doesn't make frigates cheap. And being manpower-intensive, frigates are expensive to run. It seemed pretty clear to me that using frigates in an ASW role was going to be a waste of my time and taxpayers' money. I couldn't face spending the better part of my remaining career chasing submarines that wouldn't be there, using equipment that couldn't do the job.

Still, i told myself, the submarine threat is not the only one. Indeed, the other two threats - surface and air - are more serious. For instance, our potential enemies often have surface warships, which are much more common than submarines, being easier to procure and operate. Particular favourites among rogue states are small, fast corvettes and attack craft. These will be armed with ship-killing missiles, such as the Exocet or lighter equivalents. Even a speedboat with soldiers aboard carrying shoulder-fired rockets can be disproportionately effective, or a suicide vessel full of home-made explosives, as demonstrated in October 2000 upon the US destroyer Cole, in Yemen. The second stated role of frigates and destroyers is to defend fleets and convoys from these attacks: this is anti-surface warfare.

Again, however, we find that there are better ways of doing the job than using frigates and destroyers. Using aircraft is probably the best way of destroying surface targets: the vessel is easily found from afar using airborne radar, and then it can be destroyed using missiles or even simpler weapons like bombs or machine guns (if the target has no anti-aircraft defences). The Iraqi surface navy was largely wiped out in 1991, shortly after leaving harbour, by Royal Navy missile-firing helicopters. Like anti-submarine helicopters, these can be based on any ship, including merchant vessels. Better still are strike jets, though they require land bases or proper aircraft carriers.

If you don't have air superiority, or if none of your aircraft can reach the enemy ships, submarines are an excellent answer. The sinking of the General Belgrano in 1982 put paid to the surface threat against the Falklands task force at a stroke; the Argentinian surface navy, sensibly, did not leave harbour again.
You will only be forced to rely on escorts if you have no submarines and no aircraft - and then you may well be disappointed. It will be a toss-up between unsupported escorts and attack craft as to who detects whom first, and if the attack craft wins it will launch its missiles and flee. As a justification for having frigates and destroyers, then, the fight against a serious surface threat is no better than the battle against a largely illusory submarine threat.

There is a third way for dictators or military juntas to attack our fleet: they can use aircraft and missiles. Aircraft provide the most flexible and effective way to sink ships and, from the point of view of a rogue state, they are a better buy than either ships or submarines. This is because they can be used for everyday business, such as dealing with the domestic opposition, as well as the fairly unusual task of driving off the forces of western democracy. Some attack aircraft may be capable of firing Exocet-type ship-killers, but simple bombs and guns can be troublesome enough. Meanwhile, some of our potential enemies - such as North Korea, Iran, Syria, China or even Pakistan - possess long-range missiles which can be fired at a fleet from hundreds of miles away, although these tend to be of dubious accuracy. So, our fleet needs a capability for anti-air warfare. Perhaps frigates and destroyers have a role here.

According to the book, a naval task force needs a triple-layered defence to protect itself effectively from air attack. The outer layer should consist of fighter jets to defeat the enemy's air attacks, plus an aircraft carrier to go with them. Relying on shore-based planes is a risky strategy for the navy. It is a sad fact that the RAF has not possessed a decent air-to-air fighter for many years. The current Tornado F3 is widely acknowledged to be sub-standard. Its long-delayed replacement, the Eurofighter, is finally approaching squadron service. But despite its astronomical cost (over 80m per aircraft), it is unable to maintain a patrol far from its base for long - so it will have difficulty covering a fleet at sea. And even if we had some useful land-based fighters, there may not be any available land bases. By far the best, most flexible solution here is carrier fighters.

In the Royal Navy, we still have the Sea Harrier, which can operate from our pocket-size aircraft carriers owing to its unique short takeoff/vertical landing ability. It is Britain's best fighter at the moment (it did well in the Falklands, and now has a better missile). However, it has its problems: like all jet aircraft, it loses thrust in hot weather. This is serious during a deck landing, in which the Harrier comes down vertically supported entirely by its jet thrust. It can't land back on its carrier with its missiles still attached. This means that Sea Harriers cannot establish a standing airborne patrol in such conditions, as each jet would have to dump its expensive missiles in the sea before landing. And if a fighter isn't already in the air when the attack comes, it can't intercept in time. The Sea Harrier, as it now stands, is fairly useless in hot places - where most likely enemies are - and is duly being retired this year.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (or Joint Combat Aircraft) currently under development will offer reasonable fighter capability - though it is mainly intended as a strike plane, attacking targets on the ground. It will be able to fly from the carriers now under construction, as it is a jump jet design like the Harrier, and will not suffer from the Harrier's landing problems. But the fleet will be without a fighter screen for at least eight years. Moreover, to be really effective, fighters need to be directed towards the attackers by a controller using a powerful air search radar. This controller may be aboard a destroyer which has such a radar. But if the enemy pilots know their business, they will be flying low above the waves on their run in, and a radar mounted in a ship will not be able to see them.
The correct solution here is to put the search radar in a high-flying aircraft. Most radar aircraft are large and can only fly from big aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy has an improvised solution: our airborne search radar is mounted in a helicopter, which can achieve medium altitudes and worthwhile performance, and is able to fly from our little carriers.

So frigates and destroyers have nothing to contribute to the outer layer of the fleet's air defence. The next layer of defence, according to the book, should be provided by medium-range ship- to-air missiles, which can shoot down any surviving attackers before they close. Escort ships that have such anti-air missile systems are called destroyers, distinguishing them from frigates, which do not. Such missile systems are very expensive - and so, therefore, are destroyers. In the Royal Navy, we have the Type 42 destroyer and its Sea Dart missiles.
At last - could this be a job that needs doing, and one that an escort ship could actually do? Sadly, no. The Type 42 and the Sea Dart are very old indeed, almost museum pieces. The original designs date from the 1960s, and were intended to deal with the SNAF of that day. Those old-time communists could be relied upon to fly in high, broadcasting their presence, to launch massive long-range missiles on high trajectories. Provided that your Sea Dart was working, it would have had a fair chance of shooting down some of the missiles, if not the planes, before they hit the fleet.

By the time of the Falklands war, 20 years later, the state of the art had moved on a bit. The ship-killer missile would now be fired by an attacker who had flown in low above the sea, hiding from his prey's radar. He could then pop up, spot his target, launch his missiles and run away. Argentinian Super Etendard jets armed with Exocet missiles, able to deliver just such an attack, were a terrible threat to the task force in 1982. The only answer was to place destroyers between the main fleet and the enemy, turn their radars on to make them obvious targets, and hope that they would be hit, rather than the vital carriers and troopships. It didn't always work. The Atlantic Conveyor, a chartered merchant vessel carrying stores and equipment, was sunk by an Exocet strike which came from an unexpected direction. The loss of her cargo severely handicapped our troops ashore, and another such sinking would probably have done for the land campaign.

Despite the bravery of the escort crews, attacks got through - most famously in the case of the Sir Galahad, a fleet auxiliary troopship caught without escorts at Bluff Cove. Such were the casualties that the Welsh Guards, many of whom were in the process of disembarking, took little further part in the war. And our losses would have been much worse had it not been for the fact that most Argentinian bombs failed to go off. Ultimately, they ran out of Exocets before we ran out of ships.

The Type 42 destroyer was already obsolete in 1982; a fact that was evidently well known at the time, since we had previously sold several to Argentina. There has recently been some public outcry about the decommissioning, a few years earlier than planned, of four of these dinosaurs (due to the cost of the Iraq invasion). Frankly, the ships in question, mostly the oldest of their antique class, do not represent any significant loss of capability. And anyway, they will shortly be replaced. A new destroyer is finally on the drawing boards. It was originally to be a European joint project, but that eventually collapsed (at some cost to the various taxpayers) and Britain is now proceeding alone with the Type 45 destroyer. Provided it works as advertised, the fleet will, in a few years' time, have some proper anti-aircraft missile capability.

However, the Type 45's radar will still only be 30 meters above the sea. The ships will still be forced to engage sea-skimming aircraft and missiles with little warning, and at close range. They will also be very expensive: the first six are to cost a total of 4.5bn. That's twice as much as the stated cost of the two new aircraft carriers.

All this throws into question the concept of the middle layer of air defence. Attempting to have both a fighter screen and medium-range air defence has effectively resulted in us having neither for many years. We should have focused on the flexible, effective outer layer - the fighter screen - where value for money is obtainable. Sadly, this is no longer an option. The Type 45 contracts have already been let.

There is a third, last-ditch layer of air defence available. This is "point defence," where close-range guns or missiles on each ship attempt to shoot down attackers which survive the fighter screen and the missiles. As jet aircraft and missiles move very fast, point defence is no longer a matter of manually aimed gun positions. Nowadays, to have any chance of success, automatic radar-controlled weapons are required. In the Royal Navy, we have the Phalanx and Goalkeeper automatic gun systems and the short-range Sea Wolf missile. The guns have been introduced since the Falklands, and have no combat record, but they are good, cheap systems, generally agreed to provide useful protection. By contrast, the ageing, expensive Sea Wolf has a less impressive reputation. It is fitted only in frigates which are thought to need the guns as well. The important thing about point defence weapons, however, is that they protect only the ship they are mounted on. The fact that a ship carries point defence is not a reason to have that ship in a task force. You don't send a ship out into danger just to protect itself. What this means, as far as air attack is concerned, is that there is no real job for frigates.

Given the Royal Navy's lack of credible fighter jets and destroyers, however, we have in the past been forced to use frigates as "bullet-catchers" to stand in front of useful vessels, hoping that the frigate's point defence will stop the attack. But frigates are expensive and have hundreds of sailors on board: a very costly way of providing a simple bolt-on point defence system.

To sum up: the most significant threat our ships face is air attack. The only utility of frigates in air defence is as sacrificial shields, and our current destroyers are obsolete. Our fighter screen is cleverly improvised but only works in cold weather. New destroyers may be available in a few years, but we will be without fleet fighters for some time, and will be very weak in airborne radar, which could solve so many of our problems. There wasn't much chance, it turns out, for me to have a career as a useful fighting man aboard escorts. The only combat action these ships are really capable of is the shelling of targets on shore, and even at this their capability is marginal.

We have 30 escorts, costing from 170m to 600m each. They are a waste of effort. I wouldn't be abandoning 11 years of my life and a decent financial package if I could find a shred of justification for staying. The British taxpayer is forking out immense sums to run warships whose only real use is as venues for diplomatic cocktail parties. How appropriate that the other meaning of "escort" should be a person to whom one pays large sums for some brief entertainment. I don't mind hosting cocktail parties, but I don't want it to be my only useful contribution. I was proud to wear the blue suit, and I would like to be comfortably pensioned off at an early age. But I have to face myself in the mirror. If my only career option is to become an escort officer, it is time to leave.

There is a place for escorts in the Royal Naval order of battle, but only for a few, and those few should be powerful destroyers, heavily armed with anti-aircraft, anti-ship and cruise missiles, and large calibre long-range guns. The Type 45s now on order would do fine if upgraded; there is no need for the planned second batch. Nor is there any requirement whatever for our dozens of toothless, pricey frigates, or our current long-obsolete destroyers. We would lose no significant capability by decommissioning them all right now. At a stroke, we would have plenty of sailors and helicopters for our third, mothballed carrier. A lot of people would have to be let go. But it's supposed to be a navy, not a job creation scheme. There are also big savings to be made ashore, among the support infrastructure for these ships.
With the money saved, we could build effective armed forces and be the terror of the world's dictators and ethnic cleansers, as we should be. Britain would have a capability independent of the US, a situation more dignified than relying on the Americans, while moaning about how they manage each crisis.

From sea-based aircraft to submarines to mine clearance to the Royal Marine Commandos and their amphibious assault ships - the fighting people of the navy are second to none on the face of the watery globe. The policymakers are less worthy of respect. They love surface escorts for their own sweet sake. Service in escorts is the sine qua non of a successful career. Given the obvious reluctance of anyone to admit that he has wasted his time, high-ranking officers will always advocate them. The plans are already laid. The Type 45 is not alone on the drawing boards: there is also a planned replacement for the Type 23. It is called the "Future Surface Combatant." Nobody even asks whether tomorrow's maritime combats could be better fought by other things.

It doesn't have to be so. There was once a popular slogan on British lips: "We want eight, and we won't wait." This referred to an innovative type of warship, far from universally favoured by the naval establishment of the day. The British people were calling for a reorganisation of their navy, because they were knowledgeable about such things and they thought it was necessary. Sadly, the ships in question were Fisher's dreadnoughts, and that was 100 years ago. Today, even well informed members of the public know almost nothing of defence, and elected politicians are little better. At best, British taxpayers are being robbed. At worst, servicemen and women are going to die needlessly and Britain's voice in world affairs will be gradually silenced.

  







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