Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Blue water on a budget (1 of 2)

Air power at sea has its price. Reports today that the UK and France may embark on a scheme to share use of aircraft carriers is just the latest indication of the severe budgetary strain facing Britain's Royal Navy. Speculation on an Anglo-French deal follows rumours that one of the Navy's planned Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers could be cleaved by the next Strategic Defence Review, set for Autumn, possibly being sold off to India. In that context, a co-operative project with France would represent the lesser of two evils for the two fleets: better to get cosy with Sarkozy than simply sell off the Royal Navy's future to another power - surrendering a portion of UK security and influence in the world for the next fifty years and beyond.

So much has already been invested on seeing the project through, that it can make little sense to cut and run now. Illustrious and Ark Royal, the two light carriers still in service, are coming to the end of their busy service lives. The previous Labour government significantly increased the cost of the ships through an irresponsibly shortsighted approach. “Save now, spend later” delayed the carriers by at least two years and added £1.1 billion to the 65,000 tonne ships' construction costs. The carriers' complement of F35 Joint Strike Fighters (also expected to be severely trimmed) is another source of financial strain attached to the project, tempting politicians to try to make do with one carrier rather than two. Meanwhile, construction of Queen Elizabeth is already well underway, while contracts signed for her sister ship, Prince of Wales, would make cancellation messy and expensive. Selling to a third party could only recoup a fraction of the investment.

Life for the surviving twin, should one ship be aborted, would be difficult: single ship classes are less efficient and put additional strain on the solitary ship, leading to a shorter service life. In addition to the carriers themselves, there are the six type-45 air defence destroyers (three of which are already built and three building) to protect the ships. There is very little sense in investing billions on state-of-the-art escorts if they have no new carriers to escort.

HMS Diamond, the third type-45,
undergoing trials before commissioning next year


History provides a precedent for the mistake of cancelling a carrier you have
already built destroyer escorts to protect. The 1966 defence review cancelled both the hulls of the CVA-01 fleet carrier programme, but too late in the day to cancel the type-82 class: the destroyers designed to protect the CVA-01 ships, leaving HMS Bristol as the sole vessel of the class, and a monument to a strategic folly which directly contributed to the awful closeness of the margin by which the Royal Navy task force managed to defeat Argentina in the South Atlantic in 1982.

Lessons from previous cuts:
HMS Bristol was done out of its job

The current government should learn the mistakes of its predecessors in that short-term penny-pinching risks strategic folly. Both
Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales should still be completed, even if that means sharing one of them with the French. It would be a tremendous waste to sell one off to another power, even to an ascendant ally like India. The French ought to want both of the ships to be built too, due to the technical and design problems that have dogged France's own solitary carrier, the unlucky Charles de Gaulle.

The French want a second carrier badly to ease the current burden on Charles de Gaulle, while keeping at least one deck operational at a time. Britain also needs two carriers too for the same reason. Surely then - if budgets do indeed force some sort of sharing initiative - the best arrangement would be for the first of the UK carriers to be brought into solely UK service, with the second ship being part of a sharing agreement. That would still give each country its own ship at any time, helping to counter concerns over the geopolitical differences that have dogged Anglo-French attempts to co-operate since Suez. Sharing the second of the two vessels would allow flexibility while giving both nations the efficiency benefits of having a second, shared vessel on stand-by. It would also be infinitely preferable to selling off Prince of Wales to a gleeful India desperate to develop its own carrier know-how for the first time.

The French Charles de Gaulle: problematic

It's stating the obvious to say that the Navy is tied to a supporting role in the current conflict in landlocked Afghanistan (Royal Marines aside), but planning several threats ahead makes a strong expeditionary fleet consistently vital to UK interests across the seas. Recent sabre rattling with Argentina over oil drilling around the Falkland Islands gave a brief focus on the Navy's ongoing presence in the South Atlantic to deter the threat of aggression against UK territory, citizens and econ0mic interests. Argentina's neighbours voiced support for the country's persistent claim to the islands. Venezuela's vociferous president Hugo Chavez even went as far as bragging (without foundation) that his forces could sink the Royal Navy if it tried to sail once more to the rescue of the 3,000 staunchly British islanders. The diplomatic spat was short and overblown but it also provided a useful glimpse of future resources-based conflicts.

The current drilling for oil by UK firm Cairn Energy off the coast of Greenland reinforces the point. Greenland is a self-governing Danish colony (just as the Falklands are a self-governed UK territory), but future oil wealth in the Arctic region could transform the vast island from a sleepy colony to an oil-rich economic asset over the next few decades. Since abandoning its submarine force the Danish navy has been limited to its own coastal defence, limiting it's ability to protect its own oil interests away from the Denmark itself should Cairn and others strike lucky. It could be up to those nations with economic interests in the region (like the UK, US and Canada) to maintain stability.

Competition for energy resources will fuel future naval clashes

The Arctic and North Atlantic could be a key flashpoint in future contests for oil and gas in the next several decades. Russia, grown rich by its own natural gas exports, has returned to old Cold War ways, flexing its muscles by probing maritime reconnaissance patrols over the North Sea and - more worryingly - cat and mouse games under the waves with UK submarines, actively challenging the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent. Canada has also begun to take Arctic geopolitics far more seriously in recent months in response to Russian sparring. Oil revenue-reliant Norway has found it prudent to do a deal with Russia to solve a long-held Arctic border dispute and this summer the two neighbours staged a surprising bilateral fleet exercise in the North Sea.

Rivalry over energy resources will probably become far more commonplace over the next 50 years as the world's natural resources grow scarce, US influence declines, and developing nations wield greater military power in an increasingly multi-polar world. If a cash-strapped Royal Navy is deprived of its current expeditionary capability in defence of UK interests, Britain will be unable to project power away from its own doorstep.

For a potential compromise solution to the pressures of maintaining a blue water fleet on an austerity budget, watch out for part two, which is coming just as soon as it gets written!