On face value it would be tempting to dismiss this article as a hatchet job by a Texan blogger. I’m sure that many American readers of Foreign Policy are going to reblog it with glee. (Because, you know, ‘Murica showed up in two world wars and saved Yurop’s ass, right?) But I genuinely don’t think that was Beckhusen’s intent. He’s merely cataloging facts that any observer of British naval policy already knows. He’s cataloging those facts for an audience (Americans) that might not be paying that much attention. They’ve got their own budget battles, procurement snafus, ship decommissionings and operational overreach to worry about. So if, charitably, 1% of the article’s American readership actually pays attention to what Beckhusen is trying to point out, then that’s a bloody good thing. The other 99% can repeat the hackneyed trope of “savin’ Yurop’s ass” and we needn’t worry about them. So… here’s the article:
Here Are All The Things the British Military Can’t Do Anymore
In late September, the Royal Navy unveiled its latest nuclear-powered Astute-class submarine, HMS Artful, and also “christened” the hefty but sleek Daring-class destroyer HMS Duncan — the sixth and last of its class. Aside from the United Kingdom’s aircraft carrier program, these represent the two most significant naval shipbuilding programs happening in Britain at the moment. And two of the most controversial.
The vessels are impressive on the surface, but each ship originates from troubled development programs which — although coming with creature comforts and advanced technology — turned out to be less than impressive when put to the test.
New submarines running aground, older subs breaking down and destroyers put into service without adequate defenses against enemy submarines. It’s not completely surprising. The Ministry of Defence’s budget is half that of 30 years ago.
Perhaps more troubling for the Royal Navy: the vessels tasked with carrying Britain’s military into the 21st century have sacrificed key systems needed to defend against attacks, while suffering limitations in their ability to strike back at enemy planes and missiles.
Meanwhile, Royal Air Force ocean patrol planes that once buzzed the ocean scooping every signal they could detect have been cut altogether, meaning the surface ships are sailing blind — and Britain’s nuclear-missile force is sailing without escorts.
Here’s what Britain’s military can’t do. Or if it does do it, it doesn’t do it well.
Absent frigates and troubled destroyers
This is the Daring-class destroyer. It is one of the most embarrassing military programs in the British armed forces.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Intended to replace the Type 42 destroyer which first entered service in the 1970s, the Daring class was envisioned as an 8,000-ton, 152-meter-long vessel with anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities par excellence. The centerpiece: an anti-aircraft system called Sea Viper with a Sampson dual-band radar capable of tracking 1,000 objects the size of a tennis ball as far away as 400 kilometers.
The system also has two different types of anti-aircraft missiles: the Aster 15 medium-range missile and its long-range cousin, the Aster 30, which can travel up to an impressive 75 miles. There’s also a 4.5-inch main gun for surface targets.
The Royal Navy is acutely aware of its need for robust destroyers with advanced anti-aircraft systems, principally owing to the Falklands War. Two Type 42 destroyers, the HMS Sheffield and Coventry, were sunk during the war by low-flying Argentinian aircraft. The Sea Viper system is also a big improvement over the Type 42’s radar.
But the Royal Navy built a ship with major weaknesses where it should be strong. For one, Sea Viper’s planned inter-ship communication system was to be added later, meaning one destroyer can’t share information via a satellite network with other ships. The complexity of all the new electronic systems and shoddy oversight also led to repeated delays and ballooning costs.
And there’s a problem with the missiles. The Aster 15s are fine for a lone incoming anti-ship missile — the Aster 15 is highly maneuverable and functions as a both short- and medium-range defense weapon. But the missiles take up a lot of space and can’t be “quad-packed” into a missile tube.
This reduces the number of available Aster 15s to a mere 20 missiles compared to the 96 missiles carried by the U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The number is even fewer than the advanced (but much smaller) Sachsen-class frigates of the German navy, which carry 32 missiles — and that was already on the low-end. In the event of an enemy saturation attack — like a blitz but with anti-ship missiles instead of linebackers — the air-defense-focused Daring class could be in serious trouble.
Radar-guided Phalanx guns, which throw up a wall of 20-millimeter rounds as a last resort against incoming missiles, were not installed on the lead ship of the class until this year. Oh, and unlike the Type 42, the destroyer has no torpedo tubes to defend against attacking submarines. This job is left for the destroyer’s helicopters and — either a single Merlin or a pair of Lynx choppers — and a torpedo decoy system. The ship has no missiles for attacking land targets.
The Royal Navy has also built fewer Darings than it ever did for the now-retired Type 42. Cost-cutting measures forced a trim to the number of planned destroyers from 12 to eight ships, and then to a final number of only six ships. (The Royal Navy built 14 Type 42s.) So the Daring class is an anti-aircraft ship that’s fewer in number than its predecessor, with several major anti-air weaknesses and the ship has a major weakness against submarines.
The total price for the ships is now $10.35 billion?-?$2.4 billion more than anticipated — and was enough for one U.S. Naval War College report to describe the Daring class as “a symbol in the United Kingdom for mismanagement of procurement.”
That’s not all. The Royal Navy has retired the anti-submarine Type 22 frigate and doesn’t have the money to replace it. Also first dating to the 1970s, none of the 14 Type 22s are still in service — the last four of the line were sold for scrap in 2011. Thirteen Type 23 frigates are still in service, though.
But the Type 22 was Britain’s primary anti-submarine warfare ship. The Type 22 also doubled as the Royal Navy’s ship-based signals intelligence force. The ships contained the “only combination of systems enabling wide ranging monitoring of the frequencies and wavelengths of the Electromagnetic Spectrum of the sea,” Parliament’s Defense Committee noted in 2012. Now that’s gone.
Maritime reconnaissance planes turned to scrap
Let this sink in for a second. The United Kingdom has no dedicated maritime patrol planes.
That’s a pretty big deal. Patrol planes are more or less a requirement for a navy worth its sea-faring salt, and many coastal countries without sizable navies have at least some planes for ocean patrol missions. Even Denmark and Peru have maritime patrol planes.
They’re the eyes and ears of a fleet, and use a combination of radar, sonar buoys and other sensors to detect enemy ships or conduct search and rescue missions. The U.K. has also long used maritime surveillance aircraft to track Russian submarines navigating north of Scotland, peeking on naval maneuvers in the Arctic Sea and escorting the Royal Navy’s own ballistic missile subs.
For much of the Cold War, the Royal Air Force tasked this mission to the Nimrod MR1 and MR2 planes, which first entered service in 1969. An advanced aircraft for its time, the older Nimrods were eventually retired in 2011 to be replaced by the modern Nimrod MRA4.
The new Nimrod was supposed to be a major upgrade, and entailed rebuilding the plane from the inside out. There was going to be new engines and larger wings. New sensor systems would let the MRA4 see from longer distances, and the design enabled it to travel up to 2,500 miles further than its predecessor.
Upgrading the Nimrods proved to be an impossible task for an absurd reason. The planes are based on the de Havilland Comet, a 1950s-era commercial airliner which had been transformed over several generations during military service. But the Comet was never built to a standard — they were custom made. This means each plane is slightly different than the others, and thus exorbitant to upgrade when installing millions of dollars worth of advanced electronics.
Only one MRA4 was ever built. “The single MRA4 aircraft that had been delivered to the RAF was so riddled with flaws it could not pass its flight tests, it was simply unsafe to fly,” Liam Fox, the former British Secretary of Defence, wrote in the The Telegraph in 2011.
Fox was attempting to justify the complete scrapping of the program?-?it wasn’t easy. Twelve under-construction MRA4s were disassembled, and more than $6.3 billion went down the drain. The U.K. is now considering buying P-3 Orion patrol planes from the United States to fill the gap.
Rusty and broken submarines
In theory, the Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine is the most advanced British submarine ever built. In reality it’s underpowered, prone to numerous technical problems and is far behind schedule.
A replacement for Britain’s Trafalgar-class submarines, the 7,000-ton Astute class uses a Thales sonar — touted by the Royal Navy as the world’s best (which it might be) — while packing a combination of 38 Spearfish torpedoes and/or Tomahawk missiles. The sub also does not have a conventional periscope but a photonics mast, like a digital camera capable of seeing in infrared. There have been two Astute-class subs commissioned, the HMS Astute and Ambush. Four more are under construction, and a seventh is planned.
But neither Astute nor Ambush have become operational, owing to a number of problems and delays leaving the Royal Navy with only five aging Trafalgar-class subs in service. These older subs will be gradually decommissioned over the decade, and there’s rarely a time when a single Trafalgar-class sub is operational at any given time due to maintenance issues. HMS Tireless was put out of action earlier this year after a reactor coolant leak.
But what’s the problem with the Astute class? The main problem — and most serious — is that it’s achingly slow.
Designed to travel faster than 30 knots, the sub tops out below that (though how far below hasn’t been revealed). This means it can’t keep up with the ships like the under-construction Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers it’s meant to protect. In battle, that’s a potentially fatal flaw for the submarine and the carrier.
The reason for the trouble is believed to be incompatibility between the sub’s steam turbines which were built for the Trafalgar-class, and its nuclear reactor which was built for the giant Vanguard-class ballistic missile subs, according to The Guardian. Among other problems include corrosion, faulty monitoring instruments for the submarine’s reactor and even flooding during a dive. Astute also quite literally ran aground in Scotland in 2010 and had to be rescued.
Left out of this, of course, is the Harrier force. The Royal Navy’s carrier-launched jump jets were retired in late 2010, meaning the U.K. no longer has fixed-wing jets capable of operating from Britain’s one remaining ski-jump carrier, the Illustrious. However, the Royal Navy has pledged to buy F-35s for the Queen Elizabeth class. It may want to reconsider before more problems arise.
Robert Beckhusen is a collection editor at War is Boring, the site that explores how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world.
Sneak peek of full article that will be in November’s Navy News.
The New Heavy Replenishment at Sea (HRAS) Rig at HMS Raleigh, currently undergoing trials with Rolls Royce.
A container begins its 40-second journey across 55 metres of ‘sea’ to a mock up of the reception area on HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The facility will be used to train RFA, RN and foreign navies in the art of replenishment as well as the fundamentals of seamanship.
Reality check #1: It’s all well and good to say “we must do this” and “we must do that” without any regard to budget, but (take a deep breath) budgets do matter, and simply saying that the Royal Navy must have 2 carriers, must have 24 new frigates, 4 new submarines, 8 new submarines, 16 new submarines, 100 new frigates… well, frankly, unless you can say where the money is coming from then it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.
Reality check #2: So where does the money come from? You have to choices, dear friend and fellow voter. We either cut something else (how about we close the A&E unit in your town?) or we put up taxes (a penny here, a penny there). Those are the only choices here on planet Earth. Fanciful notions of money magically appearing from thin air are, sadly, pure fiction.
Philip Hammond will recommend the second Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier is brought into service rather than mothballed or sold.
The Defence Secretary told a conference fringe event the £70 million annual running costs would have to be found by cutting something else.
Yes… yes… OK… you’re a Tory… you’ll cut something… but what?
“All these things are about choices and priorities, what are we going to give up in order to do something that needs to be done.”
Yes… but what?
Oh. Righty ho. So you’re not going to tell us? You want us to believe that you’re the (don’t laugh… they actually think they are) “the party of defence” by telling us what would be ideal, but when it comes to nuts & bolts, when it comes to the money, when it comes to shitting or getting off the pot, you’d rather not say what you’re going to cut… because, after all, that might upset voters in marginal constituencies, and as we’ve all learnt over the years NOTHING is more important than party over country.
This really has nothing to do with being a “global power” or “punching above one’s weight” or any of the the other trite reasons so often given by politicians and civil servants who don’t understand the fundamental and abiding reason that Britain requires a strong, capable navy. It is not about the Prime Minister playing with toy boats in a global bathtub and having something shiny to hang his bunting on during national holidays. It is this: Britain is an island nation dependent upon international trade and all of those lovely trade goods arrive by sea in 2013 just as they did in 1913. If you want the shipping lanes to be safe and secure then you need a strong, capable navy. Otherwise the nation starves. That’s it. Nothing to do with the capability to lob cruise missiles into Syria, nothing to do with threatening to stick one up the Iranians, nothing to do with being better than the French. Just life-or-death trade. Karl Dönitz understood that. Winston Churchill understood that. The Chinese understand it. So should the pillock who currently rents 10 Downing Street.
Britain ‘must have two aircraft carriers to be global player’
Britain must have two working aircraft carriers if it wants to be a global military player, a Foreign Office parliamentary aide has said.
A Government cost-cutting proposal to mothball or sell one of two carriers being built would be a poor use of public money, Tobias Ellwood MP said in a report for a military think tank.
Trying to rely on a single carrier would also undermine the UK’s ability to cope with international crises.
Mr Ellwood said: “The UK either needs a carrier capability or it does not.
“If it does, then a minimum of two are required in order to have one permanently available.”
Running both carriers would cement Britain’s position as “a global player with a military power of the first rank,” he said.
The Government has yet to decide the fate of the two 65,000 ton Queen Elizabeth class carriers currently being built, but the 2010 defence review proposed selling one or keeping it mothballed to save money.
Mr Ellwood, in a report for the Royal United Services Institute, said: “A £3-billion carrier waiting in ‘suspended animation’ in Portsmouth to be activated has political consequences, as does the selling of a ship at a loss.
“Neither option is a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, the latter should be firmly disregarded.”
He said the lack of British carriers during the 2011 Libya campaign had meant that RAF Tornadoes and Typhoons had been forced to fly a 3,000 mile round trip from the UK to hit Col Gaddafi’s forces.
Even when a base became available in Italy, he said air raids were still four times more expensive than if they had been launched from a carrier in the Mediterranean.
Mr Ellwood, a former Army officer, said: “The carrier’s agility and independence means it is likely to be one of the first assets deployed to any hotspot around the globe.”
He said a single carrier would only be available around 200 days per year because of maintenance work.
Last week backbenchers on the Public Accounts Committee warned the aircraft carrier programme faced further spiralling costs.
The project remained a “high risk” because technical problems had not been resolved and there was potential for “uncontrolled growth” in the final bill.
The committee also said a decision to change the type of planes to fly from the carriers had wasted tens of millions of pounds.
The Ministry of Defence had originally opted for jump jet versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, then switched to the carrier variant, only to return to the jump jets again last year when costs soared.
Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary, said no decision would be made on what to do with the two carriers until the 2015 strategic defence and security review.
But money saved by reverting to the jump jet F-35s meant there was the possibility of having two operational carriers.
He said: “Of course there are operational cost implications of holding two carriers available rather than one, but we will weigh very carefully the benefits of that and the costs of that in the review.”
In light of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force launching the “flat top destroyer” Izumo, the Telegraph has produced as list of the world’s largest and most powerful destroyers and aircraft carriers.