16 November 2007

No permanent friends, only permanent interests

So yes, I was saying yesterday that I have a suspicion that the excessive thrift that's the hallmark of current European defence spending points towards a winding down of individual countries' ability to conduct individual defence policies with a view to discreetly creating an effective common defence policy so that we can stand on our own two 900,000,000 feet. The game, I think, is for the immediate future about complementing NATO and minimizing duplication. That's why I find reports such as this interesting, especially in that the emphasis is on the structures by which Europe's navies will relate to each other in the future.

Look at the Royal Navy, for example - and it's only an example. Contrary to what you might think, it's in serious trouble.

Only a couple of days back the First Sea Lord was warning that without significant investment the navy was in danger of becoming inflexible and incapable of fulfilling its various missions. That might seem a histrionic way of putting out the begging bowl, but if anything he was understating the problem. I realise that sounds far-fetched considering the amount of money The Times reports is being spent on the navy at present:
The Admiral is overseeing a hugely expensive equipment programme, including the building of two large aircraft carriers, at the cost of £3.9 billion, six Type 45 destroyers at £6 billion, four Astute class nuclear-powered submarines at £3.7 billion and a replacement for the Vanguard class Trident ballistic missile submarines, which could cost between £15 billion and £20 billion.
But the thing is that although that sounds impressive, the figures are meaningless out of context. They need to be looked at more closely, and done so without getting into the vexed question of the extent to which the navy is, or is expected to be mothballed. There are no clear answers on that one.

To start with, the carriers might not have any planes to carry, considering that even now there's only one naval squadron in operation and that's busy in or on the way to Afghanistan. The HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal have effectively become little more than enormous helicopter landing platforms, available for use by foreign aircraft when need be. Assuming that money is found to put planes on the carriers, their capacity for launching sorties probably won't be nearly as impressive as is being claimed:
Senior officers say the maximum sortie rate from a CVF could be more than 360 per day (each available aircraft making around 10 flights every 24h.) for a five day surge - six times higher than on the Invincible-class carriers. [P 29-30]
This looks unattainable, to put it mildly. If you accept the Rand model of sortie rates, where
Sortie Rate = 24 hours / (Flight Time + Turnaround Time + Maintenance Time)
then it's difficult to see how the new carriers will be able to manage more than a hundred sorties a day.

Leaving that aside, the Astute submarines have run shockingly over budget, the carriers look set to do the same, and it's a safe bet that whatever replaces the Trident vanity project is going to be mindnumbingly expensive. The only way to make these books balance without more investment is to start decommissioning ships and cancelling orders. This, of course, is what happens when you simultaneously fight two wars and try to do so on the cheap. The money needs to be saved somewhere...

So what will go? Will more orders for the astounding Type 45 destroyer be scrapped? Or shall it be frigates or minesweepers that feel the accountants' axe? Won't the new carriers be a tad vulnerable without the smaller ships to protect them from submarines and mines?

But to be honest, that's not even the problem. The navy has built hardly any ships over the past decade, and isn't building nearly enough ships now, allowing for the fact that British destroyers and frigates are built with an assumed lifespan of twenty-five-years. If you do the maths you'll discover that the Royal Navy is heading for a situation where it'll have perhaps as few as a dozen and at best a total of eighteen destroyers and frigates in its escort fleet, significantly down from the current twenty-five. It's possible that it might not be possible to deploy more than one carrier group, or that it'll be able to deploy two carrier groups, but only at the cost of limiting amphibious capabilities and the patrol duties that are the bread-and-butter functions of the Royal Navy.

Unless, that is, you divvy up the navy's police role with your European neighbours, which looks like being on the cards.

Hmmm. What a bleak couple of posts. I shall be less earnest tomorrow.

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