Make Your Own U.K. Defense Cuts, Part One: The Navy

29.10.10

Categorie: David Axe, Naval, U.K. |
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Daily Mail

Daily Mail photo.

by DAVID AXE

Forty-two thousand fewer troops and civilians. Around a third of all tanks, artillery and fast jets axed. A quarter of naval power, by tonnage, decommissioned early. The U.K. Ministry of Defense on October 19 announced an 8-percent budget reduction meant to help Great Britain erase a roughly 100-billion GBP budget deficit. The navy suffered perhaps the biggest hit. “The role of a Navy is often described as winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas,” naval analyst Eric Wertheim said. “These cuts will have a negative impact on each of these areas.”

Prior to the cuts, the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary boasted around 110 vessels and more than 200 aircraft, by tonnage the second-largest navy in the world, including:

* The small aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Illustrious
* Large, aviation-capable assault ship Ocean
* Six smaller assault ships
* Twenty-three Type 22 and Type 23 frigates and Type 42 destroyers
* Twenty minesweepers and patrol ships
* Seven attack submarines (plus four ballistic-missile subs that are outside this discussion)
* Fifty Harrier jump jets plus helicopters

Under previous plans, the future fleet, c. 2020, would have maintained its overall size, with:

* Two 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, replacing Ark Royal and Illustrious
* Six Type 45 destroyers plus up to 18 Type 26 frigates in place of the current escort force
* Seven new Astute-class subs, supplanting existing vessels
* Up to 138 F-35B jump jets, replacing the Harriers

But the October cuts eliminated:

* Ark Royal
* Illustrious or Ocean
* Two assault ships
* Four frigates
* Probably one of the new, large carriers
* At least one, and possibly several, minesweepers or patrol vessels
* All the Harriers
* All the F-35Bs (around 50 conventional-takeoff F-35Cs would be bought instead)

So the new 2020 Royal Navy will possess:

* Probably one large aircraft carrier
* No large assault ship
* Just four other assault ships
* Nineteen escorts
* Fourteen minesweepers plus maybe some patrol vessels
* Seven submarines
* A total of fewer than 100 ships

This is, I noted last year, a “fleet optimized for nothing.”

Under current plans, the Royal Navy circa 2020 will be a very strange force. There will be just six high-end warships to protect two [or one] 65,000-ton super-carrier[s], plus a mixed flotilla [of frigates] numbering just over a dozen. It’ll be a top-heavy force with too few destroyers to escort the carriers into a shooting war, and too few frigates to perform day-to-day patrolling during peacetime.

Nearly two years ago, I asked War Is Boring readers to design their own U.S. Navy under realistic projected budgets. Now I’d like to do the same for the new, “austere” Royal Navy. Assuming you must cut around 8 percent of the fleet — by some measure, whether hulls, tonnage or cost — what would you lose? Would you wind up with a top-heavy force, as currently planned?

Here’s what I’d want, c. 2020:

* Ocean plus an identical sister ship in place of all aircraft carriers
* Six smaller assault ships
* Seven Type 45 destroyers plus 19 Type 26 frigates
* Eight Astutes
* Twenty minesweepers and patrol ships
* More helicopters in place of fixed-wing jets

And here’s why: Rather than one carrier group that’s battle-ready just half the time, I want two powerful amphibious groups so that one is always on call. Hence two Oceans and extra escorts. Plus, I want plenty of frigates for counter-piracy and anti-submarine warfare. My surface fleet is optimized for low-intensity warfare, partnership-building and disaster relief. I don’t expect major, state-on-state warfare, but if it happens, I have an extra submarine because submarines win shooting wars. I don’t have jets because the Type 45s provide my air defense (and missile defense, to boot) and because I don’t plan on conducting bombing campaigns. Cruise missiles on my submarines suffice for land strike.

My plan is theoretically affordable, as it forgoes large, expensive carriers. But I realize it is not actually legal. The previous U.K. government signed contracts for the big carriers that made cancellation as expensive as construction. After all, the new carriers are mostly just jobs programs. In truth, there’s no easy, legal way out of the top-heavy fleet.

Describe your austere Senior Service in the comments. And remember, tell us why.

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20 Responses to “Make Your Own U.K. Defense Cuts, Part One: The Navy”

  1. FooMan says:

    There needs to be a real analysis by the pols of what they want/need/expect the RN to do. Is it going to be an ASW force (NATO standard tasking in the 80′s), is it going to be power projection force (what it is trying, badly, to do now, and had to do in the 80′s in the Falklands), is it going to do sea lane protection (Somali pirates anyone?). But since the pols will not even admit to themselves, let alone the RN high commanders what they think they want the force to do they have gutted it in any of these areas and have probably rendered it incapable of do any of them very well.

    Until that admission by the PM and whomever was so stoned to think up this plan there is no practical solution(s)
    Although it is a neat intellectual exercise.
    Foo

  2. Brian Black says:

    Relying on destroyers for air defence is a big risk – aircraft will always be able to see further. The RN had no airborne early warning in the Falklands and paid the price.
    Seakings and Merlins operated since then have provided the fleet with that capability, but haven’t had the range and height of carrier launched fixed wing aircraft.
    With no carrier, you’ve lost one of the layers of defence afforded to your mission critical assault ships… that type 45 better be as good as it’s cracked up to be.

  3. I am new to blogging but this seems an ideal opportunity to wade in!

    Keeping both carriers is a no brainer. I’d order them both with cats – cancel the F-35′s entirely and buy 70odd F/A-18′s off the shelf and populate both air wings for the price of 1 (or less). The ability to put up to 70 (still advanced) airframes anywhere in the world is a capability that will only be exceeded by the US in the next 15-20 years and invaluable. I wouldn’t worry too much about air defence – 4 Type 45′s would be enough – even if we have to split them when 2 carrier groups are at sea. We are unlikely to operate without allies in truly hostile seas and I’d rather have fast jets than type 45′s for air defence anyway!

    I certainly wouldn’t have 19 frigates. Most of their ASW capability is provided by their choppers as is their anti-piracy/drugs capability. I’d have a new class of small, very cheap, chopper carriers (3 or 4 choppers each). They can perform asw, drop marines onto pirate skiffs AND carry harpoons for a surface-surface capability.

    The savings from cutting/not building type 45′s and frigates would keep ocean and amphib capability going and allow for a slightly expanded sub force (sub numbers everywhere are trending up see http://www.informationdissemination.net/2010/10/another-pacific-nation-increases-sub.html).

    Basically I want one or two fleet carriers always available. The hard and soft power advantages that come from fleet carriers simply cannot be replicated by assualt ships. When in any case would you use an assualt ship without total air domination? – its a big ask to assume the RAF will have a friendly country within range to operate typhoons from. The carriers would be protected by a minimal type 45 and frigate/helicopter carrier screen. F/A-18′s operating over the horizon are a far greater fleet defence than a type-45.

    I’m quite happy with a slightly top-heavy fleet. In major surface engagements we are likely to be folded into an allied (read US) structure and against second-tier adversaries F/A-18′s and 2/4 type 45′s would be enough for air defence. No surface ship is going to get near any fleet with a couple of Astutes around.

    What do we think?

    btw I actually wrote a longer post on this a week or so ago at my very new blog (it was my first post!). Comments always welcome at http://toolongtoocomplicated.blogspot.com. Mat

  4. Brian Black says:

    Using Astute class subs to support your landing operations doesn’t sound to practical.
    The financial cost of cruise missiles, the numbers of missiles carried, limited punch and the loss of stealth when launching would prohibit their use against all but the most high value targets.
    The subs couldn’t hope to provide sustained support for landings on their own, and can’t provide the type of close support needed by forces when facing a lightly equipped and highly mobile enemy.

  5. Brian Black says:

    A lot of what the RN does can be done with relatively cheap ships. You don’t need a type 45 to carry out counter piracy or narcotic patrols etc.
    Much more basic ships that can nevertheless carry marines and a range of other craft would suffice – something more akin to a mini assault ship than a destroyer or frigate. This enables the reduction of expensive escorts to the level required to support the capital ships without abandoning other commitments.
    2007 and the unsuitable HMS Cornwall was of no use when it came to protecting its couple of ribs against Iran – no gun boat available and only one Lynx that couldn’t hope to provide continuous support. Yet those marines and sailors were boarding merchant vessels in the kind of operation that is bread and butter to the navy.

  6. I like this plan but I think the RN should start by looking at the map. The waters around the UK should always be its first priority. There is no realistic threat in the Western Approaches, the Irish Sea, or the English Channel. However, there is a capabilities threat in the North Sea from a still highly nationalistic Russia that has not given up on remilitarization. It is clearly in the cards that Arctic resources are going to be a major area of contention. I’d rank the priorities 1) nuclear deterrent (and no wishful thinking on the number of SSBNs) 2) control of the North Sea and the GIUK gap 3) Falklands 4) expeditionary forces.

  7. I think that DA is right to want to leave out the two carriers from his budgeting exercise – and remember, about a billion was added to their costs by the previous government delaying their build.
    They’re not necessarily white elephants though. Their size allows for the switch to the cheaper and more capable F35c. And while the Tornado has been reprieved for now, it will go out of service eventually – if the UK gov and mil are prepared to see a switch of emphasis from the RAF to naval air power in the future then their role could be assured, even if one is mothballed in the meantime… it is arguable that carrier aircraft are more useful than land based aircraft. And it is afterall all about global force projection, or so I’m told.

  8. Jerv Mellette says:

    Ocean is an assault ship. I don’t know why you’re saying that twice.

    The Falklands showed us that surface ships without adequate aircraft of their own are hideously vulnerable to air attack. Even if modern capabilities make up for it – and I’m leery of any promises made of the Type 45s (which don’t even have proper weapons yet!) – the fact remains that no ship- or sub-mounted system is going to give either the detection range of carrier-borne AWACs or the flexibility and striking power of carrier-launched jets. Proper carriers in some form are a must, even if we can’t afford enough fighters until 2019. And the carriers, miserably weak and badly designed as they are, are going to be built; there’s no avoiding that at this point.

    Frigates and destroyers have shown themselves to be far overspecced for anti-piracy and similar low-intensity ops. Given that much of the anti-submarine capability of a frigate is not from the frigate’s sensors or weapons, but from the helicopters that frigates carry, helicopter carriers and assault ships would seem to be a far more sensible prospect than more frigates. They are also generally cheaper to build and run than escorts optimised for high-intensity combat, and far more useful both in low-intensity/humanitarian/soft-power operations and acting in support of an amphibious assault. Using attack submarines for fire support is expensive, inadequate and insane.

    I’d want at least two each of straight aircraft carriers and helicopter-carrying assault ships, preferably more assault ships, and the fast jets and helicopters to fly from them, plus seven or eight Astutes. The cuts can come out of the overdue, overpriced, overhyped, unarmed and untested Type 45s and the Type 26 frigate programme, which is nothing but a sop to the dying British shipbuilding industry.

  9. ELP says:

    Frigates
    Nuke subs
    AIP subs for Euro waters.
    healthy support ships
    healthy mine hunting community
    P-8 (mil Boeing 737)

    No carriers
    No F-35

    Falklands? Good luck eating Block IV Tomahawks and a sub blockade.

  10. WEBF says:

    Losing the Harriers now means that:

    a)We cannot respond to unexpected crises this decade

    b)All the skills needed to fly from a carrier dck will be lost. For example, how will we maintain the skills of the flight deck crews – who need to be confident to safely and spedily move aircraft around a pitching, rolling flight deck whilst the ship steams into the wind?

  11. Hedgy says:

    Scrapping the Harriers and Ark Roayal is a mistake, they have 10 years life left, by which time the carriers will be up and running. However F18′s are much cheaper, avaliable now and will probably have about 80-85% of the F35′s performance at 40% of the cost.
    Scapping/selling perfectly good assault shipping is a bad mistake, particularly as future combat operations will most likely require it.
    I appreciate that there is an £38bn hole in the defence budget…almost all down to Blair and Brown and incomptency of the MOD but Cameron’s government should have added more joined up thinking in the review. The RAF Tornado’s at 5 times the cost of the Harriers, should have gone first and the Government should have substantially reduced the overseas aid budget, which is now nearly a third of the defence budget. I canot see why we should spend £900m trying to educate India’s school children when India is aquiring no less than 4 carrier groups and are expanding their defence and space budget at a rate of knots…talk about being stuffed!

  12. Brian Black says:

    Hedgy: something haves to give within the RN, I think the old carriers are it. While the Harriers still have life in them, they just don’t measure up to Tornado.
    I agree about the assault ships. Selling off these adaptable and young ships for little return is short-sighted. Ocean should be kept sailing for it’s heli deck in lieu of the lost carriers. The docks, Albion and Bulwark should stay even if one or more is mothballed.
    Right about the F18 too. The main reason for UK involvement in the F35 was for the need to acquire VSToL ac for use with small carriers. The new carriers could also still be in service in 50 years time, selling them off at a loss would be crazy.

  13. Brian Black says:

    Further to Hedgy’s comments on UK overseas aid.
    While the armed forces lose capabilities, the 9 billion aid budget not only gives money to India – a nuclear power with a space program and it’s own substantial foreign aid program. But also gives cash to China – rapidly expanding it’s own military forces. Singapore – which has 40pc higher gdp per head than the UK. Oil rich Saudi Arabia. And a number of fellow, wealthy EU member states – though we also contribute substantially to the EU budget.

  14. Tim says:

    I had dinner earlier this year with an ex senior CIA guy , very very senior and he said the UK’s most important assets was the Royal Navy and Special Forces .

    In my opinion we need the Astute Class to project real Hi-end power and a decent mix of surface ships to fly the flag . As for the Carriers its a screw up by Clown Brown and Bliar that has left the current government in such a predicament.

    I guess though that in reality the Carriers by 2020 will carry more UCAV’s than manned fighters which if they prove to be a lot cheaper than the F35 may allow us room to keep both carriers.

    Re the Falklands the Argies wouldn’t get ashore never mind leave their docks with a couple of Attack Subs in the area never mind the Typhoons and ground forces based there.

    I agree with Fred Zimmerman in terms of priority .

    The UK needs to continue development of Taranis and make sure we have enough Typhoons till the UCAV’s come to the fore .

    As for the F22/F35 lovers I still say they are a tech jump too far and by the time they are working as originally planned the UCAV’s will have taken over . The Typhoon will be the last successfully operated manned fighter that did what it said on the tin withoiut being a hanger queen .

    Oh yeah the soulless vacumn that is Russia will not be a threat for years , read the article in the times today about the Spetnatz officer in Chechnya in the and you will see how screwed up their forces are .

  15. Prestwick says:

    My god! What a response! Everyone more or less said everything I wanted to say but a few points:

    1) You’ll read a few apologists hell bent on trying to score a few political points and yes this review hasn’t equipped the forces to do anything well at all. All the same though Blair and Brown had 13 odd years to turn things around, cancel programs and cut costs. Robert Gates took 18 months to kill a lot of prestige US Army programs and put Navy hopes of a ba-jillion ship navy in perspective. It took Blair and Brown 13 years just to kill Nimrod MR4A and even then it was still limping along.

    2) I like the Harrier. Seriously. All forms from the original GR1 all the way to the superb AV8B. The Sea Harrier probably rivals the Spitfire as one of the most legendary fighters ever.

    That said, its over 45 years since it first flew. Kosovo showed that it was barely keeping pace even with today’s low intensity conflicts. Has it really performed that well in Afghanistan? I haven’t the figures to hand and I don’t think theres been a big report into it on the scale of when we looked at the RAF’s Harrier performance in Kosovo. In any case, fewer and fewer nations are using the Harrier which is also getting older and older which means its getting more and more expensive. Better to scrap it now and focus on the Tornado and Typhoon which can deliver more ordinance more cheaply.

    3) In regards to the Frigates and Destroyers, you’d need more than two Helicopter Carriers (known previously as Commando Carriers) to patrol all of the existing UK peacetime commitments AND provide adequate fleet defence against submarines. The cost is simply too prohibitive.

    What is also too costly is developing a shallow water solution like what the Yanks are doing. Also they’re absolutely useless when you need them against a decent navy.

    So actually Frigates and Destroyers are actually pretty useful. The opposing forces tech (exocet, sunburn, etc) hasn’t advanced to the point to justify spending billions either on a UK or overseas made solution which means just keeping the Type-21s,22s and 23s makes sense. Also, as David pointed out during his voyage with the EU/NATO/US Task Force showed, having a boat that was fast, well armed and could store and maintain a helicopter was actually damn useful. The RN Frigates are therefore bloody good value for money when you take all of that into account.

    4) Subs are a must. You could argue that Argentina was doomed to lose the Falklands War the minute HMS Conquerer sank the Belgrano. Subs are incredibly intimidating and the fact that one boat kept an entire fleet bottled up in port is a superb use of restricted resources and saved many many lives.

    So Asture is the way to go. All the debate about carriers in this case if irrevelevent. We have four Typhoons, a Frigate and soon HMS Astute on station down there. If the Argentines wanted to take the Falklands again they’d lose substantial numbers of planes and ships in the process which would make any attempt to hold the islands militarily difficult to the extreme.

    In short we already have a huge deterrent down there. Even the Falkland Islands Defence Force is armed to the teeth, extremely mobile and well trained.

    5. My fleet would be:

    3 x Ocean sized helo carriers.
    4 x Assault Ships.
    4 x Trident boats.
    6 x Type-45 Destroyers
    8 x Astute Subs.
    Lots of lovely Merlins and other choppers.
    16 x Frigates (21,22,23 with 26 coming on stream over a longer period)

    Enough minesweepers, coastal ships and support stuff.

    To paraphrase what someone else said earlier on here, China wants a piece of HM most Royal Navy? Have fun trying to dodge lots of Tomahawks, harpoons while looking over your shoulder to see where the next Astute torp is gonna come from.

  16. ajay says:

    Air: Get rid of the Tornados. Keep the Harriers until the first carrier launches, then replace them with F-35C. Buy a fixed-wing AEW aircraft suitable for the new carriers. Joint policy: _all_ future aircraft purchased by the services must be able to fly off carriers if necessary.

    Submarines: four Astutes, and rebuild the Vanguards as SSGNs. Get rid of the Trident missiles.

    Surface: two carriers. Postpone the Type 26s indefinitely. Limit the Type 45s to four hulls. Work on the principle that the RN will not be getting involved in any conflicts that require that degree of air defence or anti-submarine defence without having allies on board who can provide it. In any case, Hawkeye plus Hornet should give adequate air defence by itself against all but the most severe threat. Ditto for Merlin in the ASW role.
    In the longer term, begin work on two new classes of ship: a light fleet auxiliary built to civilian rather than military standards, and capable of supporting operations by four helicopters, and a corvette capable of flying off (if not supporting) a helicopter.

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  18. Atomic Walrus says:

    Forget the whole assault ship mission – Britain doesn’t have the overseas colonies to justify it, and they haven’t been engaged in a lot of humanitarian operations anyway. Instead, focus on controlling trade routes and projecting power. That means keeping the attack subs. They can’t project power, but they can deny access. That also means keeping a fleet of destroyers and frigates to patrol seaways, but with a decent contingent of Marines on board for limited amphibious operations (boarding ships, small shore raids, etc.) Finally, if you can afford them, build both carriers and equip them with something like the F/A-18 for use in multinational operations.

  19. [...] small carriers, several amphibious ships and four of 23 escorts. In the wake of the review, we asked readers to imagine their own future Royal Navy, within existing financial restraints. We had done the same [...]

  20. william testaert says:

    The RN is all about power projection and sealanes control. Have the means to do this and you can exert influence over about 80% of global population. UK’s RN is the only EU navy to have that kind of combat and deployment expierience on a big scale. Tension in the Med and Pacific are of concern to EU and RN should be formatted to meet these challenges. UK should provide the “Big stick” together with France while smaller UE nations could provide lower tier elements such as escorts and patrol ships. So, RN should be built around “carrier groups” comprising a carrier, two AD and two LA destroyers, four MP frigates, two subs with LA and ASW capability and an amphibious assault group centred around a Marines Commando.The amphibious core of ships could be centred around one french “Mistral” type of LHA with far better capabilities than th “Ocean” and completed by the existing types of LPD. Four of these Groups with two operational, one in training and one in refit should provide a balaced and flexible battle force. To keep prices reasonable, carriers should be built as simple as possible, fully centred around their main weapon, the planes.Buy off the shelf F18D and Hawkeye radar planes, they should be fully interoperable with UK biggest partner, the US Navy, as well as with France and as such provide maximum interoperability and cost savings. Defence of the Realm could be undertaken by a kind of “Home Fleet” with MP patrol and demining ships and as such provide cover and protection for the battle force, protect and patrol the coast, undertake drug and narcotic patrols and free up sophisticated frigates and destroyers to be centered at their main tasks. Above all, this “Home Fleet” comprising a maximum of reservists can create a recuiting base for the whole Navy. With this, RN should become a world force again and could face all possible tasks for the future at bearable costs.It would also give the UK exeptional political leverage in the EU.

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