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Friday, February 19, 2010

Size Isn't Everything

There’s currently much debate about whether or not to continue with the hugely expensive project to build two new 65,000 ton aircraft carriers. These ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will be by far the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy. Even if the project isn’t cancelled outright – and if it isn’t, it’ll only be because of prohibitive penalty clauses, not the navy’s blatantly childish attempt to give them names that would make cancellation politically embarrassing – then it’s been suggested that one could be completed as a commando carrier (despite being far too big and hi-spec for that role) or else sold to India, whose navy is expanding almost as rapidly as that of its former imperial overlord is contracting.   

Now, I’m no expert on modern naval matters, although my interest in naval history began as a young ‘warship spotter’ during the 1960s and 1970s. But it seems to me that there are several issues here, and several interesting historical parallels. The very fact that the carriers were ordered at all, or haven’t been cancelled already, can surely be attributed in part to the employment that they’ll provide in Labour strongholds or marginal seats; and, as the saying goes, it’s shurely shome coincidence that final assembly on them is due to take place at Rosyth, immediately adjacent to the constituency of a certain G Brown, MP. No matter how much ministers seek to deny this, there are plenty of precedents – Labour did exactly the same in 1979 when it ordered the Batch 3 Type 42 destroyers in the immediate run-up to a general election, much good that it did former Sub-Lieutenant Jim Callaghan, and many warship orders in the 1920s and 1930s were placed partly to provide employment in desperately depressed shipyard towns.

However, the most senior officers of the Senior Service also seem to be suffering from a very severe case of gigantism. Not only do we have the carrier project, we also have the Type 45 destroyers, so expensive that only six of them will be built, and the Astute-class submarines – only four of which have been ordered so far, primarily because they're ‘more complex than the space shuttle’. Even leaving aside the vexed issues of Trident submarines and the appropriateness or otherwise of the UK’s pretensions to global status, there’s clearly something wrong-headed about the current Royal Navy's priorities, and many others have already commentated on its serious weaknesses vis-a-vis any escalation of the current dispute in the Falklands. Perhaps the explanation is simple enough. Like your present blogger, the most senior officers of the Royal Navy are all children of the 1950s; they entered the service in the 1960s and the 1970s. Therefore it would hardly be surprising if they still retained something of a Cold War mindset – a more charitable interpretation of their enthusiasm for a few huge, expensive warships than suggesting that they might also be driven by inter-service macho posturing. Other former imperial powers, notably France and the Netherlands, have accepted the need for some smaller, less sophisticated vessels that can protect their maritime resources as well as ‘showing the flag’ in their remaining overseas possessions; after all, as many others have said, even the most sophisticated and flexible warship in the world can only be in one place at once. Even the mighty United States Navy, the ultimate repository of naval gigantism, is building smaller, multi-purpose ‘Littoral Combat Ships’. But the Royal Navy still seems to be haunted by the ghost of Jacky Fisher, who scrapped most of the colonial gunboats in the first decade of the twentieth century on the grounds that only big and expensive mattered. Perhaps the other relevant ghost at this particular banquet is the spectre of King Charles I, who launched the Sovereign of the Seas in 1637: a vast, cripplingly expensive warship, completely inappropriate to the actual strategic needs of the country at the time. Sounds familiar? Perhaps some of those responsible for the aircraft carrier project had better hope that history doesn’t repeat itself, because the financial and political ramifications of building such a huge ship ultimately cost Charles his head.

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