In the 1950s, British naval strategists briefly adopted the notion of “broken-backed” warfare, by which they meant fighting on after an atomic strike on the UK. The charm of this idea – if you were making a case for spending on the Royal Navy – was that ships at sea would be the only military tools left to the UK after a nuclear exchange.
This concept didn’t appeal to anyone likely to be on land during World War III, and it collapsed under the weight of its horrible silliness. I bring it up for the sake of a cheap pun, because today (you see where this going) the Royal Navy isn’t contending with broken-backed warfare but the “Brokeback Coalition” and its proposed defence cuts.
It’s unclear whether the Navy or the Air Force will suffer most from the cuts – the Army will suffer too, but is protected by the need to slog on in Afghanistan. This seems to be Fleet Week in the defence debate, with RUSI publishing an article arguing that Britain can’t leave the sea lanes to “pirates, terrorists and opportunist governments”:
Article authors Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham and professor Gwyn Prins argue that with over 90 per cent of the UK’s trade carried by sea, the country must ensure the navy has the ‘presence’ to protect shipping routes. “Real world tasks urgently require significantly more surface combatants, of lower cost and capability,” write Blackham and Prins. “Use of the sea demands presence along the sea routes. Presence is the prerequisite for the silent deterrent messages that naval force alone can articulate.
“…Presence demands numbers. The ability to mass and to surge a force demands numbers. Numbers are also essential for replaceability. If you cannot afford to lose a ship you cannot afford to use it. Presence is the indispensable prerequisite for deterrence.”
The article warns that at the current rate of decline the Royal Navy fleet will have only nineteen frigates in ten years’ time and that many of them will be at the “effective end of their useful lives”. By that time, Prins and Blackham argue, the fleet will be “inadequate for the most fundamental, enduring and vital tasks”. The article calls for at least ten new cheaper and lower capability oceangoing frigates to preserve the “silent deterrent” of a “lower-intensity daily constabulary” force patrolling the major sea routes.
The full article is a curious piece of work, combining some pretty detailed technical and statistical stuff about ships (I assume that’s mainly from the Admiral) with sweeping statements on issues like the fading of the UN and the failures of the EU (I guess that’s mainly from Gwyn, who waxes lyrical on such topics a good deal).
Ultimately this mix of broad and detailed analysis does not convince. The authors seem to be arguing for a strategy that might best be described as “21st Century Francis Drake”. The UK needs a cheap-ish fleet of latter-day privateers that can pop up off the Spanish Main or Far Tortuga as and when a pinnace, like a flutter’d bird, comes flying from far away warning “Terrorist ships of war at sea! We have sighted fifty-three!” (If this means nothing to you, brush up on your Tennyson, you chump.)
This is all well and good, and I accept the argument for a naval presence. But, like it or not, Britain’s ability to provide “daily constabulary” on the seas is, and has long been, dependent on America’s willingness to provide the SWAT Teams, i.e. aircraft carriers, etc. And this is not 100% guaranteed. This point is brought home in an article by Seth Cropsey in the current American Interest, which I strongly recommend:
The size of a fleet is by no means a perfect metric for a nation’s naval strength; numbers do not equal power, reach or technological capability. But numbers are a good enough measure of where a fleet conforms in rough shape to national tasks and expectations. And for the United States, the numbers aren’t adding up. In the year following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. combat fleet numbered 466 ships. By 2001, it had shrunk to 316. The decline continued throughout George W. Bush’s two terms to the current level of 285 ships. Since February 2006 the Navy has consistently maintained that it needs at least 313 ships to perform the missions assigned to it.
You can read this in two ways: (i) “Oh God the Yanks are deserting us, let’s buy every frigate we can!”; or (ii) “If the U.S. is drawing back from its global role, then extra British boats won’t matter, unless there’s an alternative strategic framework to plug into”. I’m with (ii), and (as I’ve noted before) I’m drawn to the ideas of James Rogers, whose views on EU naval cooperation are best described as “21st Century Tirpitz”…
Europeans must now invoke their maritime geography once again and look beyond Europe to concentrate on the wider world. The European Union needs to form an immensely powerful navy, which can be used to circulate maritime power around the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, Africa’s Atlantic seaboard, and particularly the Indian Ocean. It is in these regions where future European Union military operations will take place, and it is these regions from where the greatest threats to European security are already beginning to come.
This naval force would need a chain of naval stations to link together a durable maritime order, enabling European power to be projected rapidly into potential trouble spots, and to exert a calming influence over potential belligerents. This maritime posture should accelerate European commercial activity, enabling the continent to retain democratic government, while stimulating an outward-looking approach to world affairs, an outlook Europeans must sustain if they are to remain a major economic power.
Sadly, I don’t see this happening. The EU seems most likely to end up like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, repeatedly forced to make do with a leaky coracle. There are some limited alternatives – the UK is looking at naval cooperation with the Indians as part of the government’s strategy of charming Delhi. Given my repeated arguments in favor of security cooperation with the rising powers, I like that.
Overall, I just can’t see the case for keeping British fleet numbers up if we don’t have a plan for cooperating with other powers. It’d be like the Royal Navy maintaining its fine tradition of “rum, sodomy and the lash”, but cutting back on the rum and the sodomy – i.e. trying to hold onto something, but missing the big picture.