David Blackburn

A cul-de-sac of Gordon Brown’s making

A cul-de-sac of Gordon Brown’s making
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Earlier in the week, Liam Fox gaily described the Prime Minister as his ‘closest ally’ – a statement which aroused a little cynicism. But it seems that Fox was not exaggerating. According to the FT, Cameron now backs the navy’s grand blue-water strategy. Cameron’s about turn is striking: the last time the National Security Council convened he supported David Richards (he still does to an extent, pledging that army troop numbers will not be cut). The strategic arguments have not changed, which suggests that the politics has.

Fox’s letter was one thing, the Clyde shipyards another. Cancelling the carriers would obviously have adverse consequences for Glasgow’s economy and the disparate private companies that supply shipbuilders and heavy industry. The government can ill-afford to hamper growth in manufacturing, especially as Cameron spent the conference championing business beyond the City.

Some of the carriers' opponents argue that Britain should build these warships and then sell them, but there isn’t a buyer. No country, not India, not Brazil and certainly not Britain, needs a seaborne strike aircraft capability designed to refight the Battle of Midway. The carriers’ supporters nod and wink in the direction of China and Russia but we would never fight Russia and China – that’s what Trident’s for.

All this comes at the expense of a more practical capability. The navy will have to cut its destroyer and frigate fleet to incorporate the two monsters - which, incidentally, will be fitted with obsolete Harriers because we can’t afford the joint strike fighter aircraft (at £100m a pop). Of course, Harriers could use the current squadron of geriatric carriers, so we are in the ultimate cul-de-sac. After 13 years of underfunding, one man, the man who commissioned the super-carriers as it happens, is squarely to blame. As one defence analyst put it to me recently, ‘The best course of action is to build the super-carriers and then get Gordon Brown to scuttle them, with a 21-gun salute and Rule Britannia playing in the background.’           

UPDATE: TRADEBOT mentions air superiority and the composition of the navy. It’s an important question, but there are several caveats. First, one of the new carriers is not actually going to sea; it will stay in port, essentially mothballed as a training facility waiting in ‘extended readiness’ for a conflict that won’t come. Second, the super-carriers will not have the benefit of the joint strike fighter (there will a few but not that many – more than 70 are to be cancelled - the F-18 is an option). The sea-worthy super-carrier will be armed with Harriers, which used to fly off the current carrier fleet until the RAF started decommissioning them.

The upshot is if one carrier is armed with yesterday’s aircraft and the other is holed-up, what’s the point in building them? Britian would lose a significant number of ships with which to project power and secure the sea and its entire amphibious capability? Sierra Leone, the seaborne invasion of Iraq – Britain will no longer be able to carry out such missions, which would raise the question: what’s the point in having an army 100,000 strong if you can’t deploy it effectively and quickly?

Also, there are enough naval officers who say it makes no sense to pare down the destroyer and frigate fleets, which do the grunt work defending trade routes from supra-national threats, just to accommodate the carriers. Those small ships may have the capacity to shoot hostile aircraft out of the sky, but Somali pirates, hijackers and drug-dealers don't tend to have MiGs, neither do insane despots for the most part. 

If Britain were to join a hypothetical multilateral operation against, say, Iran, it would need amphibious vessels to support the ground operation and frigates, destroyers, minesweepers and submarines to support and secure the sea. The US 7th Fleet would provide unmatched airpower in any event.

The strategic defence review has not been conducted in Britain’s strategic interests. These carriers are a complete waste of money and a hindrance to British sea power, though Tradebot I agree with about the wasteful Type-45.