COMMENTARY SPECIAL

DOES THE TORY AXEMAN COMETH?

‘Britain can do without a large Army or Air Force. A nation which relies so heavily on maritime trade, that has such a long (exposed) coastline, so many overseas territories and security obligations and which wishes to remain a serious player in NATO and the EU cannot afford to be without a Navy large enough and capable enough to do its job properly.’

By Political Correspondent
Francis Beaufort

Calls for a General Election were growing in the UK as the scandal of MPs milking the taxpayer cash cow mushroomed and an abortive Cabinet Coup failed to unseat bungling Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Some MPs were exposed to public anger for paying £30 each for wine glasses, investing in pond ornaments for several hundred quid, profiting from property deals to the tune of thousands, all the while not paying Joe Public back.
It all sat rather badly with the poor state of the country’s economy and to sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen on the front line around the world it must have seemed beyond the pale.  While the scandal exploded in London, naval aviators just returned to RNAS Yeovilton from Afghanistan were busy having their 40-year-old (plus) Sea King helicopter patched up after being hit by Taliban anti-aircraft fire. Warships were most likely deploying to hotspots with missile systems, sensors and basic items like cranes either non-functioning or deliberately disconnected. Would MPs fancy facing the Iranian submarine and aircraft threat, North Korean or Al-Qaeda fast attack craft, Russian supersonic sea-skimming missiles or Chinese ship-killing weapons without having every possible weapon, detection system or counter-measure fully functioning?  

As MPs put their names down for luxury sofas and the latest widescreen televisions - all costing thousands of taxpayers pounds - the fact that the UK’s brave servicemen and women were facing such threats naked of essential protection was another scandal. MPs sitting on the Defence Committee published a report that exposed the lack of maritime security for the UK’s home waters, which is not surprising, what with most of what the Royal Navy has left off protecting other peoples’ oil infrastructure, ports and sea lanes. Also within recent weeks, the Maritime Change Programme has revealed the Royal Navy to be so lacking in critical mass in its order of battle that it is switching the few frigates and submarines remaining to new base ports in a desperate bid to ensure its three main naval bases remain open. Do the majority of MPs bother themselves with attending debates on such matters? Not at all, for a lot of them are apparently more interested in enjoying long weekends in their taxpayer-subsidised second homes than the gruelling business of sitting in Parliament and serving their country. Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been vociferous in calling for an immediate General Election. While this should happen in the name of restoring faith in British democracy, dithering Prime Minister Gordon Brown clings to office with all the tenacity of a limpet. But what if there was a General Election soon and the Tories were elevated to Government? How would the Royal Navy fare under them? Any better than under Labour? It promised so much with its expeditionary warfare-centric Strategic Defence Review (SDR) in 1998 but, having talked the talk, could not walk the walk, mainly due to the fiscal obduracy of Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten miserable years. There are signs the Tories would not be any better, sharing the usual naval myopia of the majority of British politicians in the current generation. So, does the Tory Axeman cometh for the Navy? During a visit to Tavistock a few weeks ago, Cameron was very careful not to commit himself to specifics when it came to the key strategic naval base at Devonport. Like Labour ministers the Tory leader chose obfuscation rather than detail.  He allegedly told reporters: “I want to see a successful, working dockyard in Plymouth and I relish the city’s long naval tradition.”

What kind of ‘relish’? Onion? Tomato? Do we really believe the Tory leader sits at home deriving great pleasure from contemplating any aspect of Britain’s long naval tradition, or even the worth of sea power in a dangerous world? Pull the other one, Dave. A few days earlier, Cameron reportedly refused to absolutely guarantee the RN’s two new super-carriers would be built under a future Tory administration or that the Trident programme would not be axed.  There is certainly a joint Army and RAF effort underway right now to kill both off to ensure scarce defence funding goes to the pongos and flyboys rather than Jack. The fact that a number of Tory MPs have strong Army links cannot help. One of them, Shadow Home Secretary David Davies, a former Territorial Army officer, has questioned the validity of Trident, a subject that seems to be beyond his present political portfolio.  However the man whose portfolio most surely does include the strategic defence of the UK, is of a different opinion.  Last month, while promising a proper defence review under a future Conservative government, Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox stated: “There is one area, however, where the basic argument has not changed.  There will be a replacement to the submarine-based nuclear deterrent under a future Conservative Government.”  So, that means not doing away with the nukes, but what KIND of replacement?  The Defence Committee’s alarm bells over maritime security at home provoked a strong response from Shadow Security Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, who said: “We cannot discount the possibility that the commando-style terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Lahore will become models for attacks here in the UK.” One way of protecting the UK would be to build enough Future Surface Combatants (FSC) for the Royal Navy, with a squadron of them based at Devonport to handle homeland maritime security. However on all versions of the FSC - from the rumoured Type 45 Lite down to the patrol and mine warfare variant - the Tories are not overtly committing themselves to large numbers. It is encouraging, however, that Shadow Defence Minister Julian Lewis, who has special responsibility for the Navy, is at least aware of the scale of the challenge and the make-or-break nature of the FSC programme. He recently wrote: ‘No fewer than 24 FSCs will be needed to reach that total in combination with the Type 45s.’ He added: ‘These designs must exploit to the full the new techniques enabling greater or lesser systems incorporation according to the funds available. And the process will have the valuable side-effect of providing cheap-and-cheerful frigates for export to other navies, whilst supplying us with template ships in fairly large numbers for basic workhorse duty - until the money is available for some or all of them to be upgraded to specialist roles. This is a one-off opportunity for the Fleet to restore the size of its nautical “footprint”. If it is missed or botched, there will not be another in my political lifetime.’  We look forward to similar naval analysis from Liam Fox. Until we see forthright statements on maintaining a strong Navy we have only this from David Cameron to rely on. In response to a question asking if his government would cancel the future carriers, he said: “All the things in the defence programme, there is a very strong case for them. We need proper equipment; we need a well funded Navy and Army. But clearly when we are living beyond our means we need to review all commitments across the piece and ask what do we need to go ahead with. We’ll do it in a responsible way.” Clearly, the Tory Axeman may well cometh. Once he is Prime Minister, David Cameron will be briefed on the upsurge of investment in naval power by other leading nations - new carriers, surface combatants and submarines - and he must ask himself if the UK can afford to retreat from the world in such a dangerous era.  If the super-carriers are not built, Mr Cameron, what will you construct in their place to replace the elderly Invincible Class ships? Similarly what plans do you have to raise submarine force levels to a realistic level? And how will you replace the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates that will in a few years reach block obsolescence? Britain can do without a large Army or Air Force.

A nation which relies so heavily on maritime trade, that has such a long (exposed) coastline, so many overseas territories and security obligations and which wishes to remain a serious player in NATO and the EU cannot afford to be without a Navy large enough and capable enough to do its job properly.

The 25-year-old, and much refitted, Type 42 destroyer HMS Gloucester. She is equipped with an elderly anti-air missile system, which has been upgraded but still does not stand comparison with more modern equivalents in service with the navies of nations that lie some way behind the UK economically.

Pictured: The 25-year-old, and much refitted, Type 42 destroyer HMS Gloucester. She is equipped with an elderly anti-air missile system, which has been upgraded but still does not stand comparison with more modern equivalents in service with the navies of nations that lie some way behind the UK economically. Will the Tories build more Type 45 destroyers to fill the British fleet’s air-defence gap? Not likely, as the Tory axeman looks set to cut back an already fatally weakened Royal Navy.
Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

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