By Iain Ballantyne Editor, WARSHIPS IFR
In the short term, the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has delivered some shocks, while also taking gambles with the Royal Navy and Britain’s ability to project power or safeguard its citizens and interests around the world. By immediately getting rid of the Fleet Flagship (and on-call aircraft carrier) HMS Ark Royal together with the Naval Strike Wing (NSW) of Harrier GR9 strike jets, the UK government has wrecked the carefully calibrated transition from the current Invincible Class carriers to the new Queen Elizabeths.
Hard-won fixed-wing strike carrier skills are being discarded at a time when many other nations are busy acquiring strike jets and carriers, both for fixed-wing combat aircraft and as helicopter assault platforms. With this one ill-advised, and deeply flawed, decision the UK’s fleet has slipped down the rankings from being Europe’s pre-eminent projector of power to lagging behind France, Italy and Spain, all of which are operating strike carriers today rather than cutting them with a promise of something for tomorrow. In announcing details of the SDSR in the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron said that both of the new British super-carriers – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – would be completed, with the first configured with catapults and arrestor gear, pushing the In-Service Date (ISD) back from 2016 to 2020. This is to ensure both F-35 strike jets and the new ship are ready for operations at the same time, rather than use Harriers aboard Queen Elizabeth for four years. However, for the next decade the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), which will carry on as a purely rotary-wing force, will not have any organic means of training future fast jet pilots in carrier ops, other than to send them to join the US Navy’s Super Hornet squadrons. Most leading European nations also have effective Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capabilities, but the UK will now slump from being a leader in that field to the bottom of the heap, due to a decision to cut the RAF’s Nimrod MRA4 programme. Losing the new Nimrods is a serious blow that will place even greater strain on a Royal Navy required to earmark a frigate and Merlin helicopters to protect nuclear deterrent submarines as they leave or return to their base at HM Naval Base Clyde. While committing the UK to building the Type 26 future frigate, in his statement the Prime Minister also revealed that force levels in destroyers and frigates - the workhorses of any modern fleet – will be reduced to just 19 vessels. Four frigates out of today’s 17 will be decommissioned – most likely the Type 22s, with HMS Cornwall (said to be the least well preserved materially) leaving the fleet immediately and the three others early in 2011. There is deep concern in naval circles about the prospect of not beginning the Type 26 programme until 2019, as it risks a damaging skill-fade in the UK’s already much reduced warship construction industry.
The surviving Type 23 frigates will also be increasingly costly to maintain on front line deployments as some of them will (by 2020) be near the end of their third decade in service. A recent UK-Brazil naval agreement may, however, provide impetus to get the Type 26 programme underway earlier. Analysis of how such a reduced force would cope with Britain’s global commitments, and also potentially protect a carrier and/or amphibious warfare task group was not encouraging, for as a few as five ships might actually be available. The RN’s mission portfolio embraces deployments to cover: Counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, counter-piracy, protection of the South Atlantic and Caribbean dependencies, security patrols in the Gulf, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) overwatch of the Trident boats, defence presence in Asia-Pacific and contingency operations (war, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, non-combatant evacuations, limited interventions ashore, security in home waters). Any simple calculation shows that something will have to give. The Royal Navy also now looks an extremely imbalanced force, with plenty of current, and future, large ships to protect against severe sub-surface, surface ship and air missile threat, not forgetting asymmetric attack. The UK fleet, though, has a diminishing number of ‘enablers’ as defence experts term them (frigates, destroyers, patrol vessels and strike aircraft) that enable the bigger ships to operate safely, with proper screening from potential enemy action. On the positive side, the feared loss of the Royal Navy’s amphibious warfare capability in its entirety - with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines made part of the army and ships declared surplus to requirement - has not transpired. However, the amphibious assault carrier Ocean is possibly going to be mothballed or sold to a foreign fleet. One of the Landing Platform Dock/command ships (probably Albion as Bulwark has just been refitted) will be put into reserve, while one of the four supremely useful - and only recently introduced into service - Bay Class auxiliary landing ships is to be decommissioned, and probably sold to a friendly power. Brazil is the most likely customer. With Ark Royal gone immediately, the sole surviving Invincible Class carrier HMS Illustrious, which is currently under-going a major £40 million up-grade at Rosyth Dockyard, may in fact not see any further service, at least not in the British fleet. The SDSR report revealed: ‘Either HMS Ocean or HMS Illustrious will be decommissioned following a short study of which provides the most effective helicopter platform capability.’ This is an extraordinary move at a time when the Italians are about to order up to three new amphibious assault carriers to complement their new strike carrier, the Spanish have two strike/assault carriers now in service, and France is about to order a third amphibious assault carrier to supplement its nuclear-powered strike carrier. Illustrious is more manpower intensive, older than Ocean and not blessed with the same purpose-designed broad corridors, weapons magazines and amphibious assault or embarked force accommodation as the latter.
Ocean also has landing craft on davits, something Illustrious could not manage without major modification. The Illustrious also cannot go alongside and take on vehicles, so while Ocean has been troublesome for the ‘blue suit’ navy to run - needing major rectification and modification during her 11-year career - it is likely that Ocean will soon be the sole surviving carrier in RN service. Reinforcing this possibility is that a major refit of Ocean refit will go ahead next year.
We report in depth and carry various commentaries and analysis articles on the UK’s SDSR results in the November 2010 and December 2010 editions of WARSHIPS IFR, due out on October 28 and November 25 respectively.