Odin’s Eye Commentary (published in out September 2007 edition)

The continuing folly of the current UK Government’s cuts to the Royal Navy becomes more and more apparent as each day goes by, with the tectonic plates of global rivalries shifting now that Russia is once more resurgent and keen to establish Warsaw Pact 2.
Aside from announcing ambitious plans to build half a dozen carrier battlegroups, establish new submarine and surface warship bases in the Pacific and staking a claim to the North Pole, it has emerged since our last edition that Russia intends establishing a naval base in the Mediterranean. See P2/3 & P34/36. Its strategic bombers are also on the prowl again, in the words of President Vladimir Putin, keeping watch over “areas of busy shipping and economic activities of the Russian Federation”.  Putin made those comments during bilateral military exercises in the Ural mountains during August that saw Chinese and Russian armed forces working closely together, manoeuvres held under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), which Iran, India and Pakistan are keen to join. Russian officials have boasted openly of the SCO’s potential to become a successor to the old Warsaw Pact. Such moves are well-timed and perfectly pitched. America and Britain are bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability appear futile. Meanwhile, the Franco-German axis keeps silent for fear of upsetting crucial energy deals with Russia, so ensuring there can be no unified front from the West over the resurgent Russian militarism. During the Cold War the bankrupt Russian economy forced the Soviets to concede defeat for they did not have the resources to support huge defence spending that would match the West. However, since gaining control of energy sources and the production apparatus, the Kremlin has been able to sort out that imbalance, hence the fuel and funds available for Russian aircraft to buzz naval exercises off the north coast of Scotland and the American naval base at Guam. The British and Americans perhaps comfort themselves with the thought that these are old aircraft and warships, with very little modernisation being undertaken in the period between 1991 and 2007.

However, modernity does not matter if you care little for the living conditions of your conscript sailors or the sacrifice of their lives in action. That fundamental outlook has not changed in the Russian armed forces. Numbers matter, people do not. What matters in Russian naval vessels is the effectiveness of the weapons systems, and no matter how antiquated their ships appeared, the Soviets always possessed truly formidable missiles. Development of Anti-Shipping Missiles has continued apace in Russia since the Cold War. No doubt Russian submarines will soon be more active in addition to the maritime patrol aircraft already causing such a nuisance.

But, with heavy commitments in the Gulf and Afghanistan, how well configured is the Royal Navy, for example, to cope with a resurgent and aggressive Russia?
The news that construction of two new aircraft carriers is about to commence is very welcome indeed. The amphibious warfare vessels that the British fleet now possess give it a powerful amphibious warfare capability to complement the future carrier strike potential represented by Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. But we are in an era very much like the late 1920s and early 1930s when the Royal Navy was also unwisely run down and starved of cash. Nelson and Rodney - the equivalent of the two new RN carriers - were the only battleships built between the end of WW1 and 1938, meaning that, come the outbreak of war in 1939, they were the most modern of capital ships, despite both having been commissioned in the late 1920s. Aside from Rodney and Nelson, the only other new ships worthy of note constructed between the end of WW1 and the late 1930s were cruisers, just as today the only major surface combatant project underway in the UK is the Daring Class (Type 45) destroyer programme. The Darings are cruisers in all but name. What is frightening is the lack of frigates and destroyers in the British fleet. The Royal Navy, having already paid a heavy price to obtain the commitment to the carriers, has fallen below the bare minimum necessary - around 32 - to just 25 frigates and destroyers. There is no slack left in the surface fleet to cope with a renewed commitment to facing down a Russian threat in the north Atlantic. There is no Reserve Fleet in the UK, with very valuable (and comparatively young) Type 22 (Batch 2) and Type 23 frigates so sorely needed either scrapped or sold off. It would therefore seem madness that under the forthcoming Comprehensive Defence Spending review the likelihood of the four Type 22 (Batch 3) frigates being reduced to ‘extended readiness’ (in essence axed) remains.
The Type 22s, both Batch 2 and Batch 3, were designed as intelligence gathering and anti-submarine warfare vessels, with powerful sensors capable of tracking not only submarines but also aircraft. In the latter stages of the Cold War the Type 22s were frequently deployed deep into the Barents Sea to spy on Russian activities. The Batch 3 ships, though multi-role due to their enhanced armament, still retain that potential. The Type 23s, also multi-role, were originally built to become platforms for towed-array sonar and Merlin helicopters. However, today only some Type 23s (and 13 out of 16 built for the Royal Navy  remain in service) have either towed-array or Merlin.  With the Royal Navy possibly reduced to only 21 frigates and destroyers, by the end of 2007, which is not even enough to cope with current tasks East of Suez and elsewhere, how will it react to the need for a watch to be kept on the warships and aircraft of the Northern Fleet in the Kola Peninsula? Similarly, with only seven Trafalgar Class attack submarines and two Swiftsures, plus only two Invincible Class carriers, how will the RN of today, never mind tomorrow, rise to the challenge of a more aggressive Russian Navy? Is the Brown government prepared to step back and consider properly what the UK needs by way of naval capabilities, or will it press on with discarding yet more warships that it will be impossible to replace in the event of further unexpected twists and turns?


Pictured: A Royal Navy Type 22 (Batch 3) frigate at sea.

Photo: Royal Navy.